French-born Marion Cotillard has staked out an enviable international career, with a leading lady’s glamour and the versatility of a character actress. Following her breakthrough, Oscar-winning performance in “La Vie en Rose,” she has appeared in art house favorites such as “Rust and Bone” and “Midnight in Paris” along with popular successes such as “Inception” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”
In James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” opening Friday, she turns in a performance of deep emotional force as Ewa Cybulski, who arrives from Poland to New York in 1921. Desperate to get her quarantined sister off Ellis Island, Ewa finds herself trapped in a world of prostitution and promises, torn between Joaquin Phoenix’s unpredictable hustler Bruno and Jeremy Renner’s charming magician Orlando. She will also soon be seen in “Two Days, One Night,” premiering at the Cannes Film Festival, and opposite Michael Fassbender in an adaptation of “Macbeth.”
James Gray tells a story of the two of you meeting for the first time at a dinner, disagreeing about another actor and you throwing something at him. Do you remember it like that?
Oh, yeah. First of all, I have to say I never play with food. But there was nothing I could say that would be strong enough to make him change his mind. So I just lost it. So I threw bread at his face.
He has a really infectious energy, and a pretty straightforward conversation with him can get really spirited — I’m trying to say it wasn’t your fault.
It was not my fault. His opinion is unacceptable about this actor we were talking about. I cannot even give his name because it would be too awkward for James that people would know what he thinks about this amazing actor. But James has this very contagious energy. He’s passionate about what he does, what he talks about, what he thinks, everything. He has this energy that you can really feel. And I think that is part of why he’s an amazing director.
“The Immigrant” is deeply moving, at times almost unbearably sad.
Well, it’s sad, but at the same time there is a light inside each of the characters, even the darkest character has a light inside of him. If Bruno doesn’t see the light inside of himself, Ewa has the ability to see the good inside of people. And so I didn’t see it as a sad movie. It’s an intense story, and what Ewa goes through is sometimes sad but also very powerful. And I love the fact that her sister’s life is more important than anything, and it gives her the energy and the strength to do what she does.
Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner seem like two very different types of actor. Was it a challenge to work with them?
We had two weeks of rehearsal, which was amazing to get to know Joaquin, first of all, and enter this very special relationship he has with James. I was very welcome in this old couple system. And that was very interesting, working with Joaquin and James. And Jeremy arrived when we had already started shooting, and he really arrived in the process of the movie as his character arrives in the story. It kind of made sense, and the different energy of him as an actor arriving in the project as Orlando arrives in the story was kind of inspired.
Ever since the film first premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, people have tried to connect “The Immigrant” somehow to the contemporary debates over immigration policy, which is a big issue both in America and in France. Do you see some connection?
Now it’s really different, and it’s really hard to compare, even if it’s the same process of people trying to escape their situation to have a better life for them and their families. But you know, America was the land of hope, and I think it still is.
Working on bigger commercial films and also smaller productions, do you see yourself as having a career in France and a separate international career, or is it all one thing?
To me it’s one thing. And I feel really lucky to live my dream. My dream when I was a kid who wanted to be an actress was to explore, jump from one world to another and be totally different each time. I was a big fan of Peter Sellers and Sir Laurence Olivier and to me that was acting, being different in each movie, and sometimes people wouldn’t even recognize you.
You’re going to be returning to Cannes this year in “Two Days, One Night,” directed by Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, who have won many prizes there.
That was one of my best experiences. They offered me everything I had always wanted in a relationship between an actress and a director — well, two directors in that case. They work a lot, and I love to work a lot. Their level of demand is the highest I’ve ever encountered in my career, and that’s what I’m looking for. They pushed me as far as I could go and maybe beyond. I would have done anything they asked me.
And then, of course, there was your cameo role in “Anchorman 2.” You’re a very serious actress; how did that happen?
I’m a big fan of America comedies, especially Will Ferrell and all his team. And they have known that I was a fan, so they asked me if I would be a part of it, and of course I said yes right away. But I never question how people could see me. And I don’t see myself as a very serious person. In terms of my work, I love to work hard, but I’m not an intellectual person. I can be, but I’m not only that.