It is true, there is some angels in this city.
With those ten words, delivered in her alluring wisp of a voice—and in broken English, no less—Marion Cotillard’s grande séduction of America began. Since being awarded the Best Actress Oscar for her spellbinding turn as Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, she’s done what no other French actor in history has done: see their star shine just as bright in America.
In the wake of that fateful 2008 evening, Cotillard has worked for, and alongside, some of the biggest names in Hollywood. As Johnny Depp’s arm candy in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies; Leonardo DiCaprio’s nightmarish ex-wife in Christopher Nolan’s Inception; an artistic muse in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the list goes on.
But she’s never carried a movie before—until now. James Gray’s The Immigrant sees Cotillard play Ewa Cybulski, a Polish émigré who lands at Ellis Island in 1921. Things don’t exactly go as planned. Her sister, Magda, is quarantined after catching tuberculosis aboard their cramped vessel, and her aunt is nowhere to be found. Out of options, Ewa falls into the clutches of Bruno Weiss (Joaquin Phoenix), a seedy character (think: a latter-day club promoter) who uses his burlesque troupe as a front for prostitution.
Gray based the story on recollections from his Jewish grandparents, who came to New York in 1923. And he wrote the role of Ewa with Cotillard in mind. The pair’s first meeting, however, was a catastrophe. Gray and Cotillard had dinner in Paris and, after arguing over an actor—Gray thought he or she was terrible, Cotillard disagreed—the actress launched a piece of bread at his head.
“I never play with food—ever—but I couldn’t believe it!” exclaims Cotillard. “And when James says something, and has a very strong feeling about it, there’s no word you can use to make him change his mind, so I became kind of violent. That was my way out. I was like, ‘Okay, fuck it! BAM!’”
Cotillard—who wouldn’t disclose the actor’s name for fear of “embarrassing James”—says the pair eventually made amends, acknowledging that Gray has a tendency to “argue for the sake of it.”
In The Immigrant, Ewa soon finds herself inveigled into pleasing Bruno’s more affluent clientele in order to raise enough money to spring her sister from Ellis Island’s hospital ward, despite her protestations. It’s a courageous performance by the 38-year-old Frenchwoman, whose ability to elicit pathos via her arresting gaze is virtually unmatched.
And the role is, interestingly enough, a full-circle moment for the actress. Cotillard’s first leading role in a film was as the title character, a runaway teen forced into prostitution, in 1996’s Chloé, and the last time she played a Polish character was in 2003’s Love Me If You Dare, where she’d meet her eventual husband, French actor-filmmaker Guillaume Canet. She laughs when I bring up the myriad coincidences.
“Oh, wow! I never thought about that,” she shrieks. “It’s funny, actually. The difference with Chloé is she didn’t have the necessity—the need—to do this, she was just trapped, whereas Ewa has nothing left but this. She prostitutes herself even though she knows it’s against her religion, which is very judgmental about it. She does it because she will do anything for her sister.”
She adds, “She experiences such horrors, but she’s full of light and hope; she’s pure. She fights for her sister and she’s a beautiful woman, so it was not hard to live with her even though she goes through a lot.”
It’s hard to capture Cotillard’s aura with the written word. Most male writers end up looking like drooling sycophants. I can tell you that, having spoken with her a handful of times, her beauty is just as ethereal in person as it is onscreen, which she holds with the magnetism of classic screen sirens like Maria Falconetti in La passion de Jeanne d’Arc, or Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca. Her genes may have a little something to do with it. Cotillard’s father, Jean-Claude, was a former mime turned director, and her mother, Niseema, is a drama instructor.
Cotillard made her acting debut in one of her father’s plays when she was six, and developed what she calls a “good ear” by playing classical piano during her formative years.
A “good ear,” by the way, is a massive understatement. After taking in a screening of Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration at Cannes, Cotillard was so impressed she taught herself some light Danish. For The Immigrant, she had just two months to learn a ton of Polish dialogue, as well as master a convincing Polish accent.
“With this project, there were 20 pages of Polish dialogue, which is close to Chinese for me,” she says. “There were three words over the course of the 20 pages that looked like French or English, but I just went for it. I’m never afraid of the amount of work it’s going to take, I’m just afraid I won’t have enough time to do it.”
Then came her tour of America. After making her American screen debut in Tim Burton’s 2003 fantasy Big Fish, Cotillard viewed the experience as “super painful not to understand anything,” so she took a total immersion English language course at Berlitz.
“When we decided to do the awards campaign for La Vie en Rose, I felt the need to go back to Berlitz,” says Cotillard. “I rented an apartment in New York a month before, and started the total immersion process again. But my English really improved when I did Public Enemies because Michael Mann wanted to completely erase my French accent, so I worked for six months every day with a dialogue coach—four months before shooting, and then two months on set. Michael wouldn’t even let me speak French with my boyfriend or family.”
It’s a big reason why, in addition to her unique acting talents and screen presence, she’s been able to conquer America in a way none of her fellow countrymen have. While Cotillard considers herself “lucky to cross the road of crazy people” like Mann, Nolan, and the rest, she seems to be blessed with a preternatural ability to navigate the human psyche.
“Exploring human beings by being different human beings in different cultures is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid,” says Cotillard. “I didn’t think I’d do American movies, but at the same time, I didn’t even think about it, so I never thought it wasn’t possible. By not putting boundaries on myself, I left the door open for anything to happen.”
She pauses. “I wasn’t aware that I wanted to explore the human soul when I started out acting; I just wanted to tell stories and play different people. Now I know it’s my need to explore the human soul that makes me do what I do, and to be able to explore different cultures is an even bigger gift than I could have imagined.”