From French kissing in the USA to Scottish unspeakables, after a shaky start, Marion Cotillard is finally living her childhood dreams
From our vantage point in Somerset House, Marion Cotillard glances out of the window, towards the London Eye, lost in thought. Turning back, she smiles – faint lines crinkling around her slate green eyes. “I used to get very anxious,” explains the French movie star, her attention now caught by milling figures on Waterloo Bridge. “I’d get angry that I would not get the big things that I wanted to get; the big directors, amazing roles.
“When I first started acting, I was doing interesting movies, good movies, but I wanted more. The dream I had as a kid, I was kind of half-living it. It didn’t make me happy.
“So I went to see my agent and I said, ‘I’ve decided I’m going to do something else.”
“I had the energy to do different things, like working with Greenpeace. I really wanted to be active and not just waiting for my phone to ring, and being happy because someone chose me.
“And he said ‘OK but you just have to take one more meeting and I know you’re going to be happy with this. If that doesn’t work, then you do what you want to do.’”
That was 2002; five years before her Best Actress Oscar win for La Vie En Rose. The meeting was with neo-gothic auteur Tim Burton, who was interested in the then 27-year-old Parisian for a small but significant role in historical fantasy, Big Fish.
After a decade of feeling stifled, this was the moment Cotillard had dreamed of. “That was exactly what I wanted. Not about him being American, because that was not a big thing for me.
“I wanted to work with someone who gave me the desire to be an actor. And I loved all of Tim’s movies – Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands… He was one of my heroes. So I said, ‘OK, it’s going to be the test. If I get this one, I will continue. If not, we’ll see…’.”
Fortunately for Marion, no choice was necessary. Securing the Burton role, she subsequently enjoyed a professional and personal revitalisation, going on to pursue and enjoy success on both sides of the Atlantic. The first of her French peers to do so.
Previously, Gallic superstars Audrey Tautou and Juliette Binoche had turned their backs on Hollywood. Tautou was particularly scathing, claiming, “to do something else other than the ‘girlfriend’ there, it’s very difficult.”
It’s proven little concern for Cotillard, 40. “I never thought I would do American movies or English films. I feel lucky that I can have those experiences.
“Even starring as Johnny Depp’s girlfriend in a Michael Mann movie [Public Enemies] was not so bad,” grins the star.
The Academy Award for Rose changed everything. A chaotic, winsome performance as Édith Piaf saw the movie studios scrambling for her attention. She landed starring leads in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, Rob Marshall’s Nine and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. And a harrowing, vengeful turn in Christopher Nolan’s Inception fed into the delicious stark power of The Dark Knight. But she balanced these blockbusters with gritty European cinema, from Jacques Audiard’s lauded Rust and Bone to Two Days, One Night – which led to another nomination at this year’s Academy Awards.
As it stands, she is the highest grossing actress in France, her films earning over £3 billion at the box office. It is in sharp contrast to her beginnings as a starving artist. “When I started to live by myself at 17 in Paris, I was counting my coins and my bank account was always minus, minus,” she explains. “I scraped to get by making little key holders that I would sell in the candy shop and that would allow me to live for another month. And it really was month to month. Though not unusual for someone that age.”
Next up, the actress will be taking on the heavy responsibility of playing Lady Macbeth, starring opposite Michael Fassbender in Justin Kurzel’s imagining of The Scottish Play.
She claims it’s her toughest role yet. “The language is super hard and I put a lot of pressure on myself. And I found I couldn’t get rid of this pressure.
“Maybe because she was the darkest role I ever had. And that is saying something for me because I have played many dark characters or depressed characters. Most of the movies I do, they’re not super happy.”
In the past, Marion admitted a proclivity to the method style of acting, often assimilating numbing darkness even months after shooting had wrapped. “All the characters I had before, even in the darkest places there was a light. With this: no f**king light. The darkness was kind of hard to experience. And when I work, I get affected by my characters and this one was really heavy to share my life with.”
But motherhood has changed the way she works – Marion has been in a relationship with actor and director Guillaume Canet since 2007, and the pair have a four-year-old son together. “I used to bury my whole self in the character but with a family, that is simply not practical. That would be very selfish of me.
“Your priorities change so much with children. They change you as a person.”
Cotillard returns her gaze towards the window. White sunlight now gathers in a corner of the room. She asks her lurking publicist if there may be time later for a quick stroll on the South Bank before their Eurostar departure. The request is met with a shake of the head.
“I’ve always found there’s an artistic liberation in London that you can’t find anywhere else,” she sighs wistfully. “Not Paris, not Los Angeles, not New York, it’s very unmistakably London.
“I have fond memories of the Film Festival, very fond, golden memories. We premiered Two Days and Rust and Bone here, that positive response every time fills me with hope and warmth.
“Working in the States and working in France is so different, but I almost find London that special bond between the two. So no surprises I like it here so much.”
Macbeth is in cinemas from 2 October