In the opening moments of The Immigrant, James Gray's operatic epic set in 1920s New York, two women stand in line at Ellis Island after an arduous transatlantic journey. They converse in Polish, keeping each other's spirits up by imagining happier times ahead. Their skin is pale and plain, their drab clothes nearly indistinguishable from darkness of the room. It's really only when one of the women breaks into a smile, her round face alighting just so, that you realize you're watching Marion Cotillard.
It's strange to call an Oscar-winner underrated, but somehow that description still fits Cotillard. Yes, she's an international star, a muse for both Christopher Nolan and Woody Allen, and the red carpet representative for Christian Dior. Her portrayal of the iconic chanteuse Edith Piaf in La Vie en Rose (2007) practically made her a national treasure in her native country (she's one of the highest paid actresses in France) and nabbed her that year's Best Actress Oscar. But when it comes to the work itself, people are still apt to rhapsodize about her beauty over her chops; even her Academy-ignored portrayal of a paraplegic in Rust and Bone (2012) drew more mentions of her nude scenes than actual praise for her performance.
In a perfect world, however, The Immigrant would change the conversation about Cotillard in a profound way. The Gallic star doesn't just nail an accent; she goes the full-on Streep route, speaking fluent Polish, immersing herself in the role of an early-20th-century heroine and supporting the emotional weight of the whole movie, not to mention that of generations of self-sacrificing émigrés, in her brim-full saucer eyes.
"I like when I say yes to a project and don't know if I'm going to be able to do a good job," Cotillard says. One among the poor huddled masses, her Ewa Cybulska might have been a cliché in the hands of other actresses: a "fallen" woman who is taken in by a shady theater manager (Joaquin Phoenix) and forced to resort to extreme means in order to survive. But Cotillard doesn't play a symbol. She's fully alive on screen — resourceful and responsive, damaged and defiant, loving and feral. "Acting is an intelligence," director James Gray says. "I don't mean intelligence in that they can talk to you about the Manhattan Project or something; I'm talking about an emotional awareness, an understanding of human beings and human behavior. Marion certainly has that."
And then there's matter of the dialogue. If Gray's script included just a few lines in a foreign tongue, perhaps she could have handled it phonetically. But try 20 pages of Polish dialogue, and only two months in which to learn the language. "I could have learned Chinese — it would have been the same thing," Cotillard says. "There were, like, three words that sounded or looked like English or French. The rest of it was like, pfft…I couldn't believe it. But I needed to understand everything I said. Even the two letter words — I needed to know what they were. It was super stressful."
"She was miserable," Gray confirms. "And she did it brilliantly." In the film, you never get the sense that she's merely remembering her lines, or that she's flaunting her achievement for our amazement. She's inside the language, and in the moment. "It's not a stunt," said Gray. "She's acting it."
The language issue may have presented an extreme case, but Cotillard said she's always drawn toward uncharted territory — both metaphorically and literally."I'm really happy to have the freedom to explore different cultures. But this freedom has a price," she said. "The price is that on set I'm not as free as I would be in French. Or even in English." It's also resulted in her being a bit of an outsider everywhere she works, and has likely contributed to her work being less celebrated than if she were the belle of one particular ball.
These days she pursues as many projects overseas as she does at home. But though she's appeared in major American films like The Dark Knight Rises, Midnight in Paris, and Public Enemies, she's still very selective about her work in Hollywood. That her first starring role in a U.S. film involves speaking 40% of her dialogue in Polish should tell you all you need to know. "I really need to have a big jump between projects," she said. ""I want that people wouldn't recognize me in the next movie. I want to be different all the time. I don't think I would do a good job if I was doing the same thing."
Cotillard uses words like "job" and "work" so often that they start to sound like what they mean. As if it's all part of the discipline required for her to be as great as she expects herself to be. "The thing is, I know some actors, no matter what happens, they're going to be good. If they don't work, they're going to save their ass," she said, pushing a stray strand of hair behind her ear. "I'm not this kind of person. If I don't work, I'm just a super bad actress. So I need to work."
Like fellow countrywoman Juliette Binoche — a hero of hers since childhood — Cotillard says she keeps a list of directors she'd like to work with. But rather than reveal other names on the list, she talks instead about one that isn't. "There was one director that I got rid of on my list after meeting him," Cotillard says coyly. "And he's one of my favorite directors — the top of the list. But I was a little disappointed. There was a disconnection that was kind of painful for me." But if she's proven anything over the year, it's that she has an her ability to make even seemingly impossible things work. "I might put him back on the list. He's still in the back of my mind."