Every time I conduct an interview, as I’ve recently written, so much lands on the cutting room floor. This was particularly true for my conversation with Marion Cotillard for the Awards Season feature I wrote for The Hollywood Reporter where I interviewed eighteen contenders about prepping for the characters they played in 2014. It’s worth posting again as she will be at Cannes in Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth opposite Michael Fassbender.
Just talking to Cotillard about working with the Dardenne Brothers for Two Days, One Night — a movie I reviewed here and on Yahoo Movies — was a lesson in acting and psychology. Cotillard, a true and stylish beauty, is not always easy, but I felt she was really channeling her method in this longer discussion that I ended up chopping to a meaty 150 words for THR. So here’s the more intense, introspective interview with minimal cutting:
How did you prepare for your role in Two Days, One Night?
The Dardenne Brothers have a way they always work. We have a month of rehearsals and this movie was very particular. We needed to work on the rhythm of all the scenes. They had a very specific idea of what they wanted. So the rehearsal month was not focused on acting, everything is interconnected, the rhythm of the scene. But it did allow me to get into the slight Belgian accent I needed for the role.
What else did you prep during that month?
During this month of preparation, part was working on set where we rehearsed all the scenes with the other actors even in costumes. The other part was the personal work by me alone because we don’t have much information about who my character Sandra is and how her depression affected her family. How long did it last? I needed all the past.
If it wasn’t in the script, how did you plumb your character’s past?
I wrote scenes that I used when I was on set. Sometimes there were up to a 100 takes. I needed material to use for those scenes and especially that when you’re depressed you can burst into tears in the middle regular conversation. You need to feed this moment of emotion and breakdown. I wrote scenes about when she was depressed and how it affected her kids to be able to reach certain emotions. You know you have an emotional scene you think about the loss of someone and how it affected you, it rises inside of you as you talk. In the case of Sandra, she’s having a regular conversation and suddenly she bursts into tears. I needed the ignition for these actions.
[Related: Critic’s Pick NYFF: Cotillard in ‘The Immigrant’]
Can you share an example?
I had a scene where I get off the bed. They wanted me to burst into tears when I put my second shoe on. They are super specific and precise in order to build the scene and the rhythm as they wanted to.
Was this deeply emotionally challenging?
Yes, because I needed to organize my character’s brain and emotions, creating some memories, some images, like suddenly she is going to think about a special image that will lead her to burst into tears. I needed to create her depression, what she went through. I needed to understand why she went through this depression. I needed to take, back to her childhood and her parents. I created siblings and a whole life that I could use when I needed it. It was like a lot of scenes with the kids when she was depressed what she did when she was not in control of herself. Even if your kids are what you most cherish in life, you can lose control and hurt them by your behavior. That was a very interesting process I did it like twice before [in previous movies]: inventing a past, investing things that I would use to create an emotion.
In a way, using this method, you become an uncredited screenwriter as you flesh out your characterization.
Perhaps because even a thought, if the character is silent, I needed to write down. I needed to build everything that goes thru her mind, even when she loses control. That is something that I really loved to do. I imagine her tastes. What kind of music, even what kind of food she likes. How does she laugh when she’s in a good place with friends and what makes her laugh, what makes her cry; I needed everything you needed to know about a person in an intimate way. I had a lot of fun even though it was very dramatic. I listened to the kind of music she would listen to when her taste and mine is very different.
What music did Sandra like?
She listened to Jean-Jacque Goldman. When I start working it’s almost like a meditation where I put myself in, the first things that come are interesting things about the character leads to another inspiration. Music led me to someone I know who loves this singer and I thought she was close to the character and one of the songs led me to another person I know and I took part of her history….and on and on until I have a precise map of who this person is. Then I can be on set and I can be in every situation if they were to ask me to improvise I knew the character so well it would be easy to know how she would have reacted to this or that situation.
What surprised you about the process and your preparation?
Because we did a lot of takes, sometimes 50, 80, 100, all the stories that I had written, sometimes I ran out of a story. For example, one scene I had to burst into tears, I had this story in my mind but after 20 takes it doesn’t work anymore, I had to go into the notebook and I would take more but after three or four scenes I was out of material. It improved my imagination because sometimes I needed to create on set something different, another scene, another memory, another story. It was fascinating because I needed to figure out how I would go on and on making takes while inventing at the same time what I needed to get the perfect rhythm that the Dardennes wanted and the perfect feeling of the emotions.