The Accidental Actress
She is an Oscar-winning superstar who has the world at her feet, but Marion Cotillard was only one role away from becoming a full-time activist.
Kooky, kind, and somehow a little supernatural, Marion Cotillard exudes that classic confidence one associates with the French. Directors adore her chameleon-like mystery while audiences love the charisma and beauty that floats around her. However, the biggest secret to Cotillard’s success is her devotion to her craft – embodying characters to the point where she cannot shake them.
Winning an Oscar, for instance, for her heartbreaking and unforgettable performance as French singer and actress Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose, it was a role she found herself deeply invested in. Playing Piaf, Cotillard says she became almost possessed until she realized that the spirit of the tragic chanteuse clung to her – Piaf herself was abandoned as a child and her biggest fear was being left alone.
Indeed, although outwardly Cotillard seems to have everything “together,” the actress disarmingly makes no secret of her emotional struggles. “It’s very complicated, but I was extremely vulnerable growing up. I expected other people to behave kindly and rationally and I discovered that the world isn’t like that,” she reveals.
Although the Gallic sweetheart has confronted her vulnerabilities – and gone on to become one of the highest-paid non-American actors in Hollywood – Cotillard finds herself put off by the trappings of fame and fortune. “I’m not someone who really enjoys the glamour and the red carpets and all of that,” explains the 41-year-old. “I’m still very shy, although I don’t panic when people approach me and I can speak more easily in those situations compared to how nervous and uncomfortable I would have been earlier in my career. I still have a hard time seeing myself on magazine covers or on film posters though.”
A defender of the vulnerable, Marion Cotillard is a staunch environmentalist and spokesperson for Greenpeace. In 2005 she was among the artists involved in Dessins pour le climat (Drawings for the Climate), a book of sketches that was published to raise money for the environmental activist group.
In 2013, she shocked the world’s media when she joined a controversial protest held near the Louvre Museum in Paris, demanding the release of “the Arctic 30” – 30 Greenpeace activists who were imprisoned in Russia after authorities seized their ship during a protest against Arctic oil production. All prisoners were eventually released following two months in prison.
During the symbolic protest, the actress entered a specially erected cage along with other protesters and defiantly held a sign declaring: “I am a climate defender.” The translation from her native tongue was clear: “The cause for Greenpeace should be a cause for all of us. Today we’re well aware that global warming is something terribly real and dangerous, but we continue to allow actions that in the end are damaging to nature. It’s important to support people who are trying to raise awareness for what’s happening in the world. In particular, what’s happening in the Arctic, which is something that could be disastrous if the oil companies continue to drill there.”
For some in the spotlight, philanthropy is an afterthought, like the hiring of a stylist or the perfecting of autographs. Although it is very likely that Cotillard would have been present at the protest even were it not for her fame. Born in Paris and raised in Orléans to bourgeois bohemian parents – her father, Jean-Claude Cotillard, is an actor, teacher, and former mime; her mother, Niseema Theillaud, is a drama teacher and actress – Cotillard showed an interest in theater from a very young age. Although one of her first roles was in one of her father’s plays – and she had often said that she never seriously considered any other career – as a teenager she developed a strong interest in the environment. The more she read and researched, the more she felt the urge to make a difference. After all, what could be more vital a cause than preserving and protecting our planet?
As she began working with Greenpeace in her twenties, simultaneously Cotillard was landing roles in French cinema, such as in Luc Besson’s action comedy franchise Taxi and the romantic drama Furia. Soon, however, she grew frustrated, longing to work with someone who made her “desire to be an actress.” Indeed, by the turn of the century, she had grown so tired with the situation that she considered quitting acting for good to become a full-time activist. However, celebrated director Tim Burton had other ideas, casting her in a supporting role in his fantastical comedy drama Big Fish. The young actress accepted what would be her first American role.
“It was around 2002,” Cotillard recalls. “I went to see my agent and I said: You know what – I thought about it and there’s no way I’m going to change my mind. So thank you very much; I’m going to do something else. Maybe I’ll come back. I don’t know, but I really need to do something else that allows me to be active all the time. And he said, ‘Okay, just so you know, you just have to take one meeting and I know you’re going to be happy with this meeting. And if that doesn’t work, then you do what you want to do.’ And that was Tim Burton…”
Although the power of celebrity has been proven time and time again to enhance the effectiveness of activism, raising the profile of charities and adding a certain sheen to what is generally unglamorous work, Cotillard argues that her status can, in fact, be counterproductive, as she is unable to commit fully to the cause. “I’ve come to believe that I need to refocus my energies and spend more time working to protect the environment and not spend as much time working on film sets,” she reveals. “I’ve been working a lot in recent years and, of course, I’ve enjoyed that part of my life and I cherish that time, but I think I should make more room for my passions with respect to the ecology and my engagement with that. It has been frustrating for me not to be able to give as much of myself to working with Greenpeace, for example.”
More fulfilling for her, she says, is the life she shares with Canet, whom she married in 2007 and with whom she has two children: six-year-old Marcel and Louise, who was born in March. She has found the experience of motherhood stabilizing and credits it with bringing her a profound sense of calm. “I take things more philosophically than I did before,” she says. “I also feel the comfort and love that comes with having my own family and being a mother. There’s less pressure to prove myself and I think that makes my life much simpler and calmer, but sometimes I still wish I could be as confident as I am when I’m playing a character!”
Meanwhile, Cotillard continues in a career that fails to pigeonhole an actress of great and diverse range. Having starred in two big US blockbusters last year – Assassin’s Creed and Allied – we now see her returning her energy back to French cinema in the serious drama Ismael’s Ghosts and the more light-hearted Rock’n Roll, which is written and directed by Canet, and in which she will play herself.
The actress admits that Hollywood and environmentalism are at odds and she will eventually relinquish the former, but for now she is content with her lot. Most importantly, Cotillard has come to a happier place inside. “I think of myself as a girl who has been lucky enough to realize all her dreams, even after spending many years feeling lost and not believing in myself anymore,” she smiles. “I’m very much at peace with myself now.”