When I enter Marion Cotillard’s suite at New York’s Trump SoHo hotel, she’s gazing out a window, across the Hudson toward New Jersey. “What’s that?” she asks, gesturing to a small building that’s just offshore and part of an inlet, of sorts. Unfortunately, I can’t help Cotillard with an answer, but I also can’t help but notice that she’s perfectly set the scene for an interview pegged around The Immigrant, director James Gray’s latest—and greatest—drama, in which Cotillard stars as a Polish woman, Ewa, whose arrival at Ellis Island in 1921 is followed by a turbulent succession of hardships and glints of hope. If the American dream is more than a myth, a notion that Gray’s film actively explores with an air of bittersweet mystery, then Cotillard has most certainly achieved it, following her budding career in France with an Oscar for La Vie en Rose and a virtually ceaseless output of prestige projects. As Cotillard recalls her early goals and ambitions, her memories mirror the themes of The Immigrant itself, with talk of being aware of possibility and opportunity, but never quite thinking it was actually in the cards. It’s a humble reflection from a bona fide superstar, who, even now, has vivid thoughts of what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land.
It seems that so many people identify you as having broken through with La Vie en Rose, but you’d already had nearly 15 years of work behind you before the film was released. What was the biggest moment of your career prior to playing Edith Piaf?
Well, there were different steps. I did three French blockbusters, which allowed me to connect with the audience, but not the industry. For the industry, those movies were not considered very serious movies, and I wasn’t considered a very serious actress. But then I did A Very Long Engagement, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s movie, and that changed a lot of things for me in the industry, in France. And I became a serious actress! [laughs] Someone who could do something else besides just comedies. But even in France, where I had been around before, the big breakthrough was La Vie en Rose. It was a big thing for me.
So you did a lot of comedies?
I did three comedies.
I’d like to see you in some more comedies. Can we make that happen?
[laughs] I don’t know. I must have been very bad. I will never watch those movies again. And I think I would have much more work doing a comedy than a drama. All actors know that it’s very hard, when you’re not Will Ferrell or Tina Fey, to be good in a comedy. It’s really, really hard.
It’s very unpredictable what will become of an actor’s career once they win an Oscar. For some, they get this one big role that’s rewarded, but then things don’t necessarily work out as they might have hoped. You’ve had anything but that experience, and it seems to partly stem from the directors and projects you’ve chosen. Are you chasing down the directors you work with or do they typically come calling?
I suppose it’s a mix of both. The only director I chased [laughs] was a Danish director, Thomas Vinterberg, and I never worked with him. This was a long time ago, when I was…nothing. I really wanted to work with him, and I started to learn Danish to work with him, but it didn’t work out. And then years later, when I was promoting La Vie en Rose around the world, I went to Denmark, and as a surprise, the distributors arranged a meeting for me and Thomas. And I was so shy. It was kind of crazy.
Because Festen was a shock. And I loved their process—the Dogme process. And I thought what they could do with this, this Dogme, was so cinematographic, and so amazing, that I really wanted to work with him. I loved [Festen]—the way it’s shot, how he is with the characters, his camera, the story. For me, everything was perfect. But I wanted to work with him in a Danish movie, not an English one. Back then, all my friends said, “You’re so stupid. You should be improving your English because he’s going to go to Hollywood, and he’s going to make American movies.” But for me, it was like…I just wanted to do a Danish movie with him.
Well you’ve certainly proven that you can tackle a lot of different languages for different roles. Is that something you were always doing when you were aspiring to be an actor—practicing different languages and dialects?
No. No, I’m actually not very good at it.
Well, you’re convincing, for sure. You’ve convinced me many times.
It’s a lot of work. Like, if you asked me to do a Canadian accent, I won’t be able to do it. I will have to work a lot. Some of my friends—not even actors—are able to nail a Canadian, or African, or Swiss, or even American accent. But I’m not very good at that. Well, it’s not that I’m not very good at it, it’s just not natural. I can’t just pick something up and nail it. I really need to work. But it wasn’t something that I practiced in my past. And, first of all, I never thought I’d do American movies. I never thought I would have the amazing experience of exploring different worlds and cultures.