Years before she was cast in the careermaking role of Edith Piaf, Marion Cotillard turned to the beloved French singer for artistic sustenance. "Sometimes I used her music to help me get in a certain state of emotion for a scene," says Cotillard, 32, who portrays Piaf in a roaring and technically virtuosic performance in the biopic La Vie en Rose.
Cotillard, the Paris-born daughter of two actors, has been in 40 films, most of them French. She first turned heads at home as the driver's pretty girlfriend in Luc Besson's Taxi films. American audiences may know her as Russell Crowe's Provençal love interest in A Good Year or a vengeful war widow in A Very Long Engagement. To play Piaf from her lusty teenage street-singer days to her death at 47 as a morphine and alcohol-addicted icon, Cotillard relied on a "balance of makeup, light and soul." The actress also had to let go of some of herself: she shaved her eyebrows and hairline to mimic Piaf's almost clownlike face. More than that, she shed her Gallic reverence for the singer known as the "Little Sparrow." "When you admire someone, there's a distance between you and that person," Cotillard says. "You have to erase that distance and put aside that admiration for a while." Dropping the awe left room for Cotillard to immerse herself in Piaf's tantrums, tragic love affairs and her raw, emotional stage performances. Lip-synching with close attention to Piaf's distinctive breathing and posture, Cotillard disappears into the role. Two years after completing La Vie en Rose, the actress is still the beneficiary of creative gifts from Piaf. Now they come in the form of award nominations and new opportunities. Her next project is Nine, with Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, Rob Marshall's film version of the Tony Award-winning musical. Becoming Piaf was, Cotillard says, "the best thing that could happen to a passionate girl like me."