“I always knew I’d play Lady Macbeth”

Marion Cotillard on why Shakespeare in Scotland was too good an opportunity to pass up

It’s a baking hot day in London’s Somerset House and Marion Cotillard is struggling to answer a question she’s been asking herself a lot of late: why is she so attracted to tortured characters that put her through the emotional wringer? “It’s a good question,” she laughs. “But I don’t know. I’m still asking myself this question.”

In person there’s certainly no sign of the anguished soul she’s repeatedly bared in her work since winning an Oscar as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose. On screen it’s a different matter. Whether playing Leonardo DiCaprio’s suicidal wife in Inception, the tragically crippled marine park worker in Rust and Bone, or the conflicted gangster’s moll in Public Enemies, darkness has tended to outweigh light — and there’s not much let up in her forthcoming work either.

She’s in town, after all, to promote Two Days, One Night, the latest film from Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne — the revered Belgian directing siblings who are not exactly known for going easy on their protagonists. And this past spring she finished shooting her role as Lady Macbeth in a big new screen adaptation of “the Scottish play” for Justin Kurzel, the Australian director of the ultra-bleak crime drama Snowtown.

Then again, Cotillard — who is a garrulous and unguarded interviewee, certainly more so than most actresses of her stature — is serious about her craft. Almost obsessively so. As her A-list-cementing, post-Oscar-winning career choices attest, she’s a movie star who works hard, not a movie star who’s hard work.

It’s this quality that landed her the lead in Two Days, One Night. Purveyors of stripped-back, hard-hitting, deeply humane social realism, the Dardennes rarely work with stars (until casting Cécile de France in their previous film, The Kid with a Bike, they’d avoided working with name actors altogether), so no one was more surprised than Cotillard when they first approached her about doing a film about a depressed factory worker who is forced to petition her co-workers to give up a much-needed bonus in order to save her job.

As Sandra, though, Cotillard doesn’t look out of place amongst the film’s mostly unknown cast. That she disappears into a role that requires her to credibly convey the extremes of depression in a naturalistic setting is a testament both to the perfectionism of her directors and her own meticulous preparation.

“I had written very personal material to help me create this character,” she says, taking care to clarify that by “personal” she means personal to the character, not drawn from her own life. “I wrote lots of scenes that are obviously not in the movie, but I needed to know how her depression affected her relationship with her husband and her kids; I needed to know where this depression came from; I needed to know who her mother was, who her father was — I created a lot of things to feed the emotion of what you see on screen.”

That kind of immersion can take its toll on an actor and Cotillard, who now has a three-year-old son with her partner, the French actor and director Guillaume Canet, admits she had to completely rethink her approach after becoming a mum. “It’s made a big, big difference,” she says. “I have to go home with myself and not another character.” Not that she’s completely mastered it yet. On Two Days, One Night and Macbeth there were points where she had to send her son back to France. “It was too hard not to bring a part of the character home; the struggle was too much to take.”

So why do it? The simple answer seems to be that she’s wired that way. “What I want to achieve with a character and a story is to work on it so much that you’re going to go beyond the work and just see this character that’s been created by a bunch of people who like to tell stories.”

That can make her hypercritical of her own performances. When I casually ask what it was like being thrust into the Batman universe as one of the stars of The Dark Knight Rises (which reunited her with her Inception director Christopher Nolan) she winces at the memory. “When I got the offer I said, ‘Well, the thing is, I’m pregnant and I won’t be able to shoot until blah-blah-blah…’ and then he organised things for me to be able to shoot it. But it’s not my best work,” she says, smiling. “And I paid for it.”

How so?

“Well there was this thing on the internet called ‘People Dying like Marion Cotillard dotcom or something’.” I Google it later and discover she’s referring to a Tumblr site dedicated to people mocking her character’s death scene from the film. “Which was horrible!” she squeals. “So yeah, I’m not very proud of everything I do in that movie. But it was a great experience on set. That’s what I can say.”

Such humility is refreshing, even if she is being unnecessarily hard on herself. Her performance was hardly Halle-Berry-in-Catwoman bad and she’s actually done a pretty remarkable job of avoiding the so-called ‘Curse of the Oscar-winner’ that can sometimes send promising careers (Berry’s for one) into an unexpected tailspin.

That, of course, might also have had something to do with the fact that Edith Piaf was such a transformative role for a relatively unknown actress to take on. When La Vie En Rose catapulted her into the international spotlight, people didn’t really have a fixed idea of what kind of actress she was — or, given her shaved eyebrows, altered hairline and hunched-over physique, what she even looked like.

“Yeah, maybe,” she nods. “Maybe also I just never felt the pressure of Hollywood. I’m not from there and I have a special weird place in this industry. I never thought I would do movies in English, or American movies, so the choices that I had put less pressure on me. I guess when an American actor gets an Oscar there’s a lot of expectations.

“And I got lucky,” she continues, “because people in the US and people in the UK wanted to work with me. But I guess the business and the audiences, they didn’t have big expectations.”

She certainly capitalised on her raised profile in the right way, notching up an enviable string of high profile starring and supporting roles for the likes of Nolan, Michael Mann and Steven Soderbergh. But that aforementioned lack of expectation also afforded her the freedom to follow a huge, critically acclaimed blockbuster like Inception with the grounded melodrama of Jacques Audiard’s Rust and Bone — a film that now feels like a bridge between her critically acclaimed high-end Hollywood work and her performance in Two Days, One Night (although that might also have something to do with the fact that the Dardennes also served as its co-producers).

Still, I wonder if Cotillard’s desire to seek out such heavy dramatic material in her career stems from growing up the daughter of actors. Born in Paris and brought up in the nearby suburb of Alfortville, Cotillard discovered the profession from the inside but doesn’t think it inevitable that she became an actress because of her mum and dad’s theatrical careers. “My brothers, for example, are not actors,” she says of her twin siblings, one of whom is a sculptor, the other a filmmaker. “But I guess it was in my blood from early on because of my fascination with human beings — and my desire to understand how this very weird and unique animal that we are works.”

Enrolling in the prestigious Conservatoire d’Art Dramatique d’Orléans — where her mother also taught — Cotillard actually found commercial success in France relatively soon after graduation, co-starring the Taxi films, a trilogy of Luc Besson-penned action comedies that were sizeable domestic hits. However her first professional job at the age of 18 was, bizarrely enough, an episode of Highlander. “Yeah, that was funny. Two of my first experiences were on TV speaking English. I’m not sure on the English version if it’s actually my voice though, because my English at that time had a very strong French accent.”

It would be ironic if it had been dubbed given that part of the ongoing cult appeal of the movie that spawned the show is the incongruity of its French star Christopher Lambert and his curious Scottish accent. I suggest that kind of scrutiny is not something that Cotillard will have to contend with when Macbeth goes on release next year. According to a recently published on-set interview with her co-star Michael Fassbender, her Lady Macbeth is not of Scottish origin and might have a French connection in her back-story.

“No, not French,” she corrects. “I’m playing her as a foreigner. I hope it’s not going to sound too French. I worked a lot on a British accent, but she’s a foreigner. Justin Kurzel thought it was interesting the she would have this kind of weird accent so that you don’t know where she comes from.”

With the film pitched as a muddier, bloodier spin on the Scottish play than previously attempted on screen, wrapping her tongue around the Shakespearean verse and her mind around Lady M’s descent into guilt-plagued madness has left her in little doubt about the degree of difficulty it presented.

“It was my hardest job so far,” she says. Still, having planned to take time off after Two Days, One Night, doing Macbeth in Scotland (the film was shot partially in Skye) was too good an opportunity to pass up. “I always knew I would play Lady Macbeth,” she says, “I just thought it would be on stage and in French. So when I had the opportunity to be part of this project [she came on board after Natalie Portman dropped out], I thought, ‘This is an opportunity you won’t have twice’ — even though it was crazy for me.”

Weirdly enough, the location work also allowed her to fulfill a childhood desire to visit Scotland. “I never had the opportunity before, and when I got to Scotland, I knew why I always wanted to go. Sometimes you go to a place and it feels like home — even if it’s the first time you’ve been there. I had exactly that feeling when I was in Scotland.”

Though the film is being positioned as a prime awards contender for next year, her prodigious work rate means that in addition to Two Days, One Night, there’s plenty more screen anguish to come before then. This week’s 1970s-set New York cop drama Blood Ties, which is directed by her other half, Guillaume Canet, sees her play the drug-addicted wife of Clive Owen’s ex-con — a role that required her to undergo some degrading confrontations as her character struggles to provide for her kids. Coincidentally, alongside her starring role in co-scripter James Gray’s haunting new film The Immigrant (in which she plays a Polish woman newly arrived in 1920s New York), Blood Ties was one of two projects completed last year that required her to play a prostitute — three if you count her appearance as a lady of the night in David Bowie’s music video for the title track of his most recent album, The Next Day. “Yeah, I don’t know why last year was all about prostitution,” she laughs.

The intensity of the film roles was at least offset by the thrill of working with Bowie. “When I read the email and realised he wanted me to be part of his video I called my agents and they were like: ‘We’ll email to say thanks, but that you can’t do it.’ And I was like: ‘Are you kidding? I’ve almost booked my flights. It’s David Bowie, man!’ So I jumped on a plane on a Sunday and was on set on Monday. It was like entering a world of magic.”

Originally published in The Scotsman 16/8/14