In the film Rust and Bone, which is in theaters this month, Marion Cotillard plays Stephanie, an orca trainer who loses her legs in a freak accident during a performance at Marineland in Antibes, France. While she’s recuperating, Stephanie forms a symbiotic bond with a would-be boxer, played with brutality and grace by Matthias Schoenaerts. The unlikely pair embarks on a kind of sexual friendship—a very modern romance—that proves more enduring than either expects.
Cotillard is stunning in the role. She goes from tough to vulnerable to broken to exhilarated and back again. When Rust and Bone, directed by Jacques Audiard, debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the prevailing consensus was that Cotillard would win the best-actress prize. She had never won an award at Cannes, and as one of the few French actresses ever to receive a best-actress Oscar (for her role as Edith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose), Cotillard is the reigning female star of Gallic cinema. Perhaps her fame hurt her with the jury—when the award was split between two worthy Romanian women who portray tragic novitiates in Beyond the Hills, cries of shock echoed up and down Cannes’s Croisette.
“I think I may have been on too many magazine covers,” Cotillard, 37, told me in New York, three months after the festival. “In France, they like the underdog.” She shrugged—other countries would embrace her work in Rust and Bone. “In America, they appreciate success.” Cotillard was in town for the premiere of Batman: The Dark Knight Rises, in which she plays a mysteriously alluring woman. Perhaps it’s her large haunting blue eyes or her innate elegance, but Cotillard always looks like she’s harboring a deep secret. That tantalizing sense of privacy is what makes her characters so intriguing. “It is much easier for me to understand something vast and complex than something light and uncomplicated,” Cotillard explained. “Perhaps that makes me very French.” She laughed. “Tragedy is almost always interesting to me.”
Five years ago, when Cotillard first spent a considerable chunk of time in New York, she could barely speak English. She was in America to promote La Vie en Rose, and she submerged herself in the language, taking Berlitz classes for four weeks. She had tried before: In 2004, she completed an intense 18-day course so she could work in American films. Tim Burton cast her in Big Fish as a pregnant French wife, and Ridley Scott chose Cotillard as the object of desire in A Good Year, his ode to the south of France. Neither of those films sparked much interest in Hollywood, but they did change Cotillard’s profile in her native country. “I had costarred in three commercial hits in France,” Cotillard told me in 2007. “To have your place in French cinema, you have to prove that you are a serious actress in a noncommercial film. When Tim Burton picked me, French critics were impressed. In France, they see Tim Burton as a kind of film doctor, and the movie was not successful—so voilà!”
La Vie en Rose, however, was a sensation in both France and America. The director, Olivier Dahan, had written the script with Cotillard in mind—he saw something terribly sad, even tragic, in her that reminded him of Piaf. Although she plays a singer, the power of her performance lies in its silences. Cotillard’s father was a mime, and Cotillard intrinsically understands how to convey deep feelings without words.
By the time she walked onstage to accept the Academy Award in 2008, Cotillard was proficient in English. Today, she is fluent. In fact, in her next movie, which is still untitled, she speaks English with a Polish accent. During the making of that film, she lived in New York with her partner, the director and actor Guillaume Canet, and their son, Marcel, who is 18 months old. Marcel was born just before production began on Batman, and at the premiere, Cotillard was shocked by the size of her breasts in the movie. “I was nursing,” she said, laughing. “There are scenes where I went, ‘Whoa! Look at that! Who is that woman?’ ” She paused, then said, “Maybe that added to her mystery.”
What is the first movie you remember seeing?Fantasia. The dancing hippopotamus made an impression on me. And, of course, E.T. I went totally mad in the theater. I was almost pulling my hair out when they took E.T. away. That’s a deep memory of anger, despair, and pain. They had to get me out of the theater. I was screaming.
Was there a particular actor or actress who made you want to go into your profession?Both my parents were actors, and their favorite was Charlie Chaplin. My mother’s favorite actress was Greta Garbo.
There is a lot of Garbo in you! The mystery… Were you a dramatic child?I always wanted to express myself by being someone other than myself. I needed to experience the human soul—something more than just my soul. I wasn’t enough! When I was 10 or 11, I played an angry housekeeper in a play at camp. I was yelling at everyone. I remember the feeling I had when it was over. I really loved it.
What was the first movie you acted in?The Story of a Boy Who Wanted to Be Kissed. I wasn’t very good in it. The more you work, the more you have to work. If you’re lucky, you get better.
Your first major American movie was Big Fish.I was a big fan of Beetlejuice, and I really wanted to work with Tim Burton. I remember I kept the pages of the scenes under my pillow for a month. I don’t know if that’s why I got the part, but I know I wished for it every night.
Now that you’re fluent in English, do you dream in English or French?I recently spent six months filming in New York, and all my thoughts were in English. I played a Polish woman, and I would have loved to dream in Polish. Mostly, I am confused—some people talk to me in French, and I answer in English. And some people talk to me in English, and I answer in French. I think I’m too tired to dream in any language.
__Rust and Bone is in French, but it has a universal appeal, partially because a lot of people think of SeaWorld and orcas as an American phenomenon. In the movie, there are beautiful, almost balletic scenes of you interacting with these giant animals. Was the training difficult?__ I’m not very comfortable with the idea of animals in captivity, so when I heard about Rust and Bone, I thought I couldn’t be a part of it because the character was an orca trainer. I was really uneasy the first day of training. For me, the orcas were not like animals. In a horrible way, they seemed like men’s toys—trucks in a bathtub. But they’re not scary. And if you feed them, they do whatever you want.
Did you like Stephanie, the character you were playing?I could never give life to a character I don’t love. I’ve read scripts in which I hated the character and didn’t do the movie. With an evil character, you have to understand the origin of the evil. It’s exciting when there is something unknown—if I want to meet that person, that’s a good sign.
Rust and Bone has many explicit sex scenes. What is harder for you to do—a death scene like you did in La Vie en Rose or a sex scene?Definitely a sex scene. I hate sex scenes. The body is so important in this movie, but I hate being naked onscreen. It’s very weird to imagine how a person would have sex. It cannot be your way. Otherwise, it would be super uncomfortable and overly intimate. Everyone has a way to have sex, so a character does too. I mean, kissing is very powerful. You feel something, you know? It’s really intense to kiss as another person.
But French women are supposed to be okay with all matters sexual!Well, yes, but…[Laughs.]
Changing subjects…do they know who Batman is in France?Oh, yeah, he’s very popular. Not all superheroes are, but Batman is. He is human, so you can relate to him. The French like that. I loved the TV series. I was totally crazy about Catwoman. She was so witty and fun.
If you had a superpower, which would you pick?I would love to fly. I don’t think I would like being invisible. If I could enter any room where they are making political decisions, I think I would kill myself. It would be too painful to see how people rule the world.
You saw people who rule the film industry at the Oscars. How was that night for you?It was amazing. In France, we have a lot of actors, but you never get a chance to share your experiences. In America, you show the movie, and you talk about it with actors who know what it’s like to open your heart, soul, and mind to another person and let them in. I especially feel very close to other actresses.
But so many women in your profession are overcompetitive, or feel threatened, or both…Well, yes. I have seen that, but I still love actresses. I love them! When there’s a movie without an actress in it, I miss something. Without a woman, it’s not the same.