“I have conversations with myself,” Marion Cotillard tells me. “When I said yes to Macbeth I was like, ‘My god, here you go again. I really thought we had this conversation before when you told yourself, okay drama is enough, you’ve experienced a lot a drama can you have fun, please, so that we can have fun all together within yourself?’” But for the French actress, it’s her emotionally daring and beautifully raw performances that have made her one of Hollywood’s most sought after actors. From her Academy Award-winning turn as Edith Piaf in La vie en rose to her portrayal of a defiant Polish woman coming to America in James Gray’s The Immigrant, there’s always an honesty and dramatic weight you can expect from watching Cotillard on screen.
And with her latest film Two Days, One Night, Cotillard lends her talents to legendary filmmakers Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne to tell the story of woman, Sandra, just recovering from a serious depression, who returns to work to discover her coworkers have voted for a pay bonus in exchange for her dismissal. In the Dardenne Brothers’ compassionate and socially relevant film, we follow Sandra as she spends a weekend going door-to-door in an attempt to persuade her coworkers to sacrifice their bonuses in order for her family not to fall into disparity.
While fighting for her family, in her race against the clock she falls back into her past illness as she anxiously awaits her fate. And in portraying the character’s inescapable pain, there’s a delicate yet haunting power in Cotillard’s performance that resonates with the Dardenne’s incredible ability to expose an epic humane investigation in such a stripped down and beautifully intimate portrait.
How did you get to know the Dardennes and were you surprised when they approached you about starring in one of their films?
I met with them once when I was shooting Rust and Bone because they were producing the Belgian part of the movie. I met with them very briefly and I was very impressed. I have a huge admiration and respect for their work and they were one of my favorite directors before working with them, and after, even more. When I was told they wanted to meet with me to offer me a job, I was very surprised because they’re not used to working with actors with much experience, or French actors because they usually work with Belgian actors. So I was very surprised and very excited that I would have the opportunity to work with someone that, for me, had always been unreachable.
You play a very fragile and vulnerable women in this film, and it seems like those very intense roles are what you gravitate towards. How do you go about deciding on which projects you’re going to pursue?
Of course the directors are very important, but the story is very important too. A few weeks ago I said no to a director that I was the one to come to even though it was one of my biggest dreams is to work with him. He offered me the most beautiful role in a film with an amazing script, and I had to say no because I just finished Macbeth, which was really dark and really dramatic and right after this film.
This was a director that I dream about, but the role he offered me was super, super dramatic, and I said my god it’s kind of crazy that I say no to you when I was the one that begged you, please, please I want to work with you. I told him the problem was that it would six months shooting and I cannot live for six months with the pain of his person and the despair and the dramatic life of this person, and he understood. So deciding on a film, it depends on a lot of things. Of course the director, of course the story, but also where am I in my life, you know?
It’s funny because this director, I could have done anything with him and I didn’t do it because my life has changed, because I’m a mom, because when you do a lot of dramatic stories with very intense characters it’s a big part of my life. Two Days, One Night was a month of rehearsals and eleven weeks of shooting and then Macbeth was a lot of rehearsals too, and suddenly it’s like seven or right months of your life you’re living with this darkness.
Do you find that the characters you play bleed into your own life or do you have to shake that off now that your life has changed?
Yeah. I have to now, but it’s hard. Before I was a mom it was okay for me, I would enter a world and if I had to stay in this world for six months it was okay. Today it’s not, I have to go back home and be myself. Sometimes it’s hard and I can feel that I’m myself, but I have to be very careful not to let weird emotions overwhelm me. So yes, today it’s definitely different. Three years go this director would have come with this script and I would have gone crazy and I would have said yes right away with no question.
How did you approach portraying Sandra’s depression and what was your process in creating a backstory for who she is before we meet her in the film?
When I start working on a character I don’t have a specific technique. I never use the same thing each time and the way I’m going to work takes its roots in the project itself and how the director will want me to work. In the case of the Dardenne Brothers, we had a month of rehearsals and very deep rehearsals. Even if it was not deep in acting, we wore the costumes and we worked on every location, so it was more like theatre rehearsal process than what we usually do in movies. The way I will work is based on what I need to create this character, and in this case I needed a lot of background stories, which I didn’t have.
In the script you discover her and you know she has just recovered from a depression and she goes back there right away with this bad news, but you don’t know where it comes from. You don’t know who she is and what does she like and what does she not like, or how was it when she was at the highest peak of her depression and how did that affected her kids, her husband, and her friends.
So I had to create all this, and I really enjoyed doing that. So to create a life I wrote scenes that nobody knows about, not even the Brothers, and I needed this suitcase of drama to open sometimes and to use. Depression makes you act in a certain way and sometimes in the middle of a conversation you will burst into tears, and so I needed to feel this, and it’s not really easy. I don’t know how to burst into tears like that, so I needed a lot of background to use. I needed something so that, with one word or even one thing to look at, this will remind me of a scene that happened and bam I will burst into tears. I really needed a lot of material.
Having done upwards of 80 takes for a lot of the sequences, did you find that emotionally exhausting?
No, that was not exhausting. I needed to be in a state of creation, because let’s say I have this scene and we shot it 82 times—we often did 82 takes or sometimes 95 and sometimes 100—and I know what I’m going to use in this notebook that I have where I wrote very dramatic scenes, and I knew that this would help. But at a certain point after 30 takes, this thing that worked doesn’t work anymore, so you take another one and then another one and then another, and then you’re out of material. So then you have to create more, and I loved it. Actually, sometimes I would ask for more takes when we were on take 80 and when I did that, the crew was like, okay she’s definitely totally out of her mind.
I’ve worked with directors who would do a lot of takes and you don’t understand why and it’s super frustrating. You lose a little bit of your character because you yourself are like, again, but why? With the Daridennes, each new take I knew why I would have to do it again, and even when we did 95 takes it was okay for me because I understood why. So you’re in this energy of creativity and I actually loved it. Of course now today when I’m talking with you and saying we did 82 takes I’m like, did you really do that? But at that time I never felt exhausted, on the contrary, I felt this energy that was holding me.
You were at the NYFF last year with The Immigrant, which I loved, but was surely a much different process than this film. How was your experience working with the wonderful James Gray?
Well, that was one of my dreams to work with him, and I actually couldn’t believe when he asked me. We met through my boyfriend because they worked together, and I met him and was like, oh my god this is James Gray, he’s one of the greatest directors I would love to work with him, but because I’m not the person who would say that to him, he didn’t really know that I loved him so much. And we started to become friends and suddenly the relationship more of, I love this guy he’s my friend, he’s funny, he’s smart. Then you don’t even think anymore that it would be possible to work with him, it’s a different relationship. So when he asked me if I wanted to work with him I was very happy. That was a challenging shoot because we didn’t have money, so we didn’t have time, we worked almost like 24 hours 7 days a week.
You turned down the film you mentioned earlier because you needed to distance yourself from darkness—so does that mean you’d like to do something lighter next?
Yeah. I’m interested in experiencing something different for myself. I have conversations with myself and when I said yes to Macbeth I was like, “My god, here you go again, I really thought we had this conversation before when you told yourself, okay drama is enough, you’ve experienced a lot a drama can you have fun, please, so we can have fun all together within yourself?” And the thing is, projects come and it’s not my brain that’s making the decision in a way. I feel that I have my place here or there and that’s how I choose my projects. That’s why sometimes I’m like, “Are you really going to choose this, are we really going to go back to drama, drama, drama?” So yeah, I don’t know what’s going to come, but I hope fun is going to come.