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.