[25 January 2008]
To observe that a French actress is beautiful is ordinarily an exercise in the incredibly obvious. But given Marion Cotillard’s titanic and tortured Oscar-nominated performance in “La Vie en Rose”—in which she twists, bends and mutilates her physique to recreate the legendary chanteuse Edith Piaf—the transformation is unforgettable.
Lithe, buoyant and with eyes so blue they put the Pacific to shame, Cotillard had just won a best actress Golden Globe when John Anderson caught up with her at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood.
You look a little different.
Hopefully for me I don’t look like—well, I think she’s beautiful. I loved when I read the script that this guy (director Olivier Dahan) was offering me the opportunity to tell a whole life, to be 40, 44, 47; very unusual. When I read this, the first thing I thought was “That guy’s crazy.” But I love that he offered it to me. I felt right away it was something huge for an actor.
The film follows Piaf from her abominable childhood to her death in 1963. What was the toughest part for you?
The lip-synching. So difficult. I was very, very, very stressed about the lip sync because I’ve seen many movies with lip-synching in it, and most of the time it’s not so good. So the first thing I did was watch these movies again and figure out why it wasn’t good. Olivier wanted Piaf’s voice from the beginning and we had to do songs she never recorded, from when she’s young and singing in the street. So the first thing I did was watch those movies again.
Oh no, I couldn’t. They’re so bad.
We’re not talking Japanese horror movies?
No, no, most of them were French with really, really bad lip-synching. It’s hard work.
Was it a painfully physical task? After all, your Piaf looks something like a question mark by the time she hits her 40s.
I found a little trick to be smaller—I contracted all my muscles from here to here (ribs to waist) and in doing this I was closer to her position. But after two weeks my back was hurting so hard. I had to shoot for four months, so I had massage and stuff like this, but the thing was I was so more than happy, so full of being on that set doing what we were doing, that there were no difficulties because there was so much passion and joy. The only day that was very bizarre was the day we shot her death, because I stayed all day long in the bed. I knew if I got up and joked with the crew it would take me too long to get back to that state. Which is so weird.
Was it strange to see yourself aging?
It was not myself, really. Most of the people think that when I saw myself old in the mirror it would be like “wow,” but I had no eyebrows; the shape of my face wasn’t the same. And it took so long to find the right makeup, we threw three scenes in the garbage. At the end of the day, you say “Whew, it’s done!” And then three days later they say, “You have to do it again.” When we finally found the right makeup, my reaction was “OK! (slaps hands) Let’s go!” We hadn’t found the right balance between the light and the makeup, and it had all looked fake.
Did you find it a great responsibility to be portraying an icon like Piaf?
I think the responsibility is related to ego and I really didn’t need any ego at that time. I needed to just go into the work. So I never felt any responsibility. I knew I loved her more than enough not to betray her, and not betray, maybe, the people who love her. If you think about it as a big responsibility, you think about yourself. You’re not saying “OK, let’s go! Let’s see where we can go!”
The script was beautiful, intimate, but not a portrait done by someone who wanted to show only her best side. It was hard sometimes. But she was hard.
Has there been resistance from Piaf fans who didn’t want to know about that?
Oh, sure. She had a very tyrannical character sometimes. She really loved people but her tyranny came from fear of being alone. I didn’t know her, but when you’re abandoned as a child your fear about being alone is very hard to get rid of.
I read an interview, her last interview, a year after the end of the movie—I had it with me on the set for four months and never read it, I don’t know why—but it was an interview she gave really close to her death. It wasn’t published `til afterward and what she says in that interview is exactly what I found out about her. She talked about her regret that sometimes she was not so nice with some people. She knew it. And she couldn’t help it.
Did you have a hard time adjusting to that dark side of her?
No, but I had a hard time accepting that she was tyrannical. I remember working with my coach and at some point he stopped me and said, “You have so much admiration for her that in a way it stops you from meeting her entirely.” If you refuse the dark side of someone, you can’t meet that person entirely. So I knew I had to accept it. I knew he was right.