The first time most Americans discovered French actress Marion Cotillard was when she played Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, a performance that took her all the way to Oscar night where she won the Oscar, making her the first French actress to do so in nearly 50 years. Cotillard went on to appear in fantastic films like Christopher Nolan’s Inception and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion.
After starring in Nolan’s finale to the “Dark Knight Trilogy” earlier this year, Cotillard delivers another astounding performance in French auteur Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone as Stéphanie, a killer whale trainer who loses her legs in a horrifying accident and is forced to rely on the generosity and compassion of a bouncer and underground fighter, played by Matthias Schoenaerts, who starred in the Oscar-nominated Bullhead. (You can read our review of the film here.)
We’ve grown accustomed to Cotillard delivering exemplary dramatic performances that often move us and make us cry, but her role in Audiard’s film is one that’s so challenging and daring it really elevates the actress to another level. We don’t want to go into too much more detail about it, since it potentially could ruin the experience, but let’s just say that her performance is one that has to be seen to be truly believed as well as one of the best of the year.
ComingSoon.net had a chance to sit down with Ms. Cotillard for a rare interview last week, meeting up in a downtown hotel room where Cotillard was comfortably wrapped in a blanket as she carefully pondered each of our questions before responding.
ComingSoon.net: It’s interesting that you’ve continued to do French films, bouncing back and forth, after you started doing Hollywood movies, which is great since Jacques Audiard is one of France’s great filmmakers. How did he approach you about it? Did he have a script already?
Marion Cotillard: Yeah, yeah, he had a script and we met, because we didn’t know each other, and he wanted me to read the script, and I read it and I loved it. I expected a very special story, because all his movies are very special stories. What I didn’t expect though was that he’d film a love story and I thought it was very exciting to be in one of his movies with something he had never done before.
CS: I feel like it goes back to “Read My Lips” which wasn’t a love story so much, but it was two people from different backgrounds meeting. What’s your reaction when you read a script which has killer whales and no legs and all these other elements. Do you wonder, “How is he going to do this? How is this possible?”
Cotillard: No, I think nothing is impossible when it has to be made. No, before I read the script, I knew that my character was losing legs and that she was working in Marineland with orcas, but that was the only information I had.
CS: What questions did you have for him after reading the screenplay and deciding to do it? Were you curious about what you’d need to do as far as training?
Cotillard: Yeah, we talked about it after I read the script, Jacques and Thomas Bidegain, they originally wrote the script before the San Diego accident. I think there were like two accidents the same year and before those accidents, the trainers, they would be in the water with the whales. I can not really remember but I think when I read the script the first time, yeah, it was like that in the first draft I read, so the accident was totally different than it was in the movie because in the process of rewriting, they were told that trainers were not allowed to go into the water anymore, so we talked about it because they had to think about how they would do it with me out of the water.
CS: The whole movie’s like a magic trick. I’ve seen it a couple times and I’m still not sure how you’ve done some of the things like having no legs and the prosthetics. What was it like shooting those scenes and did you have to work with physical trainers to make it so authentic?
Cotillard: No, I knew that I had to have a specific position with my legs so they could erase them, but my physical training because I was not a very good swimmer and I had to be a better swimmer. I had to gain muscles to be able to have the specific positions but that’s it. I didn’t have a training for the physicality with no legs so no I didn’t do that.
CS: Did you have to learn how to swim just with your arms for those scenes? That must have been tough.
Cotillard: Yeah, well it was not that tough because legs are very tricky in swimming, but I learned how to swim better with my whole body and we dropped the legs. There’s a lot you can do in CG but not erasing little waves on the water. It would have been too difficult, so I had to swim without my legs.
CS: I haven’t had a chance to speak with Jacques, so were they able to do some of the visual FX while you were shooting so you could see what it would look like?
Cotillard: When we started shooting, I think it was one of the first scenes with the CGI was the first time she walks with the prosthetics and she shows her prosthetics underneath her pants, that was the first thing they did and it was actually pretty amazing. I think that was the first thing we saw and that was pretty amazing. We really worked with amazing CGI people. They were very discreet on set. They were very fast and actually the fact I had legs never got in our way.
CS: I’m surprised you didn’t have much swimming experience because I remembered in “Little White Lies” that you did a bit of water skiing.
Cotillard: I can swim but my swimming was not perfect and those people who train orcas and who work in the water, they’re very good swimmers. I just had to improve my swimming.
CS: To make it look more real and convincing.
CS: What was it like actually being with the killer whales and working with them? How was Jacques able to convince Marineland to shoot a movie there? Or is that a question for him as well?
Cotillard: Yeah, I don’t know how to answer that actually. We went there for four days for me to learn all the gestures and choreography for the show to meet with the orcas and to get familiar with them and to be realistic as an orca trainer. We actually shot the scene of the show in the real show with the real audience and I just replaced the leader of the trainers.
CS: Did you get the impression that the orcas knew you or recognized you as you worked with them? I would think the scene with you and the orca behind glass couldn’t have been done otherwise.
Cotillard: Yeah, well they told me I had a special connection with the orca I was working with. I think that if I was not giving him fish, he would have this very special connection, but when we rehearsed that scene behind the glass on the second day of my training, that was really strong, because that was all improvisation because I knew the gesture and that was all improvisation so it was different than the show, which was choreographed and that was a very powerful moment.
CS: Matthias is a pretty amazing actor. I’ve seen “Bullhead” but nothing else he’s done, so were you familiar with his work?
Cotillard: No, I didn’t know him at all. I hadn’t seen “Bullhead”–I saw it after we shot Jacques movie–but I met him, we had a reading at Jacques house and I met him there for the first time, and right away I felt like it would be an amazing journey with him, because he’s hard to read and you know right away when an actor’s good and you know when an actor’s great and he was great.
CS: I feel like he brings out a different side of you than we’ve seen, because Stephanie’s very feisty and he’s brought that out because he’s such a force and it feels like she had to be aggressive with him.
Cotillard: Yeah, well, both of them are kind of aggressive.
CS: Sure, but it feels as if you really had to step up to match his.
Cotillard: Well, it’s not a question that when you work with someone and you do a scene, the energy is shared so there’s no level you have to reach. It’s an exchange.
CS: You’ve worked with so many great directors, so what’s it like working with Jacques as a director. I’ve always been impressed with the performances he’s gotten out of actors who don’t have as much as experience. What does he bring and give you as an actor?
Cotillard: He explores a lot on set. We could do a version of a scene, and then do a total different and opposite version of the same scene, and also, he really seeks for authenticity. There were two scenes that I shot twice on a different set with different characters, so that was very unusual. I had never done that before and actually I think those two scenes are totally gone. Yeah.
CS: Does that help with the authenticity when you as an actor have prepared for certain things and you show up and things have changed?
Cotillard: Oh, I love that, yeah, especially when you trust a director 100%. Yeah, the unknown and the unexpected is something that I really enjoy, and it brings unusual situations, unusual feelings.
CS: But when you make movies with Christopher Nolan, those movies are so big that there must be a lot of preparation and set-up so everyone knows exactly what needs to get done on any day, so is it easy to jump back and forth from those kinds of movies to these?
Cotillard: Oh, yeah. Having very different experiences with amazing directors is something very inspiring.
CS: Last night when I saw the clip reel at the Gothams, I forgot you were in “Love Me If You Dare” opposite Guillaume Canet, who is now your boyfriend. You’ve also worked with him a few times as a director, so I was curious about that relationship and how you decide what you’re going to do in his movies?
Cotillard: Well, that’s a question for him. I don’t know, but I love working with him. Already on “Love Me If You Dare,” we had a great connection and sometimes, the director, it was his first movie, and an actor is a very special animal. Sometimes, he didn’t really know how to deal with us, but then that created between Guillaume and I a very strong work relationship. I really admire him as a director. I think he’s one of the greatest directors and I would love to work with him again.
CS: Do you have any idea what you might do next? I know you have another movie with Guillame done and “Nightingale” with James Gray.
Cotillard: No, I don’t know yet. I needed to take some time off because I worked a lot, and I’m kind of very excited by what’s going to be next because I don’t know and I’m looking forward to have this feeling when I will read a script and I will feel that I belong to the story, so that’s kind of exciting.
CS: A lot of the movies you’ve done recently–“Inception,” “Contagion” and “Little White Lies” for instance–you’ve been a part of an ensemble cast, so it’s nice seeing you in a role like this where it’s just you and Matthias. How has the Oscar season been so far for you compared to when you were doing this for “La Vie en Rose”?
Cotillard: Well, you know the most important thing for me is to have the opportunity to share this movie outside of our country. It’s really something we enjoy, that’s what’s important for me right now.
CS: But do you feel like you’re coming into doing press for the movie different from when you were here for “La Vie en Rose”?
Cotillard: It is different because five years ago, I was opening the door of the unknown, but what’s the same is that I’m very excited to show a movie I’m very proud of and a French movie.
CS: Is it nice to have a movie like this where you don’t have to be sworn to secrecy like you were with Christopher Nolan’s movies? It must be a strange thing to be asked about a movie you can’t say anything about.
Cotillard: Yeah, I kind of like it.
CS: Have you been in touch with him at all and do you think he’ll do a Bond movie and have you be one of his Bond girls?
Cotillard: I don’t know. I have no idea.
Rust and Bone is now playing in New York City and it will open in Los Angeles on Friday, December 7 and other cities over the course of December and January.