In her new film "Rust and Bone," which already has set box office records in France, Marion Cotillard takes a dramatic step away from her chic, seductive earlier roles. Cotillard won a 2008 Oscar as Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose," played captivating dream women in "Inception" and "Midnight in Paris," and has been a brand ambassador of Dior since 2009.
Now the 37-year-old actress goes gritty and working-class as Stephanie, a killer-whale trainer at a French seaquarium. After she suffers a terrible accident, she enters a sexually charged courtship with Ali (up-and-coming Belgian star Matthias Schoenaerts), a tough boxer/bouncer with a criminal past, impulse-control issues and a spotty record as a single parent to his young son. Each is damaged inside and out, each makes an effort to heal -- and tame -- the other.
"Rust and Bone" is already gathering Oscar buzz for Cotillard. To prepare, she took swimming lessons while filming "The Dark Knight Rises" in Pittsburgh, and spent days learning how to interact with whales by observing orca trainers at Marineland in Antibes. (Spoilers follow.) But in a September interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, she said that playing a double amputee re-learning to walk did not require a lot of study.
"I didn't need to watch a lot of videos" to create her character's body language, Cotillard said. "They showed how amputees who were experienced with their artificial legs moved. My character, who was suddenly injured, was learning to walk from scratch, like a newborn, and she learns as she goes along."
Cotillard's father was a mime and theater director, her mother an actress, but they didn't pressure her to perform, she said. Her early film diet was heavily Hollywood, and she considers herself "very lucky" to have collaborated with Woody Allen, Tim Burton, Michael Mann, Christopher Nolan, Ridley Scott and Steven Soderbergh. She hopes one day to work with her longtime favorite, Steven Spielberg, as she crafts a career shuttling between English-language roles and working in France, which she considers her home base.
Cotillard is famous for her immersion in her characters. She shaved her eyebrows and hairline to play the haggard, aging Piaf. To get inside John Dillinger's girlfriend Billie Frechette in "Public Enemies," she interviewed elders at the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin where Frechette grew up.
But she had never faced a challenge like playing a legless woman. For scenes in which Stephanie uses a wheelchair, Cotillard sat on her folded legs. Scenes where she walks on steel prosthetics were created with digital technology. "Once I put myself in the character of someone legless, I almost forgot everything below the knees."
The love affair between Stephanie, who retains a healthy sex drive, and the ever- ready Ali, who is brusquely matter-of-fact about her injury, is by turns dramatic, frankly sensual and surprisingly fun and funny. "The tragedy was already in the situation. We didn't need to dwell on it as actors," she said. "They both hurt but they are transforming, regaining their lives, embracing love. Why wouldn't they laugh together sometimes?"
Cotillard appears in several scenes with performing whales at the amusement park, in effect directing their performances. It was one of the most difficult episodes of the production, she said, because she considers the whales intelligent, sensitive creatures that should not be removed from their habitat.
"It didn't feel like I was in charge. It was as if we were working together as a team," she said. "But it was not my favorite scene. I never go to the zoo because I hate to see animals caged or turned into circus amusements. Their captivity in a swimming pool upset me. The trainers love them, working with these huge creatures is their passion, but I would not go back there again."
By contrast, she sees the scenes of Stephanie's visceral excitement about Ali's bare-knuckle boxing career as paradoxically life-affirming. The whale trainer becomes his lover, manager and chief cheerleader. It's not that her character relishes brutality, she explained, but that the combat stirs visceral feelings in a woman who felt physically desensitized. "She's not a saintly martyr," Cotillard said. "A character who is pure isn't interesting. It's the complicated ones who are the best challenge."
Colin Covert • 612-673-7186