When Marion Cotillard is presented with the notion that after more than 40 films, an Oscar for Best Actress (for “La Vie en Rose”), and roles in some of the last decade’s defining blockbusters, she’s only now leading her first American film, even she seems surprised. Yes, that’s true,” she says with a laugh. “I didn’t even think about it.” But “The Immigrant,” an operatic melodrama directed by James Gray that opens today, hardly feels like it belongs in a 21st century American multiplex. It’s a grandiose throwback to an era when movies dealt with big emotions, not big explosions.
To play Ewa Cybulska, Cotillard shed her enduring Parisian glamour for the rags and sad eyes of a Polish woman who arrives with her sister on Ellis Island, in steely pursuit of the American Dream. After her sister is diagnosed with tuberculosis and kept on the island, she’s taken in by the crooked manager of a burlesque theater (Joaquin Phoenix) who falls in love with her character, even while pimping her out to his audience.
On the eve of the Met Gala, where she represented Dior (she’s been a face of the brand since 2008), the actress sat down to discuss her preparation for the role, working alongside Phoenix and the secret to her happiness.
How did you craft the character? Her dialogue is sparse, so it can’t all be on the page.
It’s kind of an investigation into someone’s life. You fall in love with someone, you don’t know this person yet, and you get to know this person. That’s what happens when I fall in love with a character and I want to be this person. Then starts the investigation: I need to understand her heart and soul and mind, and to allow in a way the character to create themselves inside of me, because I have found the space for the person to grow. And then I try to create a very strong base, so on set, I can just let it go because I don’t want to control what I do.
Meaning I never know exactly how I’m going play this. I have an idea, but because I want to be surprised, I’m not rehearsing like I’m going to say this like this, and I’m going to pause here, and I’m going to breathe here. I need to surrender to the character, and it’s the character that’s going to take control of myself. But because I don’t want to control, I need to have a very strong base. I need to know this person and I need to know how she would react. For example if one day James said he rewrote a scene, I need to be able to be in any situation with my character and know how she would react.
Your co-star Joaquin Phoenix is one of the more enigmatic characters in American movies. Did you get that sense when you met him?
I felt very lucky to be able to watch his process as an actor. He and James know each other very well, but they welcomed me right away. We had two weeks of rehearsal to get to know each other. The thing is, these are very complex characters, and they have a very complex relationship, so we really needed to talk about it, because they don’t talk too much to each other. So we really needed to create this very singular bond between them. And Joaquin has a very strong instinct, like an animal. He’s a wild animal.
How does this wild animal behave on set?
This wild animal has a human brain that he has to deal with, and he doesn’t have really high self-esteem. So he’s fighting against this amazing and powerful instinct. Sometimes he thinks he’s going be wrong, when he’s never wrong. And those two weeks were very interesting, because very often he would not allow himself to say what he wanted to say, and James really wanted him to say what he wanted to say. And each time he’d say what he had retained, and it was amazing. I was like, “How could he question this?” Each time it was spot on right.
In interviews, you’ve outwardly told reporters how much you love your life. You don’t always hear people express that.
Well yeah, because when I was a teenager, I was not happy and I hated my life. And even later on, it took me a long time to try to love myself. That was something I thought would never happen. But thanks to my parents, I have the capacity to feel happy.
What is contributing to this happiness now?
It’s a combination of things. I’m living my dream, and I still dream about this dream, and I still have a lot of dreams within this dream. And also just my evolution as a human being, and the people I meet, and the connection I have with myself and others, is getting stronger and stronger.
This interview has been edited and condensed.