I’d last seen Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose, director Olivier Dahan’s film about the life of the great French singer Edith Piaf. Born in destitution on the streets of Paris, Piaf reached the summits of artistic achievement and international celebrity before dying of cancer at age 47, her body wracked by decades of emotional turmoil, overwork, and addiction. So meeting the radiant young actress in a New York hotel suite recently was something of a shock. On screen, Cotillard embraces this role-of-a-lifetime body and soul; in person, she’s calm, cool, and utterly self-possessed.
Leslie Camhi: What does the voice of Edith Piaf mean to you? Marion Cotillard: Her whole life is in her voice, both her enormous strength and her great emotional fragility. And then it’s a unique voice, full of character, authentic and earthy, a voice of the people and of the Parisian street.
Is that a milieu with which you are personally familiar? Well, I didn’t have a miserable childhood, as she did. But I grew up in a poor and working-class suburb of Paris, in the projects. When I was little, it was great, everybody’s door was open all the time. There were Chileans, North Africans—you got to know a lot of different cultures and people who were managing to survive on very little money.
How did you become an actor? I come from a family of theater actors and directors. So I took classes with my parents, and then I met some people who helped me along. When I wanted a coach for the role of Piaf, I called one of my old teachers, Pascal Luneau. Our goal was never to mimic Piaf, but to understand her heart and soul.
As Piaf, your speaking voice is almost as extraordinary as her real-life singing voice. I spent an enormous amount of time listening to recordings of her voice, and to her songs, of course. During the film’s preparation, I was afraid that if I tried to speak like her, I’d end up with nothing more than an imitation. Two weeks before the shoot, I was still wondering if things would work out. But I could sense things falling into place inside of me.
It must be difficult to play the end of someone’s life and career, when you’re close to the beginning of your own. Yes. And then there’s the death itself—I really couldn’t identify with that.
How long was the makeup? Three to five hours for the later scenes, and though uncomfortable, it also helped me a lot. The lenses covering my eyes, with red veins to make them look older, the prostheses—it was all very heavy and hot on my face. And there was a heaviness in Piaf, too, toward the end. I remember, when I found out that she had died at 47, I couldn’t make the connection between that age and the pictures of her. And then, with all her excesses, it made sense.
Is there a moral in the film? It’s the story of a woman who took things all the way, who put all of her energy, all of the time into love and the sharing of emotions. So it’s beautiful, and at the same time that childlike innocence she wanted to keep her whole life also pushed her to extremes. I don’t see a lesson in it, exactly; I see the logic of human disaster. [She was] abandoned by [her] mother as a baby, so she had this great fear of abandonment, which fueled her tyrannous hold on people. And at the same time, the way she used this disaster in her art was magnificent. What remains of it are the most beautiful love songs ever performed.