Feature Interview by Brad Balfour
Now that Francophobe George Bush and his ilk will soon be gone, and French President Nick Sarkozy kicks off his love affair with all things Américain--it's okay again to love the French and revisit their greatest icons. We have celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of Lafayette, and lately have been seeing and hearing a mini-revival of interest in Édith Piaf, the "Little Sparrow"—the French Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday all wrapped up in one little package.
Born Édith Giovanna Gassion, the singer and actress--who died at 46 in October 1963--is enjoying this renewed interest through a recent NYC off-off-Broadway play, "Piaf: Love Conquers All," a retelling of her history through song and snippets and through "La Vie En Rose," a striking new biopic that achingly retells her tough and tragic life.
In "La Vie En Rose," French actress Marion Cotillard, previously known for her work in such films as "A Very Good Year," "Taxi," and "A Very Long Engagement," utterly transforms herself into Piaf; Cotillard, who is, maybe 5' 6," uncannily played the 4' 8" Piaf who was as a compact as a sparrow and ravaged through drink, drugs and cancer by the time she died. With her bedroom eyes and convincing pout, Cotillard has always had her fans but with this performance she became Oscar-worthy and scored a Best Actress nom this year.
In this world, an international awareness of a particular subject is often achieved by finding common ground through film and music. So what better way to do that than by listen to or seeing Édith Piaf—recreated either on stage or screen.
Q: Having made such an outstanding transformation, what did you go through to inhabit this person; you knew her history... but what were the difficulties involved in making yourself so much shorter and smaller?
MC: It was not so hard. It was just work and trying to have fun with something so vertiginous. There were some technical parts which were hard, like lip-synching; and there was a technical part about the character, of course, because I didn't know anything about her life. I had to read some books and watch her a lot. I tried to gather all I could find--pictures, footage, and movies of her as an actress. But the most important thing was to try to understand who she was.
This was not technical. It was something you can't really explain, like when you meet someone and you feel that you understand that person, so you will try because you want to. In discovering the lives of people, there are some things you like, and some things you don't. In order to understand someone entirely, you have to understand what you don't like and then abandon your judgment. And finally, when you abandon your judgment, you will maybe understand her heart and her soul.
Q: She looked like she had fun yet there was so much tragedy in Édith's life. In dealing with so much tragedy--did you have to separate yourself from her yet be true to her at the same time?
MC: I have never used my own personal life and will never use it to feed a character. I don't want to do that because I think it's dangerous for me to think of sad events in my own life in order to go into a certain emotion. I really don't want to live this. I'm not the person who will be sad about someone's life to be in those kind of emotions.
I looked at her entire life and yes, it was sad, but she was a very [alive] person. She wanted to be happy; she loved to laugh, and she lived [enough for] 100 people. So as an actress, I found great pleasure playing this tragedy because those are huge emotions where you can express a lot of things and let go of a lot of things.
Q: If you don't want to use anything from your life as a basis for the character, what did you draw on and how do you reach that character?
MC: The emotion you give to the character, of course, is your emotion. It's as if you take the technical things of your emotions, the state of the emotions are created by your personal life and all that you have lived, yes. It's hard to explain because an emotion is just not technical.
When I read the script for the first time, it touched me so deeply. And I used this emotion, it's my emotion with this story. I have other emotions which are very personal, but this story gives me emotions which must be in relation to my own intimate emotions, because it's a whole thing. But I will never try to think of something very sad in my life to try to do something, because I will be sad for hours. When you do an emotional scene--like the death scene of [her husband, the boxer/actor] Marcel Cerdan--after that, you're empty, but you're fulfilled as well; you feel good if you think of a loss of yourself. After that scene, that thought will still be in your mind and you won't [lose] it. It's something you did [in your own life].
Q: Basically the film uses her voice and you lip-sync--was there ever a concern about deciding to have you sing or not sing?
MC: I love to sing and sang in a few movies. But we only had a few months with the money we had to do this movie. It's obvious that in a few months I couldn't imitate or have that unique voice she had worked on for years. Three months was absolutely not enough time. So if I had had the time--and I don't know how much time I would've needed--I would have tried.
At the beginning of the project, it was a desire of Olivier [Dahan, the director] to have Piaf's voice. We [did] not have all the recordings we needed, especially the ones she sang when she was on the street--there were no recordings of songs like "Fréhel" and "Mistinguett"--so we needed someone to do this. We found an amazing singer, [Jil Aigrot]. She's from Cannes, which is in the south of France. They have a special accent and we asked her to have the old Parisian accent; not to sing too well either because it was at the beginning of Piaf. She committed herself entirely, worked hard, and really, did an amazing job.
Q: Do you have any favorite songs by Piaf?
MC: Yes! Many. I love "Les Amants d'un Jour," I love "Milord," I love "Padam"--especially "Padam." I love "La Foule." And then I love a few songs that nobody knows. I have listened to almost all those songs, and there are many.
Q: Do you still listen to her?
MC: No, but I still sing sometimes "Correqu'et Reguyer." It's kind of slang. Even I couldn't understand everything. But I studied the song. It's the one that I "sing" in the scene when she does her first show. There are two songs, something very calm, and she's like this [gestures]--this is "Correqu'et Reguyer."
Q: What was your favorite experience in making this film?
MC: There are so many things. But I was so afraid to try to be aged to a 44-year-old, or 47-year old woman, [and with Piaf she really looked like she was 70]. I was so scared about this. Then when I found my marks on the first scenes we were shooting of this period, I felt that it was good to play with this [aging process]. It was like when I was a kid and you play a dog, or an old lady, and you just play at it. You don't try to be good, you just [do it to] have fun. After a while, I really found how and where I could have fun with this period--except for the makeup, which was very hot. [Performing this] was what I preferred in the movie--especially when she was 40 and was in Los Angeles, doing the part in California--I loved it.
Q: What did you learn from the experience of playing Édith?
MC: It's hard to explain in words what you learn for yourself, because it's a feeling that you will keep forever, when you have had that experience of letting go of all that you've built in yourself--just letting go [and] abandoning yourself to the point of being one with what you're searching for. It's hard to explain, but I feel stronger in a way.
Q: When you first met the director Olivier Dahan did you trust him, and did you think this film was do-able?
MC: I had read the script before I met him for the first time. When I read the script, I was speechless. I had just read the role of my dreams. I couldn't believe that one guy could think that one person could do all those things. Yet when I met him, there was something very natural. The funny thing was, we had our rendezvous near my house, and I'm not far from Père Lachaise, the cemetery where Piaf is buried. But when we arranged to meet, I made the mistake of meeting in a bar nearby and there are two bars with almost the same name. So I was waiting for him in one bar, and I realized there was something weird about him being late. So I called him and he told me, "Yes, I'm in the bar"--and the other bar was in front of the door of the cemetery; what a coincidence! So we met and there was something obvious, but even the word "obvious" is too strong.
It was... natural. We had the same vision of Piaf. I loved his vision of this intimacy. From that moment, we never spoke of the script or of the character; we never spoke of the movie, we just made it. Olivier doesn't talk when he doesn't need to but it's very relaxing because when you understand someone just by looking at him.
He had no doubt about me doing this role--it was more than confidence. It was not that I had no doubt, or only [a little] doubt, it was just that I wanted to do this but I wanted to start working [right away] because I knew that I would have to do a lot of work to make something really good.
Q: You have worked with several very stylistically distinct directors--Ridley Scott and Jean-Pierre Jeunet, for example. Olivier has a very natural style of filmmaking. As an actress, what kind of style are you more comfortable with?
MC: I like to work in different kinds of universes. It's like, can you say what kind of human being you prefer exactly? There are many personalities that you like. What I like is a strong universe and imagination whether it be from Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Tim Burton, or Olivier.
Q: On the set, what are the differences you felt as an actress?
MC: It's always different because all these directors are unique, and that's what I really like about this job. You have the opportunity to be invited in to so many places and to make your imagination fit a different kind of imagination each time. It's magical.
Q: Originally it was difficult for Olivier to find financing for this film. He was told that no one was interested in Piaf's life. And now the film has been seen by millions of people. Many young people have gone to see it; what do you think is the connection that new generations are making with Édith Piaf?
MC: Besides the fact it's Piaf, it's the story of an amazing woman who exposed her emotions all her life, and who wrote or performed some of the most beautiful love songs of all time. In her time, she was kind of punk rocker, you know, [very rebellious and individual.] She was very modern. Even now, we have several shows like "American Idol" in France and each year, young people, say who are 18 or 20 years old, always sing Piaf because her songs are unique, universal and immortal. Of course, the young generation didn't know about her life but she had such an extreme power of love and emotions, it doesn't matter that she was a woman was from the 1950s. Hers was a life so intense that it can touch everyone.
Q: Are you afraid of being stuck with Piaf now?
MC: I think those things happen if you think about it, and if you feel it inside, it will come from you, not from others. When I started doing movies, I started with very big success in France where I play a kind of a bimbo, and I never believed that I would be put in a box. If you don't have that inside of you, it won't happen.
Q: Piaf is such an icon in France.
MC: Yes, but it's not the matter of the subject, it's the matter of you you do with her and what you want to do [going forward]. I want to do a lot of other amazing journeys. I am responsible for being in a box or not. I'm sure of this.
Q: Are there other famous women you would like to play?
MC: Well, each time I am asked that question, the first name that comes to mind is someone I can't do--the Burmese lady, Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Maybe I can't do it but I think it's a movie that has to be done.
Q: Would you produce it?
MC: Yes, oh yes.
Q: Are you interested in directing as well?
MC: In directing, yes. I could express many things through directing. I'm not ready yet, but I guess one day I will be.
Q: Will that film be a documentary or a fiction feature based on her life?
MC: That's a good question. I don't know how to answer that question because she's still alive and still in prison in her own house. I think this story is terrible--it really touched me. She couldn't visit her husband, Michael Aris, who had cancer--it was horrible. I love that woman. She's a strong, strong lady, fighting against the army.
Q: If you could do something now, maybe it would make a difference?
MC: I don't know. So many people sign things and try to make a difference. But I think, maybe, movies can put this into your mind--so yes.