Marion Cotillard: I haven't lost my legs, but I have lost and I have felt pain

She is already attracting Oscar rumours for her latest film in which she plays a double amputee. Emma Jones meets her

There's a theory that the best way to win a best actress Oscar is by a dramatic change in appearance. From young to old, beautiful to haggard, from Meryl Streep to Margaret Thatcher. At least no-one can accuse Marion Cotillard of deliberate Oscar-hunting. She already has one, for playing French chanteuse Edith Piaf in 2007's La Vie en Rose. Nevertheless in her new film Rust and Bone, which won Best Film at the London Film Festival last weekend, Cotillard transforms strikingly to play a double amputee called Stéphanie. Her hair hangs lank, her eyes are half-dead. And you can't take your eyes off her.

Today, the actress is dressed in Dior – she's a "face" for the fashion house – and looks like Paris in the springtime. She, apparently, finds her beauty irrelevant, being more interested in losing herself in a part. When her Rust and Bone co-star, the Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts, first met her on the set, Cotillard was in her wheelchair, sullen and silent. She was already Stéphanie, a sea-world trainer who loses her legs in a freak accident. Ali, a rough bouncer, played by Schoenaerts, is the only one who doesn't treat her like an invalid. As a love story, it's a bruiser. Made by Jacques Audiard, director of A Prophet, it's been a critical hit at festivals including Cannes, Toronto and London.

Despite the difficulties of transforming for her previous role as Piaf, Cotillard describes this film as "her biggest challenge so far".

"I wanted to work with Jacques Audiard. Even before we met, he was on my to-die-for director list. And then there is Stéphanie. Usually, I connect emotionally with a character, and I discover all the layers. But with her, I freaked out. There is something so mysterious about her, I felt I didn't know her at all."

You could almost level the same accusation at the actress. She speaks perfect English, pausing frequently to find the right word and answers honestly. Yet she doesn't give herself away easily. Her parents and her younger twin brothers are all in the business. Acting was the only option.

Now 37 she has been with her partner, the director Guillaume Canet, since 2007. They originally met 10 years ago, on the set of Love Me If You Dare. Their son Marcel was born 18 months ago. Although she and Canet have the tag of "France's Brangelina", they live quietly, solidly, together in Paris. They last collaborated together on Little White Lies in 2010, a tale about dysfunctional thirtysomethings which was a hit in France. She smiles wryly at the memory. "In some ways it is great to be directed by your partner, because then you can always be together. But we did talk constantly about work and it came off set with us. However, I guess he did something right because I have promised him I will work with him again."

Rust and Bone was one of the first films she signed up for after the birth of Marcel. Seeing the actress without legs is a punch in the guts – even if it is just CGI. She says she didn't do any research into amputees, apart from watching footage of how to move. "It was not so much the physicality of the part that interested me, but the emotion. I haven't lost my legs, but I have lost, and I have felt pain. I knew the CGI would work, because otherwise, there was going to be no movie.

"The first scene I did without legs, I was in a wheelchair, so my legs were bandaged up underneath me. In every scene, the CGI people were so quick, and so discreet, that I barely noticed them. I have to say, when I saw it for the first time in a cinema, I was amazed. It is so powerful."

By "discreet", she is referring to the numerous sex scenes she and Schoenaerts had to perform. An image of her naked, amputated body appears in the film trailer, something Cotillard approves of: "The sex and flesh is part of the story," she says. " It's not sensational or a statement at all, it had to be in there. You know how you feel when you rediscover your body, love, your life. That's what happens to both these characters and I think that is very sexy."

Ever since she was discovered, aged 21, with a part in Arnaud Desplechin's comedy My Sex Life... or How I Got into an Argument, the parts Cotillard has chosen have been far from feeble French flowers; from Tina Lombardi in Jean-Pierre Jeunet's A Very Long Engagement, who gets guillotined for murder; to bisexual headcase Marie in Little White Lies. She even smacked Russell Crowe in the face in A Good Year.

The Hollywood parts she has been offered post-Oscar seem feebler: a moll in Public Enemies with Johnny Depp; a cheated-on wife in the Rob Marshall musical Nine and love interest Miranda in The Dark Knight Rises. Christopher Nolan put off filming the latter because he wanted her in it, and at the time of asking the actress was pregnant with Marcel. "He called me up after Inception", she recalls, "And it was something I really wanted to be part of, but of course I couldn't. So he said, 'I am writing at the moment, let me see what I can do for you.' I feel so lucky that he would do that for me – the guy is a creative genius. I mean, it was amazing to be part of one of the biggest films ever made, but I don't feel with Christopher that I am making a blockbuster. He is a completely independent thinker."

As the first actress since Sophia Loren in 1973 to win an Oscar for acting in a foreign language, Cotillard isn't ungrateful to Hollywood. "I am so lucky to be able to work in both France and America. Most of the movies that fed my dreams as a child were American. The Oscar opened a door, there is no doubt about that. And perhaps there will be more doors opened because of The Artist's success too. French cinema is travelling, and I am proud to be a French actress. We are an old country of cinema."

You get the feeling that Cotillard will only ever keep dipping her toe into the studio system. She claims to like the "difficult" roles "in whatever language I can get them. Often, they aren't found in English. I want to explore and learn all my life", she explains. "Even when I am old. Before I am an actress, or a mother, I am a woman first. I feel that very deeply in my heart."

'Rust and Bone' is released on 2 November

This article will appear in the 27 October print edition of The Independent's Radar magazine

Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit