When I enter Marion Cotillard’s suite at New York’s Trump SoHo hotel, she’s gazing out a window, across the Hudson toward New Jersey. “What’s that?” she asks, gesturing to a small building that’s just offshore and part of an inlet, of sorts. Unfortunately, I can’t help Cotillard with an answer, but I also can’t help but notice that she’s perfectly set the scene for an interview pegged around The Immigrant, director James Gray’s latest—and greatest—drama, in which Cotillard stars as a Polish woman, Ewa, whose arrival at Ellis Island in 1921 is followed by a turbulent succession of hardships and glints of hope. If the American dream is more than a myth, a notion that Gray’s film actively explores with an air of bittersweet mystery, then Cotillard has most certainly achieved it, following her budding career in France with an Oscar for La Vie en Rose and a virtually ceaseless output of prestige projects. As Cotillard recalls her early goals and ambitions, her memories mirror the themes of The Immigrant itself, with talk of being aware of possibility and opportunity, but never quite thinking it was actually in the cards. It’s a humble reflection from a bona fide superstar, who, even now, has vivid thoughts of what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land.
It seems that so many people identify you as having broken through with La Vie en Rose, but you’d already had nearly 15 years of work behind you before the film was released. What was the biggest moment of your career prior to playing Edith Piaf?
Well, there were different steps. I did three French blockbusters, which allowed me to connect with the audience, but not the industry. For the industry, those movies were not considered very serious movies, and I wasn’t considered a very serious actress. But then I did A Very Long Engagement, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s movie, and that changed a lot of things for me in the industry, in France. And I became a serious actress! [Laughs] Someone who could do something else besides just comedies. But even in France, where I had been around before, the big breakthrough was La Vie en Rose. It was a big thing for me.
So you did a lot of comedies?
I did three comedies.
I’d like to see you in some more comedies. Can we make that happen?
[Laughs] I don’t know. I must have been very bad. I will never watch those movies again. And I think I would have much more work doing a comedy than a drama. All actors know that it’s very hard, when you’re not Will Ferrell or Tina Fey, to be good in a comedy. It’s really, really hard.
It’s very unpredictable what will become of an actor’s career once they win an Oscar. For some, they get this one big role that’s rewarded, but then things don’t necessarily work out as they might have hoped. You’ve had anything but that experience, and it seems to partly stem from the directors and projects you’ve chosen. Are you chasing down the directors you work with or do they typically come calling?
I suppose it’s a mix of both. The only director I chased [laughs] was a Danish director, Thomas Vinterberg, and I never worked with him. This was a long time ago, when I was…nothing. I really wanted to work with him, and I started to learn Danish to work with him, but it didn’t work out. And then years later, when I was promoting La Vie en Rose around the world, I went to Denmark, and as a surprise, the distributors arranged a meeting for me and Thomas. And I was so shy. It was kind of crazy.
Because Festen was a shock. And I loved their process—the Dogme process. And I thought what they could do with this, this Dogme, was so cinematographic, and so amazing, that I really wanted to work with him. I loved [Festen]—the way it’s shot, how he is with the characters, his camera, the story. For me, everything was perfect. But I wanted to work with him in a Danish movie, not an English one. Back then, all my friends said, “You’re so stupid. You should be improving your English because he’s going to go to Hollywood, and he’s going to make American movies.” But for me, it was like…I just wanted to do a Danish movie with him.
Well you’ve certainly proven that you can tackle a lot of different languages for different roles. Is that something you were always doing when you were aspiring to be an actor—practicing different languages and dialects?
No. No, I’m actually not very good at it.
Well, you’re convincing, for sure. You’ve convinced me many times.
It’s a lot of work. Like, if you asked me to do a Canadian accent, I won’t be able to do it. I will have to work a lot. Some of my friends—not even actors—are able to nail a Canadian, or African, or Swiss, or even American accent. But I’m not very good at that. Well, it’s not that I’m not very good at it, it’s just not natural. I can’t just pick something up and nail it. I really need to work. But it wasn’t something that I practiced in my past. And, first of all, I never thought I’d do American movies. I never thought I would have the amazing experience of exploring different worlds and cultures.
The thing is, I didn’t think that I would do that, but I didn’t think that I wouldn’t do it. You know what I mean? I had no boundaries. I didn’t think that I would do movies in America, but I didn’t think it was not possible. I just didn’t think about it. Maybe, if I had put up boundaries like that, it would not have happened. By not putting up boundaries like that, you don’t have to cross them because they’re not there. I didn’t really imagine anything. I just knew I wanted amazing journeys. And my dream, which came true, was that from one movie to another, I’d have the opportunity to be a totally different person. The people I admired the most when I was a kid, and wanted to be an actress, were Sir Laurence Olivier and Peter Sellers. From a movie to another, you cannot recognize them. That was a total fantasy, and today, I can go from playing Edith Piaf at the end of her life to doing the Dardenne brothers movie I just did [Two Days, One Night]. It’s a big jump, and that’s what I’ve always wanted to do.
So how did learning to speak Polish for The Immigrant compare to, say, learning to speak Italian for Nine, or even learning to speak English, for that matter?
Well, learning English was different because I really wanted to speak English. So I worked to learn English. Learning Polish wasn’t really learning Polish; it was learning the 20 pages of Polish that I had in the movie. I don’t know how to speak Polish today. I don’t even remember my lines. That’s another thing: I erase all the information, which is kind of a shame. Almost everything goes away as soon as I’m finished with a movie. As for Italian, it was the same thing. When I choose to do a movie, I don’t think what I will have to work on. I read the movie, it gets into my blood, or not. But when it gets into my blood, I don’t think about what will be required. And when I said “yes” to James Gray, I didn’t realize how Polish was in the movie, first of all because all of the Polish dialogue was written in English in the original script. It was only mentioned that there would be Polish. It was only when I started to realize that it was massive, and that I only had two months to prepare—which isn’t much, especially because Polish sounds nothing like English or French—that I started to think, “My god, you’re crazy.” But then, after that, I have no choice, because I’m working, working. And again, I don’t think anymore. I just do. So I can be free, and learn, and go as far as I can. I just try not to suck. Because being Polish with a French accent sucks. And being Italian with a French accent sucks.
My ears pricked up when you said the word “blood” because my next question involves blood. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when Ewa, while imprisoned at Ellis Island, pricks her finger and uses the blood as lipstick, after she’s told that she should make herself look healthy and attractive. There’s something very powerful in the notion that she has to literally use her own blood to make herself appealing in this new place. I’d love to hear anything you’d like to share about doing that scene.
All those people who came to Ellis Island—and their pictures are all documented—tried to look their best. They needed to look their best so they could enter this country. Doing that scene, I remembered that when I was a kid, and we didn’t have any makeup, we would bite our lips as hard as we could, to have the blood come into the lips and make them redder. I thought that might have been something that Ewa did with her sister back at home—when she wanted to have red lipstick on, but didn’t have any, she would use blood.
So that was your idea?
No, no—that was James’s idea, but the thought that she’d done this before, and that she did it in her childhood, was something that I liked. I imagined that she’d done this before with her sister—trying to look good.
Since you’re someone who isn’t originally from this country, to what degree did that relation help you to connect to this character, or perhaps influence your decision to take part in the project?
When you’re in another country, with another culture, with a language that you don’t speak that well, part of your personality changes, in a way. It’s like you go back to kind of a childhood state. You don’t feel as strong as you could feel in your own language, in the way you express yourself, because you don’t know all the words. I remember when I did my first movie in America—it was Big Fish. I think I was 22 or 23, but I felt like a teenager, because sometimes I didn’t understand what people were saying. And I really felt like I could express myself on a subject in French, and I could be super comfortable talking about serious things, whatever. But there I was lost. I couldn’t express myself as a grown-up. I was like a child. And it’s a weird feeling because you can see that the way people see you is not exactly the way you are. If they would have had the ability to understand French suddenly, and see me in a French context, they’d have had a totally different image, or perception, of who I am.