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Marion Cotillard confronts redundancy fears

Marion Cotillard confronts redundancy fears

She’s topped the list of France’s highest-paid actors – but in her new film, Two Days, One Night, Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard plays a factory worker who is forced to beg her colleagues to save her job under the threat of redundancy.

The movie, directed by Belgian brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, tells the contemporary story of Sandra, who has had a long-term absence from work due to depression.

Her employers give her colleagues a choice: either they vote to make Sandra redundant, or they each forego their 1,000 euro annual bonus.

Sandra has one weekend to confront and convince each of them to choose her job over their money.

Cotillard is the star of Hollywood films including The Dark Knight Rises, Midnight in Paris and The Immigrant, as well as 2007’s La Vie En Rose, for which she won a best actress Oscar for her portrayal of Edith Piaf.

She is the face of the luxury brand Christian Dior, and in 2011 figures released by Le Figaro newspaper put her as the highest-earning actor in France. She admits that Sandra’s world was a very different one for her to enter.

“She’s an ordinary woman,” says Cotillard. “A worker who knows what things cost, because she has to.

“She understands why some colleagues have chosen to pocket the bonus rather than for her to keep her job. Most of them need it too, to pay their bills. The film doesn’t judge anyone, that’s what makes it so powerful.

“As an actor trying to work, I have to sell myself every day in some way, but me fighting for a job is a totally different situation, because for her it’s a matter of survival. It’s a matter of staying around to put some food on her family’s plates.

“I could not compare it with any fight I have ever had on my hands; it would not reach her struggle for her dignity and her health.”

The actress took the role after a chance meeting with the Dardenne brothers in an elevator, while she was filming Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone. She says it was partly because she admired the brothers’ films.

“They are double Palme d’Or winners at Cannes and I thought it was an impossible dream to work with them.”

Cotillard also says she was motivated by her worries over the economic crisis, and a culture that places a high value on job status.

“Some time ago, I had a very profound questioning about the place we have in the society that we have created. Some people are pushed by what we have created to question their place in the world and whether they even deserve one.

“In one scene Sandra even says, ‘I am nothing.’ This feeling of uselessness lives deep inside her, as it does for a lot of people who don’t know how to deal with their work or the lack of it.

“Several months before we shot the film, I was shocked to read reports about work-related suicides, people who’d rather end it all than endure this feeling of being useless.

“I remember reading about one man in particular, who left a letter saying he had no place in the world. So this is something that we have created, because we don’t seem to care about people like this, whether they disappear or not.

“It was interesting to connect these questions that I had from a long time ago, with this script.”

Feeling “worthless”, however, is not an emotion she has had since the birth of her son Marcel, with partner Guillaume Canet, in 2011.

“It was a big question for me when I was thinking about these people who said they feel worthless,” she admits.

“I’d ask myself, ‘How can you feel useless when you have kids?’ But I do see there is also space inside all of us that needs to be useful and that can’t just be filled with love.

“I also need to work, as much as I love my life as a mother. I would miss something if I was just that, and I would miss, in my case, a way to express myself.

“But if I was not an actress and I was in the workplace, I would still need to be part of the dynamic, to bring something to this world – even if I do think our society is crazy.”

Two Days, One Night was first screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May, where Cotillard was widely tipped to win the best actress prize for the part of Sandra – an award that went in the end to Julianne Moore for David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars.

The Telegraph said the film was “dripping with juice” and called Cotillard “just superb”, while Empire magazine described it as “a rare film of unforced simplicity, with an outstanding lead performance”.

Although the actress says she combats “crazy” society with a certain amount of environmental activism for Greenpeace, she says that she intends to keep acting as her job.

Becoming involved in social issues is not something she can combine with her full-time work, she argues. Nor, she insists, can any celebrity.

“Working for the UN, for example, like Angelina Jolie does, would have to be a main role for me, and even Angelina Jolie herself says she won’t be an actress all her life,” Cotillard points out.

“She clearly has something more important to do, and she will be very good at it. In the evolution of who she is as a woman, she will turn herself into what really moves her.

“I am not sure that you can be an actor too, and be heard properly in both arenas. I work with people and I am very happy to give them a voice whenever I can, but it cannot be an extra role.

“One day I might have to choose if it becomes more important than the need that I have to express myself as an actress. We’ll see.

“But even if it’s questioning a subject on a very deep level, it’s very difficult to combine entertainment, and any fight for awareness.”

Two Days, One Night is out in the UK and Ireland on 22 August.

A Conversation with Marion Cotillard

A Conversation with Marion Cotillard

How did you meet the Dardenne brothers?
We met briefly in Belgium, on the set of Jacques Audiardʼs Rust and Bone; a very short meeting, between two elevators. I was slightly in awe, as I have always admired them so much… A few months after Rust and Bone was released my agent called me and said that Luc and Jean-Pierre wanted to offer me a part. I couldnʼt believe it. I thought working with them was beyond of my reach.

Why?
I know that working in the US would open doors to certain filmmakers for me. But the Dardennes? I couldnʼt even imagine it… they donʼt usually work with actors like me. Cécile de France worked with them on The Kid With a Bike, but sheʼs Belgian and her appearing in their universe was less astonishing than me doing the same. So it was a real surprise they contacted me, and an absolute joy.

How would you define their cinema?
Each of their films closely observes the realities of society while taking new cinematic risks. They make real auteur films – you canʼt get much more auteur than Luc and Jean-Pierre – but manage to defy any categorization! Their cinema is absolutely universal.

What was your first reaction when they offered you the role of Sandra?
During our first meeting I was bubbling with ideas, just like a kid! I tried really hard to hold it all in but it had to come out. I said: “Iʼm so happy to be working with you, I could turn somersaults!” I had to tell them how I felt before moving on to more serious business!

How did they present Two Days, One Night to you?
They spoke a little about the filmʼs subject, but I really discovered Sandraʼs story when I read the screenplay. I realized what a beautiful real-life hero she was and what a challenge it would be for me to play this part: a woman who meets each of her colleagues and tries to convince them to reconsider their vote. The aspect of repetition meant I would have to work hard on nuances and variations.

How would you define Sandra?
She is an ordinary woman, a worker who knows what things cost, because she has to. She understands why some (of her colleagues) have chosen to pocket the thousand Euro bonus rather than voting for her to keep her job. No one knows what she would have done in their place and the film doesnʼt judge anyone. Thatʼs what makes it so powerful. She suffers from depression…

In one scene she even says: “I am nothing”. This feeling of uselessness lives deep inside her, as it does for a lot of people who donʼt know how to deal with their work or the lack of it. Several months before we shot the film, I had been deeply shocked to read articles and reports about work-related suicides, people whoʼd rather end it all than endure this feeling of being useless. The film echoes with some of these events that had struck me so.

How do the Dardenne brothers work?
We rehearsed for over a month – a crucial phase. It was all about working on the locations, the energy of the characters, and the rhythm of the scenes. This work is as complex as it is essential work, all the more so since the brothers shoot in long takes. I had to lose my French accent, which I was dreading the most, without falling into a faked Belgian accent, which would have been a real mistake. These rehearsals allowed me to be more comfortable with the whole Belgian aspect…

The film carefully avoids any self-indulgent dwelling on the sordid side of life.
With the Dardennes, the intent must always stay in the shadows, and this suits me. Even when my parts lend themselves to a ʻperformanceʼ I always try to conceal my acting, so the audience can be with the character and her emotions. When you like working this way, you canʼt ask for anything more than working with the Dardenne brothers.

How do they direct actors on set?
Thanks to all the work achieved during rehearsals, Luc and Jean-Pierre can concentrate above all on the actorsʼ work during the shoot. They are demanding like no one else… Each and every detail matters so much that they will do things again and again. Thatʼs the price for the intensity and truth in their films. Had they asked me to shoot 250 takes for one scene, I would have done it. I never grew sick of it… Iʼve never been directed like this before.

You and Fabrizio Rongione make a very believable couple.
Rehearsals had a lot to do with it. On a film like this you have to meet before the Shooting starts. Rehearsals allowed us to get used to each other. Fabrizio is a Dardenne brothers old hand: he has appeared in most of their films. He fits very well in their world because he shares the same authenticity. I was very lucky to work with him under their direction.

The part of Sandra is very different to the roles you have played in the US recently.
I have always dreamed of this kind of diversity, going from one to the other. I feel extremely lucky to be able to switch worlds like this. I have realized the dream I had as a young actress: to explore different genres and territories, with real filmmakers.

Will Two Days, One Night remain a special film in your career?
Yes, for sure. I have had some fabulous experiences but this one was the deepest and the most idyllic of all. I have never felt so taken care of by a director – sorry, two directors! Luc, Jean-Pierre and I were “accomplices” from the first to the last day of shooting. When the time came for the last shot I felt so very sad to know it was over.

Would you like to work with the brothers again?
Whenever they want! They donʼt even need to show me a script, Iʼll accept right away. Iʼd love be their new Jérémie Renier or Olivier Gourmet.

Once again you find yourself in competition at Cannes, a year after James Grayʼs The Immigrant. And two years after Jacques Audiardʼs Rust and Bone.
To climb the red carpet with Luc and Jean-Pierre, who have made their cinema live at Cannes, itʼs magic, nothing less. They took me on such a cinematic and human adventure that nothing could make me happier than to be beside hem at the Festival.

La vie en bleu

La vie en bleu

Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard talks about working with the Dardenne brothers, and taking on her toughest role yet

Marion Cotillard is the great silent film actress of our time. True, she has yet to make a silent film and may never actually do so, but let’s not get hung up on technicalities. Her power on screen has less to do with what she says than how she looks – not in terms of her appearance, but in the way those teacup-sized eyes seem to drink up the world around her, collecting an entire film’s worth of feeling into a single gaze or glance.

Her contemporaries are Kate Winslet, Angelina Jolie and Charlize Theron, but her peers are Pola Negri, Mary Pickford and Lillian Gish. When Cotillard falls silent, a cinema soon follows suit.

Her very best scene in La vie en rose, the Édith Piaf biopic that won her an Oscar, a Golden Globe, a Bafta and a César, wasn’t the big performance of Non, je ne regrette rien at the Paris Olympia, cheesily but rightly held back for the film’s final curtain, but a smaller sequence in a New York concert hall, in which you don’t hear the actress say or sing a single word.

As Piaf walks on stage, the sound drops away to a tinkling piano melody, leaving the vocal track mute. When she opens her mouth, you watch her feeling every line in her bones, reaching out and wrenching the song from the air, so convincingly you swear you can hear every absent note. Cotillard’s vocal performances in La vie en rose were lip-synched to recordings of Piaf herself, so the film never sounds less than authentic. It’s only here, when that legendary voice vanishes completely, that you realise Cotillard is making you see the music.

In the film, Cotillard is angular and eccentric; a twitchy tessellation of knees and fingers. Standing in the spotlight in her white stage make-up, she looks almost Chaplinesque. The French actress has a tragic clown quality that reminds you of Giulietta Masina in Federico Fellini’s La Strada – and, in one of the strange, spiderweb connections that criss-cross Cotillard’s career, she would go on to play a version of Masina in the Hollywood musical Nine, two years after that Best Actress Oscar, the only one awarded to date for a French-speaking role. It made lead roles in Hollywood musicals possible for her.

The real life Cotillard is so different from the version of her we see on screen that she could almost be her younger, shier sister, or perhaps a work experience Cotillard-in-training. When we meet in an apartment in the Ham Yard Hotel in the West End of London, she’s barefoot, sitting cross-legged on a sofa, quiet and small, with a smile as soft as butter.

She is dressed so stylishly that it’s hard to say exactly what she’s wearing: the main garment, a structured, conical cream thing with neat black trim, is a three-way blend of duvet, poncho and tipi, and she holds it around herself like a child snuggling into a quilt. She’ll be 39 next month, but looks 24.

Cotillard is in town for the premiere of her new film, Two Days, One Night, in which she plays Sandra, a woman who spends a frantic weekend begging, wheedling and cajoling her co-workers to save her from the sack.

In a sense, the role is exactly what we’ve come to expect from her. Sandra is fighting for survival but also for her dignity – which, for Cotillard heroines, is often one and the same thing. When I point out the link, she seems first confused, then surprised, as if it had never occurred to her.

“I suppose, if I think about it, it’s true,” she says, looking momentarily to one side. “All of the characters I’ve had the chance to create are survivors. But we live in a world where surviving makes up most of what we do.”

In Two Days, One Night, though, the fight for survival feels different: it’s less heightened than it has been before, more risky and immediate. Unlike Piaf, or Luisa Contini in Nine, or Billie Frechette, the gangster’s moll in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, Sandra’s plight isn’t cushioned by period costumes, or the plush patterns of melodrama. She’s a working mother, getting by in the unglamorous present.

The film clicks into action with a phone call. Sandra, who at the start of the film is on sick leave due to depression, hears from a friend that her colleagues have voted her out of a job. Presented by management with the choice of either Sandra’s continued employment or their annual bonus, they opted for the latter. Sandra petitions her boss to take the vote again on Monday morning, once she has had a chance to talk to her co-workers, and spends her Saturday and Sunday visiting them in turn, making her case, appealing to their sense of solidarity.

It’s a warm summer weekend, which means Sandra is fighting for her future in jeans and a vest top. Her Public Enemies fur stole and scarlet slip-dress, gorgeous as they were, would be all wrong here. Sandra has to face the world unarmoured.

There are two good reasons for this: namely the film’s writers and directors, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne. The Dardennes are brothers from Belgium who specialise in dramas set on society’s fraying edge, just a thread or two away from documentary. Their films are set in and around the brothers’ home town of Seraing, a one-time furnace of coal and steel now long-cooled and low on hope.

From film to film, they use the same core crew, but spice things up by casting first-time actors in key roles. Unknown faces are a crucial part of the Dardenne formula: the films have to feel as if they might be unfolding in real time around the corner. Casting Cotillard was a boon, but also a risk.

“I was a huge fan of their work, but I never thought I would have the opportunity to work with them,” she says. “So of course when they asked me it was a huge surprise.”

The Dardennes were less wary: they knew Cotillard was right for the role after meeting her on the set of the Jacques Audiard film Rust and Bone, which they co-produced. “We weren’t thinking ‘we need a star’, but ‘we need her,’ Jean-Pierre, speaking through a translator, tells me later that afternoon.

“We had seen her in a few films, including La vie en rose, and thought she might work in this role. But the most important thing was meeting her. When we saw her actually filming with Audiard, it was a cinematic coupe de foudre.”

The French expression here is normally translated as love at first sight, but its literal meaning is “lightning bolt”, which is an ideal description of Cotillard’s work in that film. Rust and Bone is a bruising, glittering romantic drama in which Stéphanie, a killer whale trainer played by Cotillard, falls in love with Ali, a highly sexed kickboxer. Initially, the attraction between the two is uncertain, but it suddenly roars into life after Cotillard’s character is severely disabled in an accident.

The film contains the best scene Cotillard has ever done: after making love with Ali, Stéphanie sits on her roof terrace in her wheelchair and, for the first time since her accident, runs through her old whale training commands. At first, she moves hesitantly, but as her confidence builds her smile tightens, and her gestures become punches of defiance – reverse lightning, striking upwards from the ground to the sky.

It’s not, however, a style of acting that would fit particularly well in a Dardennes film. Fortunately, a month-long rehearsal period for Two Days, One Night allowed Cotillard the chance to acclimatise – “melt in”, is how she puts it – to the brothers’ unusual way of working.

In particular, their fondness for shooting scenes in a single take, and then re-shooting and re-shooting them, over and over again, was something new. “I think we did 56 takes of the same scene on the second day,” she says. “Another day we did 82 takes, then later we went almost up to one hundred.” To keep her performance fresh, she created an entire life story for Sandra that she could dip down into, like a well of emotions, when she found herself drying up.

“I needed to know what was her life was like when she was at the highest state of depression – how it affected her husband, her kids,” she says. “I wrote a lot of things about her parents, I created a brother, and a whole relationship with him that has nothing to do with the film, so I had enough material to go to.

“So for example when Sandra has to burst into tears in the middle of a take, I have to feed that with something. But after 40 takes, what I had was not enough, so I had to create more and more.”

It’s perhaps most evident in the parts of the film in which Sandra wrestles with depression – fearsomely realistic scenes which Cotillard says were informed by her own brush with the illness a number of years ago. “I came close to depression, but when I started to feel I could really lose myself, I somehow escaped it,” she says.

“But for a while, I knew what it was to have no taste for anything any more. I felt empty and useless. So I took that and emphasised it.” She read around the subject too, in an attempt to more fully understand its symptoms and effects, and avoid wailing, teeth-gnashing clichés.

“When people don’t know exactly what depression is, they can be judgmental. ‘What, you can’t get out of bed in the morning?’”, she says, frowning, in a mock-stern tone of voice. “If you don’t understand the illness, you just think it can’t be that hard to move yourself. And actually, it is.”

Cotillard found that Sandra’s despair was following her home in the evenings, to the extent that twice during the shoot, she packed off her three-year-old son, Marcel, to stay with his father, the actor and director Guillaume Canet.

“I’m affected by the characters I play, and sometimes they’re hard to live with,” she says. Compared to the ghost of Piaf, though, it was manageable.

“La vie en rose was the first time I had a problem getting out of character,” she says, shifting in her seat. “I didn’t understand why I couldn’t and, I was ashamed of it – of not being able to go back to my life.”

At the time she was living in Paris, and found that Piaf was inescapable. Her croaky voice would surface unexpectedly during conversation, and she would see the singer’s face staring out at her from the mirror. “My eyebrows and forehead had been shaved for months, and were only starting to grow back, and I looked like s—,” she says. “And I would go to a dinner and before arriving, I would realise that it was close to where she had lived. Always, things like that. I felt connected to her in a way that was not healthy for me.”

In another one of those spiderweb connections, Non, je ne regrette rien came back to haunt Cotillard in Christopher Nolan’s science-fiction thriller Inception – or rather, she came back to haunt it. In that film, the Piaf song is a sign that the dreamworlds created by Cobb, Leonardo DiCaprio’s psychic spy, are about to collapse – a sign that Cotillard’s character Mal, the pointedly named femme fatale of the piece, refuses to heed.

Inception was a film that took place on grey roads and in beige hotel corridors: it took Cotillard – as the spectre of Cobb’s wife, luring him to a life in limbo – to charge its world and colour it with emotion. Next, she will star as Lady Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender in a new film version of the Shakespeare play, which she shot earlier this year. As she talks about the role – the research, the scenery, the accent (after some experimentation, she opted for French-inflected English), the various grim mental states she had to plunge herself into – she seems oddly like an Inception character, freshly returned from another dreamworld.

“Getting in is part of the process, but so is getting out,” she says. “I want to go as deep as I can, but in a way that allows me to come back.”

‘Two Days, One Night’ is in cinemas from Friday August 22

Marion

Marion

She’s the smart, considered, Oscar-winning actress who also happens to be our new favourite French style icon. Stylist meets the impossibly elegant Marion Cotillard

Listening to Marion Cotillard makes me want to be French. Looking at her has the same effect, but it’s listening to her that has me dreaming about booking a seat on the next Eurostar. The intonations of her voice rise and fall with the subject matter, lulling me into a relaxed state as she philosophises in English about the economy or being a humanist, every so often forgetting herself and reverting to her native tongue. Even when she becomes truly excited about the Dior dinner she will attend later that evening with her good friend, Dior creative director Raf Simons, and her voice climbs a few octaves, it is still soothing.

Stylist catches up with the 38-year-old actress between Dior’s haute couture a/w 2014 show earlier in the day (Cotillard has been the ‘face’ of Lady Dior handbags since 2008) and the ensuing celebratory dinner. She is surrounded by boxes in the apartment she shares with her partner, actor and director Guillaume Canet and their three-year-old son Marcel. It’s not just her significant other who is in the same industry: Cotillard was born in Paris to a family of actors, growing up in Orléans where she studied at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique. Before long she was being cast in French TV dramas but it was Luc Besson’s 1998 film Taxi that took her career up a notch. Now, after working on film sets across the globe, from Pittsburgh (The Dark Knight Rises in 2012) to the Isle of Skye (Macbeth with Michael Fassbender, due for release in 2015), she has settled back in her home country.

Cotillard’s latest film, Two Days, One Night, has critics whispering “Oscar” in relation to her performance. Directed by Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne (who have won the coveted Cannes Film Festival Palme d’Or Award twice), she plays Sandra, a working-class woman struggling with depression who has one weekend to convince her colleagues to give up their 1,000 Euro bonuses to save her job. To be honest, I was wary of seeing a film this emotionally taxing just in its synopsis, but came away oddly uplifted. Marion is exceptional; it’s the most convincing depiction of depression I’ve seen: traumatic, yes, but with chinks of light and hope.

Bringing subtlety and nuance to every performance is Marion’s modus operandi. It’s what won her the Academy Award for best actress for her portrayal of Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, the 2007 film that had the world at her impeccably shod feet, and the reason she’s booked up until 2016 with another five films to be releasedafter Two Days, One Night. But before we get to her relentless schedule, I’m dying to know what she picked up from Dior earlier…

Did anything take your fancy at the Dior show?
Oh yeah, a lot of things. I’m very impressed by the way Raf reinvents his world all the time. He’s a very special person. The way he mixes his very modern vision of clothes and the Dior house is really, really impressive.

Watching Two Days, One Night was an intense experience… 
Everything was intense during shooting. The role is intense because Sandra goes through a lot and the experience itself with the Dardenne brothers, the way they wanted to shoot the movie was… oh merde, comment dit ça…? A sequence shot? A scene is just one take that keeps rolling, and sometimes we did 100 takes. I’ve never worked with such demanding directors. But I loved it. That’s what I want when I work with someone; that they will be super-demanding in a creative way.

It’s one of the most realistic portrayals of depression I’ve seen on screen. Has anyone in your life experienced it? 
Not really. But I know what it is to not feel at the right place [in life]. That’s something I experienced myself. My parents taught me how to move on when something is stuck and I have the strength not to fall, but I was very close to depression. So [with Sandra], I knew what it was to be lost and deeply in pain and not know exactly where it comes from, or how to stop or deal with it.

Luc Dardenne said they worked hard to make sure you looked ‘ordinary’ in the film. You certainly look incredibly different to how you look now. 
This is something I always do for every role. I’m very interested in what’s inside and drives a person. What is their heart and soul? Whatyou have inside shows on the outside; the way you talk and breathe. Do you look someone in the eye? Do you breathe from the lungs or your throat? The way you move tells a lot about who you are inside. A shy person walks and talks like a shy person. One of my favourite things is finding the physicality of a character. I find the performance inside and how it impacts the outside and what people can see of you.

You’ve been called “shockingly beautiful”. How does that feel?
I’m never really aware because I’m not very interested in it. I don’tneed it. Sometimes people I work with read blogs, so I see the occasional thing about myself. It makes me laugh because either way you can’t change anything. It’s not the end of the world if you look like sh*t! You know what I mean? 

You’ve said it was hard to find the right emotions to portray Sandra. What makes you feel emotional yourself?
Wow. My god. Almost everything. Kids make me emotional. I’m a very emotional person. That’s a problem for me but I deal with it by being an actress.

Another factor in the film is the economic crisis in France…
The crisis everywhere, you mean!

What’s it like to live in France right now? Does it feel like things are improving?
I only just returned to Paris. It’s funny when you take a step back. I feel there’s a kind of depression now which affects a lot of things like creativity. But I think we’re going to find the way out. You know, French people and this word ‘existentialism’… we question ourselves too much sometimes, circling on our own problems. I’m not saying we shouldn’t pay attention to them, but it wouldn’t hurt to pay attention to what happens in the rest of the world occasionally.

What is it about Paris that has drawn you back? 
I’ve been in Paris two weeks and have finally opened my boxes that were sleeping in my apartment for three years. The last time I lived here, I was pregnant [in 2011]. So I’m in this process of reconnecting with France. There is this energy of all these amazingpeople who created this country and this city. But like I said, I feel we need to open up to the world. We have to stop thinking we’re the best at everything; it’s not true first of all. I mean, it’s good to have confidence but at a certain point, you also need to learn from others. But Paris is so beautiful.

You’ve appeared in a mix of blockbuster films and low-key projects – which do you prefer?
Both. Otherwise I wouldn’t do both. I always choose a project because I feel it’s my place to be there and I love the project, even with the blockbusters. My dream when I was a kid was to be Peter Sellers; to jump from comedy to something totally different. I haven’t jumped yet into comedy but that’s one of my dreams. I find joy in opposites.

What is your favourite Peter Sellers film?
The Party. Or Docteur Folamour… I mean Dr Strangelove. The guy was a genius.

Who makes you laugh now?
Will Ferrell! My friends. I have very, very funny friends. They make me cry because I laugh so hard. Oh, and Jennifer Lawrence. Yeah, that’s a good list! 

You filmed Macbeth on the Isle of Skye in February. Was it cold?
Yes! That was crazy cold. There were hailstones, which made it harder. But hard is good.

If hard is good when you’re working, do you take it easy when you’re not?
Time off is super, super tiny in my world. But now I am off, I read and watch documentaries. I try to play music and become a good musician, which is far away but I’m getting closer. I’m going to have to be just a musician before being a good one [laughs]. Being in Paris after all those years, I’m seeing friends. It’s a marvellous thing to be able to reconnect and share everything they know and talk about the world. That’s something I missed a lot; it’s one of the things I enjoy most.

What do you talk about? The environment? Your work with Greenpeace is well-documented.
Not only Greenpeace. I support all people who want to… I wouldn’t say change the world, but to push it to a more human evolution.

Who inspires you in this way?
There are so many – it’s really reassuring to have a very long list. A lot of French people, like Pierre Rabhi or Edgar Morin. [Canadian astrophysicist] Hubert Reeves. Wangari Maathai and Aung San Suu Kyi. All people who fight for people.

Are you happy? 
Yes, I am. I have an amazing experience of life. It makes me understand more and more about the weird animal we are and it makes me happy to be connected to people and to learn.

One of Edith Piaf’s most famous songs was about not having regrets – do you have any?
Non. I know that things I didn’t do were simply things I was not meant to do. Or I wasn’t the right person or it wasn’t the right moment. Maybe I had some but then I realised regret is not a good thing to feel. I am sure you do what you need to.

What’s next? More unpacking? 
I’m very fast! I opened my boxes in 10 days. I still have a few more but they can wait. Tonight, I have a Dior dinner, which I’m looking forward to because they’re amazing, funny people. And Jennifer Lawrence will be there so I’m going to have a lot of fun! 

Will the food be good? 
But of course! We’re in Paris. The food will be magnifique!

‘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

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