To observe that a French actress is beautiful is ordinarily an exercise in the incredibly obvious. But given Marion Cotillard's Oscar-nominated, titanic and tortured performance in La Vie en Rose -- in which she twists, bends and mutilates her physique to re-create the legendary chanteuse Edith Piaf -- the transformation is unforgettable. Lithe, buoyant and with eyes so blue they put the Pacific to shame, Cotillard had just won a best actress Golden Globe when John Anderson caught up with her at the Chateau Marmont in Hollywood.
You look a little different.
Hopefully for me I don't look like -- well, I think she's beautiful. I loved when I read the script that this guy [director Olivier Dahan] was offering me the opportunity to tell a whole life, to be 40, 44, 47; very unusual. When I read this, the first thing I thought was, "That guy's crazy." But I love that he offered it to me. I felt right away it was something huge for an actor.
The film follows Piaf from her abominable childhood to her death in 1963. What was the toughest part for you?
The lip-syncing. So difficult. I was very, very, very stressed about the lip sync because I've seen many movies with lip-syncing in it, and most of the time it's not so good. So the first thing I did was watch these movies again and figure out why it wasn't good. Olivier wanted Piaf's voice from the beginning, and we had to do songs she never recorded, from when she's young and singing in the street. So the first thing I did was watch those movies again.
Oh no, I couldn't. They're so bad.
Was it a painfully physical task? After all, your Piaf looks something like a question mark by the time she hits her 40s.
I found a little trick to be smaller -- I contracted all my muscles from here to here [ribs to waist] and in doing this I was closer to her position. But after two weeks my back was hurting so hard. I had to shoot for four months, so I had massage and stuff like this, but the thing was I was so more than happy, so full of being on that set doing what we were doing, that there were no difficulties because there was so much passion and joy. The only day that was very bizarre was the day we shot her death, because I stayed all day long in the bed. I knew if I got up and joked with the crew it would take me too long to get back to that state. Which is so weird.
Did you find it a great responsibility to be portraying someone like Piaf?
I think the responsibility is related to ego, and I really didn't need any ego at that time. I needed to just go into the work. So I never felt any responsibility. I knew I loved her more than enough not to betray her, and not betray, maybe, the people who love her. If you think about it as a big responsibility, you think about yourself. You're not saying,"OK, let's go! Let's see where we can go!"
The script was beautiful, intimate, but not a portrait done by someone who wanted to show only her best side. It was hard sometimes. But she was hard.
Has there been resistance from Piaf fans who didn't want to know about that?
Oh, sure. She had a very tyrannical character sometimes. She really loved people, but her tyranny came from fear of being alone. I didn't know her, but when you're abandoned as a child your fear about being alone is very hard to get rid of.
Did you have a hard time adjusting to that dark side of her?
No, but I had a hard time accepting that she was tyrannical. I remember working with my coach, and at some point he stopped me and said, "You have so much admiration for her that in a way it stops you from meeting her entirely." If you refuse the dark side of someone, you can't meet that person entirely. So I knew I had to accept it. I knew he was right.
John Anderson writes for Newsday.