When Marion Cotillard first heard about the movie Rust and Bone — a romance between a street fighter named Ali and a woman named Stéphanie, who trains whales at a marine park and loses her legs in a tragic orca accident — she thought it was role she would never take on.
It was months before director Jacques Audiard (A Prophet) asked to meet with her, and she didn’t think she was even in line for the film. But an agent was telling her about it, and Cotillard says, “My first reaction was ‘Oh my God, I love this director and I really want to work with him one day if I can, but as much as I love him I could never ever do such a character, because of the marine land.’”
It’s a subject that’s close to her heart. The 38-year-old Oscar winner (for La Vie En Rose) is a prominent environmentalist and has been a spokeswoman for Greenpeace. The idea of a movie where whales are kept captive in tanks for the amusement of the public was against everything she stood for.
Cotillard says she forgot all about the conversation until she was cast in Rust and Bone — a job she accepted because of Audiard, and because Stéphanie was an intriguing mystery — and she had a scene with the orcas kept at Marineland Antibes, in the south of France. Then it came back to her.
“It’s me now in this sea land that I hate so much,” she recalls. “But then I met the trainers and I met the animals and I finally considered them as animals and not as freaks, I mean as poor animals turned into freaks by human beings. So, yeah, I had to do the job, but I will never go back to a marine land. I respect the trainers, but I don’t understand how you put such an animal in a swimming pool. It’s beyond understanding.”
Yet it’s a beautiful scene: Cotillard’s character stands in front of a glass tank as a whale swims up to her and moves from side to side at her direction. There’s no big secret to it — “you give them fish and they do anything you want them to do” — but Cotillard says it was an amazing encounter nonetheless. She felt she had a special relationship with the orca during rehearsal, although that changed when the scene was actually filmed.
“There were so many people behind me that the orca got scared and suddenly she screamed at me and she opened her mouth and even with the security glass I was totally shocked. And I cried that day.”
It was an emotional reaction from an actor who is known for throwing herself wholeheartedly into roles. “She brings a level of emotion that’s very high,” says Audiard. “It’s like a hand grenade.”
Stéphanie spends much of the film in a wheelchair or crawling on the floor or, memorably, having sex with Ali — played by rising Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts — with her half-limbs thrust into the air. Cotillard says it wasn’t a difficult effect to manage.
“It came very quickly,” she says. “We were doing the fittings and I had those pants and I just sat on a chair with my pants hanging. And suddenly we had the image … and this image never left my mind.
“I didn’t have to try to feel that I had no legs. I had seen it.”
The film, which is based on a book of short stories by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, goes beyond romance and becomes an examination of the collapsing economy as well. Audiard says he was inspired by 1930s Hollywood movies and directors like Tod Browning (Freaks) who cast their dramas against the unspoken background of the Depression. Cotillard said they never talked about it, but Browning is one of her favourite directors. “I saw Freaks I don’t know how many times.”
And then there was the attraction of the mysterious Stéphanie. Cotillard says she’s always looking for things that she hasn’t done before.
“I kind of like that she stayed mysterious to me in a way. I’m not sure exactly what she’s looking for, but I believe that you attract what you need in life if you want to listen,” she says. “If you want to see. If you want to watch. If you really want to be here and now, you can be here and now. And even though she was totally lost, her failure is so deep she’s empty. She doesn’t know who she is.”
She adds, “It must be the first time that a character is so mysterious to me. It was really exciting because usually I get who the person is. There’s always a way, a road to take to the character, but this one was a really long road. I couldn’t see her on the road when I started walking on this road.”
It’s a departure in other ways as well. Cotillard’s other 2012 film was the Batman movie The Dark Knight Rises, directed by Christopher Nolan. However, the two movies are not as different as they appear. “Yes Batman is like a huge blockbuster, but it’s also directed by someone whose totally involved in the whole process,” she says. “It’s kind of rare when a director in America writes his own scripts, so Chris Nolan is very, very special. It’s a big movie but almost like directed by a guy who has the spirit of an auteur.”
Rust and Bone is a much smaller project, but her performance was nominated for a Golden Globe Award, and it is also generating Oscar talk. Cotillard doesn’t want to talk about it, beyond saying, “You know, I’m very happy that people like the movie.
“I just want to do my best. I just want to find the authenticity of each character. That’s what matters to me. It would be horrible to have an audience saying, ‘Oh it’s her.’ It would be horrible. I want to experience something new each time.”