Updated Sunday, January 6, 2013 at 07:01 AM
“Usually when I read a script and I fall in love with a character, most of the time I know who the person is, right away,” said Marion Cotillard, in Toronto last fall with her new film “Rust and Bone” (opening Friday). “In this case, it was really different. I found it very exciting to take a journey that would lead me to eventually know who she was.”
Cotillard, a native of Paris, has made more than 20 films in her international career, including “La Vie en Rose” (for which she won an Academy Award for her portrayal of singer Edith Piaf), “Inception,” “Midnight in Paris” and “The Dark Knight Rises.”
“Rust and Bone” was her first collaboration with French writer/director Jacques Audiard (“A Prophet”). Cotillard’ s character, Stéphanie, is a whale trainer at a marine park in the south of France; midway into the film, she suffers a terrible accident at work that leaves her forever changed.
In Toronto, Cotillard’s effortless glamour seems worlds away from the gritty milieu of “Rust and Bone.” (In true movie-star fashion, the lighting in the room almost seems to change as she enters.) But she spoke happily of a role that took her far from her comfort zone — and that brought her up close with trained whales, an idea she initially found upsetting.
“I’m very uncomfortable with the idea of taking an animal out of his natural environment and training this animal to be like a clown or something,” she said. “It makes me sad to see those magnificent animals in a swimming pool.”
But to play Stéphanie, she had to go through training at Marineland, the Antibes animal-exhibition park where “Rust and Bone” was filmed. Though reluctant, she found herself moved by the passion of the park’s trainers for their work and “the love that they have for the animals.”
Due to several marine-park incidents that happened just before filming (including one at Sea World in San Diego that resulted in the death of a trainer), new rules were put in place for whale/human interactions that caused Audiard to have to rewrite parts of the film, particularly a sequence in which Stéphanie re-connects with a whale, gesturing to it from behind a glass wall. It’s a remarkable scene, with Stéphanie and the whale finding an uncanny, eerie intimacy.
“Originally it was not written like it is in the movie, because I was supposed to be above the water with the whales,” Cotillard said. “I was not even allowed to put my arm in the water, or to touch the whale. “
Trainers suggested it was possible to still have a connection with a whale while safely behind glass, and Cotillard did the scene using the arm movements she had learned in training.
The first rehearsal was filmed, and Cotillard was astonished by the scene’s power.
“It was really a conversation between me and the orca. We were deeply moved by what happened that day.”
Leaving Stéphanie behind, at the end of filming, was difficult, said Cotillard — “I loved being her.” But at this point in her life — she has a toddler son, with actor/director and longtime boyfriend Guillaume Canet — it’s easier to say goodbye to characters at work.
“I have to take care of a marvelous human being, and so it’s easier to go back to myself because someone is waiting for me, the entire me without anyone else,” she said.
Though she said she’d love to do more comedy (a la “Midnight in Paris” — an “amazing” experience), or to sing again (“Nine”), or to work again with Christopher Nolan, Cotillard said she’s now giving herself the great luxury of taking a break, and isn’t sure what her next role will be. (She has two films completed and due out in 2013: “Blood Ties,” directed by Canet, and “Lowlife” directed by James Grey.)
“I’m enjoying the fact that I know that one day I will be very excited by a new project,” she said.
“It’s going to be a surprise. I’m going to read something and I’ll know that it’s where I need to go.”
Moira Macdonald: firstname.lastname@example.org or 206-464-2725.
‘Rust and Bone’
Opening Friday at the Harvard Exit. In French with English subtitles. Rated R for strong sexual content, brief graphic nudity, some violence and language.
Marion Cotillard as Stéphanie, a whale trainer at a French marine park, in a scene from “Rust and Bone.”