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“It’s always weird to look at yourself on the screen.The last time I did, I almost had a breakdown. I was thinking, ‘What are you doing here? You are such a bad actress, a fraud!’”
Marion Cotillard is balancing two successful careers, one in her native France and the other one in Hollywood. This past summer, she appeared in Christopher Nolan’s latest Batman film “The Dark Knight Rises,” a world-wide hit that has grossed $1 billion at the box-office. Recently the 37-year-old beauty also starred in Steven Soderbergh’s “Contagion” and will next year be seen opposite Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner in James Gray’s untitled romance.
But Marion has not turned her back on France. In 2010, she starred in “Little White Lies,” written and directed by Guillaume Canet, her real-life partner and the father of her son, Marcel. She also shot Woody Allen’s 2011 hit comedy, “Midnight in Paris” in her hometown, and now headlines Jacques Audiard’s passionate melodrama “Rust & Bone,” in which she plays an orca whale trainer who, after losing her legs in an accident, begins an unlikely relationship with an unemployed fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts).
The actress began working at the tender age of five (her parents, both actors, introduced her to the profession) and as a teenager, her charm and looks made her a star in France. After appearing in more than forty films there, including Luc Besson’s “Taxi” and Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s “A Very Long Engagement,” she won the 2008 Best Actress Oscar and international fame as iconic singer Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.” Since then, Cotillard has worked with Johnny Depp on Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies,” was the best thing in Rob Marshall’s musical “Nine,” and played Leonardo DiCaprio’s wife in Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.” As the face of Dior, the actress ranks alongside Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve as the most widely recognised French women in the world.
Lovely, elegant and low-key, Cotillard was interviewed at the Toronton Film Festival about her hectic career, “gypsy” lifestyle and the problems of juggling motherhood with an international career.
Q: You have managed to create an impressive Hollywood career while continuing your successful French film career. What’s your secret?
I’ve been very careful about selecting who I work for. I’ve been offered roles in films that were studio pictures and not director films, and I could never do one of those. I need to work with directors who are interested in their actors.
Q: But isn’t it tempting to accept big Hollywood films even though they might not be great?
No, selling out would mean that I would soil my dreams.
Q: What is the biggest Hollywood offer you turned down?
I was offered a dream role in a huge, big American movie, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, it’s going to be a lot of fun.’And then I met the director, and I thought, ‘I have nothing to do here. He knows nothing about actors. He is just there to direct – I don’t know what, but not me.’ So I turned down the role and my friends told me I was crazy. But when it came out, I saw it and realized that I had not missed out on anything. The film was so bad. It was a huge success but had no director for the actors.
Q: Foreign actresses, with the exception of Sophia Loren and Penelope Cruz, have had limited Hollywood careers due to language problems. How have you managed to learn English so well?
I went to New York nine years ago to study English, right after I did “Big Fish” with Tim Burton, where I had a hard time understanding people. I took a Berlitz course for a few weeks and I’ve been practicing ever since. I’ve worked a lot on my pronunciation, working on my tongue and jaws. Because you don’t use the same muscles when you speak American as you do in French, so you it’s not like you have to learn an accent but more like learning how to speak in the first place. It’s really been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I still have problems with A’s and L’s, especially at the end of a word.
Q: You live in France but have spent the past six months in New York. Is that hard?
I’m a gypsy and I made two films in New York. My life is in constant movement, and I love it, but sometimes you just need to relax and not work too much.
Q: You are the mother of an 18-month old boy. How are you juggling location work with motherhood?
I do manage to take some time off. I want to see my son every day and do nothing but stare at him.
Q: You are known for not talking much about your private life. You never say much about your relationship with Guillaume Canet (the ex-husband of Diane Kruger who is one of France’s top actor-directors).
I’m discreet and it is possible to keep your private life private, if you are careful.
Q: You obviously know the in-and-out of show business, having been raised by two actors (Niseema Theillaud and Jean-Claude Cotillard). You started working very young.
I worked when I was five because one of my parents’ friends was directing a TV movie and asked me to be a part of it. But after that I had a normal childhood. When I was 18, I started to work again.
Q: You became a star in France with the “Taxi” films (she appeared in the first three of the four films).
They were huge and even though “Pretty Things” (2001, for which she was nominated for a César, the French Oscar) was a success, I felt unappreciated. “A Very Long Engagement” (her eight minute performance won her a César) changed the vision that the producers had of me. They started to think, ‘Oh, maybe she’s more than a commercial actress.’ And I got “La Vie en Rose.”
Q: It must have been petrifying to take on the role of the legendary Edith Piaf?
It was scary to play a woman from age 19 to 47, at one point 47 and looking 80. It was difficult to find the right balance of makeup and light, and to make a 30-year-old look that old. For me, after the technical problems were resolved, it was great fun to play her.
Q: Did Piaf stay with you after you finished filming?
Yes. She was extreme, with a very strong character, and it took me a while to let her go. I had lived for more than seven months - four and a half months of shooting and three months of preparation - with the character, so it was like mourning the end of her. I used to slip into Piaf’s husky voice all the time. It was annoying.
Q: The film’s international success must have come as a surprise?
It was something very, very special. I had been in more than forty films, but it suddenly seemed that this was the only film that I had done.
Q: How did it feel winning the Oscar?
I was totally overwhelmed. It was surreal, but I loved it. I celebrated the win by drinking Edith Piaf’s favorite champagne, Bollinger.
Q: How did the win affect your career?
Without the Oscar, I wouldn’t be working in America.
Q: Have you met any Hollywood stars that left you tongue-tied?
I was overwhelmed when I first met Daniel Day-Lewis. I think he’s one of the greatest actors ever.
Q: Who else do you think are great?
Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, Toni Collette also inspire me. And Peter Sellers, whom I wanted to marry him when I was a child.
Q: In “Rust & Bone” you play a woman who loses her legs. What was it like seeing yourself without legs?
It’s always weird to look at yourself on the screen, so I never do that while we are shooting a film. The last time I did, I almost had a breakdown. It took me ten days to arrive back on set, and all the while I was thinking, ‘What are you doing here? You are such a bad actress, a fraud!’ With “Rust & Bone” it was like it wasn’t me up on the screen; it was someone else. It felt strange, very strange, and it moved me.
Q: You have great chemistry with Matthias Schoenaerts, with whom you also work on the upcoming “Blood Ties.”
Finally, cinema has found him! Working with him is amazing. Sometimes you meet someone and there’s this feeling you’ve known them forever, like a brother.
Q: You met your partner, Guillaume Canet, in 2003, on the set of “Love Me If You Dare.” Then he directed and co-starred with you in “Little White Lies” (2010) and now he has directed you in “Blood Ties,” a film you made in New York with Clive Owen, Mila Kunis and Matthias Schoenaerts. What is he like as a director?
Guillaume knows exactly what is of importance for an actor on the set. He creates an atmosphere that makes you feel confident, free and secure.
Q: Many actors are nervous before they start a new project. Are you?
I’m never confident when I start a project. But I love to work and I know that with work you can achieve a lot of things. You can manage to be someone who’s totally different from you. I know that if I have enough time and if I have the good people to work with, I can actually do something.
Q: Are you bothered by the paparazzi?
Yes, but I won’t complain about it. It is not so bad compared to other people’s problems. Difficult is to have no money to feed your kids. Sometimes it is annoying, like when you want to have time for yourself and your family. But my life is so amazing that I can’t complain about anything.
Q: Do you worry that fame might lead you to become as demanding a star as Edith Piaf used to be?
No. (laughs) She was tyrannical. You have to understand why someone can be mean. She was abandoned as a child. Her biggest fear was to be alone. My childhood wasn’t like that. I don’t have that fear of being alone. Sometimes I need to be alone.
Q: Finally, are you a goal-orientated person?
I don’t have any goals. I just want to live the life I’m living right now. As an actress I just want to tell beautiful stories.
© IFA-Amsterdam 2014.
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