The French actress on her role choices, learning Polish and love scenes with Johnny Depp.
In “The Immigrant,” a drama set in 1921, French actress Marion Cotillard plays a Polish woman who lands at Ellis Island, then immediately falls into a dangerous limbo of indigence and prostitution.
It’s a characteristically intense role for the 38-year-old actress, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of the gifted but doomed singer Edith Piaf in 2007’s “La Vie en Rose.” That film accelerated a career already humming in France, and the newly minted Hollywood star didn’t retreat from the wounded characters that were her specialty. In the Batman blockbuster “The Dark Knight Rises,” she played a villain hiding in plain sight. In “Rust and Bone,” her character lost her legs to a killer whale she trained. In last year’s “Blood Ties,” directed by her boyfriend, Guillaume Canet, her character sells her body to keep her family afloat. Releases on the way include Australian director Justin Kurzel’s “Macbeth” (as the famously tormented wife of Michael Fassbender’s tragic hero). In the French “Two Days, One Night,” competing at the Cannes Film Festival this month and directed by brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Ms. Cotillard plays a worker who has a weekend to convince colleagues to forego bonuses so she can keep her job.
Set for release May 16, “The Immigrant” was directed and co-written by James Gray, who has worked with Ms. Cotillard’s co-star, Joaquin Phoenix, on several films. Here he plays Bruno, a New Yorker who swoops in on Ms. Cotillard’s Ewa after her sister is quarantined on Ellis Island. Jeremy Renner stars as a magician and potential ally to Ewa. In a recent interview in lower Manhattan, not far from where the period drama is set, Ms. Cotillard sat in a chair with her bare feet tucked under her. The pair of high heels next to her matched her navy blue dress. She discussed heavy characters, learning Polish and love scenes. Edited from an interview:
Even though she’s educated and speaks English, your character, Ewa, is reduced to nothing when she arrives in the U.S.
She didn’t have to use English when she was in Poland in order to survive, as she does in New York. The way you express yourself in a language that is not yours makes you different. That was a thing that I could relate to. When you don’t have the freedom to express yourself with all the words and the subtleties of the language, you don’t feel the same. I remember when I first came [to the U.S.] and I started to work, I felt sometimes like a little girl because I didn’t know to express myself exactly as I wanted to.
You only had about a month to learn your Polish dialogue?
Two months. First of all, I never have enough time when I work on a language or an accent. But when you know you don’t have enough time, you stop thinking. You just work as much as you can, and that is okay when you have to shoot the scene.
After preparing on your own for a role, how do you adjust to another actor, such as Joaquin Phoenix, who has prepared for the same production in his own way?
Even though we didn’t have enough time, because it was a very low budget, we had the chance to rehearse for two weeks. And Joaquin needs to understand everything, deeply, so he needs to talk a lot.
What did you talk about?
They are very complex characters, the three of them, including Jeremy Renner’s character. She has the ability to see good things in each person, even the darkest person, like Bruno. He’s making those women do things that they might not want to do, so he is evil. But at the same time he respects those women in his own way, and he loves them. They need each other more than they think. That’s what we talked about, their relationship. Because they don’t talk that much to each other. They don’t have a big scene where they open their hearts. At a certain point in the movie, it’s almost like an old couple, who have never really spoken and will never really speak. They just need each other, and they start to respect each other.
There’s a deep pain in many of the characters you play. Is that what draws you to those roles?
It’s not a conscious decision, but I have done a lot of painful characters. I love when you can explore the bright and the dark side at the same time. And I think it’s where I can understand the human soul.
Why did you wince when I asked that question?
Lately, all the characters I have lived with were heavy. When I decided to do Lady Macbeth, for example, my boyfriend laughed at me. He was like, “God, how far do you want to go into pain?” I don’t really know. Each role I take, I feel it was meant to be. The Dardenne brothers’ movie made sense, because I’d had a deep questioning about a similar subject: In France, there was a company where people started to kill themselves, and one of them left a letter about feeling useless.
In your last two films you play a prostitute.
It’s about how a woman survives in a tough world when she has to survive for someone else. In “The Immigrant,” her sister is more important than her. In “Blood Ties,” she uses her body to feed her kids. That’s what’s left when there is nothing left.
Did you talk to James Gray about how those scenes would be shot and how far they would go?
That was clear in the script. What she goes through in terms of humiliation, you can see it without seeing flesh. It would have been too much. We have a word for that in French: “miserablisme.” Sometimes you don’t need to push the horror too far to feel it.
Is a disturbing sex scene harder to shoot than a romantic sex scene?
It depends. I was always so reluctant to shoot love scenes. On those days, I’m not very friendly. I want it to be done and then start the movie again. But in “Rust and Bone,” we had very naked love scenes, and it was totally different. I was very happy. Not because [co-star] Matthias Schoenaerts is superhot, absolutely not, because I had experience with Johnny Depp before [in 2009’s “Public Enemies”] and it was also really hard for me. I was just very happy for my character. The whole day I was naked on set and I was totally fine with it.
Does the exploration of the soul sometimes feel at odds being on the cover of magazines that describe you with phrases like “classic Hollywood beauty”?
It’s part of the job and now I find pleasure in doing it. You have to find your comfort zone in a world that is not acting, but is still part of acting.
“The Immigrant” is apparently the first period film to be shot on Ellis Island. Was it your first visit?
Yes. We spent I think three nights there. It was very special because a lot of people in the extras and on the film crew had stories to share about their family members who went through. There are gigantic pictures on the walls of people, immigrants trying to look their best, and with this fear and hope in their eyes. I had family members come here later, but through San Francisco.
You mentioned the movie’s tight budget. Did you ever look around on set and wonder if it would feel real on screen?
No. The question I have in mind is how can we shoot everything in a short amount of time. Which is impossible. We worked crazy hours. I didn’t sleep for two months. One day on set I felt something was wrong with James, and he said, “I won’t be able to make this scene in my mind a reality because I don’t have time to shoot it the right way.” I didn’t like that. On the last movie I did, “Macbeth,” the first question I asked the director was, “How will you shoot a period movie, with battles, in eight weeks?” This is insane. He had to cut scenes out.
Do you feel like you’re maintaining two careers at once, one in France and one in the U.S.?
The question is not about doing movies in two different places, the question is doing movies with different directors. There’s as much difference between the Dardenne brothers and Jacques Audiard as Woody Allen and Michael Mann.