Proof of Life: Oscar Winner Marion Cotillard and Matthias Schoenaerts Talk ‘Rust and Bone’

Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard in ‘Rust and Bone’/Photo © Sony Pictures Classics
Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard in ‘Rust and Bone’/Photo © Sony Pictures Classics

It's a premise so outré, it even resists being plugged into the "guy and a girl walk into a bar" joke, largely because the girl's legs in this equation have been chomped off by a megaton killer whale. "They are magnificent animals," Marion Cotillard gently corrects. "I had such a connection with them when we were training that I actually don't like that we call them killer whales."

The Oscar winner, who prefers the term Orcas, is making the rounds at the posh Rockefeller Center boîte Brasserie Ruhlmann, literally thousands of miles from the rows of generic big box stores and gritty back alleys lining the honky tonk Côte d'Azur setting of her latest film "Rust and Bone," although both locales are très French.

The luncheon, organized by uber-publicist Peggy Siegal, is the kind of affair that's practically guaranteed to place a lock on a best actress nomination. And if that happens this January, it will eclipse the native Parisian's prior record as the first actor to receive an Academy Award for a French language performance as "little sparrow" Édith Piaf.

Cotillard's Belgian co-star Matthias Schoenaerts, just off last year's Oscar-nominated "Bullhead," here plays homeless street fighter Ali. The two meet cute when Ali extricates Cotillard's Orca trainer Stephanie from a bar fight and drives her home. After Stephanie's accident, they reunite via a phone call that plays out suspiciously like what the French call "un plan cull" or we Americans more crudely term "the booty call."

Cotillard explains the hot flush of casual carnality between the unlikely pair. “When there’s nothing left," she says, "it’s just you, your soul, and what’s deep inside of you. Will you be able to face it or will you be too afraid to face it? We see the encounter of two naked souls who surrender to this nudity. That’s the beauty of this story and these people."

Schoenaerts is much more pragmatic. "It's fighting or having sex," he says, "and everything else is dead as hell. When Ali fights, it's the only thing that makes him feel alive. He's not even aware, but you see it happen. When he fights, you see there's something he enjoys about it. The adrenaline, it brings him to life, because for the rest of it he's totally numbed out."

The other half of this odd couple is in accord. "What matters is the flesh and bones," Cotillard adds, "the sexual, violent physicality.” And while her double amputation is accomplished largely through CGI, the technology's not really compelling for her as an actor. "I watched videos of amputees,” she says, “but I got more out of the direction."

She relays a helpful piece of advice her director, Jacques Audiard, supplied when he said that, after the accident, Stephanie would sometimes forget and try to stand, only to come crashing to the ground. Although that fall is not actually portrayed on screen – the film largely avoids the clichés of the physical trauma genre – it served as a guiding principle for Cotillard. "It made me feel the part,” she says. "The technical people did amazing work, but that's the least interesting detail."

She may be right about that, but her pairing with Schoenaerts presents a neat hat trick, almost the antidote to this year's Oscar race. Instead of partnering a prosthetic-heavy male lead – Daniel Day-Lewis, Anthony Hopkins, Bill Murray, et al. – with a little lady whose only assist in the makeup trailer comes courtesy a hideous wig – think Sally Field, Helen Mirren, and Laura Linney, conversely – Cotillard quite literally gets to lie back, waiting for her legs to vanish in post-production, while Schoenaerts does most of the heavy lifting.

The actor, just back to a relatively trim set point of 160 after packing on 60 pounds of muscle to play "Bullhead's" steroid-fueled cattle farmer, was faced with another daunting weight gain on this film, albeit one that required him to "eat a lot of junk and grow a belly. The guy isn't fit," he continues of Ali, "he's raw. He could have been an athlete, but he's broke as hell and hasn't been feeding himself right. He looks unhealthy and eats out of a garbage can."

The actors’ movable feast continues when Cotillard again pairs with Schoenaerts in another adaptation entitled "Blood Ties," due out 2013. This 1970s mob noir is directed by Cotillard's husband, Guillaume Canet, who cast Schoenaerts after meeting him briefly on the "Rust and Bone" set. The two actors have an easy rapport. "I just imagined her to have no legs," Schoenaerts remembers of the intimate scenes, "and when I looked at her she had no legs." Cotillard smiles shyly: "Stephanie doesn't lose anything. Before the accident, she's tough and unhappy. Then she meets this guy. And he becomes the proof that she's still alive."