La Vie en Rose: Marion Cotillard on Playing Edith Piaf

Marion Cotillard, the brilliant French actress, renders a brilliant performance as the legendary singer Edith Piaf in the biopic “La Vie en Rose.” Picturehouse will release the film, which premiered at the Berlin Film Fest, in June.

Songs of Pure Emotions

In my early 20s, I really got into a number of singers of “la chanson raliste” movement and I listened to a lot of Frhel, Yvette Guilbert, Aristide Bruant and Edith Piaf. More than the others, her songs moved me because she sang of pure, true, absolute emotions with a voice that got you in the guts. At the time, I knew almost nothing about her, but I already knew by heart songs like Les amants dun jour, Lhymne lamour and La foule. On several occasions since then, I've listened to her songs just before a scene in order to reach a vulnerable, emotional state. Piaf helped me as an actress long before I got the chance to play her.

Meeting Director Olivier Dahan

My agent told me that Olivier Dahan was writing a film about Piaf and had thought of me for the part, but experience has taught me not to pay too much attention to rumors like that until you have the script in front of you. In the next few months, from time to time I'd hear other rumors or push the whole thing out of my mind, and then one day, Olivier asked to meet me. We got on right away and felt very comfortable with each other, as if it was obvious that our paths would cross one day.

Before that meeting, I had glanced over a few photos of Piaf. I didn't want to be presumptuous and invest too much energy in a part I hadn't even been offered, but I couldn't help setting out to find her.

Powerful Life

When I realized that Olivier really wanted to make the film with me, I couldn't wait to get started. He gave me Jean Noli's book about the last three years of Piaf's life. My admiration for her only increased when I found out what kind of life she had had.

At the time, the script was longer, but already quite exceptional. Olivier had built an intimate, balanced, very human portrait of Piaf. His screenplay was full of powerful moments, life-changing encounters, breakups, desertions, hope and love. A regular movie only has one scene that reaches that pitch. This one is full of them. In fact, I think it's probably her intensity, in the good times and the bad, which explains why she only lived to 47.

Demanding Role

It was an extraordinary role but I soon realized how demanding it would be to play Piaf from her early days to her death. I had never been given a role like that before. Nobody had ever asked me to play a woman like that, a life like that. It was all very new to me. I was nervous but I never felt a glimmer of doubt. That's probably down to not ever feeling any doubt in Olivier's mind. He had faith in me and that's all I needed. The other thing that stopped me totally panicking was that, although I imagined it would be difficult, but I never imagined just how difficult!

Nervous Wreck

In October 2005, right after I finished shooting Ridley Scott's A Good Year, I got down to work every day. I would open the script, read these amazing scenes and close it immediately, hardly daring to think what was awaiting me. A little voice told me to open the script back up and read some more because one day soon I would be in La Brasserie Julien playing that scene. Or in the apartment on Boulevard Lannes reading Non, je ne regrette rien for the first time, and I would have to play that scene. Or I had been lying on her deathbed and I wouldn't be able to back out! So I'd read some more of the script, with my heart pounding. Many times, I've been so apprehensive I feel like calling up a director to tell him to find another actress. But on this film, even when I was a nervous wreck, never, not once!

Working with a Coach

From the very beginning, I said that I would need to work with a coach. It wasn't about physical issues or needing reassurance, but I wanted somebody at my side to set out to meet Piaf with me. I'd already worked with Pascal Luneau and he showed me something that was absolutely vital. I had so much admiration for Piaf that some aspects of her were incomprehensible to me, especially the tyrannical aspect. Pascal helped me realize that my admiration prevented me getting to the bottom of her. Losing that admiration didn't mean not liking her anymore, but reaching another level. I stopped making myself so small in comparison to her and that's when I got a handle on everything I didn't like in her personality. Eventually, I came to really love her because I realized that the only thing she couldn't bear was to be alone. She would go to any lengths not to be alone, even if it meant tyrannizing the people she loved.

Watching Tapes

We never worked on the physical aspects of the character the way she walked, move, spoke–and then, the first day on set, I heard “Action!” and this voice I had never heard before came out of my mouth. In fact, my preparation had focused totally on observing and immersing myself in Edith Piaf. I watched so many tapes and listened to so many interviews that they ended up feeding a kind of inner process. From the start, I knew I didn't want just to imitate her. My aim was to make enough room within me for Piaf to feel at home, without me disappearing completely. I had to welcome her in so that we could get on and create something together.

Sharing with Piaf Who I Am

Part of being an actor is inviting characters in or summoning them up to share with you what you are. When you play Phedra, you kind of call on her. Of course, when you play someone as powerful and present as Piaf, it's even more overwhelming. Some people may find all that a bit mystical, but all I can say is that after spending so long watching, listening to and loving her, I often had the impression that she was there. I was so deeply steeped in the way she moved and spoke, down to the tiniest inflections of her voice, that it was as if she existed within me. I arrived on set to meet up with her again!

Great Kick out of Playing Piaf

I'm not putting any mystical or esoteric spin on all this; it was just an encounter, an extraordinary encounter. Something of her recreated itself in me. It lasted only as long as we were shooting. At certain moments, you felt her presence. I often felt like we were working together. And then, you leave your ego to one side and just go for it. It's frightening but absolutely thrilling. The first scene I had to play like that was set in the apartment on Boulevard Lannes, when Charles Dumont brings her Non, je ne regrette rien. I found myself speaking and moving as if Piaf were inside me. Even if we had to do it again and again, even though it was tough, that's when I realized that I was going to get a great kick out of playing her.


The make-up tests where sheer hell and a lot of make-up artists fell short! Each time, we had to start over with somebody new. That phase caused me so much worry because the results never came up to our expectations and I knew that, however good my performance was, if the make-up didn't work, it would be impossible for the audience to believe in it. Didier Lavergne did an amazing job, despite having less time than such a huge challenge usually requires. The make-up still took a certain time to get right and we had to shoot certain scenes again.

Directed by Olivier Dahan

Playing Piaf when she was younger was less of a problem because I didn't have such heavy make-up. On the set, Olivier uses few words but they are all spot-on. He directs visually, by describing things. That may seem mechanical, but it's totally intuitive for him and it worked perfectly for me. He offered us some magical moments, like the sequence shot when Piaf finds out that Cerdan is dead. I knew the dimensions of the set by heart–a long hallway that I had to prowl up and down. We had all rehearsed the scene. Everybody had to be in exactly the right place. There was a real buzz of excitement–exceptional, positive energy. We couldn't afford to put a foot wrong because it would mean having to start all over again. When I woke up that morning, I thought of Roberto, the steadicam operator, and Chris, the focus puller, and I said to myself that we were going to waltz together. When the scene was in the can, we all had the most wonderful feeling.

The crew members were the first to see my transformation and, to be honest, I felt a kind of stage-fright because I admire them all. I was especially nervous of the scenes when I played Piaf in her later years. I'll never forget my first scene with Pascal Greggory, Marie-Armelle Deguy, Elisabeth Commelin and Jean-Paul Muel. They were all wonderful. We were all headed toward exactly the same goal.

Miming to the Tape

I like to sing, but the technical process of miming to a tape was the hardest thing for me, simply because I wanted it to be perfect. I worked with a singing teacher to learn how Piaf sang–her body and tongue movements, and breathing. It was so complicated it nearly drove me insane. If I had tapes of her singing a particular song, I analyzed her performance. I noticed that being in rhythm isn't enough when you're miming. Your breathing is vital. I would jot down the exact moment when she took a breath, and then I'd put the music on and film myself singing to camera. I spent whole nights taking notes on what not to do! I wanted it to be Piaf.

Shooting Piaf's Comeback

There were some truly amazing moments on this film, like when we were shooting at the Olympia concert hall in Paris, when Piaf makes a wonderful return to the stage with Non, je ne regrette rien. Ginou Richer, who was very close to Piaf, was in the audience. It felt incredible being with her on the set. It must have been strange for her. When I arrived on stage to sing that song, with Ginou there, it was absolutely magical.

I'll never approach a part in the same way again. Piaf taught me so much. In terms of my work, I think I'll enjoy it even more than before, because now I know that characters truly exist in their own right. I'll have a way to bring them even more intensely to life.