It's only when you feel like you've lost everything that you learn who you really are. That's the thesis of the new French film "Rust and Bone," starring Academy Award winner Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts. Cotillard plays Stephanie, an orca trainer who loses her legs and career following a tragic accident. Following the incident, she's forced to cope with her new life while also navigating a new relationship with Alain (Schoenaerts), a street fighter and single dad.
The subtitled film is surrounded by awards buzz for its unique story, artsy cinematography and full-hearted performances. This week, before awards season winds up to full speed, Cotillard sat down with Film.com at New York City's Crosby Hotel to talk Oscars, her new film and why she'll never visit a Marineland again.
In the U.S., you're best known for your roles in "Inception" and "The Dark Knight Rises." "Rust and Bone" has a decidedly different tone. What made you want to get involved in this film?
I've always wanted to work with Jacques Audiard, ever since his first movie. So having a proposition from him was really, really crazy amazing for me, and then I read the script. I expected a very special story from him, because all of his movies are very, very special. But I didn't expect a love story, I didn't know it was, and I thought it was even more exciting and I totally fell in love with it, and with this character. I fell in love with all the characters in this movie, in this story, and Stephanie was — I felt that would be an experience that I had never had before. That's what I am looking for in a project, something that I've never done before.
Also the fact that before Jacques' movie I had done many movies with characters based on true people or and I had a lot of material to work with, a lot of information about those people. With [Stephanie], it was like a huge mystery. I had very little information about her. We had to create almost everything. And the opportunity to create and to get into that process of creating someone with such an amazing and brilliant and smart director as Jacques Audiard was really exciting and really inspiring.
You described the movie as a love story, but it's not a traditional romance. How would you describe it?
It's definitely an unconventional love story and I think it's a love story between him and her, between him and his son, between her and the son, and of course between her and the orca. It's how when there's nothing left but yourself to face, what do you do with it? Do you let it in, or do you choose to stay out and give up? But then when love is involved there's no way you will give up.
You mentioned that you did a lot of work creating Stephanie. Did you meet with amputees for character research?
I met with people who worked with orcas because I had to train for the whole choreography of the show, and I cannot be an orca trainer without having to work on that a little bit. But about the amputees, I started to watch footage of people with no legs to see how they move, but very quickly I realized that I didn't need it because it's just happened in her life and I didn't want to have too much information. I thought that I would experience with her what it was. So I didn't meet anyone, no, for that part. Then your imagination starts to work. What I loved about working with Jacques also is that his search for authenticity can take many directions and to explore many directions is really inspiring and then eventually you will find the authenticity of it. The version you've chosen will be richer of all the other versions you've explored.
So when you're doing the hand commands with the whales, you were actually working with them?
Yeah, it was actually during a real show, so I was part of the show and it was a real audience, so we had worked on this before. yeah, I had worked on learning how to ask and to get what I want, and I was very nervous because those people had paid to see a show. I was leading the show, but it went well.
Is that something you ever imagined yourself doing?
Oh my God, never. And I never want to do it again.
Were you scared?
I was not scared of them, I was scared of where they are. The Marineland is not a place where I want to go. I went there once in Chicago and it was a disaster. I cried the whole way because it's hard for me to see those animals in that kind of environment.
Some animal rights groups are upset about the use of captive animals in the film. It sounds like you might have some sympathy for them.
Well, I remember when I first heard about the project, and I heard about this character, there was a discussion between an agent and some actors, and it was like maybe a year before I was approached. I thought, "Oh my god, as much as I want to work with this director, this is something that I'll never be able to do." But then I read the script and I had totally forgotten about that thought, and it actually came back in my mind when I came back to the Marineland. I thought, "Oh my god, this is all real and they're really there." But the story and the relationship she has with the whales and what happens to her and especially when she comes back to the whale was — I mean, if it had been a movie about a Marineland, I don't know if I would have been able to do it. But the relationship with the animals was very powerful, and it was not just showing a Marineland show or something. But it's still working with animals and it's still working in a Marineland, which is something that I accepted even though I am not supporting it.
Just a tradeoff you had to make for the role.
Yeah, for the story. Because it was a story that shows something more than just captivity.
Is there a difference in your comfort level between doing a French-language film and an English-speaking part?
Of course, [in French films] I have less work on the language, obviously. But it's not something that I think about. When I read a story and I feel it's something that I belong to the story, then you have to work, and to make it work, and find the authenticity of it. But I never think, "Oh, that's going to be easier because it's in French," or "Oh, that's going to be easy because I have no makeup and hair and I'm going to show up five minutes before action." It's not something that I think about.
Do you think "Rust and Bone" could ever have been made in the U.S.?
Yeah. There's nothing to compare with. It would be, of course, totally different. But even in French, if another director would tell this story it would be different, because there's no one like Jacques Audiard, there's no one like another director. But of course here, originally it's a Canadian story, a story made with two short stories of Craig Davidson. But no, I mean, [the U.S. has] a very interesting independent industry. Well, independent industry, I don't know if that works, but yeah. And very, very strong visions, very, very strong directors who do amazing independent films, so yeah, I'm sure it would have. It's a very special story that could totally fit a U.S. film.
How do you choose your roles? You've played such varied characters.
Well, I read a story and when I feel that I belong to a story and a story belongs to me, and that I'm gonna be able to give everything I can to the character and the story, it's really organic. I read something and it gets into my blood and I need to do it. It's as simple as that.
"Rust and Bone" is getting a lot of Oscar buzz. What do you think of that?
Well, I'm excited that people love the movie, and to be able to share this movie out of my country and have this response to it is really, really exciting. The Oscar buzz itself, I don't really, I mean, you know, I hear things. But I'm not thinking about it at all, I just want to share the movie. That's the most important thing for me.
You won the Best Actress Academy Award in 2007 for "La Vie en Rose." Since you've already won a statue, do you feel less pressure now leading up to awards season?
Well, I didn't have the pressure then, I was enjoying every second of it, and then I was enjoying sharing this movie I had such an amazing experience doing it. Being able to share it almost all over the world was really exciting and that was the most important.
I've never felt any pressure. An award, you have to celebrate when it's there, you have to enjoy it when you get it, but I never expected or I never had a desire to get an award. I just have a desire to meet amazing directors and work with them. Of course when you are rewarded, you really have to enjoy it, but it's not something that I want to expect.
As an awards veteran, any lessons you've learned over the past several seasons?
No, I remember when I started the whole red carpet process, I was really shy, I was really uncomfortable, but then yeah, you get to have fun, which is how you enjoy it. But, no, I always choose what I'm going to wear based on what I like and not what is out there.
Anything about awards season you're looking forward to?
I never want to see ahead, so if something happens and I have to go to an awards show, I'll choose then, but I don't want to think ahead. I really want to enjoy the present time. I want to share the movie.
Do you see a lot of movies?
Well, I used to. Now I'm watching a lot of movies that I bought and DVDs. I don't go to the theater that much anymore, because I didn't have time and I spent my time off very far from a movie theater, but I love going to the movie. I watch a lot of movies.
What do you watch?
I watch a lot of documentaries and actually I went to the theater to see "Searching for Sugarman," which is one of the most incredible stories ever. That artist that came back, you know, to the artistic world is really amazing. I was in shock.
And now what are you working on? Are you looking for your next project?
Yeah, I've I wanted to take a time off, I wanted to have my brain clear of stories and characters. I just wanted to go back to myself and the people I love, and so now I'm starting to read again. I'm very excited because I'm really looking for inspiring and great projects.
"Rust and Bone" hit theaters in limited release earlier this month.