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Marion Cotillard’s Pursuit of Happiness

Marion Cotillard’s Pursuit of Happiness

The French star of ‘The Immigrant’ channels old-world America and pushes herself to exciting new places

In the opening moments of The Immigrant, James Gray’s operatic epic set in 1920s New York, two women stand in line at Ellis Island after an arduous transatlantic journey. They converse in Polish, keeping each other’s spirits up by imagining happier times ahead. Their skin is pale and plain, their drab clothes nearly indistinguishable from darkness of the room. It’s really only when one of the women breaks into a smile, her round face alighting just so, that you realize you’re watching Marion Cotillard.

It’s strange to call an Oscar-winner underrated, but somehow that description still fits Cotillard. Yes, she’s an international star, a muse for both Christopher Nolan and Woody Allen, and the red carpet representative for Christian Dior. Her portrayal of the iconic chanteuse Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007) practically made her a national treasure in her native country (she’s one of the highest paid actresses in France) and nabbed her that year’s Best Actress Oscar. But when it comes to the work itself, people are still apt to rhapsodize about her beauty over her chops; even her Academy-ignored portrayal of a paraplegic in Rust and Bone (2012) drew more mentions of her nude scenes than actual praise for her performance.

In a perfect world, however, The Immigrant would change the conversation about Cotillard in a profound way. The Gallic star doesn’t just nail an accent; she goes the full-on Streep route, speaking fluent Polish, immersing herself in the role of an early-20th-century heroine and supporting the emotional weight of the whole movie, not to mention that of generations of self-sacrificing émigrés, in her brim-full saucer eyes.

“I like when I say yes to a project and don’t know if I’m going to be able to do a good job,” Cotillard says. One among the poor huddled masses, her Ewa Cybulska might have been a cliché in the hands of other actresses: a “fallen” woman who is taken in by a shady theater manager (Joaquin Phoenix) and forced to resort to extreme means in order to survive. But Cotillard doesn’t play a symbol. She’s fully alive on screen — resourceful and responsive, damaged and defiant, loving and feral. “Acting is an intelligence,” director James Gray says. “I don’t mean intelligence in that they can talk to you about the Manhattan Project or something; I’m talking about an emotional awareness, an understanding of human beings and human behavior. Marion certainly has that.”

And then there’s matter of the dialogue. If Gray’s script included just a few lines in a foreign tongue, perhaps she could have handled it phonetically. But try 20 pages of Polish dialogue, and only two months in which to learn the language. “I could have learned Chinese — it would have been the same thing,” Cotillard says. “There were, like, three words that sounded or looked like English or French. The rest of it was like, pfft…I couldn’t believe it. But I needed to understand everything I said. Even the two letter words — I needed to know what they were. It was super stressful.”

“She was miserable,” Gray confirms. “And she did it brilliantly.” In the film, you never get the sense that she’s merely remembering her lines, or that she’s flaunting her achievement for our amazement. She’s inside the language, and in the moment. “It’s not a stunt,” said Gray. “She’s acting it.”

The language issue may have presented an extreme case, but Cotillard said she’s always drawn toward uncharted territory — both metaphorically and literally.”I’m really happy to have the freedom to explore different cultures. But this freedom has a price,” she said. “The price is that on set I’m not as free as I would be in French. Or even in English.” It’s also resulted in her being a bit of an outsider everywhere she works, and has likely contributed to her work being less celebrated than if she were the belle of one particular ball.

These days she pursues as many projects overseas as she does at home. But though she’s appeared in major American films like The Dark Knight Rises, Midnight in Paris, and Public Enemies, she’s still very selective about her work in Hollywood. That her first starring role in a U.S. film involves speaking 40% of her dialogue in Polish should tell you all you need to know. “I really need to have a big jump between projects,” she said. “”I want that people wouldn’t recognize me in the next movie. I want to be different all the time. I don’t think I would do a good job if I was doing the same thing.”

Cotillard uses words like “job” and “work” so often that they start to sound like what they mean. As if it’s all part of the discipline required for her to be as great as she expects herself to be. “The thing is, I know some actors, no matter what happens, they’re going to be good. If they don’t work, they’re going to save their ass,” she said, pushing a stray strand of hair behind her ear. “I’m not this kind of person. If I don’t work, I’m just a super bad actress. So I need to work.”

Like fellow countrywoman Juliette Binoche — a hero of hers since childhood — Cotillard says she keeps a list of directors she’d like to work with. But rather than reveal other names on the list, she talks instead about one that isn’t. “There was one director that I got rid of on my list after meeting him,” Cotillard says coyly. “And he’s one of my favorite directors — the top of the list. But I was a little disappointed. There was a disconnection that was kind of painful for me.” But if she’s proven anything over the year, it’s that she has an her ability to make even seemingly impossible things work. “I might put him back on the list. He’s still in the back of my mind.”

Interview: Marion Cotillard

Interview: Marion Cotillard

When I enter Marion Cotillard’s suite at New York’s Trump SoHo hotel, she’s gazing out a window, across the Hudson toward New Jersey. “What’s that?” she asks, gesturing to a small building that’s just offshore and part of an inlet, of sorts. Unfortunately, I can’t help Cotillard with an answer, but I also can’t help but notice that she’s perfectly set the scene for an interview pegged around The Immigrant, director James Gray’s latest—and greatest—drama, in which Cotillard stars as a Polish woman, Ewa, whose arrival at Ellis Island in 1921 is followed by a turbulent succession of hardships and glints of hope. If the American dream is more than a myth, a notion that Gray’s film actively explores with an air of bittersweet mystery, then Cotillard has most certainly achieved it, following her budding career in France with an Oscar for La Vie en Rose and a virtually ceaseless output of prestige projects. As Cotillard recalls her early goals and ambitions, her memories mirror the themes of The Immigrant itself, with talk of being aware of possibility and opportunity, but never quite thinking it was actually in the cards. It’s a humble reflection from a bona fide superstar, who, even now, has vivid thoughts of what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land.

It seems that so many people identify you as having broken through with La Vie en Rose, but you’d already had nearly 15 years of work behind you before the film was released. What was the biggest moment of your career prior to playing Edith Piaf?

Well, there were different steps. I did three French blockbusters, which allowed me to connect with the audience, but not the industry. For the industry, those movies were not considered very serious movies, and I wasn’t considered a very serious actress. But then I did A Very Long Engagement, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s movie, and that changed a lot of things for me in the industry, in France. And I became a serious actress! [Laughs] Someone who could do something else besides just comedies. But even in France, where I had been around before, the big breakthrough was La Vie en Rose. It was a big thing for me.

So you did a lot of comedies?

I did three comedies.

I’d like to see you in some more comedies. Can we make that happen?

[Laughs] I don’t know. I must have been very bad. I will never watch those movies again. And I think I would have much more work doing a comedy than a drama. All actors know that it’s very hard, when you’re not Will Ferrell or Tina Fey, to be good in a comedy. It’s really, really hard.

It’s very unpredictable what will become of an actor’s career once they win an Oscar. For some, they get this one big role that’s rewarded, but then things don’t necessarily work out as they might have hoped. You’ve had anything but that experience, and it seems to partly stem from the directors and projects you’ve chosen. Are you chasing down the directors you work with or do they typically come calling?

I suppose it’s a mix of both. The only director I chased [laughs] was a Danish director, Thomas Vinterberg, and I never worked with him. This was a long time ago, when I was…nothing. I really wanted to work with him, and I started to learn Danish to work with him, but it didn’t work out. And then years later, when I was promoting La Vie en Rose around the world, I went to Denmark, and as a surprise, the distributors arranged a meeting for me and Thomas. And I was so shy. It was kind of crazy.

Why him?

Because Festen was a shock. And I loved their process—the Dogme process. And I thought what they could do with this, this Dogme, was so cinematographic, and so amazing, that I really wanted to work with him. I loved [Festen]—the way it’s shot, how he is with the characters, his camera, the story. For me, everything was perfect. But I wanted to work with him in a Danish movie, not an English one. Back then, all my friends said, “You’re so stupid. You should be improving your English because he’s going to go to Hollywood, and he’s going to make American movies.” But for me, it was like…I just wanted to do a Danish movie with him.

Well you’ve certainly proven that you can tackle a lot of different languages for different roles. Is that something you were always doing when you were aspiring to be an actor—practicing different languages and dialects?

No. No, I’m actually not very good at it.

Well, you’re convincing, for sure. You’ve convinced me many times.

It’s a lot of work. Like, if you asked me to do a Canadian accent, I won’t be able to do it. I will have to work a lot. Some of my friends—not even actors—are able to nail a Canadian, or African, or Swiss, or even American accent. But I’m not very good at that. Well, it’s not that I’m not very good at it, it’s just not natural. I can’t just pick something up and nail it. I really need to work. But it wasn’t something that I practiced in my past. And, first of all, I never thought I’d do American movies. I never thought I would have the amazing experience of exploring different worlds and cultures.

Why not?

The thing is, I didn’t think that I would do that, but I didn’t think that I wouldn’t do it. You know what I mean? I had no boundaries. I didn’t think that I would do movies in America, but I didn’t think it was not possible. I just didn’t think about it. Maybe, if I had put up boundaries like that, it would not have happened. By not putting up boundaries like that, you don’t have to cross them because they’re not there. I didn’t really imagine anything. I just knew I wanted amazing journeys. And my dream, which came true, was that from one movie to another, I’d have the opportunity to be a totally different person. The people I admired the most when I was a kid, and wanted to be an actress, were Sir Laurence Olivier and Peter Sellers. From a movie to another, you cannot recognize them. That was a total fantasy, and today, I can go from playing Edith Piaf at the end of her life to doing the Dardenne brothers movie I just did [Two Days, One Night]. It’s a big jump, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.

So how did learning to speak Polish for The Immigrant compare to, say, learning to speak Italian for Nine, or even learning to speak English, for that matter?

Well, learning English was different because I really wanted to speak English. So I worked to learn English. Learning Polish wasn’t really learning Polish; it was learning the 20 pages of Polish that I had in the movie. I don’t know how to speak Polish today. I don’t even remember my lines. That’s another thing: I erase all the information, which is kind of a shame. Almost everything goes away as soon as I’m finished with a movie. As for Italian, it was the same thing. When I choose to do a movie, I don’t think what I will have to work on. I read the movie, it gets into my blood, or not. But when it gets into my blood, I don’t think about what will be required. And when I said “yes” to James Gray, I didn’t realize how Polish was in the movie, first of all because all of the Polish dialogue was written in English in the original script. It was only mentioned that there would be Polish. It was only when I started to realize that it was massive, and that I only had two months to prepare—which isn’t much, especially because Polish sounds nothing like English or French—that I started to think, “My god, you’re crazy.” But then, after that, I have no choice, because I’m working, working. And again, I don’t think anymore. I just do. So I can be free, and learn, and go as far as I can. I just try not to suck. Because being Polish with a French accent sucks. And being Italian with a French accent sucks.

My ears pricked up when you said the word “blood” because my next question involves blood. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Ewa, while imprisoned at Ellis Island, pricks her finger and uses the blood as lipstick, after she’s told that she should make herself look healthy and attractive. There’s something very powerful in the notion that she has to literally use her own blood to make herself appealing in this new place. I’d love to hear anything you’d like to share about doing that scene.

All those people who came to Ellis Island—and their pictures are all documented—tried to look their best. They needed to look their best so they could enter this country. Doing that scene, I remembered that when I was a kid, and we didn’t have any makeup, we would bite our lips as hard as we could, to have the blood come into the lips and make them redder. I thought that might have been something that Ewa did with her sister back at home—when she wanted to have red lipstick on, but didn’t have any, she would use blood.

So that was your idea?

No, no—that was James’s idea, but the thought that she’d done this before, and that she did it in her childhood, was something that I liked. I imagined that she’d done this before with her sister—trying to look good.

Since you’re someone who isn’t originally from this country, to what degree did that relation help you to connect to this character, or perhaps influence your decision to take part in the project?

When you’re in another country, with another culture, with a language that you don’t speak that well, part of your personality changes, in a way. It’s like you go back to kind of a childhood state. You don’t feel as strong as you could feel in your own language, in the way you express yourself, because you don’t know all the words. I remember when I did my first movie in America—it was Big Fish. I think I was 22 or 23, but I felt like a teenager, because sometimes I didn’t understand what people were saying. And I really felt like I could express myself on a subject in French, and I could be super comfortable talking about serious things, whatever. But there I was lost. I couldn’t express myself as a grown-up. I was like a child. And it’s a weird feeling because you can see that the way people see you is not exactly the way you are. If they would have had the ability to understand French suddenly, and see me in a French context, they’d have had a totally different image, or perception, of who I am.

Marion Cotillard on Her ‘Two Days, One Night’ Role: ‘I Had Written Her Whole Life Before We Meet Her’

Marion Cotillard on Her ‘Two Days, One Night’ Role: ‘I Had Written Her Whole Life Before We Meet Her’

It is the voice — lilting, lightly French-accented — that one notices first, even before fully registering the famous face. You notice it because, in the movies, Marion Cotillard so rarely sounds like herself, whether affecting Edith Piaf’s nasal warble in her Oscar-winning performance in “La Vie en Rose,” the Polish dialect of the 1920s Ellis Island emigre in director James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” or her Belgian regional accent as a downsized factory worker in Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne’s “Two Days, One Night,” which premieres this week in competition at the 67th Cannes Film Festival.

If voice is one of an actor’s most valuable instruments, Cotillard plays hers like a first-chair virtuoso. Early in the shooting of “The Immigrant” (which debuts in the U.S. May 16), Gray asked Polish actress Maja Wampuszyc, who plays Cotillard’s aunt in the film, to evaluate the French actress’s command of Wampuszyc’s native language. “She said, ‘Well, it’s excellent, but it has a very German inflection,’ ” Gray recalls. “So I told Marion this and she said, ‘I’m doing that on purpose because my character is from Silesia, which is between what was then Germany and Poland.’ ” After that, Gray stopped asking questions.

The 38-year-old Cotillard is that rare combination of movie star and chameleonic character actor — a shape-shifter who disappears as completely into her roles as a Meryl Streep or a Daniel Day-Lewis (whose long-suffering wife Cotillard played in the musical “Nine”) — while remaining in demand as an icon of timeless Parisian glamour. In the more than 40 films she has made since her 1994 screen debut, the actress has seemed equally comfortable inhabiting the skin of a WWI Corsican courtesan (in Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement”), a 1930s Chicago gangster’s moll (in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies”) or a 21st-century epidemiologist (in Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion”). She was tough yet heartbreaking in one of her most celebrated roles, as a killer-whale trainer who loses both her legs in a workplace accident in Jacques Audiard’s “Rust and Bone.” And she brought a tragic human dimension to the high-tech mind games of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception” as the ghostly wife forever trapped in Leonardo DiCaprio’s memory machine.

“What I saw in Marion, and which is so rare, is that her charisma, her presence, combines the exotic with the accessible,” says Nolan, who went on to cast Cotillard again in “The Dark Knight Rises,” even retooling the shooting schedule to accommodate the then-pregnant actress (who lives in Paris with French actor-director Guillaume Canet, her partner since 2007).

In “Two Days, One Night,” she is someone else entirely: an ordinary working-class woman struggling to survive in a recession. It is, by Cotillard’s own admission, a curious piece of casting. The Dardenne brothers, among the most honored filmmakers of their generation — especially at Cannes, where they have twice won the festival’s coveted Palme d’Or — have created their distinctive cinematic universe without ever venturing far from the Belgian industrial town of Seraing, the setting for nearly all their films since their 1996 breakthrough “La Promesse.” Typically, they populate their casts with a mix of local actors, nonprofessionals and newcomers. “Two Days” marks the first time they’ve cast a performer of Cotillard’s international stature — or anyone who has acted opposite Batman.

When the actress, who got to know the Dardennes during the filming of “Rust and Bone” (which they co-produced), first learned they wanted her for their next project, she worried that the movie might be a departure from their established milieu. “I was secretly hoping that it was not different; I was hoping that I would have to go to Seraing,” she says as she relaxes into an armchair in her suite at the Trump Soho hotel, and tucks her dark brown hair neatly behind her ears. “When I started to read the script and I found out that it was actually the same kind of movie, I was very, very happy. And I felt that they’re very hard workers, because to reach this level of authenticity, you have to work a lot.”

That work entailed a month of rehearsals on location followed by a demanding shoot in which Cotillard experienced firsthand the Dardennes’ reputation for putting actors through extensive takes. The brothers favor shooting scenes in uninterrupted sequence shots lasting as long as five, six or seven minutes each. “Let’s say you have a seven-minute sequence shot and everything is going well, and then at 6:39 or even 6:49, something goes wrong and you have to start over again,” Cotillard explains. “That causes a lot of takes.” On the second day of shooting, she snapped a photo of the clapboard when the take count on one scene reached 56. On the fifth day, she took another photo as the takes for another scene climbed to 82.

“The challenge for us and for her was to give Marion Cotillard a new body,” says Luc Dardenne. “Every day of the rehearsals, we worked on her costumes, her shoes, her T-shirts, her hairstyle, looking for the simplest thing, the most banal, to give the impression that she was just like anyone else, and not that the other actors were turning around her. Very quickly, we had the sense that Marion was becoming a member of our family of characters.”

Regarding the Dardennes’ unusual shooting style, Cotillard says, “I never felt overwhelmed,” though it forced her to dig deeper into her imagination than she has for any other role. As part of her preparation, she created an elaborate back­story for her character, Sandra, that would allow her to access the emotions she needed for any given scene. “I had written her whole life before we meet her, because I needed to know why she was depressed, how it affected her relationship with her husband and her relationship with her kids, her friends, all the people she loves,” the actress says. “But after 50 takes, the story I had come up with didn’t work anymore, so I had to create something else. I was out of gas. And it was very interesting for me to find more and more things to help me keep going and to reach the same emotion that I had had 40 or 50 times before.”

Still, Cotillard says, if the Dardennes had asked for 500 takes, she would have happily obliged. “They offered me everything I had ever dreamt about in terms of the relationship between a director and an actor — two directors, in this case — because we went into the tiniest details, and we tried everything to go beyond the work, to go beyond acting. They pushed me there, and I was so happy to go there with them.”

Talk to Cotillard for a while and she inevitably circles back to the idea of finding a character’s authenticity and going to some deeper place where the distinction between reality and performance begins to blur. Speaking of her role in “The Immigrant,” she laments that the film’s modest budget and tight schedule didn’t allow her more time to perfect her Polish and research the history of the nation. “I wish sometimes that I could be Daniel Day-Lewis and say, ‘You know what? If you want me to do this, I’m going to need a year to prepare myself.’ But if I do that, they’ll say, ‘Thank you very much’ and they’ll take someone else.”

On occasion, Cotillard has gone so intensely into a character that she has trouble resurfacing. “The first time it happened, where I really didn’t know how to escape someone, was ‘La Vie en Rose’ ” — a role the actress couldn’t shake for eight months after filming ended. “I was very ashamed, because I thought it was a job and I could easily come back to my life and to myself, but it was not that easy. I realized I needed to do a deep cleaning of a role after each movie. Now I know better how to deal with this.”

Suffice to say thesping runs deep in Cotillard’s veins. She was born in Paris, into a family of actors, and knew from an early age she wanted to follow in her parents’ footsteps. She credits classes given by her mother, Niseema Theillaud, with teaching her how to open herself up as a performer. And though she prepares for each role differently, a constant, she says, is to enter into a kind of meditative state where she doesn’t so much form the individual she’ll be playing as let it come to her. “In a way, I don’t create anything, I just open myself to the character and the character takes over,” she says. “Of course, I’m aware of it and I’m driving it, but I don’t try to control it. If I try to control it, it goes wrong.”

A self-described “weirdo” and “misfit” in her youth in Orleans, she went on to study drama at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique. By age 18, she began landing small parts in French TV series. Director Arnaud Desplechin, who cast her in one brief but memorable scene in his 1996 sophomore feature “My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument,” recalls meeting a “shockingly beautiful and clever” 21-year-old actress who was far more comfortable with the scene (which required her to appear nude) than was her bumbling director. “Marion was so young and already so mature,” Desplechin says. “I explained to her how embarrassed I was. And she told me with a large smile and such confidence that she could just do it, that we would find a way.”

Her breakthrough came two years later as the girlfriend of a Marseilles pizza deliveryman-turned-cab driver in the Luc Besson-produced action comedy “Taxi.” It was a subordinate role in a movie mostly devoted to the buddy antics of male leads Samy Naceri and Frederic Diefenthal, but Cotillard impressed in her few scenes. The movie’s massive success (6.4 million admissions at the French box office) thrust her into a spotlight she was ill-prepared to handle. “It was tumultuous,” she recalls. “I remember — oh my god — it was kind of hard for the people who were around me at that time. When someone would come up to me in the street, I would either run away or burst into tears. I didn’t know what to do. I don’t think you’re ever prepared for this.”

Indeed, it’s one of Cotillard’s beguiling paradoxes — and perhaps a key to her appeal — that this oft-photographed beauty, who devotes herself so obsessively to her work, still feels queasy when she sees herself on the cover of a magazine, or catches aspects of her real self in one of her performances. When she played the bohemian anthropologist Marie in the 2010 ensemble drama “Little White Lies” (directed by Canet), she initially resisted giving the character some of her own gestures and mannerisms, even though she felt they were right for the part. She found the finished movie difficult to watch. “Even though I didn’t have the same story as her, we had a lot of things in common, and I saw myself in her,” she says. “Like when she’s uncomfortable, I could feel in my body that it was the way that I look when I’m uncomfortable, and I didn’t like it at all.”

She needn’t harbor any similar concerns about her next role, as Lady Macbeth in Australian director Justin Kurzel’s version of the Shakespeare tragedy, which recently wrapped shooting in England. It’s an iconic part that Cotillard long envisioned herself playing — though she was sure it would be onstage and in French. Instead, it is onscreen and in English, opposite Michael Fassbender as the doomed Scottish king. “It’s the first time I’ve played a character with no light, total darkness,” she says. “And when she loses control … I’m affected by the character I live with when I’m shooting, so I lost control of everything, like her, and it was really hard to handle.”

She has the highest regard for her co-star, of whom she says, “I saw a lot of movies he was in, and I have the feeling he’s reached another level here. When you start a scene and you don’t really know where you’re going to go, that’s a roller-coaster. Many times I was surprised by what he does in this movie, and this is priceless.”

Fassbender likewise praises Cotillard, hailing the actress as fearless and unfailingly generous to her fellow players. “She’s got so much courage just to take on the part in the first place,” he says. “She’s quite a quiet person, but onscreen she’s just electric. I didn’t have to discuss any ideas that I wanted to do, anything that came to mind during a take. I would just do it, and she always responded. She’s just very easy to work with. Zero drama, except what’s in the scene.” The film is expected to premiere in 2015, the same year that will see Cotillard take to the stage with the New York Philharmonic in a new production of Swiss composer Arthur Honegger’s oratorio “Joan of Arc at the Stake.”

Hers is, to say the least, a varied and unpredictable career, and Cotillard wouldn’t want it any other way. Though she likes Hollywood and has achieved a level of success that has eluded many other foreign-born performers, she is every bit as likely to make a small art film in her native tongue — or some newly acquired one — as to sign on for another blockbuster.

Says Cotillard’s agent, Hylda Queally, who signed the actress shortly after “La Vie en Rose” premiered at the 2007 Berlin Film Festival: “I don’t think it’s about doing the big films and the small films and doing Hollywood and Europe. It’s just about doing good films and playing good characters and not repeating performances. What motivates Marion is the character, the script and the director. She’s not going to do something just because it calls for a beautiful French actress.”

Gazing out the window at some distant point on the lower Manhattan skyline, Cotillard muses: “I always wanted to travel the world and to travel a human being’s emotions, to understand a little more about ourselves by becoming someone who’s so far from who I am. I think it must come from this really strong desire that I had when I was a kid. I was fascinated by Peter Sellers and by Sir Laurence Olivier. From one movie to the next, you didn’t recognize them, and that’s really what I wanted to do. I guess that you attract what you need in life, and I attracted a super wide playground.”

Marion Cotillard on Learning a Whole New Language to Play a Polish Prostitute in ‘The Immigrant’

Marion Cotillard on Learning a Whole New Language to Play a Polish Prostitute in ‘The Immigrant’

Marion Cotillard is never one to back down from a challenge.

For her breakout, Oscar-winning role in “La Vie en Rose,” the actress mastered Édith Piaf’s vocal delivery to believably portray the icon. A few years later, for Jacques Audiard’s drama “Rust and Bone,” Cotillard, a novice swimmer, learned to become a strong one in a matter of weeks in order to play a whale trainer. The challenge she set out for herself in James Gray’s period drama “The Immigrant” trumps anything the actress has attempted before. For the film, which opens this Friday in select theaters, Cotillard had to learn a whole new language.

As Ewa, the titular illegal Polish immigrant forced into prostitution by Joaquin Phoenix’s character after arriving in New York in 1921, Cotillard gives a powerfully subdued performance full of hurt and anger that many are citing as her biggest achievement since portraying Piaf. Much of that, no doubt, lies in the fact that she had to learn Polish to take on the role, and learn how to speak English with a credible Polish accent (and just to remind you: she’s French).

Indiewire sat down with the actress in New York recently to discuss the project.

In the press notes, James Gray says he cast you because of your ability to portray a “non-verbal state of soul.” What was the key to unlocking this character?

The fact that [Ewa] was a nurse before she came to the United States made me think that she was devoted to people. That was an important part of her personality, and an important first stone of the building I was trying to raise. It explains for me, also, how she sees people and the ability she has to see the good side of people even in the darkness. And how devoted she is to her sister… so yeah, the fact that she was a nurse, and that she was devoted, that was important.

Do you always have to latch onto something so specific to form a character?

Well, while I’m discovering the character, yeah, there are a few things that appear very important, and that was one of the very important things. Also, the fact that she’s smart, and she’s seen a lot, and her link to horror makes her bear a lot. She can take a lot, because she comes from a place where she lived the most horrible things. So everything that is horrible in her life will be bearable because she’s been through a lot already.

The only thing she cannot bear is to see her sister in pain. And she wants to protect and preserve the beauty and the pureness that she sees in her. And her life is, it’s not nothing but, the way she’s devoted — she’s going to dedicate her life to her sister. And what is important is that she survives, so that her sister can survive. If she was alone, I don’t think–I mean she would have strength, but I don’t think she would have that level of hope just for herself. I don’t think she would fight like she fights for her own survival. The fact that she survives for her sister makes her stronger.

Would you fight that hard for any loved one in your family?

Oh yeah, absolutely.

Ewa holds so much in throughout the course of the film, but her tragic past is still made palpable through your eyes. How did you work to say so much, without actually saying much at all?

Well, she’s in a situation where she gets to observe things, because she’s not part of this world yet, and she has to understand very quickly how it works. And by being silent and observing what’s going on, I mean in the script, the fact that she’s not talking a lot was already there, obviously, because she doesn’t. I mean she speaks English, but she wouldn’t know how to express herself like she would know how to express herself in Polish. When she arrives there, she doesn’t really know what to say. So she’s taking all the information she can take from people’s behavior, she knows that it’s a different culture, and that she will have to make her way in this country. And when she comes to this country with her sister, she has a true hope. And when her sister is left at Ellis Island, she has a different kind of hope like she has to, in a way, feed her hope that is kind of fading sometimes. She has to feed this hope with everything she can. And even though she’s smart enough to know that Orlando (Jeremy Renner) may not be the key, what brings this relationship to her is the energy of hope, even though she knows that he’s a rotten branch. But the energy of hope helps her to carry on.

And when she does speak, she speaks in Polish, or in English with a Polish accent. Did you speak any Polish before taking this on?

No, not at all.

So what gave you the confidence that you could master the language?

Confidence? [Laughs] Well the thing is, when I choose a role, I never think about the amount of work it’s going to take. And then when I start thinking about it, I think I’m crazy. I talk to myself thinking, “There you are again, with a dialect coach for hours, for days, for months.” But then I just have to do it, I have no other choice. Even James, writing the 20 pages in Polish, didn’t think what it would take for me to get there. And I remember, when we were on set, I was there with my notebook all day long, learning or trying to get comfortable with the language, and one day he said, “Oh! I was wondering, what was this notebook?” He thought it was some notes about the character or something related. So he said “It’s the Polish lines, right?” And I said “Yeah, you wrote 20 pages in Polish so I need to work.” And he didn’t even realize himself that it would take a lot of work for me to get there because Polish is a very hard language. Over the 20 pages, there were three words that sounded like maybe French or English, but the rest of it was totally unknown to me. It was like, if my dialect coach had told me it was Chinese, to me, it was the same thing. One day I told her, I said “It’s not Polish that you’re teaching me — it’s Chinese, be honest.” And actually she had told me that someone had told her that before. Yeah, there’s nothing that looks like English or French there, and I needed to understand every little word, everything, because, well, I needed to know what I was saying.

Did you only learn the words you had to speak, or did you do a brief overview of the whole language?

No, only the words. Well, I watched movies, I listened to recorded books to get the musicality of the accent. But it was a very low-budget movie, and I didn’t have enough time to work.

You only shot for 35 days right?

Yeah. But I mean before, before we started shooting. I started two months before, but two months, it’s nothing. It’s really nothing. So I stuck to the lines I had to learn.

Did you take a break after filming this project to recoup and unwind?

No, I went straight away into another project, and I had to learn a few words of Italian, but I really don’t speak Italian.

On your partner’s film?

Yeah, “Blood Ties.” And that was right after, I went from Polish to Italian. And then I took a year off!

How badly did you need that year off? You shot “The Immigrant” following “Rust and Bone,” another extremely challenging project.

Well the thing is, that was kind of crazy, that I did four movies in one year, and I was a new mom, and before my son turned one, I had done four movies with him, being a mom. It was really crazy. But with the two projects I’d done before, I got pregnant, and sometimes it’s hard to finance them, and suddenly we have the money and we have to shoot now. But then yeah, I really needed to have some time off. Because the thing is, when you’re not shooting a movie, and you’re an actor, and you’ve done movies before, you have to promote those movies, and for a year I didn’t really stop working. But at least I was alone with myself, and not with a character I had to create or think about.

You got back in touch with yourself —

Yeah, you know, you just fill yourself with your life, and then you can go back to work, and you WANT to go back to work. Just doing movies after movies after movies, you’re never alone.

Marion Cotillard pushes boundaries as actress, crosses them as a star

Marion Cotillard pushes boundaries as actress, crosses them as a star

French-born Marion Cotillard has staked out an enviable international career, with a leading lady’s glamour and the versatility of a character actress. Following her breakthrough, Oscar-winning performance in “La Vie en Rose,” she has appeared in art house favorites such as “Rust and Bone” and “Midnight in Paris” along with popular successes such as “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”.

In James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” opening Friday, she turns in a performance of deep emotional force as Ewa Cybulski, who arrives from Poland to New York in 1921. Desperate to get her quarantined sister off Ellis Island, Ewa finds herself trapped in a world of prostitution and promises, torn between Joaquin Phoenix’s unpredictable hustler Bruno and Jeremy Renner’s charming magician Orlando. She will also soon be seen in “Two Days, One Night,” premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, and opposite Michael Fassbender in an adaptation of “Macbeth.”

James Gray tells a story of the two of you meeting for the first time at a dinner, disagreeing about another actor and you throwing something at him. Do you remember it like that?

Oh, yeah. First of all, I have to say I never play with food. But there was nothing I could say that would be strong enough to make him change his mind. So I just lost it. So I threw bread at his face.

He has a really infectious energy, and a pretty straightforward conversation with him can get really spirited — I’m trying to say it wasn’t your fault.

It was not my fault. His opinion is unacceptable about this actor we were talking about. I cannot even give his name because it would be too awkward for James that people would know what he thinks about this amazing actor. But James has this very contagious energy. He’s passionate about what he does, what he talks about, what he thinks, everything. He has this energy that you can really feel. And I think that is part of why he’s an amazing director.

“The Immigrant” is deeply moving, at times almost unbearably sad.

Well, it’s sad, but at the same time there is a light inside each of the characters, even the darkest character has a light inside of him. If Bruno doesn’t see the light inside of himself, Ewa has the ability to see the good inside of people. And so I didn’t see it as a sad movie. It’s an intense story, and what Ewa goes through is sometimes sad but also very powerful. And I love the fact that her sister’s life is more important than anything, and it gives her the energy and the strength to do what she does.

Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner seem like two very different types of actor. Was it a challenge to work with them?

We had two weeks of rehearsal, which was amazing to get to know Joaquin, first of all, and enter this very special relationship he has with James. I was very welcome in this old couple system. And that was very interesting, working with Joaquin and James. And Jeremy arrived when we had already started shooting, and he really arrived in the process of the movie as his character arrives in the story. It kind of made sense, and the different energy of him as an actor arriving in the project as Orlando arrives in the story was kind of inspired.

Ever since the film first premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, people have tried to connect “The Immigrant” somehow to the contemporary debates over immigration policy, which is a big issue both in America and in France. Do you see some connection?

Now it’s really different, and it’s really hard to compare, even if it’s the same process of people trying to escape their situation to have a better life for them and their families. But you know, America was the land of hope, and I think it still is.

Working on bigger commercial films and also smaller productions, do you see yourself as having a career in France and a separate international career, or is it all one thing?

To me it’s one thing. And I feel really lucky to live my dream. My dream when I was a kid who wanted to be an actress was to explore, jump from one world to another and be totally different each time. I was a big fan of Peter Sellers and Sir Laurence Olivier and to me that was acting, being different in each movie, and sometimes people wouldn’t even recognize you.

You’re going to be returning to Cannes this year in “Two Days, One Night,” directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who have won many prizes there.

That was one of my best experiences. They offered me everything I had always wanted in a relationship between an actress and a director — well, two directors in that case. They work a lot, and I love to work a lot. Their level of demand is the highest I’ve ever encountered in my career, and that’s what I’m looking for. They pushed me as far as I could go and maybe beyond. I would have done anything they asked me.

And then, of course, there was your cameo role in “Anchorman 2.” You’re a very serious actress; how did that happen?

I’m a big fan of America comedies, especially Will Ferrell and all his team. And they have known that I was a fan, so they asked me if I would be a part of it, and of course I said yes right away. But I never question how people could see me. And I don’t see myself as a very serious person. In terms of my work, I love to work hard, but I’m not an intellectual person. I can be, but I’m not only that.

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