The awards narrative for Marion Cotillard this year has been strange. Almost everyone agrees that she delivered two spectacular performances in 2014: one for James Gray’s “The Immigrant” earlier this year and another for the Dardenne brothers’ “Two Days, One Night” which hits U.S. theaters on Christmas Eve. But many pundits think both films are too obscure for Oscar voters. While that’s hopefully not the case, Cotillard received some galvanizing news today: she was awarded the New York Film Critics Circle prize for Best Actress for her work in both aforementioned films. That’s quite a feat.
In “Two Days, One Night,” Cotillard plays Sandra, a depressive mother returning to her factory job from a leave of absence only to discover that her position is in peril. The company has decided they can function with one less employee and so Sandra is on the outs. But eventually, it’s all put to a vote: Sandra can stay if her fellow struggling employees are willing to give-up their year-end bonuses. Left with no financial options but with the help of her husband (Fabrizio Rongione), Sandra has to swallow her pride and contact each co-worker to ask if they’ll give up their bonus so she and her family can survive. It’s an excruciating but empathic film, anchored by Cotillard’s phenomenal performance, which quivers on the edge of total self-resignation and resolve. It’s a very powerful picture about the fight for dignity in an unforgiving world (read our review). We spoke to Cotillard in November about the film, and also touched upon “The Immigrant” and her next major film “Macbeth,” in which she stars alongside Michael Fassbender.
The Dardenne brothers are known for their number of takes, and there’s already an element of repetition to the story. I imagine it was difficult to perform?
It was not difficult, but it was intense. The Dardenne brothers do a movie almost every year and they put everything together to have a comfort. We had three months of rehearsals and we shot for 11 weeks, which is a lot. Right after this movie I did a version of “Macbeth,” which is heavier than a Dardenne movie, [but] we had 8 weeks. On those eight weeks, we had two weeks of battles, which is crazy!
I guess it depends on what production it is and what your resources are.
It depends on the film of course, but when you have 11 weeks plus a month of rehearsal, the comfort is amazing.
How do you keep it fresh after that long? Sandra has to complete the same task over and over again in reaching out to all her co-workers.
Yeah, that was tough. But [it’s] also a very good playground for your imagination, because all the scenes are shot in sequence and most of the time we’re doing in between 50 and 100 takes. Which is a lot, but first of all, they will never do one more take if they don’t have to. They’re not trying to push you somewhere else. Some directors will do 80 takes because they want to get something different out of you. It’s absolutely not the way they work. They have trust and confidence in the people they work with. So each time I would do it again, I knew that it was for a reason. But on the second day, we did 56 takes, and on the fourth day it was 82. And then on and on… sometimes it would go up to 95 or 100.
Wow. Is that not at least emotionally taxing?
Not really. I was so happy to be doing this work. I had written a lot of material, a lot of scenes from her past. I had a notebook with scenes from the middle of her depression, how it affected her kids, her husband, scenes of her childhood. So that was something that I used to feed some moments of emotion that I needed to reach.
Sandra will burst into tears in the middle of a conversation that’s not emotional. Well, how do you do that? Sometimes, you have a scene and you talk about something super dramatic and it’s kind of easy to get the emotion when you talk about your dead husband. But out of nowhere? Like talking about your garden that you’re rebuilding, and then suddenly you burst into tears? You need something to use, so I used all the dramatic [backstory I had written]. But then after 30 takes and using the same thing over and over again, suddenly it doesn’t work anymore. After I had used everything I had written and I was at take 40, I knew that I would probably go to take 80. So I needed some more stuff and that’s where your imagination is creating nonstop, to refresh your internal computer [which] will give you a new thing to reach where you are trying to go.
The fact you don’t find that emotionally draining is almost comical. You must really enjoy that process.
I enjoyed that process because I had symbiosis with the brothers. [It’s] the strongest connection that I had ever had with directors!
The performance is so bare and stripped down —it’s not melodramatic. Does that subtlety make it harder?
Really, it’s difficult is when you don’t have time to work. When you have a month of rehearsals and 11 weeks of shooting, it cannot be harmed. It cannot be difficult if you work in a good direction, and if you work with confidence and trust from your directors, and you work in an environment of creativity with the time to be creative, nothing is difficult.
I think James Gray’s “The Immigrant” was tough in that regard then?
That was super difficult. We didn’t have money, we didn’t have time. When you don’t have time, especially for a director, you cannot do exactly what you want to do. You have to cut your dream to fit in the movie you’re doing. That was difficult.
How were the two experiences different? Marked by time?
No, because… it’s one of the differences. But the first difference is human. It’s like James Gray and the Dardenne brothers or Chris Nolan —it’s always a different story because it’s a different person.
How do you choose your roles? Do you choose them by director or scripts?
Both, because I’ve had the experience where I said no to directors that I loved.
You wanted to work with a filmmaker, but read the script and then decided against it?
Yeah, because of the script —not specifically because I didn’t like the script, but… For example, I just said no to a director that I’m dying to work with, and I was the one that came to him, saying “I’m dying to work with you.” He offered me the most beautiful role and the most beautiful script, and I just couldn’t do it, because as beautiful as it was, it was so fucking dramatic.
I do a lot of dramatic movies, so that means that I live with dramatic characters and dramatic stories, and I couldn’t do this one … it was too much. It was a super long shoot too. I begged for him to ask me again. When I said no to him, I was like, “this is kind of crazy, I cannot believe that I am doing this!” But the thing I cannot do is to live with the pain of this character for six months. I would love to have the energy, but I cannot live with her suffering and her darkness for six months. He understood perfectly.
That actually sounds a lot like “Macbeth,” but you obviously took that role and it sounds equally dark.
Yeah, exactly. This director that I said no to offered me a role after I finished “Macbeth” and I said, “there was no way I can do this after that.” I want to have fun, I want something light. And that was not going to happen and when I do a movie, it can be consuming.
I love the idea of you and Michael Fassbender working opposite each other in such a classic story. What was that like?
Michael is one of the most creative actors I’ve ever worked with. Every day, you never know what is going to happen, or what idea he’s going to find. I’ve worked with people who wanted to be creative every day: it was like a goal to arrive with something very special. Sometimes it’s just disturbing, because special is good when it’s needed. But when it’s not needed it’s confusing, and you go away from the authenticity by a strong desire to be unique and singular. Michael Fassbender is just a creative force, he finds authenticity in singularity with what he brings, and it’s always authentic. He doesn’t try to be creative and different for the sake of it. He is carried by his work, everything he does is very special because it serves the story and his character, and he’s not taking the character to serve himself with creative wannabe processes.
Will you work with the Dardennes again?
Well, when we finished the movie they said “we would love to work with you again,” and I said “be careful, because I might sleep on your doorstep.”
“Two Day, One Night” is now playing in limited release.
Bonus: Watch a 50 minute chat with Marion Cotillard from the New York Film Festival.