She's described by director Jacques Audiard as "a diver," someone who "throws herself into a role head first."
So it's believable that the very first scene Marion Cotillard shot for "Rust and Bone" was the most harrowing one, in which she awakes in a hospital after an accident to discover that both her legs are gone.
Her reaction is partly improvised — she leaps from the bed only to wind up crawling on the floor and sobbing in the arms of a friend who rushes to her aid.
"My feeling was that, in that situation, which is so violent and horrifying, the shock must be so strong that you're in denial," says the acclaimed French actress over coffee at the Chateau Marmont. "And you have to know — even if you don't want to — whether it's really true, so you would try to walk. And that's when you find out."
In person, Cotillard appears delicate and simple, her blue-gray eyes expressive, her remarkable beauty enhanced only by pale lip gloss and a hint of smoky eye shadow. Arriving for an interview, she presents herself straightforwardly, with no need for small talk, like a student sitting for exams. Her English, honed on the sets of recent American blockbusters such as "Inception" and "The Dark Knight Rises," is nearly flawless.
But as anyone who saw her Oscar-winning performance as Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" can attest, Cotillard is an artist of great emotional complexity, capable of transforming herself completely for a role.
Says Matthias Schoenaerts, her costar in "Rust and Bone," "With Marion, it's all-in from the first second. She puts herself in a vulnerable state of being. She's not holding anything back."
In "Rust and Bone," Cotillard plays a trainer of orcas who becomes a double amputee after she is crushed by one of the mammals during a Marineland show. Schoenaerts, the hulking Flemish actor who starred in the Oscar-nominated "Bull Head," plays a nightclub bouncer whose unsentimental response to her plight appeals to her. Struggling to make his own way in a pitiless world, he proves to be the sturdy crutch she needs as she slowly rejoins the world of the living. They become lovers — damaged souls fighting their way back from a shattered remove to a revelatory intimacy.
"'Rust and Bone' is the taste of a punch in the face," says Audiard, explaining the title of the script he co-wrote with Thomas Bidegain. "You find out what people are made of."
American filmgoers know Audiard best from "A Prophet," his potent prison movie that became a foreign-language Oscar nominee in 2009. But Cotillard says she has dreamed of working with her countryman since his first movie in 1994, "See How They Fall," which she saw three times. So she was willing to take on the role despite crushing time pressures — she had to come straight from the set of Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises," at a time when she was also a new mother to her son Marcel (now 18 months) with her filmmaker-actor husband, Guillaume Canet.
"I was afraid if I said no, I'd never get the chance again," she says. She even had to forgo the rehearsal period in which she normally places great stock. "But I remembered that when we shot 'La Vie en Rose,' on the fourth day I had to do a major scene when Piaf is already at the end of her life, and that [challenge] put me in a very powerful energy, because you have no choice but to jump into the heart of the movie. And now I kind of like working that way."
The Paris-born performer grew up surrounded by the arts — both her parents are actors and drama teachers, which makes her choice of career seem inevitable. "When I was younger, I considered a lot of things, but I couldn't choose, so I thought that being an actor would let me have many lives. It was a way to do all the jobs I wanted to do."
But being a whale trainer wasn't a jobshe dreamed of. "I cannot understand how we humans can take these magnificent wild beings and put them in a swimming pool to see them jump for our pleasure," she says. Within minutes of her arrival at Marineland in Antibes, in the South of France, for the first day of rehearsal, she was required to watch the whales perform for a crowd. "I was jet-lagged and sensitive," she recalls. A female trainer assigned to work with her on her character asked what she thought. "I didn't want to be disrespectful," says Cotillard. "But I said, 'I'm sorry, but I have to be honest — I hate this situation. I hate to see animals doing clown things. I think it's horrible.'
"It got better," Cotillard reports. "But I will never go back to a Marineland, ever."
Her reaction to spending time in Los Angeles has been much more agreeable. "I love the fact that even though it's a hectic city, it's surrounded by nature," she says. "One of the first houses I rented here, I was welcomed by a raccoon. You go to the beach and see dolphins and whales. I didn't expect that."
She relates a powerful memory of her first glimpse of the City of Angels. Close to the end of shooting "La Vie en Rose," she was driven into L.A. from a location in Joshua Tree. "I saw the city ahead of us, and I felt something very, very strong — a sense that something amazing would happen to me there. Then I laughed at myself, because I was like, 'Oh, my God, you're such a dork!' But it happened to be true," she says, referring to her Oscar win. "I have a special connection to this city, because L.A. has always treated me very well."