Publication: Los Angeles Times

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.

‘Rust and Bone’s’ Marion Cotillard dives head-first into roles

‘Rust and Bone’s’ Marion Cotillard dives head-first into roles

‘She’s not holding anything back,’ says ‘Rust and Bone’ costar Matthias Schoenaerts of Marion Cotillard, who plays an animal trainer recovering from the loss of her legs.

She’s described by director Jacques Audiard as “a diver,” someone who “throws herself into a role head first.”

So it’s believable that the very first scene Marion Cotillard shot for “Rust and Bone” was the most harrowing one, in which she awakes in a hospital after an accident to discover that both her legs are gone.

Her reaction is partly improvised — she leaps from the bed only to wind up crawling on the floor and sobbing in the arms of a friend who rushes to her aid.

“My feeling was that, in that situation, which is so violent and horrifying, the shock must be so strong that you’re in denial,” says the acclaimed French actress over coffee at the Chateau Marmont. “And you have to know — even if you don’t want to — whether it’s really true, so you would try to walk. And that’s when you find out.”

In person, Cotillard appears delicate and simple, her blue-gray eyes expressive, her remarkable beauty enhanced only by pale lip gloss and a hint of smoky eye shadow. Arriving for an interview, she presents herself straightforwardly, with no need for small talk, like a student sitting for exams. Her English, honed on the sets of recent American blockbusters such as “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises,” is nearly flawless.

But as anyone who saw her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” can attest, Cotillard is an artist of great emotional complexity, capable of transforming herself completely for a role.

Says Matthias Schoenaerts, her costar in “Rust and Bone,” “With Marion, it’s all-in from the first second. She puts herself in a vulnerable state of being. She’s not holding anything back.”

In “Rust and Bone,” Cotillard plays a trainer of orcas who becomes a double amputee after she is crushed by one of the mammals during a Marineland show. Schoenaerts, the hulking Flemish actor who starred in the Oscar-nominated “Bull Head,” plays a nightclub bouncer whose unsentimental response to her plight appeals to her. Struggling to make his own way in a pitiless world, he proves to be the sturdy crutch she needs as she slowly rejoins the world of the living. They become lovers — damaged souls fighting their way back from a shattered remove to a revelatory intimacy.

“‘Rust and Bone’ is the taste of a punch in the face,” says Audiard, explaining the title of the script he co-wrote with Thomas Bidegain. “You find out what people are made of.”

American filmgoers know Audiard best from “A Prophet,” his potent prison movie that became a foreign-language Oscar nominee in 2009. But Cotillard says she has dreamed of working with her countryman since his first movie in 1994, “See How They Fall,” which she saw three times. So she was willing to take on the role despite crushing time pressures — she had to come straight from the set of Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises,” at a time when she was also a new mother to her son Marcel (now 18 months) with her filmmaker-actor husband, Guillaume Canet.

“I was afraid if I said no, I’d never get the chance again,” she says. She even had to forgo the rehearsal period in which she normally places great stock. “But I remembered that when we shot ‘La Vie en Rose,’ on the fourth day I had to do a major scene when Piaf is already at the end of her life, and that [challenge] put me in a very powerful energy, because you have no choice but to jump into the heart of the movie. And now I kind of like working that way.”

The Paris-born performer grew up surrounded by the arts — both her parents are actors and drama teachers, which makes her choice of career seem inevitable. “When I was younger, I considered a lot of things, but I couldn’t choose, so I thought that being an actor would let me have many lives. It was a way to do all the jobs I wanted to do.”

But being a whale trainer wasn’t a jobshe dreamed of. “I cannot understand how we humans can take these magnificent wild beings and put them in a swimming pool to see them jump for our pleasure,” she says. Within minutes of her arrival at Marineland in Antibes, in the South of France, for the first day of rehearsal, she was required to watch the whales perform for a crowd. “I was jet-lagged and sensitive,” she recalls. A female trainer assigned to work with her on her character asked what she thought. “I didn’t want to be disrespectful,” says Cotillard. “But I said, ‘I’m sorry, but I have to be honest — I hate this situation. I hate to see animals doing clown things. I think it’s horrible.’

“It got better,” Cotillard reports. “But I will never go back to a Marineland, ever.”

Her reaction to spending time in Los Angeles has been much more agreeable. “I love the fact that even though it’s a hectic city, it’s surrounded by nature,” she says. “One of the first houses I rented here, I was welcomed by a raccoon. You go to the beach and see dolphins and whales. I didn’t expect that.”

She relates a powerful memory of her first glimpse of the City of Angels. Close to the end of shooting “La Vie en Rose,” she was driven into L.A. from a location in Joshua Tree. “I saw the city ahead of us, and I felt something very, very strong — a sense that something amazing would happen to me there. Then I laughed at myself, because I was like, ‘Oh, my God, you’re such a dork!’ But it happened to be true,” she says, referring to her Oscar win. “I have a special connection to this city, because L.A. has always treated me very well.”