NEW YORK — Talk to directors about Marion Cotillard, and they all gush about her remarkable immersion into every character she plays. There's no vanity. No need to look hot or sexy or slim. Just a willingness to go the distance, wherever it may lead.
The actress agrees, but points out that not being a glamazon in her current film, Rust and Bone, also has its benefits.
" I love going on set with no makeup and no hair. You just show up. I want to find the authenticity in every character," says Cotillard. "I have to feel that I'm 100% that person. And when it doesn't require any makeup or hair of course I don't care, because that's not the point."
In Rust and Bone (now in select theaters), Cotillard is Stephanie, a killer whale trainer at a marine park in the south of France who loses her legs when an orca crushes them. She subsequently bonds with a single-father brawler (played by Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts) who awakens something dormant in her.
Cotillard has been the subject of Oscar buzz since the film screened this year at the Cannes Film Festival, and she'll likely score a nomination for playing a woman who, on the surface, seems to have collapsed into a crippling black hole.
"The thing is, I think she doesn't lose anything. Of course she loses her legs. But from the inside, before the accident, she doesn't know who she is," counters Cotillard, 37. "She's not happy. She's very tough and she was looking for something, proof that she's alive. And then there's this accident and there's this guy — everything becomes real."
Oscar talk isn't new to Cotillard. She won the best-actress Academy Award for playing tortured chanteuse Edith Piaf in 2007's La Vie En Rose, and Scott Feinberg, an awards analyst at the Hollywood Reporter, says "she gives what is arguably an even more impressive performance" in Rust and Bone. He thinks it is "more likely than not" that Cotillard will be nominated again, making her only the fifth woman history to have earned multiple acting nominations for performances given in a foreign language.
Unlike Stephanie, a loner desperate for a deeper human connection, Cotillard has been happily cohabiting with her longtime professional and personal other half, actor/director Guillaume Canet. In France, they're as famous, if not more so, than Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. . They first partnered in 2003's Love Me if You Dare, and this summer, he directed her in the drama Blood Ties (co-starring Mila Kunis and Clive Owen). Together, they are raising son Marcel, almost 2.
"Most of the time, you work with actresses who are protecting themselves. They're scared of how they're going to look. Marion doesn't care how she looks or sounds," says Canet. "You can ask her to do anything and she'll follow you. I'm not saying this because I have a special relationship with her. I'm saying it because I mean it. She's really special."
Director James Gray concurs. Cotillard plays a Polish immigrant in his next film, 2013's Nightingale, and he reports that she learned to speak the language fluently for the part.
"She's off the hook, the girl. She's able to convey tremendous meaning without saying anything. That's the best you can hope for from an actor," says Gray. "That's what makes her one of the great screen actors working today. She can relay emotional commitment without having to speak."
Rob Marshall, who directed her in the musical Nine, calls Cotillard "a character actress in a leading woman's body. When I was shooting Nine, Daniel Day-Lewis turned to me and said that working with her is almost overwhelming because she's so truthful."
Perhaps that's why Cotillard remains one of the very few foreign actresses — Penelope Cruz is another — who is in demand on both sides of the pond. Cotillard starred in 2011's Midnight in Paris for Woody Allen, 2010's Inception and 2012's The Dark Knight Rises for Christopher Nolan, and 2010's Little White Lies for Canet. But ask Cotillard about her winning streak, and she attributes her success to something very basic.
"I read a story and if I get obsessed right away with it, if I feel a deep need to tell the story, that's how I go for a project. It's really basic and simple," she says."I'm lucky that amazing people want to work with me."
It's what happened with Rust and Bone. As soon as she read the screenplay, she "fell in love with the character right away. I didn't have a lot of time in my schedule but I really wanted to do it. I made it work."
Stephanie, says Cotillard, was something of a flashback to how she was years ago, before she met Canet and became a mother.
"Today I don't really see something I can relate to her," says Cotillard. "When I was younger, I was just struggling with my life and with myself. I really wanted to understand what the purpose of my life was. So I can understand the emptiness, because it's not filled by the answer of why am I here? I can connect to that. But it's not me anymore. That was me a long time ago."
Spend time with Cotillard, and she comes across as sweetly polite and a bit shy. Gray swears that when you get to know her, Cotillard is silly and lighthearted. She says that when she's home in France, she tries as much as possible to live a regular existence.
"I'm a very private person. People are very nice to me. When I'm in France I am not hidden. I'm in my house. I don't go out that much. It's kind of normal," she says. "I'm a normal person with a life that is not that normal compared to people in general. I work a lot but I was able to take some time during the summer, which never happens usually. It's not a normal life. I work a lot but I really never know what my next week will be."
She's also open about the flip side of her career: financial security that affords her a good deal of freedom. She doesn't spend more than a day or two away from her son.
"I'm lucky to be able to have a nanny with me when I work. It's really a privilege," she says.
Motherhood is a subject that makes Cotillard sound adorably giddy. She has become, she says a bit bashfully, one of those women who show off photos of their child at the slightest provocation. And she does just that on her iPhone.
"When I became a mum, I felt connected to the whole world. It can be hard, because the lack of sleep and everything goes upside down, it's like a revolution. But you have someone who needs you, who needs everything you can give him, and suddenly everything makes sense," says Cotillard.
Marshall jokes that something must have been in the water during the Nine shoot. Afterwards, Cotillard and Cruz both had children. "Marion was so ready for it and so excited. She's such a good person. She really comes from a working-class upbringing and she's never forgotten that," he says.
In person, Cotillard is luminous, with delicate features and a reserved air about her. But her daintiness is deceptive, says Canet.
"She's very tough. What I mean by that is, she's a strong woman. She has a lot of character. She can fight for everything she wants. When she has something in mind, she's going to fight for it," he says. " She's so open-minded in everything. She's not stuck in the life of an actress. She has a lot of other activities and things that she likes. That feeds her as a person. She's interested in music and literature."
And cooking. Gray reports that Cotillard is a foodie, as is he, and regularly has him to her home for dinner.
"When I asked her if she would do this movie with me, she e-mailed me and her response was: "I would adore to be an eggplant in your next meal,'" says Gray, laughing while reading her response out loud. "She's really funny. She's very goofy. She throws bread at you in the middle of dinner. She's a great cook. She's brimming with life. She's very alive. It's weird, I wonder how much of that you get to see? She's a tremendous mother and totally attentive to that kid. He's a very lucky kid."
As for Cotillard, she's a pro at playing haunted, tormented women. So isn't it time for a light, frothy comedy?
"I would love to, but you know, you have to find the right story and a good story. It has to be special. I haven't found it yet," she says.