Country: Australia

French connection

French connection

Actress, mother, environmental campaigner – Marion Cotillard is a woman of many facets.

With her long legs curled under her on a couch, huge soft eyes and heart-shaped face, the film character Marion Cotillard most immediately resembles is Bambi. It’s not an impression that lasts long, however. Cotillard, whose riveting performance as a drug-addicted Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose won her an Oscar in 2008 and paved her way to Hollywood, has steel underneath a faun-like sweetness.

Watching her new film Rust and Bone, in which she plays a marine-park trainer who loses her legs to a rampaging orca, a New York Times critic described her as “an actress of limitless bravery and supernatural poise, who is both beauty and beast”.

“I definitely have strength,” the 34-year-old said in response. “It would be a long conversation on how strength is manifested in yourself, but … I don’t think there’s one thing I can think about that could put me down.”

In the end, that’s what you remember about her, more than her beauty or glamour: the grit, determination and indomitable work ethic that have fuelled her career. Because although her role as Piaf put her in the limelight, she had already made her move on Hollywood; she had roles in Tim Burton’s Big Fish and in Ridley Scott’s A Good Year, opposite Russell Crowe.

After La Vie en Rose, she worked furiously on speaking English with a Chicago accent for Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (“I was more than nervous, every day”), on singing and dancing for Rob Marshall’s Nine and on the imaginative leaps and bounds required for Christopher Nolan’s Inception. She rejoined Nolan for The Dark Knight Rises, playing girlfriend to the Caped Crusader. From barely speaking English to Batman’s girl in five moves: it doesn’t get much more Hollywood than that.

At home, however, she is just as famous for being half of the couple dubbed “France’s Brangelina”. When La Vie en Rose took the world by storm, the cameras began to follow Cotillard, at least to the public venues allowed to them by the France’s strict privacy laws. She was eventually snapped at an airport kissing Guillaume Canet.

Canet was a director, actor, all-round heart-throb and her friend of at least seven years’ standing, who had been divorced just a year earlier from German actress Diane Kruger; audiences may remember him from his role in The Beach, where he became mates with Leonardo DiCaprio.

As it turned out, the pair had been seeing each other for several months, and nearly five years on they have a son, Marcel, who is almost two. Since that kiss-and-fly slip, however, they have avoided the cameras.

When Cotillard starred in a film directed by Canet called Little White Lies, they did joint interviews with the strict stipulation that there must be no questions about their domestic life. At red-carpet events, they would turn up separately. As for baby pictures, no chance. We know more about Cotillard’s bank account – she is said to be worth US$15 million – than we do about life chez Guillaume.

One thing that is fairly clear is that they don’t live the kind of life you might expect for stars of that calibre. Every now and then, they are snapped shopping or having a coffee in a bar, like any other Parisian.

It isn’t easy, she says, to keep things simple. “It’s a paradox to be an actress – living in the city, taking planes all the time, trying to find the right balance in life, which is not so eco-friendly, and still try to respect the environment.”

This is Cotillard’s second life: she is one of France’s most prominent eco-warriors. For more than a decade she has been closely associated with Greenpeace – not merely as a figurehead, but as a film-maker. In 2010 she went to the Congo to make a series of videos, distributed online, about the destruction of forests, and the lives of the people who live in them, by logging companies. She tramped through jungles, slept in village huts and addressed the camera with a face scrubbed clean of stardom.

“For a pack of smokes and a few beers you can gain the right to cut down the trees, so through the first days of my trip the problem seemed really dark,” she told Nicole Kidman in an exchange recorded for Interview magazine. “But when I started talking to people, I realised that they want to get their power back. That made me feel like there was hope to make things right.”

Kidman recalls that on the set of Nine, it was Cotillard who insisted that they set up a system for recycling, a commitment she traces to childhood holidays in Brittany at her grandmother’s house when her parents, who were both in the theatre, were working. “When my grandmother cooked, she wouldn’t waste anything. And my parents always raised me to believe the most important thing was respect. Respect the place you live, be aware of the impact you have on things.”

It is an awareness that was tested by her encounters with orcas for Rust and Bone. Her character Stephanie is a cold fish herself, prickly with her peers and living disagreeably with a man she doesn’t much like. The best part of her life is lived in water with the caged whales. When the director Jacques Audiard gave Cotillard the script, she says, she loved it immediately. The fact that her character worked in a marine park, however, was a real stumbling block.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is something I cannot do,'” she says. “I cannot be in this environment. I’m not comfortable with captivity and the first day of the shoot, this came back to me, that the orcas were not like animals any more, they were like toys, like ducks in the bathtub.” The fact that a wild animal would flip over on command in return for a piece of fish appalled her.

Her opinion of performing animals hasn’t changed. But she was moved by the commitment of their trainers. “Those people are passionate about what they do. I can’t stand marine parks, but the people who work there love the animals.” Her own experience was transformed by an encounter with a killer whale. Rather than keep to the routine, she was encouraged to make her own gestures and the orca responded to her. “I decided to wave and she would wave back, I tickled her nose and she would make bubbles. She reacted to everything.”

In fact there were two orcas; the first one reacted badly to the lights and camera “and she went mad at me and screamed, with her jaws wide open. I got really scared.” But of course, says Cotillard, the orca was behaving as what she was: a wild animal.

The force of Cotillard’s performance in Rust and Bone is extraordinary. In the moment when Stephanie wakes up to discover she has had both legs amputated, we see a surge of emotions cascade across her face; then a period of something like catatonia sets in.

To prepare for the role, Cotillard watched footage of amputees to see how they moved. “Then I thought I didn’t need that. [I can] experience it with the character because it’s just happened to her and she doesn’t know, either. There was nothing more to do than be on the set and work. The complexity is in the emotional layers of the character.”

Rust and Bone is a romance, albeit a very spiky, difficult one; Stephanie becomes embroiled with Ali, a bouncer played by the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, who is trying to scrape together money in illegal bare-knuckle fights. Ali, she soon discovers, is the only person who is utterly unembarrassed by her mutilation. There is a lot of charged sex in Rust and Bone, something Cotillard usually finds uncomfortable.

“That was very different on this movie because it’s a very important part of the story. But it’s also something that happens in her life that made me so happy for her,” she says.

In general, she says, sex scenes are much harder than, say, dying. “I hate it. It’s very intimate and very hard to imagine how a person would have sex. Kissing is already something very powerful. You feel something; it’s already intense. It cannot be your way, otherwise it would be super-uncomfortable. But, you know, everyone has a way to make sex, so a character does, too.”

Marcel was only five months-old when the film was shot. “He was a tiny little baby who needed me entirely, not me and my work,” she recalls. Her way of working, which, on La Vie en Rose, meant living with Piaf every waking hour, had to change.

“I was wondering how it would be, because Stephanie is so intense and sometimes my son couldn’t be on set because it was too much. But most of the time he was there.

“I know I can go deep inside a character, but I know how to get out of it. When you have to go back, because there is someone who is more important than anything, it’s different. It’s crazy, it’s … ” – she fishes for an expression to cover motherhood – ” it’s rock and roll! But it’s amazing, too.”

Now, as someone who has been acting almost all her life – she was a child when she first trod the boards in one of her father’s plays – she wonders if she wants to give herself over to it for good.

Other things could claim her: the forest of the Congo as well as motherhood. “Nothing can ever be taken for granted in this métier,” she mused recently.” It makes you very exposed and that can be violent.

“I’m strong but also fragile, and sometimes it’s not easy to be exposed to judgment and to play with your emotions; to go searching inside yourself, to make yourself naked to the world.”

Rust and Bone is in cinemas on March 28.

Everything is rosy for Rust and Bone star Marion Cotillard

Everything is rosy for Rust and Bone star Marion Cotillard

SHE may have become a fashion icon, but Marion Cotillard’s heart lies in playing roles with soul.

Marion Cotillard is exactly as I expect when I meet her. Clad in an ivory-hued Dior pencil skirt and shirt, with nude Louboutin heels, she’s sophisticated, glamorous and charming. But despite her poise and style, she’s famous for choosing roles that enable her to disappear into a character and mask her good looks.

“I was raised with the idea of beauty in a different way,” the Parisian-born actor says with a shrug. “To me, it’s something that really comes out of you and surrounds you.”

The face of Dior since 2008, Cotillard admits to feeling pressure to uphold her fashion icon status. “The red carpet is tricky,” she says.

“You have to be yourself, otherwise it looks weird, and that’s a very hard thing to do; you’re in front of people who shout your name and take pictures. Photoshoots are different and a lot of fun, but even those took a while to get used to. I always used to think I looked like shit. I wasn’t confident at all. Now I find I can relax a little.”

The 37-year-old finds it amusing that her name has become synonymous with style.

“To be honest, I didn’t consider fashion to be an art until I became involved with Dior. They changed my vision of fashion, whereas I never paid attention to it before. Although I loved to dress up and I liked clothes, now I see it as a special form of art.”

Cotillard earned Golden Globe, BAFTA and SAG Award nominations for her latest French-language film, Rust and Bone (De Rouille et d’Os). In an emotionally gruelling role, she plays a trainer at a marine park whose world is turned upside down when her legs are crushed in a terrible accident during a killer whale show. As she adjusts to life as an amputee and embarks on a journey of self-acceptance, she begins a relationship with a single father (Matthias Schoenaerts) that’s both touching and disturbing.

Despite Cotillard’s performance being heavily tipped to earn her a Best Actress nod at tonight’s Academy Awards, she was snubbed at the nominations, which caused a stir among film critics and bloggers.

“Her Rust and Bone performance was perhaps the strongest of the year, if not her entire career,” wrote one.

“Despite rave reviews, she does not find herself on the Best Actress list,” lamented another.

However, she insists she made the film not for accolades but because she was fascinated by the topic. “It’s about love and flesh, heart and sex,” she explains. “I can imagine that when you’re in that state it’s really difficult to accept your body and accept that someone else will see and touch this body as it is.”

She acknowledges the sex scenes are confronting. “They’re very intimate and not my favourite thing to do, but without them, the movie would have missed something.”

Seeing her onscreen without limbs is a shock, but it taught her to view her body differently. “First of all, I’m very hard on looking at myself in general, but it was kind of amazing to see myself like that,” she recalls. “I was really impressed by the CGI. Actually, I like the last shot, which is my body naked without legs – I thought it was a beautiful image.”

Cotillard was raised in a household heavily influenced by the arts. Her father, Jean-Claude Cotillard, is an actor, award-winning director and a former mime artist. Her mother, Niseema Theillaud, is an actor and drama teacher. Was there any possibility she could have chosen a different career?

Her heavily accented words are expressed slowly and thoughtfully: “I could never have done a profession that wasn’t creative. But, you know, there’s a fighter inside of me. When you have the capacity to fight, when you have the ability to love life and the ability to be happy, it’s easy to be creative. And that’s a treasure my parents gave me.”

After starting out in French television, her breakthrough came in 2003 when she starred in the film Love Me If You Dare. Then, in 2008, she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, putting her on the fast track to Hollywood. She recalls feeling like a deer caught in headlights at the time.

“It was kind of scary,” she admits. “I didn’t understand how things worked in Hollywood. But I met some people who helped me stay true to who I am and stay myself.”

She’s since landed major roles in high-profile movies, including Public Enemies, Nine, Inception, Midnight in Paris and The Dark Knight Rises. Although many of her French contemporaries – such as Juliette Binoche, Sophie Marceau, Audrey Tautou – are household names, Cotillard has transcended the language barrier in a way none of them have managed – something she attributes to her ability to speak with an American accent.

“I feel lucky that I can work in Hollywood,” she admits. “When I was a kid, I watched a lot of American movies and I never thought this was something that would happen to me. But once I started acting, I didn’t see any boundaries. I wanted to be an actress; I didn’t want to be a French actress.”

The star now divides her time between France and the US. “I’m a traveller. I spend half the year in America, so I like to be at home in Paris when I can.”

She’s been in a relationship with actor and director Guillaume Canet since 2007, and their son, Marcel, will turn two in May. Cotillard shrugs off suggestions that her life has changed dramatically since becoming a mum.

“Yes, you need to organise yourself differently, but I’m lucky that I can bring him with me to the set,” she says. “The most important thing to give him is love.

“Next up is a collaboration with Canet, who’s directing her in crime thriller Blood Ties opposite Clive Owen and Mila Kunis. He previously directed her in Little White Lies, in 2010. “He’s an amazing director; he knows everything about acting because he’s an actor himself,” she says.

Can working with your partner and having your son onset cause tension at home? She laughs: “It’s complicated. You have to find the right balance, definitely. Otherwise, it’s hell.”

Rust and Bone is in cinemas March 28.