Once a shy and anxious child, French actress Marion Cotillard tells Karen Anne Overton how she has finally found happiness through her pursuit of art, love and in her greatest role, as a mother
“It’s complicated, but I was extremely vulnerable growing up. I expected other people to behave kindly and rationally and I discovered that the world isn’t like that,” reveals a disarmingly candid Marion Cotillard. Since winning an Oscar for her heartbreaking and unforgettable performance as French singer and actress Édith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, the Gallic sweetheart has confronted her vulnerabilities and gone on to become one of the highest paid non-American actors in Hollywood.
Directors adore her chameleon-like mystery and audiences love her charisma and classical beauty, but the biggest secret to Cotillard’s success is her devotion to her craft – embodying characters to the point where she cannot shake them. When it came to Piaf in particular, she became almost possessed until she realised that the spirit of the tragic chanteuse clung to her because Piaf herself was abandoned as a child and her biggest fear was being left alone.
Now a mother herself to five-year-old Marcel and new daughter Louise, born in March, Cotillard has come to the conclusion that she cannot plumb the emotional depths she used to for fear of losing herself down the creative rabbit hole. “I think you always achieve more by throwing yourself into a character, but keeping touch with the ‘now’ is imperative, no matter how ‘method’ we want ourselves to be as actors,” the 41-year-old explains. “I used to allow myself to get lost inside the person I was portraying and go to some very dark places – whatever it took to really embody that character. But you cannot do that as a mother and I don’t want my son to see me in a depressive state!”
From the murderous Lady Macbeth to a double amputee in Rust and Bone, Cotillard has consistently and convincingly embodied the most troubled of women, but equally can be vivacious and charming. Take her amusing turn as Fanny Chenal in A Good Year or the fearless Sophie in Love Me If You Dare, who goes to dangerous lengths to win the heart of childhood sweetheart Julien, played by Marion’s real-life love, Guillaume Canet. The pair have tangible chemistry on screen – clearly the spark that led to them becoming a couple in 2007. They now reside in Paris.
In interviews, the Dior muse affectionately refers to Canet as her ‘boyfriend’ but is otherwise notoriously tight-lipped about her private life and admits to feelings of unease at life in the public eye. “Sometimes it’s annoying to deal with the paparazzi, but I’m much better at handling that than before,” she says matter-of-factly. “Being successful in my world means having more attention – this is normal and I have become much more relaxed in accepting it. I have an amazing life and a beautiful family, and I am able to work with very talented people doing what I love. I have nothing to complain about!”
Having been raised in a theatrical family, the star practically grew up on the stage; her decision to act was instinctive. “My mother was an actress and so she would bring me to her rehearsals – the theatre was a big part of my world while I was growing up,” she says.
Naturally, Marcel often accompanies his mother on film sets, unless she is lucky enough to be working in Paris, when she has the pleasure of coming home to her family every night. “I don’t feel different from any other mother with a career and often I will spend several months at home in between films, so that is also an advantage,” she says. “I love being on the road and discovering new places and I always enjoy bringing my son along so he can explore.”
Although Cotillard came to the world’s attention relatively late in Hollywood terms, she has quickly become one of the most treasured leading ladies. And she’s proved equally charming off screen as on. While filming spy drama Allied, with Brad Pitt, there was fierce speculation that Cotillard was responsible for the breakdown of Pitt’s marriage to Angelina Jolie. But in her typically gracious style the actress responded with a post on Instagram that not only denied the rumours, but confirmed her second pregnancy. “Many years ago, I met the man of my life, father of our son and of the baby we are expecting. He is my love, my best friend, the only one that I need,” she wrote – in French and English.
This no-nonsense attitude spills into Cotillard’s work as she points out that while her growing brood is important to her, so is her career. “Even though my priorities have changed and I am attached to my family life, I have more energy and desire to work than ever!” she exclaims. “It’s as if everything in my world has gone to the next level. And I even sleep less than before because Marcel gets up early in the morning – but that’s the life I have and it’s rewarding.”
Meanwhile, alongside her film work Cotillard is an environmental campaigner who works with Greenpeace. She admits Hollywood and environmentalism are at odds and she will eventually relinquish the former, but for now she is simply ‘very happy’, adding with a smile: “I think of myself as a girl who has been lucky enough to realise her dreams even after spending many years feeling lost. I’m very much at peace with myself now.”