NEW YORK — Films featuring disabled protagonists — painter Christy Brown in “My Left Foot,” the wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet Ron Kovic in “Born on the Fourth of July,” the polio-stricken poet Mark O’Brien in this year’s “The Sessions” — have been a staple of Hollywood movies for decades and catnip to critics and industry voters come awards season. This year, the French actress Marion Cotillard finds herself in the thick of the leading actress Oscar race for “Rust and Bone,” which opens Friday. In the film, directed by French auteur Jacques Audiard, Cotillard plays an orca trainer whose legs are amputated from the knees down after a devastating accident during a show at Marineland.
In Hollywood dramas, disabled characters tend to be isolated from the world, treated as objects of pity, or sentimentalized as triumphs of the human spirit. But Cotillard saw her character Stephanie’s disability as something that awakens her.
“Playing an amputee is not how I saw her. I played that girl who’s an empty shell,” says Cotillard, 37, who’s vying to add another Oscar to her mantel, having already captured one in 2008 for her ferocious portrayal of Édith Piaf in “La Vie en Rose.” “But after a dramatic accident, she has nothing but herself to face because there’s nothing left [inside]. And you have two options when there’s nothing left. Either you give up on life — you give up on yourself — or you face what’s to be faced. For me, she’s an amputee before the accident. She’s amputated from life, from love, from herself.”
Inside a chilly Greenwich Village hotel suite where a window had been left open overnight, Cotillard has swaddled her delicate frame in a plush blanket that covers up her black-and-white micro-patterned dress, befitting a woman who’s been a Vogue cover model and a face for Lady Dior. Thoughtful and a bit reserved, she speaks with a gentle French accent, her hair pulled back and bright eyes widening as she discusses the enigmatic nature of her character in “Rust and Bone,” which won the top prize at the BFI London Film Festival.
Loosely based on a short story collection by Craig Davidson and adapted by Audiard and his “A Prophet” collaborator Thomas Bidegain, the film follows Cotillard’s aloof and arrogant Stephanie as she encounters the brutish, emotionally withdrawn Ali (Matthias Schoenaerts) when he comes to her aid during a nightclub brawl. A former boxer and single father to a young boy, Ali moves to Antibes, in the south of France, to live with his sister and her husband. There, he gets involved with some shady activities, including illegal bare-knuckle brawls, to make money. After Stephanie is maimed at Marineland by a killer whale that misreads her signals, she reaches out to Ali in the depths of her despair, and a pragmatic but increasingly sensual friendship develops between them.
“I was very moved by her and her journey. But usually when I read a script, if I like the story and if I like the character, I pretty quickly understand most of the character,” she says. “But in this case, she was such a big mystery, and I really wanted to solve it. You don’t have much information about her. And it did not come right away. Jacques told me, ‘Well, I’m in the same position. We’re going to have to create who she is.’”
Still, she says, “Usually I need to explore every corner of a character. But I realized that for me to know who she is, I didn’t have to solve the whole mystery, because the mystery is part of her.”
Ali takes Stephanie to the beach, listening to her fears about whether she will ever feel desire again. She finds herself drawn to Ali and embraces her primal impulses — initiating a sexual relationship with him, tagging along to watch his fights, then assuming duties as his manager-bookie. Rather than constricting her, Stephanie’s disability has a liberating affect, opening her up to the world.
“I realized that she is someone who turns violence into power,” Cotillard observes. “The violence that is inside of her. The violence that she provokes. The violence of what happened to her. All this violence is turned into something very powerful that is positive and not against her, but instead helps to carry her forward. That was quite a revelation.”
While Cotillard acknowledges that part of Stephanie remained an enigma, she strongly identified with the character’s longing to understand herself and the world around her — something that Cotillard says she struggled with, especially in her youth.
“I understood the way she’s lost and all the questions that she has,” she says. “She doesn’t know who she is. I went through this period of time, as a lot of people do, when you question everything, and you have no answers. I’m still constantly questioning myself. But when I was a teenager, it was kind of unbearable for me not to have answers.”
Stephanie’s amputated legs were removed in post-production using digital technology; she wore green knee socks on the set. To bring to life the physical aspect of her disability, the actress says she started watching video footage of amputees so that she could figure out how to move. But she quickly decided it wasn’t necessary because her character is still getting used to living as an amputee, using a wheelchair and, eventually, prosthetics.
“It would have been different if I would have had to play an amputee — someone who had lost the use of her legs 10 years before, for example,” she says. “I would have done more research and a lot of work on the physicality. But that was not the case. My only research was on orcas, because I didn’t know much about them.”
Cotillard spent a week at Marineland in Antibes, learning how to signal the orcas, but admits to a personal distaste for keeping animals in captivity. Yet she has been criticized for her participation in “Rust and Bone” by Animal Defenders International, which has called for a boycott of the film.
“That was tricky at the beginning, because I don’t like the environment that they’re in. I don’t like the shows. I don’t like anything about Marineland. This is something that I don’t really understand,” she says. “But then we created this beautiful connection with the orcas, and they’re still magnificent wild animals even though they’re in a swimming pool.”
Her hunky Belgian costar, Schoenaerts, praises Cotillard for her fearlessness. “She’s someone who is all-out and so devoted and passionate,” says the actor. “Nothing is too much for her. And that’s what you need when you work with Audiard, because that guy pushes you to the limits.”
Indeed, Audiard’s films are known for the intense, contradictory impulses of his lead male characters: Vincent Cassel’s ex-con in “Read My Lips,” Romain Duris’s wannabe-concert pianist criminal in “The Beat That My Heart Skipped,” and Tahar Rahim’s prison inmate-turned-gangster in “A Prophet.” But in “Rust and Bone,” Schoenaerts says, Stephanie, the female lead, exhibits the same layered complexity as Ali.
“They’re people with a lot of flaws. They’re strong but they’re extremely vulnerable at the same time. And those qualities coexist,” he says. “The vulnerability and the tenderness is right next to the power. They’re so close to one another in the very same moment. In a fraction of a second, it shifts from one quality to the next. And that’s what’s so beautiful about it.”
Capturing the Oscar for playing Piaf in “La Vie en Rose” was a breakthrough moment for Cotillard. But while the role brought her worldwide fame and stretched her abilities as an actress, she became so consumed by it that it haunted her for months afterward.
“I dived into the role so deeply, but I didn’t make sure that I could find a way out. It’s like I took a train to somewhere without a return ticket. . . . I remember that I’d heard before about some actors who couldn’t get out of a character, and I thought that was super-weird. But then it happened to me,” she says with a laugh. “And I understood suddenly that you can just totally forget yourself.”
For the role, Cotillard became the first best actress Oscar winner for a foreign language performance since Sophia Loren in 1962. And she’s one of the few French actresses of recent vintage to successfully cross over with American audiences and become part of the Hollywood firmament. She’s been cast in big-budget studio films like Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight Rises” and “Inception” and more intimate dramas like James Gray’s forthcoming “Nightingale,” Woody Allen’s “Midnight in Paris,” and her partner Guillaume Canet’s upcoming feature, “Blood Ties.” (Cotillard has a 19-month-old son with the French actor-director Canet.)
Getting to work on films with directors like Audiard and to bring to life characters like Stephanie is a gift, Cotillard says, because “it changes you for the better, because you learn more, you explore, you discover more about the human soul, because that’s what we as actors do.”