It’s a rare actress who can skip the ingénue stage and enter Hollywood as a full-fledged star. But that’s what Marion Cotillard did when she appeared out of nowhere (to American audiences, at least) as the living, breathing, singing, and boozing embodiment of Édith Piaf in 2007’s La Vie en Rose. That passionate performance won her an Academy Award for best actress—only the second time a performer has received the award for a non-English-speaking role (the first was Sophia Loren in 1962 for Two Women, 1960). By the time Cotillard took to the stage that night at the Oscars, she had already become a major Hollywood commodity. But the fact that she has managed to make such a fast stake in American cinema when the careers of so many gorgeous, talented foreign actresses have faded after a few accent-heavy roles is a testament to something larger at work. Unlike the only other comparable French import, Catherine Deneuve, the 34-year-old Cotillard doesn’t rely on a glacial seriousness, but instead projects a penetrating, almost wounded sensitivity in her characters, as if she’s thinking about them as having lives, histories, and disappointments that go beyond their time on the screen. Her versatility is evidenced in two prime performances in 2009—first as Billie Frechette, a mobster’s moll, in Michael Mann’s John Dillinger biopic Public Enemies, and then as Luisa Contini, the malcontent wife in Rob Marshall’s Nine (where Cotillard once again got to put her singing voice to use).
Cotillard’s seemingly endless range may have something to do with her upbringing: She was raised by actor parents in Paris and the outlying countryside. Today, the actress still considers Paris her home—not that she’s there very much anymore, with a full docket of roles ahead of her. This summer she appeared in Christopher Nolan’s recently released nightmarish thriller Inception, opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, and she has just signed on to play a doctor in Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion. But the role Cotillard is probably most excited about is leading her back to her native city—this summer she begins filming Midnight in Paris with Woody Allen. For all of her outside projects—she works closely with Greenpeace, is the face of Lady Dior, and lately has taken to dressing up like a man and performing under the name Simone with the French rock act Yodelice—Cotillard still comes across as quiet, innocent, and sweetly optimistic to the point that it’s hard to imagine her capable of channeling the stormy, self-destructive temper of a woman like Piaf. Perhaps that’s because acting is only part of what gives her life meaning—and Cotillard wants to find meaning. She recently reconnected with her Nine co-star (and fellow Oscar-winner) Nicole Kidman, to discuss the mysteries of life, death, deforestation, learning to love what you hate, and how to curb the wasteful nature of craft service on a movie set.
NICOLE KIDMAN: Marion!
MARION COTILLARD: Nicole, where are you?
KIDMAN: I’m in Nashville. Where are you?
COTILLARD: I’m in Paris.
KIDMAN: But weren’t you just in the Congo?
COTILLARD: I was until two days ago. I was in the Congo for a week because I’ve been working with Greenpeace for a while and I’ve been wanting to do a documentary about the forest there. It’s one of the most ancient forests in the world and I met all of these amazing people who are trying to fight against the timber industry cutting down the trees there. People were telling me all about their lives and how they are trying to survive in a country where there is so much corruption. I even slept in one of the forest villages. I really connected to the people there—their hopes and despair and struggles. It was an intense and beautiful trip.
KIDMAN: Are you hopeful that this forest can be saved?
COTILLARD: Well, the situation is pretty dire. The civil war there lasted for almost a decade, which in an odd way actually saved the forest from being destroyed during that time. But now that the war has ended, it’s easier for those who want the trees—businesses from Europe to China—to come in and take the riches of the country. There are really no rules about doing that. For a pack of smokes and a few beers you can gain the right to cut down the trees. So through the first days of my trip the problem seemed really dark. But when I started talking to people, I realized that there was some hope—they want to get their power back. That made me feel like there was hope to make things right. Hopefully I, along with the people at Greenpeace, can be a witness to what is happening over there.
KIDMAN: And serve as the international voice. How did this become your passion, this desire to protect the Earth?
COTILLARD: I think it comes from my family—especially my grandmother. I remember when I was a little girl at her house in Brittany. When she cooked, she wouldn’t waste anything. And my parents always raised me to believe that the most important thing was respect. Respect the place you live, be aware of the impact that you have on things. I was lucky to have this education growing up. I was born in Paris and raised in the suburbs and then lived in the countryside. We had a beautiful house with a huge garden. When I moved to the country, I was really connected to nature and the seasons. So when I finally went back to Paris, I had a very hard time connecting with the city again and the way we waste so much. I started to read and teach myself about the environment—and why it was not organic and natural to be living in the city.
KIDMAN: It’s a beautiful upbringing to have had because it was even before it became so politically correct to be environmentally concerned. It was just ingrained in you from day one. Where we live now, in Nashville, we support the little local farm up the road. We get them to give us vegetables and fruits that are in season and that’s what we eat. But you did that as a child.
COTILLARD: Yes. I’m very happy with what’s happening now and how the awareness is spreading. Because 10 years ago my mind-set wasn’t really normal for most people. I sounded like a crazy person talking about the environment. People saw me as a hippie who wanted to make my own cheese and live with animals in a house without electricity.
KIDMAN: [laughs] I wouldn’t mind doing that.
COTILLARD: Yeah, just maybe not all my life. It’s a paradox to be an actress, living in the city, taking planes all the time, trying to find the right balance in this life, which is not so eco-friendly, and still try to respect the environment.
KIDMAN: The worst part is probably flying. But I have to say for how you were on the set of Nine, your awareness rubbed off on the people around you. It rubbed off on me. I mean, you changed the way—
COTILLARD: Oh, the trash bins! [Cotillard supported a campaign for recycling on set] One of the crew members wanted to be the guard of the garbage!
KIDMAN: I remember everyone on the set said the same thing about you. I know Rob [Marshall] said it on Nine: that you’re otherworldly, that it seems like you come from another planet—and I mean that in the most beautiful way. And yet you are the most Earth-based of all of us. That’s a very strange paradox. You have this fairy quality, like you’re flitting through trees and stars, and then at the same time, you’re really grounded. It’s very hypnotic . . . You don’t have to respond to that. I’ll say that!
COTILLARD: [laughs] I think the Earth and everything around it is connected—the sky and the planets and the stars and everything else we see as a mystery. I think we connect when we accept that the mystery is also taking place here on the ground. We live on Earth and have jobs and interact in society, but we still exist because there is a moon rotating around us, and a sun we rotate around.
COTILLARD: I think searching is a beautiful thing. There is this thought that goes, If you search and search and stop searching, then ultimately you’ll find what you need. But I think maybe if you don’t search you wouldn’t have the experience of searching and then won’t find it at all. You have to search first, if you know what I mean. It’s the experience of living. We can have one experience that can change our whole lives. I saw a documentary recently about a guy who was attacked by a shark. He was very injured and almost died. After this, he went all over the world killing sharks. Then an even bigger fear entered his mind: “I have killed so many of them. If I go on killing sharks, maybe one day they will all disappear.” The fear of his being responsible for the extinction of sharks made him change, and he then became a defender of sharks.
COTILLARD: I always remember the image of him on a boat. He had been protecting sharks for years but had never had another physical connection with a shark since the day of his attack. He’s standing there and a shark specialist tells him, “Sharks aren’t monsters. You can touch them.” A shark came and he touches its nose and gets very emotional. It’s a great image of how life can suddenly change and you can connect with the very thing that you were trying to destroy.
KIDMAN: People can change. I hate hearing that terrible expression “A leopard never changes his spots.” If that’s true then we’re doomed. I don’t believe we are doomed human beings—or living in a doomed world.
t’s really an interesting idea to enter someone else’s dreams. I would love to go into an animal’s dream—like a lion’s or a cat’s. —Marion Cotillard
COTILLARD: I believe in human beings absolutely. Sometimes I’m just a little disturbed by how we rule the world. When I was a teenager I was so angry. I was asking questions like, “Why am I here? Why are we alive? What am I doing?” Now I’ve stopped searching for those answers—which I might never get. I think it’s more important to feel connected. When I was in the Congo I couldn’t speak the language. But I could understand what was happening by looking in someone else’s eyes.
KIDMAN: That’s a wonderful ability, Marion. And I love that your grandmother is 101! I find it sad in this day and age that we don’t value our elders the same way we used to. In most cultures they were the ones who had the wisdom and the power, and that’s gotten lost. I’m trying to teach my daughter, Sunday Rose, to have that respect for older people. I’d love to see that come back.
COTILLARD: How old is your daughter?
KIDMAN: She’s turning 2 next month. She was about four weeks old when she was on set with us . . . Just a tiny little thing.
COTILLARD: Yes, I remember she was such a cute little baby.
KIDMAN: And she eats out of the garden. We just planted our vegetables for the summer and all we have at the moment is lettuce. I’m hoping the corn will be beautiful, because I love eating corn out of the garden. And we just bought some alpacas. They are sort of the cousins of llamas, which I’ve always wanted because of their long necks and eyelashes. Anyway, we should talk about all the films you have out. Inception—I saw the trailer in a cinema in Nashville the other day. Everyone in the audience responded to it.
COTILLARD: I love the story because it has a beautiful balance between an action movie and a movie about dreams. I have a very busy nightlife in my dreams. [laughs]
KIDMAN: It’s about being able to enter people’s dreams and control them, isn’t it?
COTILLARD: Cobb [Leonardo DiCaprio’s character] is a specialist in entering people’s dreams. He tries to steal things out of them and manipulate the dreamer’s unconscious. It’s really an interesting idea to enter someone else’s dreams. I would love to be able to do that.
KIDMAN: I couldn’t bear it if anyone was privy to my dreams. It would be like reading my diary.
COTILLARD: You know what? I would love to go into an animal’s dream—like a lion’s or a cat’s. I’m sure that’s pretty awesome.
KIDMAN: I love that feeling when you wake up after a nightmare and go, “Oh, it’s not happening,” when it’s been so vivid and so real. I love that moment when you realize it was just a dream. Then there are those, which I had a lot of when I was young, where you wish that the dream had been real.
COTILLARD: Like flying in dreams . . .
KIDMAN: Yes, like those kind. You’re also about to work on a film with Woody Allen. Is he filming that in Paris?
COTILLARD: Yes, which I’m so happy about because last year I was away from home all the time. I loved being on the road and having the opportunity to travel all over. But I’m happy to be able to be home and asleep in my bed after a day of work. Usually when you work, you make homes everywhere. I’ve made homes in Chicago, London, Africa . . . When I was in Los Angeles shooting Inception, I rented a beautiful house. It was home for a while, but I was aware it wasn’t mine. It might actually be a challenge to get into a character while being in my own place.
KIDMAN: It’s different because you aren’t removed from your regular life. But Penélope [Cruz] loved working with Woody, didn’t she?
COTILLARD: She loved it. And so did Naomi Watts.
KIDMAN: Yes, Naomi said it was the best film experience that she’s ever had.
COTILLARD: He’s a maestro. I still can’t believe I’m going to do a movie with him.
KIDMAN: I met him once when he was playing jazz at the Carlyle Hotel in New York. My sister and I went to see him. He plays on Monday nights. I think it was right around when Sean Penn had been working with him, and we went with Sean. We sat at a table and just listened to him play and then briefly met him afterward. My sister and I were like, Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe this! I love that he continues to play music. You play guitar, right?
COTILLARD: Well, um . . . [laughs]
KIDMAN: Yes, you do!
COTILLARD: Well, actually, when I was in Los Angeles last January, a friend called me up who is an amazing singer who goes by the name Yodelice. He said, “Would you come to the studio? I would love for you to sing one of my songs.” So I went down and ended up going from a background singer to being in a duet. Then my friend said he was playing at the Olympia in Paris. The Olympia is one of the most famous places in Paris for concerts. Édith Piaf played there. The Olympia was very close to bankrupt and Piaf saved the place several times. So he asked me if I would sing with him there and I said, “Oh, yeah, of course.” I went to rehearsals with them and he asked me, “Would you play bass guitar?”
KIDMAN: [laughs] Oh, my gosh!
COTILLARD: I had never played bass guitar before. I was like, “Are you out of your mind? I’m not a bass guitar player!” But it has always been my dream to play bass guitar. He said, “Just try it for a few songs.” I took the bass guitar and suddenly it was so organic. So he said to me, “Would you play piano on this song?” I said, “I don’t even play piano!” He told me to try. I took piano lessons when I was like 5 or 6 but that was a long time ago. I stopped when I was 13. But suddenly it was very organic when I started playing it. So he said, “How about playing the drums?” He made me try, and it went on and on like this for a week. I was part of the band, playing all of the instruments. One day I arrived at rehearsal and my friend said, “Okay, now that you’ve done everything else, how about singing a song by yourself alone?” I said, “Man, you are way out of your mind.” But we did it and I ended up on tour with Yodelice for two months, traveling around to shows in different cities in France and Belgium. I changed my name, of course. I said, “I can’t be Marion Cotillard.” We ended up using Simone, which is my other grandmother’s name. She passed away many years ago but always wanted to be a singer. So sometimes Simone appears with the band.
KIDMAN: What a great guy to do that. I want to see Simone!
COTILLARD: [laughs] I love being Simone. I’m waiting for my schedule to open up in a month or two so I can pick up with the band and be a musician again.
KIDMAN: Being a musician is a very different life, isn’t it?
COTILLARD: Yes. But I love being one of the musicians in the back. The light is on the singer and I’m in the band. I love that.
Nicole Kidman is an Academy Award–winning actress whose upcoming films include Rabbit Hole and Just Go With It.
This is an excerpt of the cover story. To read the full Marion Cotillard interview pick up a copy of the August issue of Interview.