Tag: La Môme
When Marion Cotillard took on Edith Piaf she lived the part, willing herself into the role of a tortured genius. Such commitment is harder now that she has a toddler. But, as Stephanie Rafanelli discovers, that doesn’t stop her trying
In a hotel suite in Paris, Marion Cotillard is behaving like a monster. We are about to start our interview when her three-year-old sprints in with his nanny, and before I have a chance to ask my first question, Cotillard has leapt on all fours and is skidding across the carpet letting out strangled roars. There’s a chase in which she plays Godzilla (upright, with claws), and Marcel, her son with French actor and director Guillaume Canet, squeals with delight. Finally she resumes her position on the sofa with Marcel still chuckling impishly under one arm. “He’ll get bored soon,” she reassures me.
Cross-legged and clad in tweed hot pants, she looks like a particularly soignée teenaged mother: her face has never lost its adolescent curves and her body barely looks 20 years old (she’s in fact 38). When Cotillard bent herself into the prematurely aged Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, a morphine-addicted, cancer-ridden husk of a woman, Trevor Nunn called it “one of the greatest performances on film ever”. Meeting her, you appreciate why.
In the seven years since winning the Best Actress Oscar for her role, Cotillard has shown herself to be consistently drawn to complex, tortured women. Her recent work, if less transformative, has been just as unflinching: a double-leg amputee in visceral love story Rust and Bone; a young Polish refugee in New York manipulated into prostitution in The Immigrant. In her latest film Two Days, One Night by Belgian auteurs the Dardenne brothers, she plays Sandra, a factory worker who, after a period of sick leave due to depression, is forced to petition her colleagues to vote for her in a work ballot. They’re faced with a cruel moral dilemma: her job or their annual bonus. It’s a raw, empathic portrait of mental illness.
She seems to relate to outsiders, I say. “I’ve always felt an outcast,” Cotillard replies. “There is something strange about me. I don’t ever feel at ease in a group of people. I have to fight hard to overcome my fears.” What are these fears? She smiles. Her eyes are alert, glassy, and look as if they could brim with tears at any moment. I’m left to find meaning in her gaze. It’s all very Mona Lisa.
It is this mysterious quality that seems to appeal to directors, from La Vie En Rose’s Olivier Dahan (who wrote the screenplay with Cotillard in mind because he saw something tragic in her eyes) to an imposing list of American filmmakers: Christopher Nolan (Inception and The Dark Knight Rises), Michael Mann (Public Enemies) and Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris). Today she is one of the highest paid non-American actresses in Hollywood, although she has never turned her back on low-budget French-language film. For the Dardenne brothers, who have only worked with unknown actors throughout their 40-year-long career, casting Cotillard in Two Days, One Night was a risky move, not just because of the Hollywood baggage but because of her fashion status as one of the faces of Christian Dior. The underdog-loving jury at the Cannes Film Festival has already overlooked Cotillard for the Best Actress prize three years in a row. But this year the Dardennes – three-time Palme d’Or winners – also walked away empty-handed. “For me? I really don’t care,” she says, waving a hand in the air. “But the film? Yes. The Dardennes get an award every time they go to Cannes, so I got a little paranoid and thought: ‘Oh my God, maybe it’s my fault.’”
Cotillard is a fanatical researcher, so when I ask how she constructed her performance I’m expecting a tale about observing patients in Belgian institutions. “The preparation was very light this time,” she says, shifting into a half-lotus position. “Medical information on panic attacks and the side-effects of Xanax. I understand depression. I was never super-depressed, but at one point I thought it was coming.” At this point she dispatches Marcel, fidgety and bored, to his nanny. “I’ve had many turning points in my life like that. I’m able to tell when I’m in a bad place or super-sad and move on. When you’re stuck somewhere you need to change something, to shift the energy.”
One such time came after filming La Vie En Rose, when Cotillard had let herself be swallowed up by Piaf, shaving her eyebrows and hairline, willing her body to shrink nine inches (Piaf was 4ft 11in) and sitting for five hours a day in make-up. It was less of a performance, more a demonic possession. After the shoot wrapped, Cotillard says she continued to be haunted by Piaf, sometimes speaking in her gravelly voice. Piaf stayed with her for a total of eight months. “I tried everything,” Cotillard tells me. “I did exorcisms with salt and fire. I travelled to Bora Bora to escape her. I went to Peru to Machu Picchu and did ancient shamanic ceremonies to cleanse myself after I eventually realised why I couldn’t let her go. She had been abandoned as a child. Her greatest fear was to be alone.”
Now that she has Marcel, she says she is unwilling to plunge so deeply into a role, to lose herself in what she calls the “total darkness”. She recently filmed Justin Kurzel’s new adaptation of Macbeth, playing Lady Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender. “Before my family, everything in my life was dedicated to the character. The more deeply affected I was by her, the closer I felt to her. But I cannot lock myself away in another world any more. I don’t want it to affect my son when I’m in a weird state because I’m ‘depressed’ or ‘killing a king’.”
Cotillard says she’s always been “sensitive”. As a child she was a shy, melancholic loner riddled with very early-onset teenage angst. “I had existential dilemmas as young as seven, obsessive questions about my place in the world. Where did we come from? Why am I here?” She grew up in Alfortville, a suburb of Paris to French “bobo” parents – bourgeois bohemians. Her mother Monique Theillaud was a mid-level theatre actress, her father Jean-Claude Cotillard a Breton mime artist and theatre director. Together with Cotillard’s younger identical twin brothers, Guillaume and Quentin (a writer and a sculptor), they lived in a flat on the 18th floor of a tower block where they were allowed to draw freely on the walls. But excluded by her brothers’ symbiotic relationship, Cotillard didn’t talk much: “I couldn’t identify with anyone. At school I was considered very strange. I didn’t understand the relationships between people.”
From an early age she was drawn to imaginary stories. When she saw ET, aged seven, she was so distraught she had to be removed from the cinema. Her father also introduced her to silent films. “I used to pretend I was Louise Brooks or Greta Garbo in my bedroom,” she says mimicking her younger self. “I absorbed a lot from my father. He taught us how to mime at home with games.” When he set up his own theatre company, the family moved to La Beauce, near Orléans. Theillaud began teaching at the Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique d’Orléans, where the teenage Cotillard enrolled to study acting. “I saw it as a way to escape myself,” she tells me. “But it was through acting that I met myself.” On graduation she moved to a rundown flat near Gare du Nord station and appeared in the TV series of Highlander at 18, after which she was never unemployed.
In 1998 Cotillard got her first big film break in Luc Besson’s Taxi. She met Canet, then married to Diane Kruger, on the set of Love Me If You Dare six years later, and the friends reconnected after Canet’s divorce from Kruger in 2006. In France the couple are equivalent to Brangelina, but photographs of Cotillard with Canet in public together are rare. Little is known about their life together, although they both separately admit to being guitar geeks (their flat in the Marais is crammed with various models, and until recently Cotillard played bass for Parisian singer Yodelice as her butch alter-ego Simone). Cotillard agrees that the country’s strict privacy laws allow them breathing space. “Having your picture taken in the street and put in a magazine won’t change your life. But what happened to people in England, hacking phones. It’s vomit. It’s sick. This fucking changes your life.” She almost retches with disgust. “If someone is cheating on their wife in the street and pictures are taken, fine, that’s their risk. I’m not talking about some people… who currently run this country.”
This, you presume, is a reference to François Hollande’s extramarital dalliance with actor Julie Gayet. Despite appearing to prefer life on the spiritual plane, she is surprisingly engaged with politics, and when I bring up the Front National’s landslide majority at the European elections, she makes a “Quelle horreur!” expression: “French politics is a circus. The French people like to shake things up a bit, but Marine Le Pen getting into government? This will never happen. Never.”
Her real passion, however, is the environment. She’s a locavore (where possible, she eats locally produced food) and has been recycling since the 80s, a habit learned from her Breton grandmother. She’s also an ambassador for Greenpeace: in 2010 she went to the Congo to make a series of films about the destruction of the rainforests by logging companies. The following year she supported Amazonian Indian Chief Raoni in his fight against the construction of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in Para, Brazil. Then last year she caged herself, literally, with other demonstrators outside Paris’s Palais Royal in protest over the detainment of the Arctic 30 in Russia. Her current cause is the endangered Sumatran tiger.
“I’m a nature lover, but I’m a human being lover, too. Nature will survive us. The thing we’re going to fuck up is us – and animals,” she says. “Destroying what makes us live is sick. More people are waking up but it’s super-slow. Why don’t we listen to the wise men in our world?” She reels off a list: Al Gore, French-Canadian astrophysicist Hubert Reeves and Algerian writer and farmer Pierre Rabhi. She is aware of the paradox of being both an environmentalist and a frequent long-haul-flying actor, plus the muse of Dior, part of the haute-fashion conglomerate LVMH. This is the one chink in the Cotillard matrix. “Campaigning and acting aren’t compatible,” she admits. “That’s why Audrey Hepburn gave up acting. That’s why Angelina Jolie will give up. I’m not ready to stop yet.”
Still, some things are changing. You get the sense that after Lady Macbeth she is growing a little weary of tragic antiheroines. “The dream,” she says, “is to do comedy.” Her first foray in the genre was a cameo in Anchorman 2 last year. “Comedians I know, like Will Ferrell, Jonah Hill, Jean Dujardin, are some of the best human observers. Comedy has deep insights into our human defects that somehow affect the audience more deeply than tragedy.” She pauses while I absorb this, then she shrieks: “Oh! And I’d like to play a man.”
Inevitably my mind leaps to Hamlet – the ultimate tortured soul. “Oui! C’est ça!” she cries, slapping her leg when I suggest it. “But on the stage in London, unannounced. So no one knows it’s me… I could totally disappear.”
Two Days, One Night is released in cinemas nationwide on 22 August
Ça ressemble à quoi, le quotidien d’une superstar frenchy à Hollywood ? A quelques jours de sa montée des marches à Cannes pour Deux jours, une nuit des frères Dardenne, elle se confie comme jamais à “Grazia”.
“Super, enfin de la presse écrite : pas de retouche maquillage ! Ça vous embête si j’enlève mes chaussures ?” Souriante, pétillante et relax en jean T-shirt, Marion Cotillard s’étend sur le canapé du Park Hyatt avant de lâcher, avec un petit sourire complice et taquin : “Ne vous inquiétez pas, je ne sens pas des pieds.” Elle qui a la réputation d’être distante en interview casse les a priori, les codes du glam et les conventions au premier contact. Il faut dire que Marion a tout du caméléon, capable de s’adapter à tous les styles, à la ville comme à l’écran. Pour preuve : Deux jours, une nuit, son prochain long métrage sélectionné en compétition au Festival de Cannes et signé par les frères Dardenne, porte-drapeaux d’un cinéma social vibrant et sans artifices.
100 % naturelle, tout en nuances (accent belge compris), l’actrice incarne Sandra, une épouse et mère de famille dépressive qui se bat pour sauver son emploi. Un rôle puissant et lumineux dont elle n’osait pas rêver. “Les Dardenne, pour moi, c’était inaccessible.” Sur le papier, un monde semblait en effet séparer l’actrice et égérie Dior des auteurs belges, plus accros aux acteurs anonymes qu’aux stars internationales. Mais, une fois de plus, Marion aura su se fondre dans le décor et abolir les frontières. Comédienne universelle, née en France, chérie par les Américains et adoptée par les Belges, elle se prête au petit jeu des différences entre Europe et États-Unis et partage avec les lectrices de Grazia un petit bout de son quotidien outre-Atlantique. Attention au jet lag !
Après Los Angeles, vous voilà à Seraing (Belgique), chez les Dardenne. Le choc culturel a dû être violent ?
Pas tant que ça : il y a des frites au menu dans les deux cas ! (Rires.) Plus sérieusement, quand on parle d’Hollywood, les gens pensent fric et glam. Et quand on évoque les Dardenne, ils pensent cinéma d’auteur gris, fauché et “chiant”. Mais ils ont tort dans les deux cas : les Dardenne, c’est palpitant et bourré de suspense. Et comme ils ne réalisent qu’un film tous les trois ans, ils se donnent les moyens humains et économiques de le faire bien ! A contrario, j’ai fait des films fauchés à Hollywood : The Immigrant, de James Gray, par exemple qui, contrairement aux apparences, a été tourné avec très peu d’argent.
En revanche, on a la sensation que les Américains vous glamourisent plus que les Européens au cinéma ?
C’est sans doute un amalgame entre l’image sur les tapis rouge ou sur les couvertures de magazine et mon métier d’actrice. Je ne trouve pas que la prostituée de The Immigrant ou la folle d’Inception soient hyper glam par exemple ! Et il faut se méfier des apparences : j’ai passé plus de temps entre les mains du coiffeur sur le tournage des frères Dardenne que sur beaucoup de films américains. Réaliser une queue-de-cheval mal faite mais raccord, tous les jours, c’est du sport.
A Hollywood, votre loge est-elle au moins plus grande qu’en Europe ?
(Rires.) Quand je fais Inception seulement ! J’avais un truc énorme, à échelle américaine, pour moi toute seule, hyper équipé. Mais, ça, c’est l’exception. Et je n’ai pas d’exigences de diva : du moment que je peux m’isoler pour me concentrer, tout me va. Le cagibi comme le semi-remorque !
Et pour la cantine sur les tournages, plutôt Hollywood ou Europe ?
Aucun des deux, si je peux éviter. Je mange bio, raisonné, local : j’aime savoir d’où vient ma nourriture et comment elle a été faite.
Justement, le bio, c’est plus développé aux États-Unis ?
En Californie, les gens ont une grande conscience écologique et luttent comme ils peuvent contre les décisions d’un pays pollueur. Paradoxalement, les magasins bio vendent aussi du non bio. Ce qui n’est pas le cas en France. Un bon point pour nous !
La nourriture française vous manque-t-elle quand vous êtes aux États-Unis ? Le fromage par exemple ?
Pas trop : j’ai mes dealers de fromages à Los Angeles. (Rires.) Je connais assez bien la ville pour savoir que je peux trouver à peu près n’importe quoi n’importe où. Par contre, le restaurant de mon ami Claude Colliot me manque. Une des premières choses que je fais quand je rentre, c’est manger chez lui. C’est mon petit rituel… et peut-être la meilleure façon de faire passer le jet lag.
Vous avez d’autres trucs pour survivre au décalage ?
Des lunettes de soleil pour cacher la misère. (Rires.) Mais il n’y a pas de secret : plus on voyage, plus on est fatigué !
Et que faites-vous en escale ou en salle d’embarquement ?
Je lis des scénarios, j’écoute de la musique, je m’ennuie et je râle quand il y a du retard.
Vous allez souvent aux États-Unis ?
C’est un peu ma deuxième maison !
Sur place, qu’est-ce qui vous manque le plus ?
Rien, si le tournage se passe bien. Et tout dans le cas contraire. (Elle éclate de rire.) Mes proches, mes potes, mon chez-moi, ma boulangerie, mes pantoufles… Dans ces cas-là, c’est le bad trip ! Mais, en général, je vis dans le moment présent et s’il est agréable, je profite.
Et vous regrettez Los Angeles quand vous rentrez ?
Bizarrement, oui, ça arrive. Surtout le côté grande ville dans une nature sauvage. Là-bas, j’aime résider dans une maison et avoir un raton laveur sur ma terrasse. Quoique… Le raton laveur, c’est mignon, mais quand ça saccage vos poubelles, c’est vraiment chiant ! (Rires.) En fait, ce qui me plaît surtout à Los Angeles, c’est la qualité de vie, l’énergie et les souvenirs que j’y ai.
La première fois que j’y suis allée, c’était pour la fin du tournage de La Môme. Ça peut paraître idiot mais j’ai senti que quelque chose m’attendait dans cette ville. Peu de temps après, il s’y est passé des tas de choses qui ont changé ma vie d’actrice, comme le jour où j’ai reçu un oscar. J’ai une attache très particulière à ce pays.
Vous y avez beaucoup d’amis ?
Mon frère vit à San Francisco et l’une de mes meilleures amies à Chicago. Je l’ai rencontrée grâce à Public Enemies. On m’a dit : “Tu vas avoir une assistante”, ce qui ne m’était jamais arrivé. Et j’ai dû faire des entretiens d’embauche : l’horreur ! Mais j’ai eu un énorme coup de cœur pour cette fille qui, depuis, est mon assistante américaine et une des femmes que je préfère au monde.
Vous pourriez vivre aux États-Unis ?
Oui, mais avec mon fils à l’école, ce sera plus difficile.
Mais il existe des écoles françaises…
Oui mais… non. (Rires gênés.) C’est génial pour apprendre la langue mais je voyage déjà tellement que je préfère qu’il ait des repères quand je ne suis pas là. Bref, question suivante ! (Elle pense déjà en avoir trop dit sur sa vie privée.)
En France, il y a le cliché du french lover. Et l’american lover, vous l’avez rencontré ?
Euh… non. (Elle éclate de rire.) Je ne suis pas dans une situation qui me donne envie de le tester. Moi, le lover américain, je ne l’ai croisé qu’au cinéma mais je demanderai à mes copines.
Quelle image les Américains ont-ils de vous : celle de la Française chic et romantique ?
Romantique, je ne sais pas. Exotique sûrement, à cause de l’accent. Et chic, c’est sûr, sans doute grâce à ma collaboration avec Dior. Pourtant, dans la vie, je suis plutôt madame Tout-le-Monde.
Et aux États-Unis, elle s’habille comment madame Tout-le-Monde ?
(Elle cache son visage dans ses mains.) Aïe, aïe, aïe, je n’y connais rien en mode américaine. Next question, please ! (Rires.)
Au quotidien, vous sentez-vous plus libre de vous balader en jogging à l’étranger ?
Euh, je me balade en jogging en France le week-end, le mardi, le jeudi… quand ça me chante en fait. Ça casse un peu le mythe, non ? (Rires.)
Disons que ce n’est pas très fashion police !
Peut-être mais c’est vachement confortable. On n’a pas trouvé mieux avec le pyjama !
Mais les paparazzis doivent moins vous griller là-bas ?
A Paris, je me fonds aussi très facilement dans la masse. C’était peut-être un peu plus simple il y a quelques années mais, dans l’ensemble, j’ai un certain talent pour jouer la femme invisible.
Les gens ne vous reconnaissent pas dans la rue ?
Si, un peu. Au supermarché, certains me dévisagent mais je ne suis pas certaine qu’ils m’identifient vraiment. Pour eux, je ne suis ni Nicole Kidman, ni Angelina Jolie.
Scarlett Johansson a dit des Parisiens qu’ils étaient impolis et grossiers…
Mais elle vit quand même dans la capitale : ça ne doit pas être si insupportable que ça.
Et vous, rien ne vous énerve chez les habitants de Los Angeles ?
Non, mais quelque chose me sidère : c’est la capacité des Américains à travailler tout le temps. Ce sont des machines de guerre. Quand je prononce le mot “vacances” devant mon attaché de presse ou mon agent américain, ils sont sous le choc. J’ai presque l’impression d’avoir dit un gros mot !
Et vous en prenez souvent, des vacances ?
Hélas, non. S’il y a une chose qui m’a contaminée aux États-Unis et dont j’aimerais me débarrasser, c’est ça : je ne sais plus m’arrêter.
Histoire de rendre la pareille à Scarlett, vous ne trouvez donc vraiment rien d’agaçant chez les Américains ?
(Rires.) Si vous insistez… Peut-être leur besoin permanent de compétition et leur peur d’être éjectable. C’est encore plus vrai dans notre business. Agents, publicistes, producteurs, ils flippent tous de perdre leur place. Ça peut générer des comportements hyper limites, du type petits coups bas ou mensonges vraiment pas cool. Ça peut me mettre hors de moi quand je m’en rends compte… Et vous ne me demandez pas ce qui m’énerve chez les Français ?
Si, mais on me fait signe que l’interview est finie.
Question d’équité, je réponds : je trouve que les Français devraient apprendre à se remettre en question. A force de nous reposer sur notre histoire, nos acquis, notre patrimoine, on en devient arrogant.
Et vous, vous vous remettez en question ?
Sans cesse et sur tout. Je ne me laisse jamais vraiment tranquille. Je m’épuise moi-même. (Rires.)
On imagine pourtant que votre entourage passe son temps à vous dire que vous êtes belle et géniale.
(Rires.) Ce n’est pas le genre de la maison ! Je suis entourée de gens qui ne me ménagent pas. Et croyez-le ou non, malgré l’image que peuvent avoir les actrices, ce n’est pas moi qui prends forcément le plus de place dans mon groupe d’amis.
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.”