Luckily, Nolan—who already had worked with the star on Inception—was prepared to wait. “‘I’m writing now and nothing is impossible,’” the actress recalls him telling her. “‘We don’t know where we are shooting, and I’ll try to make it work.’”
The fact that one of Hollywood’s top directors was prepared to change his shooting schedule and maybe even his script for the most anticipated movie of 2012—all based on Cotillard’s availability—was indicative of how big a superstar the 36-year-old has become in the four years since she won an Oscar for playing the tiny, gut-wrenching singer Edith Piaf (known in France as “the little sparrow”) in La vie en rose.
With a gentle, almost ethereal presence, Cotillard since has exhibited a screen persona that stands in stark contrast to the ferociously intense Piaf. But it has endeared her to major directors ranging from Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) to Steven Soderbergh (Contagion) to Rob Marshall (Nine) to Michael Mann (Public Enemies). One of the few international actresses to have found success in America (fellow French stars Isabelle Adjani and Juliette Binoche have come and gone), Cotillard is a Hollywood favorite, having recently wrapped director James Gray’s still-untitled Ellis Island period piece with Jeremy Renner and Joaquin Phoenix.
“I knew she was a great artist,” says Mann, recalling how she boldly plunged into the dark realm of Chicago’s strip clubs to research aspects of her role as the half-French, half-Indian Billie Frechette, a bartender and singer who becomes involved with John Dillinger in Public Enemies. “But what I found with her was it’s all about the work, all about the commitment. Her energy evolves from this devotion to acting as an art. You don’t want anything else.”
Her latest, Rust & Bone, is a joint effort with France’s foremost art house director, Jacques Audiard (A Prophet). It may sound trite—it’s the story of a young whale trainer (Cotillard) who gets into a terrible accident that leaves her a paraplegic and who then becomes involved with a homeless fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts)—but given Audiard’s gritty, brutal style, nobody expects this to be Free Willy français. Blog headlines such as “Marion Cotillard: Secrets and Lies in the Last Audiard” indicate how scrutinized the Angelina Jolie of France is.
Of course, there are perks (a multimillion-dollar deal as the face of Lady Dior; almost $1.5 million a film, a gigantic sum in France) but also drawbacks. A female stalker was arrested by the FBI in August; Cotillard hasn’t seen her cat, Touftouf, in two years because she’s been working so hard; and she still isn’t used to the ever-present paparazzi. “I was 4 1/2 months pregnant and I went to this store in Paris. I was in the dressing room and looked at my belly, and they took a picture!” she recalls. “It was horrible. It really made me sick physically.”
The actress started filming Knight in June 2011, working on and off until the fall in locations including Los Angeles, New York and Pittsburgh. Cotillard’s commitment to Nolan left her unable to rehearse with Audiard, and she admits he was “sometimes not very happy” about that. “It was frustrating,” she said.
Adds Audiard: “At one point, I was afraid. So I said to myself: ‘We don’t know each other; we don’t know the character she plays except in bits and pieces. Let’s make a virtue of this.’ That’s exactly what we did, and it worked.”
Cotillard had just days to prepare before Rust started shooting in the fall in Antibes, France. “I knew I wouldn’t have a lot of time to rehearse, and it was very disturbing to me because Jacques works a lot with the cast before he starts a movie,” she says.
It wasn’t only her fellow actors she had to worry about. There were killer whales, too.
“It was a very weird experience because I came back from the United States and was totally jetlagged,” she remembers. “I’ve always had a repulsion going in a place where animals are in captivity. I had to work through my rejection of this world, which I still feel. But I had a job. And even though the orcas are as big as trucks, they’re animals, and you have a connection with them.”
She was surprised to find Audiard—who has a reputation for being intense and driven—less somber than she had expected. “He has this grin on his face all the time,” she says.
He was equally impressed with her: “The day we shot, it was no longer an actress that we had but a trainer of orcas. She blew me away.”
Three months after she began, following sleepless nights and trips back to the U.S., Cotillard was exhausted. “I was working all the time; my son was not sleeping,” she says. “Not sleeping, working, taking care of a kid—I had never been that tired.”
Born in Paris in 1975, Cotillard was brought up in the suburb of Alfortville, Paris’ equivalent of an inner city in the U.S. “I was living in an HLM,” in the projects, she says. “I come from ‘la cité.’ That’s who I am. As they’d say here, ‘I’m still this girl from the Bronx.’”
Her parents both belonged to the theater: Her father started as a mime and then became a director, while her mother was an actress who worked with directors including Daniel Mesguich and Ariane Mnouchkine. Life changed as her father found growing success, working as a director and starting his own company, leading the Cotillards (including Marion’s younger twin brothers) to abandon Alfortville for the countryside near Orleans, some 80 miles outside Paris. Suddenly, she was an outsider. “We were in a huge house and it was beautiful, but that was a totally different world,” she explains. “I was ‘The Parisian,’ even though I was not coming from Paris.”
Growing up, Cotillard was full of self-loathing: “I really didn’t know how I would spend my life. I didn’t like anything about myself—my looks, my personality. I was very, very angry.” That persisted until a mini-intervention by her then-boyfriend when she was in her late 20s. “He would look at me and go, ‘Why are you hurting yourself, when it’s so easy not to be angry? Try another way.’ And I did.”
She longed to act, and started doing so while still in her teens, then moved to the capital, where she lived in a run-down area near the Gare du Nord train station, surviving on occasional acting jobs such as My Sex Life … or How I Got Into an Argument and the comedy La Belle Verte (both from 1996), and by selling her colorful keychains to candy stores.
Her first big break, the 1998 action-comedy Taxi, was followed by her Cesar-winning role in 2004’s A Very Long Engagement—and finally, in 2007, the movie that made her name: La vie en rose. Called La Mome or “The Kid” in French, the film tells the story of Piaf’s arduous life, from growing up in a brothel to becoming a singer to losing her great love in an airplane crash to becoming a morphine addict. Making the movie created a battle for its director, Olivier Dahan, who insisted on having Cotillard in the lead before she was a bankable name. With a tight schedule, she rarely slept during the shoot.
“A very good friend told me, ‘Well, Edith Piaf wouldn’t sleep at night, and maybe that’s why you’re not sleeping,’” she notes. “Maybe. But I would sleep during the makeup sessions and I was kind of happy when they lasted five hours!”
Roger Ebert called Cotillard’s performance “extraordinary,” and the Oscar turned her from a working actress into a celebrity.
“She is alive to the world, to a neighborhood, to an ambiance,” says Mann. “She just goes on an adventure with you.”
That adventure has included pictures like Nine (Marshall’s version of Fellini’s 8 1/2) and Inception, which followed an intense immersion course in English, when she found Hollywood eager to meet this bright new star. But it also led to a career that has taken her away from home for long periods of time. Having a child and being part of a family “redefines your priorities,” she says. She has divided her time between the U.S. and France for much of the past couple of years and would like that to change. “But I never know in advance where I’ll go next.”
After finishing Rust & Bone, Cotillard only had a few weeks off, during which she had to learn Polish to play an immigrant in the James Gray project and cook for 10 people every day, since “my family couldn’t come all together, so we had three Christmases. Basically, I cooked all the time.”
She did this while pursuing an interest in singing (she’s part of a rock band, Yodelice); devouring books including recent favorites Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer; and sticking with her commitment to the environment.
Some years ago, Cotillard toyed with abandoning acting to become an environmental activist. She decided she had to stick with her first passion, but her commitment to the environment has led her to work with Greenpeace, and in 2010 she went to Congo, which has the second-largest rainforest on Earth and is in danger of devastation from industrial logging.
“The first days, I was totally depressed,” she says. “I thought, ‘There’s nothing we can do to save this forest.’ But now I think we can change things, if we really want to.” Her work for now must come first, including Blood Ties, a crime drama set in 1970s New York, directed by Canet, whom she met in 2003 when they worked on Love Me If You Dare. Initially friends, they have been together for the past five years, since his divorce from actress Diane Kruger; he directed Cotillard in the August release Little White Lies.
She’s struggling to learn Italian for their new movie—with a Brooklyn accent, to boot. “I don’t know why, but it’s very difficult for me,” she admits in her nearly flawless English. “And I am always very scared that I won’t be good enough.”
Stephen Galloway is the executive editor of The Hollywood Reporter. Originally published in The Hollywood Reporter. Reprinted with permission.
RUST & BONE
Belgium, 2012, 120m
Director: Jacques Audiard
Starring: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts and Fabien Baïardi
Adapted by: Audiard and Thomas Bidegain from the short story by Craig Davidson
b. September 30, 1975 in Paris, France
The Dark Knight Rises (2012)
Rust & Bone (2012)
Midnight in Paris (2011)
Little White Lies (2010)
The Last Flight (2009)
Public Enemies (2009)
La vie en rose (2007)
A Good Year (2007)
Fair Play (2006)
Toi et moi (2006)
The Black Box (2005)
Sauf le respect que
je vous dois (2005)
Ma vie en l’air (2005)
A Very Long Engagement (2004)
Big Fish (2003)
Love Me If You Dare (2003)
Taxi 3 (2003)
A Private Affair (2002)
Pretty Things (2001)
Taxi 2 (2001)
Blue Away to America (1999)
War in the Highlands (1999)
La belle Verte (1996)
My Sex Life... or How I Got
Into an Argument (1996)
L’ Histoire du garçon qui voulait
qu’on l’embrasse (1994)