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The Many Faces of Marion Cotillard

This story first appeared in the May 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Marion Cotillard heard from her CAA agent Hylda Queally in late 2010 that director Christopher Nolan wanted her for a role in his next movie. The French actress, of course, was ecstatic. "I'm like, 'Wait a minute, his next movie is supposed to be Batman!' And I've always been obsessed with Batman."

Her heart sank, however, when she learned The Dark Knight Rises -- the final part of Nolan's Batman trilogy -- would likely start shooting in May 2011, precisely when her first child, Marcel, with actor-director Guillaume Canet, was due.  "I called Chris and said, 'My God, I can't do that!' " Luckily, Nolan -- who already had worked with the star on Inception -- was prepared to wait. " 'I'm writing now and nothing is impossible,' " the actress recalls him telling her. " 'We don't know where we are shooting, and I'll try to make it work.' "

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The fact that one of Hollywood's top directors was prepared to change his shooting schedule and maybe even his script for the most anticipated movie of 2012 -- all based on Cotillard's availability -- was indicative of how big a superstar the 36-year-old has become in the four years since she won an Oscar for playing the tiny, gut-wrenching singer Edith Piaf (known in France as "the little sparrow") in La Vie en Rose.

With a gentle, almost ethereal presence, Cotillard since has exhibited a screen persona that stands in stark contrast to the ferociously intense Piaf. But it has endeared her to major directors ranging from Woody Allen (Midnight in Paris) to Steven Soderbergh (Contagion) to Rob Marshall (Nine) to Michael Mann (Public Enemies). One of the few international actresses to have found success in America (fellow French stars Isabelle Adjani and Juliette Binoche have come and gone), Cotillard is a Hollywood favorite, having recently wrapped director James Gray's still-untitled Ellis Island period piece with Jeremy Renner and Joaquin Phoenix.

"I knew she was a great artist," says Mann, recalling how she boldly plunged into the dark realm of Chicago's strip clubs to research aspects of her role as the half-French, half-Indian Billie Frechette, a bartender and singer who becomes involved with John Dillinger in Public Enemies. "But what I found with her was it's all about the work, all about the commitment. Her energy evolves from this devotion to acting as an art. You don't want anything else."

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Now she comes to the Cannes Film Festival competition for the first time, having been unable to attend last year for Midnight in Paris after giving birth. Her presence on the Riviera unites France's No. 1 star with its foremost art house director, Jacques Audiard, whose previous film, A Prophet, was nominated for a foreign-language film Oscar in 2010.

Their joint effort, Rust and Bone, may sound trite -- it's the story of a young whale trainer (Cotillard) who gets into a terrible accident that leaves her paraplegic then becomes involved with a homeless fighter (Matthias Schoenaerts) -- but given Audiard's gritty, brutal style, nobody expects this to be Free Willy français. (The film had not been screened at press time. It will be released in the U.S. by Sony Pictures Classics this year.)

Rust has not been without controversy. Just two weeks before Cannes, the French blogosphere lit up after Cotillard told a French magazine, Obsession (a spinoff of the highly respected Le Nouvel Observateur), that she had shot the movie when she was still meant to be exclusively available for Knight.

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Blog headlines such as "Marion Cotillard: Secrets and Lies in the Last Audiard" indicate how scrutinized the Angelina Jolie of France is. Of course, there are perks (a multimillion-dollar deal as the face of Lady Dior; almost $1.5 million a film, a gigantic sum in France) but also drawbacks. A female stalker was arrested by the FBI in August; Cotillard hasn't seen her cat, Touftouf, in two years because she's been working so hard; and she still isn't used to the ever-present paparazzi. "I was 4-1/2 months pregnant and I went to this store in Paris. I was in the dressing room and looked at my belly, and they took a picture!" she recalls. "It was horrible. It really made me sick physically."

She also admits she isn't accustomed to having her words watched so closely. She was widely criticized for comments made on French television in 2007 that implied the World Trade Center was not hit by real planes: "I think we're lied to about a number of things," she said. "We see other towers of the same kind being hit by planes. Are they burned? There was a tower, I believe it was in Spain, which burned for 24 hours. It never collapsed. None of these towers collapsed. And there, in a few minutes, the whole thing collapsed."

Cotillard now regrets her statements. "It's kind of easy to say, 'It was taken out of context,' because people now think that's a way to hide something," she says, wrapping a shawl over her simple black T-shirt and satin pants -- casual and with no makeup -- to ward off the frigid air-conditioning. "It was totally stupid to talk about this on TV. It was not serious, and I really regret that I talked about such a painful subject for so many people in this very light way. I know people who lost family members or friends in this tragedy."

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The actress started filming Knight in June 2011, working on and off until the fall in locations including Los Angeles, New York and Pittsburgh. She says there were long gaps when she wasn't needed: "It was a very, very small role."

Otherwise, Cotillard is coy about the picture, whose storyline has fueled pages of Internet speculation. All she'll confirm is that, contrary to some fans' belief, she does not play Talia, the vengeful daughter of Liam Neeson's character, Ra's Al Ghul (who also appeared in Batman Begins), and that she takes the role of Miranda Tate, an ecologically minded businesswoman who "is fascinated by Wayne Enterprises. They go through difficulties, and she wants to help provide the world clean energies. She's a good guy." But does she stay that way? "Yes," she insists.

Cotillard's commitment to Nolan left her unable to rehearse with Audiard, and she admits he was "sometimes not very happy" about that. "It was frustrating."

Adds Audiard: "At one point, I was afraid. So I said to myself: 'We don't know each other; we don't know the character she plays except in bits and pieces. Let's make a virtue of this.' That's exactly what we did, and it worked."

The actress had only encountered the director briefly at France's Cesar Awards when he approached her for his film. With Marcel on hand, they met in Paris in the middle of last year to discuss the movie. As Audiard remembers, "We spoke for 18 seconds about the film, and the rest of the time we talked kids."

Cotillard has a slightly different recollection: "It was very unclear for me who the character was. She was very mysterious." To her surprise, rather than being bothered by this, "Jacques said: 'Yes, I have the same feeling. When I start a movie, I never know who these people are.' So we took the road together to find her."

That road wasn't easy. Cotillard had just days to prepare before Rust started shooting in the fall in Antibes, France. "I knew I wouldn't have a lot of time to rehearse, and it was very disturbing to me because Jacques works a lot with the cast before he starts a movie," she says.

It wasn't only her fellow actors she had to worry about. There were killer whales, too.

"It was a very weird experience because I came back from the United States and was totally jetlagged," she remembers. "I arrived directly in Antibes where their Marineland water park is. I've always had a repulsion going in a place where animals are in captivity. I had to work through my rejection of this world, which I still feel. But I had a job. And even though the orcas are as big as trucks, they're animals, and you have a connection with them."

Cotillard had to quickly improve her swimming skills: "Training in the Mediterranean was hard because I couldn't use my legs and there were strong currents, and it was freezing in October." And she had mere days to learn some of the simple whale tricks, such as looking in a certain direction while pointing, because "if you keep staring at her," says Cotillard of her whale co-star, "she won't move." She felt guilty about withholding fish treats when the orcas didn't obey her.

Following a fatal accident involving a whale trainer at Florida's SeaWorld Orlando and another nonfatal incident at Marineland, Cotillard was never allowed in the water with the orcas, and the screenplay had to be altered as a result. At first, "The accident was meant to happen with me on the nose of the whale," she explains. Now the whale erupts from the pool and strikes her directly.

She was surprised to find Audiard -- who has a reputation for being intense and driven -- less somber than she had expected. "He has this grin on his face all the time," she says.

He was equally impressed with her: "The day we shot, it was no longer an actress that we had but a trainer of orcas. She blew me away."

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Three months after she began, following sleepless nights and trips back to the U.S., Cotillard was exhausted. "I was working all the time; my son was not sleeping," she says. "Not sleeping, working, taking care of a kid -- I had never been that tired."

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Growing up, Cotillard was full of self-loathing: "I really didn't know how I would spend my life. I didn't like anything about myself -- my looks, my personality. I was very, very angry."

That persisted until a mini-intervention by her then-boyfriend when she was in her late 20s. "He would look at me and go, 'Why are you hurting yourself, when it's so easy not to be angry? Try another way.' And I did."

Born in Paris in 1975, Cotillard was brought up in the suburb of Alfortville, Paris' equivalent of an inner city in the U.S. "I was living in an HLM," the projects, she says. "I come from 'la cite.' That's who I am. As they'd say here, 'I'm still this girl from the Bronx.' "

Her parents, while not wealthy, both belonged to the theater: Her father started as a mime and then became a director, while her mother was an actress who worked with famed directors including Daniel Mesguich and Ariane Mnouchkine.

"I have very vivid memories of going with her to rehearsals," Cotillard recalls. "I was fascinated. I always wanted to be an actress."

Life changed as her father found growing success, working as a director and starting his own company, leading the Cotillards (including Marion's younger twin brothers) to abandon Alfortville for the countryside near Orleans, some 80 miles outside Paris. Suddenly, she was an outsider. "We were in a huge house and it was beautiful, but that was a totally different world," she explains. "I was 'The Parisian,' even though I was not coming from Paris."

She longed to act, and started doing so while still in her teens, then moved to the capital, where she lived in a run-down area near the Gare du Nord train station, surviving on occasional acting jobs such as My Sex Life ... or How I Got Into an Argument and the comedy La Belle Verte (both from 1996), and by making colorful key chains that she sold to candy stores.

In her 20s, she got her first big break as the hero's girlfriend in the 1998 action-comedy Taxi. It was followed by her Cesar-winning role as Tina Lombardi in 2004's A Very Long Engagement -- and finally, in 2007, the movie that made her name: La Vie en Rose.

Called La Mome or "The Kid" in French, the film tells the story of Piaf's arduous life from growing up in a brothel to becoming a singer to losing her great love in an airplane crash to becoming a morphine addict. Making the movie created a battle for its director, Olivier Dahan, who insisted on having Cotillard in the lead before she was a bankable name. With a tight schedule, she rarely slept during the shoot.

"A very good friend told me, 'Well, Edith Piaf wouldn't sleep at night, and maybe that's why you're not sleeping,' " she notes. "Maybe. But I would sleep during the makeup sessions and I was kind of happy when they lasted five hours!"

Roger Ebert called Cotillard's performance "extraordinary," and the Oscar turned her from a working actress into a celebrity.

"She is alive to the world, to a neighborhood, to an ambiance," says Mann. "She just goes on an adventure with you."

That adventure has included pictures like Nine (Marshall's version of Fellini's 8-1/2) and Inception, which followed an intense immersion course in English, when she found Hollywood eager to meet this bright new star. But it also led to a career that has taken her away from home for long periods of time -- making our meeting place, New York City's NoMad Hotel, all too appropriate.

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Having a child and being part of a family "redefines your priorities," she says, while noting the trio are spending six months in New York. She has divided her time between the U.S and France for much of the past couple of years and would like that to change. "But I never know in advance where I'll go next."

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After finishing Rust and Bone, Cotillard only had a few weeks off, during which she had to learn Polish to play an immigrant in the James Gray project and cook for 10 people every day, since "My family couldn't come all together, so we had three Christmases. Basically, I cooked all the time."

She did this while pursuing an interest in singing (she's part of a rock band, Yodelice); devouring books including recent favorites Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer; and sticking with her commitment to the environment.

Some years ago, Cotillard toyed with abandoning acting to become an environmental activist. She decided she had to stick with her first passion, but her commitment to the environment has led her to work with Greenpeace, and in 2010 she went to Congo, which has the second largest rainforest on earth and is in danger of devastation from industrial logging.

"The first days, I was totally depressed," she says. "I thought, There's nothing we can do to save this forest. But now I think we can change things, if we really want to."

Her work for now must come first. Just a few days after our April 27 meeting, she was scheduled to start shooting her next film, Blood Ties, a crime drama set in 1970s New York, directed by Canet, whom she met in 2003 when they worked on Love Me If You Dare. Initially friends, they have been together for the past five years, since his divorce from actress Diane Kruger; he directed Cotillard in the upcoming Aug. 24 release Little White Lies.

She's struggling to learn Italian for their new movie -- with a Brooklyn accent, to boot. "I don't know why, but it's very difficult for me," she admits in her nearly flawless English. "And I am always very scared that I won't be good enough."

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7 FAVORITE FILMS

  • The Great Dictator (1940)
  • It's a Wonderful Life (1946)
  • I Am Cuba (1964)
  • The Party (1968)
  • The Elephant Man (1980)
  • The King and the Mockingbird (1980)
  • Tandem (1987)

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SCOUTING THE FRESH FACES OF CANNES: Forget starlets posing topless on the beach. Today, if a performer wants to impress at the festival, she has to turn in a strong performance onscreen. Hereare five who could.

Emilie Dequenne: The 30-year-old Belgian, who snared Cannes' best actress prize for her debut in 1999's Rosetta, should further underscore her growing status with her appearance in Joachim Lafosse's Un Certain Regard entry Loving Without Reason.

Sarah Gadon: The Toronto-born actress, 25, has real fans in the Cronenbergs. David Cronenberg cast her as Emma Jung in A Dangerous Method and then in his competition film Cosmopolis, while his son Brandon cast her in Antiviral, playing Un Certain Regard.

Soko: The French pop singer, 25, was born Stephanie Sokolinski, but has gone by a single moniker ever since her music career took off in 2007. She has the title role in Augustine, a costume picture directed by Alice Winocour that's playing Critics Week.

Cosmina Stratan, Cristina Flutur: In 2007, Romanian director Cristian Mungiu took the Cannes Film Festival by storm with his closely observed abortion drama 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days, which won the Palme d'Or. That film starred two virtual unknowns, Anamaria Marinca and Laura Vasiliu, who were hailed for their performances. In Beyond the Hills, his new competition entry, Mungiu has cast two young women without any previous film credits. Stratan plays a nun in an Orthodox convent; Flutur plays her childhood friend who tries to rekindle their relationship. Lightning just could strike twice.

Ruven Afanador