Category: English Press

‘Before my family, everything was dedicated to the character’

‘Before my family, everything was dedicated to the character’

When Marion Cotillard took on Edith Piaf she lived the part, willing herself into the role of a tortured genius. Such commitment is harder now that she has a toddler. But, as Stephanie Rafanelli discovers, that doesn’t stop her trying

In a hotel suite in Paris, Marion Cotillard is behaving like a monster. We are about to start our interview when her three-year-old sprints in with his nanny, and before I have a chance to ask my first question, Cotillard has leapt on all fours and is skidding across the carpet letting out strangled roars. There’s a chase in which she plays Godzilla (upright, with claws), and Marcel, her son with French actor and director Guillaume Canet, squeals with delight. Finally she resumes her position on the sofa with Marcel still chuckling impishly under one arm. “He’ll get bored soon,” she reassures me.

Cross-legged and clad in tweed hot pants, she looks like a particularly soignée teenaged mother: her face has never lost its adolescent curves and her body barely looks 20 years old (she’s in fact 38). When Cotillard bent herself into the prematurely aged Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, a morphine-addicted, cancer-ridden husk of a woman, Trevor Nunn called it “one of the greatest performances on film ever”. Meeting her, you appreciate why.

In the seven years since winning the Best Actress Oscar for her role, Cotillard has shown herself to be consistently drawn to complex, tortured women. Her recent work, if less transformative, has been just as unflinching: a double-leg amputee in visceral love story Rust and Bone; a young Polish refugee in New York manipulated into prostitution in The Immigrant. In her latest film Two Days, One Night by Belgian auteurs the Dardenne brothers, she plays Sandra, a factory worker who, after a period of sick leave due to depression, is forced to petition her colleagues to vote for her in a work ballot. They’re faced with a cruel moral dilemma: her job or their annual bonus. It’s a raw, empathic portrait of mental illness.

She seems to relate to outsiders, I say. “I’ve always felt an outcast,” Cotillard replies. “There is something strange about me. I don’t ever feel at ease in a group of people. I have to fight hard to overcome my fears.” What are these fears? She smiles. Her eyes are alert, glassy, and look as if they could brim with tears at any moment. I’m left to find meaning in her gaze. It’s all very Mona Lisa.

It is this mysterious quality that seems to appeal to directors, from La Vie En Rose’s Olivier Dahan (who wrote the screenplay with Cotillard in mind because he saw something tragic in her eyes) to an imposing list of American filmmakers: Christopher Nolan (Inception and The Dark Knight Rises), Michael Mann (Public Enemies) and Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris). Today she is one of the highest paid non-American actresses in Hollywood, although she has never turned her back on low-budget French-language film. For the Dardenne brothers, who have only worked with unknown actors throughout their 40-year-long career, casting Cotillard in Two Days, One Night was a risky move, not just because of the Hollywood baggage but because of her fashion status as one of the faces of Christian Dior. The underdog-loving jury at the Cannes Film Festival has already overlooked Cotillard for the Best Actress prize three years in a row. But this year the Dardennes – three-time Palme d’Or winners – also walked away empty-handed. “For me? I really don’t care,” she says, waving a hand in the air. “But the film? Yes. The Dardennes get an award every time they go to Cannes, so I got a little paranoid and thought: ‘Oh my God, maybe it’s my fault.’”

Cotillard is a fanatical researcher, so when I ask how she constructed her performance I’m expecting a tale about observing patients in Belgian institutions. “The preparation was very light this time,” she says, shifting into a half-lotus position. “Medical information on panic attacks and the side-effects of Xanax. I understand depression. I was never super-depressed, but at one point I thought it was coming.” At this point she dispatches Marcel, fidgety and bored, to his nanny. “I’ve had many turning points in my life like that. I’m able to tell when I’m in a bad place or super-sad and move on. When you’re stuck somewhere you need to change something, to shift the energy.”

One such time came after filming La Vie En Rose, when Cotillard had let herself be swallowed up by Piaf, shaving her eyebrows and hairline, willing her body to shrink nine inches (Piaf was 4ft 11in) and sitting for five hours a day in make-up. It was less of a performance, more a demonic possession. After the shoot wrapped, Cotillard says she continued to be haunted by Piaf, sometimes speaking in her gravelly voice. Piaf stayed with her for a total of eight months. “I tried everything,” Cotillard tells me. “I did exorcisms with salt and fire. I travelled to Bora Bora to escape her. I went to Peru to Machu Picchu and did ancient shamanic ceremonies to cleanse myself after I eventually realised why I couldn’t let her go. She had been abandoned as a child. Her greatest fear was to be alone.”

Now that she has Marcel, she says she is unwilling to plunge so deeply into a role, to lose herself in what she calls the “total darkness”. She recently filmed Justin Kurzel’s new adaptation of Macbeth, playing Lady Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender. “Before my family, everything in my life was dedicated to the character. The more deeply affected I was by her, the closer I felt to her. But I cannot lock myself away in another world any more. I don’t want it to affect my son when I’m in a weird state because I’m ‘depressed’ or ‘killing a king’.”

Cotillard says she’s always been “sensitive”. As a child she was a shy, melancholic loner riddled with very early-onset teenage angst. “I had existential dilemmas as young as seven, obsessive questions about my place in the world. Where did we come from? Why am I here?” She grew up in Alfortville, a suburb of Paris to French “bobo” parents – bourgeois bohemians. Her mother Monique Theillaud was a mid-level theatre actress, her father Jean-Claude Cotillard a Breton mime artist and theatre director. Together with Cotillard’s younger identical twin brothers, Guillaume and Quentin (a writer and a sculptor), they lived in a flat on the 18th floor of a tower block where they were allowed to draw freely on the walls. But excluded by her brothers’ symbiotic relationship, Cotillard didn’t talk much: “I couldn’t identify with anyone. At school I was considered very strange. I didn’t understand the relationships between people.”

From an early age she was drawn to imaginary stories. When she saw ET, aged seven, she was so distraught she had to be removed from the cinema. Her father also introduced her to silent films. “I used to pretend I was Louise Brooks or Greta Garbo in my bedroom,” she says mimicking her younger self. “I absorbed a lot from my father. He taught us how to mime at home with games.” When he set up his own theatre company, the family moved to La Beauce, near Orléans. Theillaud began teaching at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique d’Orléans, where the teenage Cotillard enrolled to study acting. “I saw it as a way to escape myself,” she tells me. “But it was through acting that I met myself.” On graduation she moved to a rundown flat near Gare du Nord station and appeared in the TV series of Highlander at 18, after which she was never unemployed.

In 1998 Cotillard got her first big film break in Luc Besson’s Taxi. She met Canet, then married to Diane Kruger, on the set of Love Me If You Dare six years later, and the friends reconnected after Canet’s divorce from Kruger in 2006. In France the couple are equivalent to Brangelina, but photographs of Cotillard with Canet in public together are rare. Little is known about their life together, although they both separately admit to being guitar geeks (their flat in the Marais is crammed with various models, and until recently Cotillard played bass for Parisian singer Yodelice as her butch alter-ego Simone). Cotillard agrees that the country’s strict privacy laws allow them breathing space. “Having your picture taken in the street and put in a magazine won’t change your life. But what happened to people in England, hacking phones. It’s vomit. It’s sick. This fucking changes your life.” She almost retches with disgust. “If someone is cheating on their wife in the street and pictures are taken, fine, that’s their risk. I’m not talking about some people… who currently run this country.”

This, you presume, is a reference to François Hollande’s extramarital dalliance with actor Julie Gayet. Despite appearing to prefer life on the spiritual plane, she is surprisingly engaged with politics, and when I bring up the Front National’s landslide majority at the European elections, she makes a “Quelle horreur!” expression: “French politics is a circus. The French people like to shake things up a bit, but Marine Le Pen getting into government? This will never happen. Never.”

Her real passion, however, is the environment. She’s a locavore (where possible, she eats locally produced food) and has been recycling since the 80s, a habit learned from her Breton grandmother. She’s also an ambassador for Greenpeace: in 2010 she went to the Congo to make a series of films about the destruction of the rainforests by logging companies. The following year she supported Amazonian Indian Chief Raoni in his fight against the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Para, Brazil. Then last year she caged herself, literally, with other demonstrators outside Paris’s Palais Royal in protest over the detainment of the Arctic 30 in Russia. Her current cause is the endangered Sumatran tiger.

“I’m a nature lover, but I’m a human being lover, too. Nature will survive us. The thing we’re going to fuck up is us – and animals,” she says. “Destroying what makes us live is sick. More people are waking up but it’s super-slow. Why don’t we listen to the wise men in our world?” She reels off a list: Al Gore, French-Canadian astrophysicist Hubert Reeves and Algerian writer and farmer Pierre Rabhi. She is aware of the paradox of being both an environmentalist and a frequent long-haul-flying actor, plus the muse of Dior, part of the haute-fashion conglomerate LVMH. This is the one chink in the Cotillard matrix. “Campaigning and acting aren’t compatible,” she admits. “That’s why Audrey Hepburn gave up acting. That’s why Angelina Jolie will give up. I’m not ready to stop yet.”

Still, some things are changing. You get the sense that after Lady Macbeth she is growing a little weary of tragic antiheroines. “The dream,” she says, “is to do comedy.” Her first foray in the genre was a cameo in Anchorman 2 last year. “Comedians I know, like Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, are some of the best human observers. Comedy has deep insights into our human defects that somehow affect the audience more deeply than tragedy.” She pauses while I absorb this, then she shrieks: “Oh! And I’d like to play a man.”

Inevitably my mind leaps to Hamlet – the ultimate tortured soul. “Oui! C’est ça!” she cries, slapping her leg when I suggest it. “But on the stage in London, unannounced. So no one knows it’s me… I could totally disappear.”

Two Days, One Night is released in cinemas nationwide on 22 August

Phoenix, and Cotillard, loosen up to talk ‘Immigrant’

Phoenix, and Cotillard, loosen up to talk ‘Immigrant’

Many words can be drummed up to describe Joaquin Phoenix, that quirky four-time Oscar nominee who back in 2009 took performance art to new heights during a faux career switch to rapping, and who has famously bedeviled interviewers for years.

Difficult. Intense. Idiosyncratic. Odd.

But how about: sweet, self-effacing and actually quite lighthearted when the mood strikes?

“People often think he’s strange. He’s just very shy and that seems bizarre, but he’s uncomfortable being in the public unless it’s doing his thing,” promises James Gray, who’s directed four of Phoenix’s films. “He’s extremely sensitive and tender.”

So here Phoenix is, in the back room of the Bowery Hotel, greeting folks around him with full-body hugs. And there he is, happily watching a video that Marion Cotillard shows him of her son, Marcel, 3, playing with toys. “He’s amazing, really amazing,” he says.

Phoenix, 39, and Cotillard, 38, play a strangely co-dependent couple in Gray’s The Immigrant, now in theaters. Phoenix’s character preys on helpless women immigrating to New York City in the 1920s, and Cotillard’s is one of his apparent victims. When told he makes a compellingly creepy pimp in the film, Phoenix pauses and retorts, “You must not have known many pimps.”

Touché. And for someone who seems to never be at ease in the spotlight, who rarely banters with the media, Phoenix seems to be ready to let loose, a little. He doesn’t miss a beat when his 2012 drama The Master becomes confused with, of all things, 1999’s The Messenger, starring Milla Jovovich. “That’s my best work by far. You could say I’m probably the best thing in The Messenger. Most people don’t even know it’s me,” deadpans Phoenix.

Cotillard is a bit perplexed. “I should see it?” she wonders. “Did you play Joan of Arc?”

‘You just dive in and you don’t think about it’

In The Immigrant, Ewa (Cotillard) is a Polish newcomer who becomes the victim of a ruthless and manipulative yet often strangely kind hustler, Bruno (Phoenix). Cotillard, who is French and won a best-actress Oscar for playing “little sparrow” Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose, speaks English with a Polish accent in the film, and has absolutely no hint of her Gallic mother tongue.

“How did you do that?” wonders Phoenix.

Pas de problème, to hear how matter of factly Cotillard describes it. “The Polish accent was not as intense as the Polish itself. You never have enough to work. It was a very low-budget movie. In Paris, I’d see a Polish person, I’d try to work. So you just dive in and you don’t think about it. You just have to do your best. I listened to a lot of Polish,” she says.

Both are similar in that they’re not at ease, or at their best, glad-handing the media to sell their films. Cotillard just hides it better. “I’m so terrible at this. I think I’m a terrible actor,” says Phoenix.

Seriously, with four Academy Award nominations to his name? But Phoenix insists he’s not offered the crème de la crème of films, and chooses the best of what’s out there. “I’m not as selective as I should be. It’s so clichéd. It’s like falling in love. When you fall in love, you don’t ask a lot of questions. You have this desire to be with this person. I have to have this experience,” he says.

While other actors seem to clamor for and lap up approval, Phoenix appears to let commentary roll off his back, bad or good. “I would have to say he’s a wild animal. He’s like a cat,” says Cotillard. “Like a very big, nice cat. Like Garfield. I think he’s cool.”

“A little pudgy is what she’s getting at,” responds Phoenix.

Striking a balance

Cotillard is famously focused and ultra-prepared, but has being the mom of a toddler made her total immersion more difficult, or even impossible? “Honestly, it’s super-hard. I saw it on the last movie I did,” she says.

The actress just wrapped Macbeth, opposite Michael Fassbender. Playing the power-crazed wife of a Scottish general had a corrosive effect on Cotillard. “I’m really affected by the characters. I was playing Lady Macbeth and she’s really hard to live with. I had to send my son back to France. I don’t know exactly how to explain it, but it did not work with my son around. I didn’t want him to be affected by it,” she says. “Someone told me I had to protect myself more, but I can’t do that — protecting myself from my character is impossible. Sometimes it takes a long time to get into this person. You escape it when it’s done. Being a mum has changed everything.”

But you’d never know it from being with her in front of the camera. “You were affected by it and you were clearly in it,” Phoenix says to Cotillard of her ability to immerse herself on set. “Children actors are the best. They quickly enter into this land of make-believe. I like giving over to this world quickly. It’s just kids saying, ‘I’m Flash Gordon, I’m Superman,’ ” says Phoenix.

Or perhaps Joan of Arc. After apologizing to Phoenix about the earlier snafu, Phoenix starts laughing. “Are you kidding? That was the best part,” he says.

Phoenix, Cotillard team up for tiring ‘Immigrant’ shoot

It’s the day after the Met Ball and Marion Cotillard seems distracted. It was a long night, one filled with libations, and now she has a full day of press ahead of her, plus a premiere later tonight. So you wouldn’t fault her for being drained. But she’s not.

“I drank a bit. I just like to drink,” shrugs Cotillard. “It’s true.”

Joaquin Phoenix, who plays Cotillard’s pimp in the period drama The Immigrant, first laughs in appreciation of her honesty. Then he provides perspective.

“This is not tired. Making the movie was exhausting. You really had it tough,” he says. “We called her ‘cyborg.’ You could not stop her. She was like Terminator. She had this kid and she was tired, and I was exhausted, but it was nothing compared to what she had to do. She still showed up and was always on. It was very frustrating. She made the rest of us look very bad.”

Or, says director James Gray, upping the game for everyone else.

“You’re talking about two of the best actors in the world today. Marion has one of the greatest movie faces ever. She’s like a silent movie actress. She’s so expressive, so smart, so aware of human behavior,” says Gray. “And Joaquin is very observant. All of this resistance to talking to press is really about his very sincere fear of seeming phony. He doesn’t want to be that guy on TV. He doesn’t want to seem like a liar. I love him, obviously. He has the soul of an artist.”

For someone who famously doesn’t excel at doing press, Phoenix is at his most loquacious this afternoon.

“I know this is going to sound so stupid, but I feel like this is the first time I’ve met Marion. It was so strange,” he says, turning to her. “I can’t believe you’re a normal human being. You have such personality.”

Pause, as silence goes unfilled. “Great interview, thanks so much. I can’t stand this lull. I’m so uncomfortable,” announces Phoenix. “Well, this is great, that’s all I have to offer.”

But he gamely plays along. He and Cotillard met the first day of rehearsal. The pace of the film was so intense that they barely hung out together as actual people, as opposed to co-stars. Cotillard’s son Marcel, now 3, was a baby during the two-month shoot, which shifted from days to nights and back to days. Not exactly ideal for the mother of an infant. “I was feeding my son. I was not sleeping. I was (expletive) exhausted,” she says.

Opening doors opened the door for Marion Cotillard and Two Days, One Night

Opening doors opened the door for Marion Cotillard and Two Days, One Night

Hollywood is famous for the “elevator pitch,” in which a movie can be described (and hopefully sold) in the ride between two floors. The Cannes Film Festival has introduced the “elevator meeting,” and the results have been fruitful.

Marion Cotillard first met Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne on the set of Rust & Bone, which screened in competition at Cannes in 2012, and in which she portrays a whale trainer who loses her legs. The Dardenne brothers were co- producers on that film.

“We met her by chance, coming out of an elevator holding her baby, and were won over immediately,” says Luc. “My brother and I looked at each other and we said, ‘We would like to work with you.’ ”

In their new film, Two Days, One Night, Cotillard plays Sandra, an employee at a small solar-panel manufacturer who loses her job when her co-workers must choose between laying someone off or losing their bonuses. After convincing her boss to allow a second vote on Monday morning, Sandra has the weekend to convince her 16 coworkers to give up their bonuses and let her keep her job.

It’s tear-jerking social realism and puts Cotillard in good stead for her first acting prize at Cannes. The Dardennes have won two Palmes d’Or (for 1999’s Rosetta and 2005’s The Child) and would be the first filmmakers to win a third if Two Days, One Night goes the distance.

In the film, the outcome of the second vote is never certain, and there’s an unexpected twist at the conclusion. “We took some time to find it,” Jean-Pierre says of the final scene. “We made several different proposals but none satisfied us.”

He speaks of their fraternal collaboration as a kind of machine. “When the machine doesn’t get going, it means the proposal isn’t right. If we can’t agree, there’s no point in working together as brothers.”

Cotillard gained prominence in America after winning an Academy Award for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose. Since then she has moved easily between American and European productions, with roles in Inception, The Dark Knight Rises, even as a Canadian news anchor in Anchorman 2.

“I love complex roles,” she says of her part in Two Days, One Night. “Characters discover things within themselves that they didn’t realize they had, and that’s what interests me in the human condition. I’m deeply moved by people who manage despite difficult circumstances. I learn a lot when I explore these people’s souls.”

She likens her body to a car, and says that after discovering a role from the inside, “I hand the keys to the character and the character drives me.”

And, surprisingly, she would be willing to let a man take the wheel. Asked what role she would most like to play in the future, she says, “I’m fascinated with the idea of portraying a man, because it strikes me as impossible.”

Marion Cotillard on Her New Role and the Pursuit of Happiness

Marion Cotillard on Her New Role and the Pursuit of Happiness

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.

Q. Why do you think that after all your success in Hollywood, it’s taken this long to lead your first American film?
A. I don’t know, to be honest. It might be because I’m French, and if I work for a year on a role, I can maybe get rid of my French accent. I just did “Macbeth” (opposite Michael Fassbender), and when I got to New York two days ago, my friends were like, “Oh my god, you sound like a British person.” I don’t really pay attention to which accent I have. I’m in a singular box as an actress.

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 what?

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.

Marion Cotillard on Playing a Prostitute in ‘The Immigrant’ and Seducing America

Marion Cotillard on Playing a Prostitute in ‘The Immigrant’ and Seducing America

The Oscar winning French actress with the arresting gaze on her turn as an Ellis Island immigrant who falls into prostitution in ‘The Immigrant.’

It is true, there is some angels in this city.

With those ten words, delivered in her alluring wisp of a voice—and in broken English, no less—Marion Cotillard’s grande séduction of America began. Since being awarded the Best Actress Oscar for her spellbinding turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, she’s done what no other French actor in history has done: see their star shine just as bright in America.

In the wake of that fateful 2008 evening, Cotillard has worked for, and alongside, some of the biggest names in Hollywood. As Johnny Depp’s arm candy in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies; Leonardo DiCaprio’s nightmarish ex-wife in Christopher Nolan’s Inception; an artistic muse in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the list goes on.

But she’s never carried a movie before—until now. James Gray’s The Immigrant sees Cotillard play Ewa Cybulski, a Polish émigré who lands at Ellis Island in 1921. Things don’t exactly go as planned. Her sister, Magda, is quarantined after catching tuberculosis aboard their cramped vessel, and her aunt is nowhere to be found. Out of options, Ewa falls into the clutches of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a seedy character (think: a latter-day club promoter) who uses his burlesque troupe as a front for prostitution.

Gray based the story on recollections from his Jewish grandparents, who came to New York in 1923. And he wrote the role of Ewa with Cotillard in mind. The pair’s first meeting, however, was a catastrophe. Gray and Cotillard had dinner in Paris and, after arguing over an actor—Gray thought he or she was terrible, Cotillard disagreed—the actress launched a piece of bread at his head.

“I never play with food—ever—but I couldn’t believe it!” exclaims Cotillard. “And when James says something, and has a very strong feeling about it, there’s no word you can use to make him change his mind, so I became kind of violent. That was my way out. I was like, ‘Okay, fuck it! BAM!’”

Cotillard—who wouldn’t disclose the actor’s name for fear of “embarrassing James”—says the pair eventually made amends, acknowledging that Gray has a tendency to “argue for the sake of it.”

In The Immigrant, Ewa soon finds herself inveigled into pleasing Bruno’s more affluent clientele in order to raise enough money to spring her sister from Ellis Island’s hospital ward, despite her protestations. It’s a courageous performance by the 38-year-old Frenchwoman, whose ability to elicit pathos via her arresting gaze is virtually unmatched.

And the role is, interestingly enough, a full-circle moment for the actress. Cotillard’s first leading role in a film was as the title character, a runaway teen forced into prostitution, in 1996’s Chloé, and the last time she played a Polish character was in 2003’s Love Me If You Dare, where she’d meet her eventual husband, French actor-filmmaker Guillaume Canet. She laughs when I bring up the myriad coincidences.

“Oh, wow! I never thought about that,” she shrieks. “It’s funny, actually. The difference with Chloé is she didn’t have the necessity—the need—to do this, she was just trapped, whereas Ewa has nothing left but this. She prostitutes herself even though she knows it’s against her religion, which is very judgmental about it. She does it because she will do anything for her sister.”

She adds, “She experiences such horrors, but she’s full of light and hope; she’s pure. She fights for her sister and she’s a beautiful woman, so it was not hard to live with her even though she goes through a lot.”

It’s hard to capture Cotillard’s aura with the written word. Most male writers end up looking like drooling sycophants. I can tell you that, having spoken with her a handful of times, her beauty is just as ethereal in person as it is onscreen, which she holds with the magnetism of classic screen sirens like Maria Falconetti in La passion de Jeanne d’Arc, or Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Her genes may have a little something to do with it. Cotillard’s father, Jean-Claude, was a former mime turned director, and her mother, Niseema, is a drama instructor.

Cotillard made her acting debut in one of her father’s plays when she was six, and developed what she calls a “good ear” by playing classical piano during her formative years.

A “good ear,” by the way, is a massive understatement. After taking in a screening of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration at Cannes, Cotillard was so impressed she taught herself some light Danish. For The Immigrant, she had just two months to learn a ton of Polish dialogue, as well as master a convincing Polish accent.

“With this project, there were 20 pages of Polish dialogue, which is close to Chinese for me,” she says. “There were three words over the course of the 20 pages that looked like French or English, but I just went for it. I’m never afraid of the amount of work it’s going to take, I’m just afraid I won’t have enough time to do it.”

Then came her tour of America. After making her American screen debut in Tim Burton’s 2003 fantasy Big Fish, Cotillard viewed the experience as “super painful not to understand anything,” so she took a total immersion English language course at Berlitz.

“When we decided to do the awards campaign for La Vie en Rose, I felt the need to go back to Berlitz,” says Cotillard. “I rented an apartment in New York a month before, and started the total immersion process again. But my English really improved when I did Public Enemies because Michael Mann wanted to completely erase my French accent, so I worked for six months every day with a dialogue coach—four months before shooting, and then two months on set. Michael wouldn’t even let me speak French with my boyfriend or family.”

It’s a big reason why, in addition to her unique acting talents and screen presence, she’s been able to conquer America in a way none of her fellow countrymen have. While Cotillard considers herself “lucky to cross the road of crazy people” like Mann, Nolan, and the rest, she seems to be blessed with a preternatural ability to navigate the human psyche.

“Exploring human beings by being different human beings in different cultures is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid,” says Cotillard. “I didn’t think I’d do American movies, but at the same time, I didn’t even think about it, so I never thought it wasn’t possible. By not putting boundaries on myself, I left the door open for anything to happen.”

She pauses. “I wasn’t aware that I wanted to explore the human soul when I started out acting; I just wanted to tell stories and play different people. Now I know it’s my need to explore the human soul that makes me do what I do, and to be able to explore different cultures is an even bigger gift than I could have imagined.”

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