French actress Marion Cotillard is known for her exacting approach to Method acting but there was a time when she almost packed it all in, she tells Stephen Milton.
Towards the end of her Oscar speech, as she spluttered and nervously brushed her tumbling Veronica Lake curls behind her shoulder, Marion Cotillard made an earnest final statement of gratitude.
“Thank you life, thank you love,” she said, clutching the shiny statuette, a deserved accolade for her performance as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose.
“And it is true! There are some angels in this city.”
Cotillard [pronounced ko-tee-yar] is that rare anomaly: an A-list French actress who embraces Hollywood and all its vainglorious trappings.
Public Enemies, Inception, Nine, The Dark Knight Rises, Contagion – the blockbusters keep coming.
It’s a contrasting stance to that of her contemporaries, Juliette Binoche and Audrey Tautou.
While both fluttered with American success – Tautou in The Da Vinci Code and Binoche in Steve Carrell’s Dan in Real Life, and more recently, a four-minute appearance in Godzilla [which was largely a favour to her teenage son], they’ve remained resolutely loyal to the Gallic arts.
Fellow Oscar-winner Binoche told Weekend this summer: “I could have moved to America and had a big career there but it was never a purpose for me”.
And when we met last year, Tautou was far more scathing of the Hollywood system. “To do something else other than the ‘girlfriend’ there, it’s very difficult.”
Can Marion identify with this attitude?
“Not really,” she replies. “I’m lucky to have very interesting roles. Even being a girlfriend in a Michael Mann movie [Public Enemies], Johnny Depp’s girlfriend, was not so bad.”
Incidentally, one of Tinseltown’s biggest players rescued Marion’s career some five years before her throaty brilliance in La Vie En Rose earned her the Best Actress Oscar – the first for a French language performance.
“It was like 2002 and I started to feel kind of anxious and angry that sometimes, I would not get the big things that I wanted to get; the big directors, amazing roles. Not just in America but in France too.
“I thought I would stop, quit this job for a while.
“I had the energy to do different things. I really wanted to be active, not just waiting for my phone to ring and being happy because someone chose me.”
Cotillard glances outside the window, towards the London Eye. The hot sun bakes the grinding traffic on Victoria Embankment.
“So my agent said ‘OK, you just have to take one meeting and I know you’re going to be happy with it And if that doesn’t work, then you do what you want to do’.
“And that meeting was Tim Burton.”
The visionary director, best known for Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands was Marion’s idol growing up. She mirrored herself on his muse, Winona Ryder. He was interested in the young French beauty for a small part in his urban fairytale, Big Fish.
“I said, ‘OK, it’s going to be the test. If I get this one, I will not stop’. And there I was a few months later working with him. So I never stopped.”
She offered a distinctly weak handshake when we were introduced but the actress warms up as our interview progresses. Soon the unmistakeable velvet tone in her voice begins to dance and those deep slate green eyes flash.
In an airy white room in London’s Somerset House, the regal location for the premiere of her new film, Two Days, One Night, she perches on a black couch beside Weekend.
Predictably elegant in a midnight blue, embellished Dior shift dress – being one of the faces of the label – she recalls a sheltered, comfortable upbringing as the eldest of two actors turned drama teachers. Growing up in Orleans, Marion and her twin brothers, Quentin and Guillaume, were untroubled by the family’s shaky finances.
“Sometimes they had more money, sometimes they had less. But I guess they protected us in a way. We never really felt the ups and downs of the bank account. We never had a lot of money, so when we had a little less, it was not dramatic.
“I only actually experienced this when I started to live by myself, when I started acting and I was counting my coins and my bank account was, how do you say? Minus, minus…”
In her new film, crafted by Belgian auteurs, the Dardenne brothers, Cotillard is Sandra, a factory worker and mother, suffering from crippling depression. Facing redundancy after a lengthy period on sick leave, she must convince her fellow employees to forgo their bonus to save her job. It’s a cruel dilemma.
And delivering an intricate, absorbing performance, Oscar buzz is already buzzing for a portrayal of a shattered victim of France’s battered economy.
“It’s this social reality that a lot of people live today. And it asks so many questions. How do you live in a world where you feel worthless? Useless? With a society that puts you aside because you’re not good enough and you feel like you don’t have a place in this world?”
Marion’s depiction of numbing depression is stunning and as a mother herself, to three-year-old Marcel with her partner, actor and director Guillaume Canet, it had an emotional resonance.
“How can it push you to the point where you want to leave this world, because you feel useless? Because when you have kids, you are never useless. That’s what I found so interesting.”
Marion has spoken in the past about her propensity to absorb a character in method style. For Piaf, she shrank her body from its petite 5’6” frame to the tortured soul’s miniscule 4’11” stature by crippling and curling her form. She shaved her eyebrows and hairline and spoke in her gravelly voice, which she found difficult to shake months after production had wrapped.
For Sandra, Cotillard didn’t quite go to the same extremes, though the temptation was there. “I could have experienced and learned and documented so much but I didn’t.
“I learned about implications of panic attacks and the side effects of Xanax. That was it.
“I used to bury my whole self in the character but with a family, that is simply not practical.”
Cotillard met Canet while shooting drama, Love Me If You Dare. He was married to actress Diane Kruger while Marion was in a relationship with actor Stephan Guerin-Tillie. After his divorce in 2006, they reconnected and by the end of 2007, confirmed their relationship.
The French press branded them the equivalent of Brangelina. They welcomed son Marcel into the world three years ago. Family has overshadowed her previous priorities.
However, embodying classic literature’s ultimate femme fatale has pushed Cotillard’s limits.
“It’s the toughest job I’ve ever done,” she says of Lady Macbeth in Justin Kurzel’s screen adaptation of the Bard’s Scottish play. Michael Fassbender is her malleable Macbeth. “And this character was really heavy to share my life with.”
She uncrosses and crosses her legs, entering into a mournful hypnosis.
“I put a lot of pressure on myself and I couldn’t get rid of this pressure. It was the darkest role I’ve ever had. And I have played some dark characters. Actually most of the movies I do, they’re not super happy to live.
“But at least, all the characters I had, even in the darkest places, there was a light. With her, no f**king light in Lady Macbeth. The darkness was kind of hard to experience.”
Fassbender’s known for his rapscallion ways. Surely he brought some relief to set.
“I think Michael was quite affected too. And the ideas that Justin and him had, I never knew how a scene would turn out. It was interesting to see him carrying Macbeth and I think it’s going to be, for him, I cannot even find the words to describe his Macbeth. It’s going to be so strong.”
Cotillard’s publicist stealthily creeps into the room. The French star is on the clock. Her premiere beckons.
Weekend wonders if she’s doing herself a disservice with these shadowy, sorrowful characters. Her Piaf exhibited a sly comic timing. And she inexplicably appeared in a bizarre montage for Anchorman 2 last year. Isn’t it time the star pushed for a funny role and left the sadness behind?
“That’s the plan,” she cries. “I can do comedy. I did it when I started but it was not my best work.
“But something along the lines of Bridesmaids. That slapstick comedy, that’s exactly what I’m after. It’s not necessarily my area. And I would have to work hard.”
I can already spot the whurs and clinks in her intricate thought process. She’s planning her descent into the mind of a chaotic maid of honour. Studying the method behind the fart jokes and vomit gags.
“I would have to work hard,” the actress repeats, tapping her chin.
Hopefully not too hard…
Two Days, One Night is in cinemas this weekend