The Reel Breakdown

Animal-lover Marion Cotillard on ‘Rust and Bone,’ killer whales, and the dark side of ‘Finding Nemo’

Photo: Sony Picture Classics

Marion Cotillard bedded Christian Bale's Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight Rises," charmed Owen Wilson's Gil in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," and beguiled Leonardo DiCaprio in Nolan's "Inception." In each film she spoke in English, but she sang in French in the 2007 Edith Piaf biopic, "La Vie en Rose," for which won the Academy Award for best actress. It was a first for a best-actress winner in a French-language role. And now she has another chance, for her magnificent anti-heroine in Jacques Audiard's "Rust and Bone," opposite Matthias Schoenaerts.

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"Rust and Bone" is a movie about transformation. Cotillard plays Stephanie, a lonely trainer at French Marineland. One day, when distracted, she has a horrible accident with a killer whale. As a result, she loses her legs below the knees and hits the bottom she was heading for when she was physically whole but emotionally lost. The remainder of the movie shows her slow progress on a journey that doesn't require legs: the journey to spiritual wellness.

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A scene in which Stephanie finally returns to Marineland, perched on steel prosthetics, and dances with the whale to Katy Perry's "Firework" is as magical as it is unexpected. The camera loves Cotillard, but her physical beauty does not make her lazy. She acts quietly, subtly, a musician who knows her range. In this role, she defies the audience to like her as she casts off the armature of her looks and dives deep. It doesn't hurt that this is the type of role -- the "My Left Foot" effect -- that ensures Oscar nominations, if not outright wins. Cotillard will be among the five final nominees for best actress.

Thelma Adams: This part is so emotional. How did you bring it?

Marion Cotillard: Wow. It's hard to describe how the emotion goes through me. Everything I need, I have to find in the character. When I read the script, I thought Stephanie was very mysterious. I didn't know who she was right away, which is unusual, for me. Usually when I read a script, and I love the story, and I fall in love with the character, it's much clearer to me who the person is. But even though I didn't know right away who Stephanie was, she moved me deeply. I believe that some people are strong enough, even if they're not aware, to provoke something in their lives. For Stephanie, her accident is a wake-up call.

TA: That's a bold statement to say that Stephanie somehow prompted this crippling accident. What do you mean by that?

MC: Before the accident, Stephanie was empty. She didn't know what to do with herself. She was looking for something that would prove to her that she's alive. And so she fights. She's looking for violence, something that shakes her, and so she knows that she's alive. But she doesn't really find it. And then there's this accident, which is violent and powerful. Even if she's losing a part of herself, in the process, it's just a physical part, because what she gains is everything, is life.

TA: Can you discuss the prosthetics you used in the movie that make the physical loss look so real?

MC: It's very glamorous green socks. [Laughs.] It's like CGI. But what was really amazing was that we totally forgot that I had legs. I remember the first time I was in the wheelchair, and it was the first fitting, and I put trousers on without the legs. The image was really powerful. And so this image stayed with all of us, the crew, and the actors, and Jacques [Audiard]. The CGI never got in our way.

TA: Did the director give you any tips for staying in character?

MC: Jacques told me one day that sometimes we would forget that Stephanie has no legs, and she too would forget. For example, she would be in a room and want to grab something. She stands up and falls because she's forgotten that she had no legs. So that was something that I really loved because there are different sides to this situation. One would be denial. But the second side would be that she actually feels fuller than before.

TA: I found the reunion scene between Stephanie and the killer whale at Marineland fascinating because there is such a connection between the two of them after the accident.

MC: In the beginning, Stephanie's not aware of what she does anymore. And that's why the accident happens. She's totally out of herself. And the orca, in a way, will bring Stephanie back to herself.

TA: There have been a number of similar accidents around the globe, some of which are detailed in "Death at SeaWorld: Shamu and the Dark Side of Killer Whales in Captivity." David Kirby's book describes the 2010 death of trainer Dawn Brancheau. Do you have an opinion about that person, or the practice of keeping killer whales in captivity?

MC: An opinion is hard. Nobody deserves to die, especially when they have a passion, because those people who work there, they're totally passionate. You know, they love the animals. It's just not my way to love animals. I hate Sea Land [sic]. I hate being there. I hate seeing those huge, magnificent animals in a swimming pool. For me, it doesn't make any sense. So I guess that it's not illogical that an accident happens. I don't want to talk about, like, the animal against the man and that the animal will have revenge or something, because I'm thinking about the person who died and it's horrible. But sometimes I don't really understand human beings. I really don't understand how we can turn magnificent animals into freaks, into circus animals.

TA: It's dangerous.

MC: Of course it's dangerous. I mean, the very first time I went to Marineland and I saw the show, it was the first time I saw the orcas like that. I didn't see the beauty of the animal at all. It made me physically sick. I met the trainers, and I don't disrespect them. I just don't understand. What I noticed was that they are totally in love with those animals. So it's tricky.

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TA: The issue of keeping killer whales in captivity isn't clear-cut.

MC: No. Their point of view is if people see them, they will want to protect them. I don't see any changes, though. I don't see how the shows protect the animals. I remember, I was horrified when I read that after "Finding Nemo," which is about the freedom of this little fish, who cannot be in an aquarium, there was a demand for the clown fish …

TA: People started buying clown fish and dumping them into home aquariums.

MC: It doesn't make any sense. So that's what I don't understand about human beings. I don't understand parents that will buy this clown fish and not tell their kids, "Listen, this is the message of the movie: Don't buy a Nemo and put it in an aquarium. He'll die. He will be so sad."

See the trailer for 'Rust and Bone':

'Rust and Bone' Theatrical Trailer