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Academy Awards

Marion Cotillard thrilled by gritty role in Two Days, One Night

The French star's desire to work with the Dardenne brothers in their latest movie has resulted in a best-actress Oscar nomination, writes James Mottram

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 February, 2015, 7:25am
UPDATED : Friday, 20 February, 2015, 12:45pm

Marion Cotillard can count such esteemed Hollywood directors as Christopher Nolan and Steven Soderbergh among her collaborators. But the French actress has not forgotten her European roots. And it's why, when we meet in a beachside terrace in Cannes, she practically lights up on the subject of her Belgian filmmaking friends Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the brotherly duo behind such Cannes Film Festival winners as Rosetta (1999) and The Kid with a Bike (2011).

Rarely do the Dardennes work with "name" actors, preferring unknowns or non-professionals, so for Cotillard to score the lead in their latest, Two Days, One Night, was huge. "I remember our first meeting," she says, her eyes widening. "I was trying to act cool, they were talking and suddenly I said, 'Just a minute, guys. You see a girl that is pretty cool right now, but inside of myself, it's like a circus, jumping, screaming, going, 'Oh my God, is it possible that these two guys want to work with me?'"

While there's a saying "never work with your heroes", Cotillard dubs it "one of the greatest experiences that I had as an actress". To top it all, her work on the film has resulted in a nomination for this year's Oscars, competing in the best-actress category, which she famously won in 2007 for her gutsy turn as Edith Piaf in Olivier Dahan's biopic La Vie en Rose. And it's easy to see why the Academy might vote for Cotillard again, with her role as Sandra in Two Days, One Night helping to further reveal her range.

A married mother who has just recovered from a breakdown, Sandra returns to work at a solar panel factory to discover there are plans afoot to make her redundant. Rather than wilt, she petitions her colleagues to vote to save her job - a humiliating task that's made even harder as each has been offered a bonus to make up for working harder in her absence.

Given job redundancies have been common in the wake of the recent global recession, playing Sandra hardly required "deep research", says Cotillard. "I'm aware of what's happening in this world and what our society has created, in terms of not putting the human being in the centre of what we do. Also, people I know are closer to Sandra's world than me, so I didn't have to research about this world, because I know what it is, and I live in it, and I'm very interested by this society we live in."

The actress first met the brothers on the set of Jacques Audiard's Rust and Bone, which they co-produced. One of her most challenging roles - she played a killer whale trainer who loses both legs - it still was a breeze compared to Two Days, One Night. The Dardennes favour filming in uninterrupted takes. And if something goes wrong, even towards the end of a sequence, the whole take has to be repeated.

Cotillard took photographs of the clapboard: on the second day, the take count hit 56; on the fifth day, it numbered a staggering 82. She was also stripped of the comforts actresses are used to. This would not be the glamorous Cotillard, the face of "Lady Dior", who has graced the covers of glossy magazines across the globe. Instead, she went sans make-up, wearing thrift-store clothing and her hair in a ponytail. Nor did she have a driver to ferry her to and from set, or a dressing room to change in. "I don't always have a trailer!" she says, suddenly. "I'm kind of a simple person. If you give me a bed and a good kitchen … I can sleep okay. I'm really adaptable."

Certainly her upbringing was not built on luxury, after being born in Paris and raised with two younger brothers in Orléans. Cotillard's father, Jean-Claude, was an actor, teacher and former mime, while her mother, Niseema Theillaud, was also a thespian and drama teacher. Creativity even extended to drawing on the walls of their apartment. "Our parents decided that all the walls belonged to us, so we could draw and do anything on the walls. All the kids would come to our apartment and draw on the walls."

Cotillard started to act professionally before she turned 18, winning an early English-speaking role in the Highlander television series. To pay her bills, however, she made key chains. "I had created my own factory at home. I was doing key-chains, and I would sell them at the candy store. That was kind of industrious."

That's not the only way she seems close to Sandra in Two Days, One Night. "I experienced the beginning of a depression, but I'm pretty good at changing the energy. I know I have this strength." Turning 40 this year, there's still something fragile about Cotillard. Next to her, on the table, is a magazine, with a picture of her on the red carpet. "When I see this, it feels super weird," she says. For a time, she even found being approached in the street difficult. "I would run away or cry - it was really awkward."

That's probably why Cotillard has yet to leave France for Hollywood. She still lives in Paris, with her partner, actor-filmmaker Guillaume Canet, and their young son, Marcel.

I'm kind of a simple person. If you give me a bed and a good kitchen … I can sleep okay. I'm really adaptable.
Marion Cotillard

She's worked several times with Canet, including his directorial efforts Little White Lies and Blood Ties, his first American venture, which was critically mauled when it was screened at Cannes in 2013. "What I tell him is that it's his first flop and I think it's one of his best movies," says Cotillard. "I love the movie, and I'm very honest with him. I've always been honest with the people I love … it was a really hard experience. But the movie exists and I think it's beautiful."

While Canet is writing a comedy with Cotillard in mind, there hasn't been much levity in her work of late. She went from Two Days, One Night to one of her most challenging films to date: the forthcoming Macbeth.

Starring Michael Fassbender in the title role, Cotillard plays Shakespeare's scheming spouse, Lady Macbeth. "That was really intense and really dark," she admits. "She was very hard to live with." It sounds like her ideal character.

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Two Days, One Night , Fri, 7.50pm, Palace IFC, March 1, 4pm, Broadway Cinematheque, European Union Film Festival. The film goes on general release on March 12