Even after becoming the most popular French actress in Hollywood, after an Academy Award (La vie en rose, 2008) and several international successes (The Dark Knight Rises, Midnight in Paris, Contagion, Inception, Nine), Marion Cotillard appears surprisingly shy and low profile. She is most discreet, not to say dumb, about her life with Guillaume Canet, actor-director who has been her partner for seven years and is the father of her son Marcel (2 years and a half).
She is the image of Lady Dior campaign, too, but she says: “I have never seen myself as a beauty. And I feel always a bit embarrassed when someone says so: I admire Monica Bellucci, she is really so beautiful and really so witty and smart in talking about that”. Marion speaks with a gentle, soft voice, so far from the high notes she reached singing in the Oscar-winning role of Edith Piaf. She hides her beautiful eyes behind sunglasses: she never took them off during this interview.
In films, everything changes. Strangely, her two new roles have something in common: in Blood Ties, where she is directed by her partner, she plays Monica, a hooker with Italian origins and accent, while in The Immigrant by James Gray (who also wrote the screenplay of Blood Ties) she is Ewa, a Polish girl who goes searching for a better life in America, in 1921, but is exploited as a prostitute and accepts anything to pay for the medicines her sister needs to stay alive.
James Gray wrote the film and the role for you. Do you feel a responsibility about that?
Yes, but I try not to think about it. I felt a lot of pressure when I was about to read the script, because I knew that he had me in mind, when he was writing it, and I thought: “Oh my God, what if I don’t like it? It would have been very painful to turn it down. As if the world was upside down: I should be the one to beg to work with him. But fortunately I liked the story.
How is to be directed by your partner, Guillaume Canet, for the second time after Little White Lies?
I was happy to get this opportunity and I guess he didn’t treat me differently from the rest of the cast…
In Blood Ties you play in English with an Italian accent, in The Immigrant a Polish one. Does your musical talent help you learning languages?
I help myself trying to know more about the culture that any language comes out of. I don’t repeat words by heart. I want to know the meaning. I try to learn as much as I can. The technique is very important but I realized that the more you know about the people, the better and faster you learn to speak their language. In any case, the most difficult thing for me was to speak Polish without any accent at all: I wanted to be perfect, but it’s a mission impossible, I guess.
The Immigrant is about the American dream: did it mean something special for yourself too?
The American cinema is part of my culture: as an actress I always wanted to do movies but I never dreamt about working in Hollywood, I never thought it might be possible. My dream was pretty simple, I just wanted to tell stories. This film is about miserable people’s American dream, people who want to escape their countries to have a better life. Very different from my own story and dreams…
How do you feel about immigrants?
What moves me is the way people put themselves in danger to seek for a better life. There is a mix of strength, courage, hope, unconsciousness in all of them, because they have no other choice. Hope drives them to dive in the unknown …
Sometimes they find hope in religion. Are you a believer?
I was not raised as a Catholic and I don’t have a good relationship with religion: there have been so many wars in the name of different gods! I don’t understand how you can kill someone just because he does not have the same belief as you.
How was shooting in Ellis Island?
It was an amazing experience. Most of the troupe and the extras had someone in their families who had gone through Ellis Island in the past. Therefore they talked and shared their stories. What I like most about Americans is that you can feel the solidarity and empathy when they talk about their lives. I heard lots of them. Included James Gray’s one: The Immigrant is a very personal film for him. At first, he didn’t get the permit to shoot at Ellis Island, but he fought to obtain it: without that, he didn’t want to start shooting it at all.
What was your own first step in the United States?
I was escaping a relationship that went bad. I was 20 and I went to New York with my best friend. It was kind of crazy: we landed and we went straight to the Empire State Building. We wandered around without knowing where to sleep. We ended up in a hostel. We walked and we were so excited… but after three days, I received a call from France and I had to go back immediately, to play in a film I wasn’t expecting to be chosen for. It was my first experience “in and out” the country.
You started working there 10 years ago with Tim Burton (Big Fish) and, after the Oscar for La vie en rose. Is Hollywood the greatest achievement for an actor?
It’s very personal. I remember being in Cannes with Melanie Thierry, one of the best French actresses. My American agent asked me to be introduced to her and Melanie didn’t want to: I was so surprised, I begged her, but she refused and I couldn’t believe it (editor’s note: later she has been directed by Terry Gilliam in The Zero Theorem). For me it’s different. Hollywood wasn’t my goal, it arrived unexpectedly when I just considered myself so lucky to do what I always desired to do.
Do you feel like an “immigrant” too, now that you live for long periods in Los Angeles?
No, I could totally live there. I have been spending years over there. I love Los Angeles, but I need my country too because I am deeply French.
You miss France, then.
No, it’s funny though: I never miss France when I am having interesting things to do somewhere else. From 2008 I spent almost four years in the US without problems. But strangely, when I came back to France I missed Los Feliz, the area where I live, and the life I created there in Los Angeles. It’s not for professional reasons, but for lifestyle: it’s a city in the middle of wildness, in front of the ocean. And now I miss my son whenever and wherever I go without him.
Do you regret a more discreet life you had in France?
Not anymore. Even home, I can’t go out jogging without seeing someone taking some picture as soon as he recognizes me.
You come from a creative family, your parents are actors. Is this the reason why you wished to act?
Yes, I think so. I grew up surrounded by storytellers and an atmosphere of great energy. That was fascinating. When I was a kid, I saw plays that were not for kids at all, but I have very vivid memories of those moments. It usually happened when the nanny was not available and my mother had to take us all, me and my twin brothers, to the theatre even when there was some ancient Greek tragedy on stage. Sometimes we would go crazy, and she would go crazy too… but it was awesome to watch actors I knew as my parents’ friends, who transformed themselves completely on the stage, sometimes they even became cats or dogs. That’s why I always wanted to be an actress.
Do you remember your first time on stage?
I was 4 or 5. My mother laid on the floor beside a big piano and the director asked me to do something I can’t remember well now. I was confused. I didn’t understand why they were saying crazy things to pretend that my mother was dead, while she was not dead at all!