One of the most-discussed entries of last year’s Cannes Film Festival was James Gray’s New York–set period piece The Immigrant. The film was divisive — winning rapturous acclaim as well as a few sneers — but most viewers agreed that it featured a fantastic performance by Marion Cotillard, giving her her first leading role in an American film, after years of headlining French films and taking on supporting parts in American ones. In The Immigrant, the Cotillard plays Ewa, a recent Polish émigré who finds herself taken in by a shady nightlife impresario (Joaquin Phoenix). The film was picked up by the Weinstein Company — prompting many to expect to an awards-season push — but then seemed to vanish for a while. Now it’s finally in theaters, just in time for a new Cannes Festival (which features another Cotillard performance, in the Dardenne Brothers’ much-speculated-about Two Days, One Night). The actress sat down with Vulture recently to discuss having to act in Polish, what she looks for in a director, and the unlikely event that brought her and Gray together.
I was stunned at how much of your performance in this film was in Polish. What was it like to do so much of the part in another language?
It was kind of stressful, because she is Polish, so I had to nail the accent. It’s not like when I learn another language but can keep my French accent. I always want to find the authenticity of a character. And there were 20 pages of Polish in the script. I didn’t even think about that when I first read it, because the script itself was in English; it just said “in Polish” when there was dialogue that was supposed to be in Polish. So I didn’t realize the amount of work I’d need to do. And I didn’t really have that much time to prepare. I had two months, which is nothing, and Polish is a very, very complicated language, and it shares almost no words with English or French. Sometimes, I would ask my teacher if she was really teaching me Polish, or if it was actually Chinese or something! But when you know that you won’t have enough time, you just have to jump into the work and not think about the result.
Did you actually learn Polish for the part?
I didn’t learn Polish. I really just learned phonetics. But I did need to know the meaning of every word. You cannot act if you don’t know exactly what you say. Even if you know what to emphasize and you learn the music, I still really needed to know the meaning. It’s very interesting when you learn a language, you get to learn a lot about the culture because the way they say things tells you a lot about the culture.
You probably already know this from being bilingual, but I’ve found that speaking fluently in another language is like switching between different mentalities. Even subtly, you sort of become another person.
I don’t know if you do it consciously, but, for example, when I speak English, I speak louder. [Laughs] You just go into an American restaurant and a French restaurant and you will know exactly the difference. So, I think, yeah, it brings something different. I don’t know if it’s your personality — like, your deep personality — but yeah, it brings another side, or it kind of emphasizes a different side of yourself.
Do you like to do a lot of research in general when you do a part?
When I need to, yeah. Sometimes it’s a lot. For example, I did know a few things about Poland, but not enough. So I started to study Polish history. I didn’t know that Poland was not Poland back then — that it was separated between the countries around — and I needed to learn about the culture. I wanted to know what they eat, just to, you know, have enough things to feed my character.
I find that in James Gray’s films, and in particular with this one, there’s a kind of emotional nakedness to the characters, no ironic distance. You can see what they’re feeling. But the films are not emotionally indulgent, either. I imagine striking that balance is difficult for an actor.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. I think we agreed that it was part of her personality not to show her emotions too much. She tries to control herself, because when she arrives, it’s kind of a big jump into the unknown, but she has to keep on going because she has a goal — which is to survive in order to save her sister. I think that, first of all, her strength and the way she tries to control her feelings comes from the fact that she was a nurse when she was in Poland. So, she’s someone who’s devoted to people and can keep her blood cold. Also, she’s someone who went through a lot in her country. She saw horror, and so she’s really learned to control herself. And I think if she didn’t have this goal — which is having her sister survive this — she would be a totally different person. Her life is important because of her sister’s life. If she doesn’t survive this, then her sister is going to be lost.
You’ve just given me a great description of the emotional journey of this character. How much do you like to sit down and figure the character out beforehand?
I need to figure it out before we start shooting, so I can be free and let the character live inside of me — to let it create itself, in a way. I try to find this space inside myself for the character to live by itself. I don’t want to control things, but I want to create a very strong base, so that I can let myself go. And if I know exactly who this person is, then I have a strong base. So that if, for example, there is a new scene, I will know exactly how she will react, without the need to sit down and think about it. I just want to let it go, and then sometimes you’re surprised by what is coming. This kind of surprise is very inspiring, and that can happen only if you don’t control everything.
The breadth of the directors you’ve worked with is astounding. You’ve been in two Christopher Nolan movies, and now you’re in the new Dardenne Brothers film premiering at Cannes. So, you’ve gone from huge Hollywood blockbusters to intimate, low-budget, handheld dramas. What do you look for in a director?
I look for someone who needs to do what he does. This is very important for me, because I’m in the same process, I guess, as an actress. The only good reason to do a movie is because I need to do it. I need to tell the story. I need to be this person. I’ve met some directors on studio movies where you could tell that they were there because they were good at, you know, doing some beautiful images. But they were not driven by the need to tell a story. I cannot work with a director who is not that involved and driven. Even the blockbusters I was in, both were from Christopher Nolan, who was involved 100 percent. I couldn’t work with someone who doesn’t feel that it’s a matter of life and death to tell the story, who doesn’t have involvement at the highest level.
James Gray says that the first time he met you was when you threw a piece of bread at him over dinner.
I never play with food, but I got really upset.
Because he had criticized an actor that you like. Who was the actor?
I cannot say. Because honestly, this actor is beyond. If I gave the name of the actor, James would look like a fool for saying that he’s not as good as everybody thinks he is. [Laughs.] People would look at him, like, “Seriously, Gray, are you out of your fucking mind?” So I can’t say. For James’s sake.