CHICAGO — She is Oscar-winning, French, intense and full of interesting opinions about the quality of the bottled water in her trailer. “I think this (bottle brought over from the Peninsula Hotel) is better than this,” she says, half-joking. “This! This is not water! This is Coca-Cola water!”
The 33-year-old Marion Cotillard received an Academy Award for her portrayal of singer/perpetual tragedian Edith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.” In “Public Enemies” she plays Evelyn “Billie” Frechette, John Dillinger’s lover for a time.
Born to a French-Canadian father and a Menominee Indian mother, Frechette kicked around Wisconsin and South Dakota before making her way down to Chicago at 18. She served a 2-year prison sentence for harboring a criminal and was behind bars when Dillinger was killed.
Before they met, Frechette ran with anonymous lowlifes and Chicago underworld denizens as she worked as a coat-check tootsie, a dice thrower, a dance hall hostess. After Dillinger’s death — and this part, like so many parts, didn’t make director Michael Mann’s film — Frechette toured in a late-vaudeville-era traveling show called “Crime Doesn’t Pay,” telling her story, fielding questions from a gangster-obsessed audience.
A rich character, says Cotillard. Her trailer is one of four parked outside Chicago’s Union Station, where various interviews for the North American “Public Enemies” press junket are being conducted. If you’re shooting a 1930s gangster picture or a 1930s love story — the movie is both — and you want classy period architecture or need a shot of a train pulling into a station, Union’s your station. (One of “Public Enemies’” highlights is a brief, beautiful shot of a train bearing G-men arriving in Chicago, met by Christian Bale’s Melvin Purvis.)
Mann threw tons of research at his leading lady. In northern Wisconsin, she met with relatives of Frechette’s.
“I really wanted to know about her childhood. I remember with Edith Piaf, there were things about her I didn’t understand, and it’s really hard to be someone 100 percent when you don’t understand the person. I found all my answers in her childhood.”
Frechette attended a Catholic missionary school followed by a strict boarding school.
“Not being allowed to speak your own language, not allowed to live your own culture ... it creates a new personality,” says Cotillard. “I think she distrusted authority. And she had that in common with Dillinger, among other things.”
Mann’s onscreen worlds are ruled by men, yet Cotillard asserts that “in each of his movies there’s a very strong female character. That’s one of the things I love about his movies. I love ‘Collateral.’ Jada Pinkett Smith has a real part to play, even if it’s small. She really has something to defend. Gong Li in ‘Miami Vice’ — such an interesting role.”
The research relating to Frechette, she says, took her down some unexpected paths. “Michael feeds you the information that will bring out of you the emotion he wants,” she says. She met with convicts’ wives. She met with strippers. “I thought, ‘Why am I meeting with strippers?’ (In Las Vegas, no less.) I wasn’t sure why, since Billie Frechette was not a stripper. But Michael told me he wanted me to meet them because they know who has the money. Women in that profession know it’s not always the obvious guy with the good suit buying bottles and bottles of champagne.” In real life and in Mann’s film, Dillinger moved in fast and claimed Frechette; Cotillard believes the seduction was mutual, and that it really was love.
The real homework, she says, related to Billie’s dialect. Cotillard has worked in English-language films before — her first was Tim Burton’s “Big Fish” — but here she tackled a French-Canadian-Menominee-Wisconsin-Chicago amalgam.
“It was kind of ... hard,” she says, deliberately, making sure to hit the “h” in “hard” distinctly. “Billie’s not supposed to have a French accent. Fortunately she had French blood, so it works with my touch of French accent. But I knew it would never be as I wanted it to be. I started to learn English too late (at 11) to be able to have a perfect American accent. I’m working on it. I love the language, so that helps. But it was hard. It might be the hardest thing I’ve had to do, really.”
She smiles. “Playing Piaf, an old lady on drugs, that was easier.”