Orcas in Captivity Are Having a Hollywood Moment

Rust and Bone

Jacques Audiard’s follow-up to 2009 Cannes Jury Winner A Prophet features a star-in-the-making turn from Belgium actor Matthias Schoenarts alongside Oscar winner Marion Cotillard. 

Working with them in "Rust and Bone" brought Marion Cotillard close to "throwing up and crying"; now, the controversial practice is the topic of new Sundance doc, "Blackfish."

Marion Cotillard's first day on the set of Rust and Bone might go down as one of the worst experiences of her career. 

An environmental activist and unabashed animal lover, the 37-year-old Oscar winner suddenly found herself cast by director Jacques Audiard in the role of Stephanie -- an orca trainer working at Marineland in the south of France who loses both legs to the jaws of one of the animals in a horrific accident.

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"I came from L.A., totally jet-lagged," Cotillard told The Hollywood Reporter over lunch at Chateau Marmont. "I arrived five minutes before the [orca] show. I attended the show, and I tried to hold myself from throwing up and crying."

Cotillard was there to meet her trainer, who would teach her the hand gestures that the creatures respond to, performing flips and tricks for audiences in exchange for fish. It was, put simply, Cotillard's worst nightmare.

"At the end of the show, [the trainer] turned around to me -- and she had a very beautiful smile, beautiful energy -- and she asked, ‘So, did you like it?' " Cotillard said. "And I wondered, ‘Am I going to lie to her, or am I going to tell her the truth?’ But I couldn’t lie. So I told her: ‘Listen, I’m being very honest right now. I hated it. I hate animals in captivity. I don’t understand how human beings can take these magnificent animals out of their environment and put them in swimming pools and play with them like Muppets.’"

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For Stephanie, there is a silver lining: The accident brings her closer to Ali -- a hunky street fighter played by Belgian up-and-comer Matthias Schoenaerts. And Hollywood's most famous orcas -- the stars of 1993's Free Willy and its subsequent sequels -- had similarly happy endings. But for the real-world creatures in captivity and their trainers, life can be far less rosy.

A new documentary called Blackfish, which will premiere in competition at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, tells the story of Tilikum, a 11,000-pound bull orca at SeaWorld Orlando, who has been involved in the deaths of three people. Yet despite the tragedies, Tilikum still performs regularly at the park.

The first incident occurred in February 1991, after a trainer slipped into the tank. Three orcas, including Tilikum, tossed the trainer to each other's mouths, and she died from drowning.

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The second incident occurred in July 1999, the victim a 27-year-old man who had stayed after park closing and entered the orca tanks after dark. He was discovered naked, draped over Tilikum's back but showing no obvious signs of trauma.

The most recent and widely publicized incident happened February 2010, and involved the killing of 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau -- a trainer much like Cotillard's character.

Brancheau's death was witnessed by at least 12 spectators, and her autopsy showed a severed spinal cord and multiple fractures. According to SeaWorld, the trainer was pulled underwater by Tilikum by her ponytail; other witnesses say they saw her pulled down by her arm. 

Blackfish director Gabriela Cowperthwaite tells THR that speaking to orca accident survivors and family members of the victims was the hardest part of telling Tilikum's story.

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"It’s a hard one because if they begin to go down the path of wondering why something like this happened, the pain is overwhelming," Cowperthaite says. "I've had cathartic tearful conversations, and I’ve also been hung up on more times than you can imagine."

With animal abuses a hot topic in the news -- particularly with the 27 animal deaths pinned to the filming of Peter Jackson's The Hobbit and the subsequent call for reforms from the American Humane Society -- and orcas now facing a push by California farmers to be taken off the endangered species list, the timing for Blackfish couldn't be better. 

But Cotillard doesn't need to see Blackfish to know what she witnessed during Rust and Bone's shooting was a crime against nature.

"I will never go back to Marineland," Cotillard said.

Email: seth.abramovitch@thr.com

Twitter: @SethAbramovitch