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Marion Cotillard Shares the Challenges of Acting in a Foreign Language: “You cannot act if you don’t know exactly what you say”

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As the Cannes Film Festival heats up in France, an entry in last year’s festival is finally seeing the light of day. The Immigrant, starring Marion Cotillard and Joaquin Phoenix, follows the story of a Polish woman who immigrates to New York only to be sucked into prostitution.

Much of the film is in Polish and it required Cotillard to study a new language. She addressed those challenges to Vulture.

“It was kind of stressful, because she is Polish, so I had to nail the accent. It’s not like when I learn another language but can keep my French accent. I always want to find the authenticity of a character. And there were 20 pages of Polish in the script. I didn’t even think about that when I first read it, because the script itself was in English; it just said ‘in Polish’ when there was dialogue that was supposed to be in Polish,” the Oscar winner said. “So I didn’t realize the amount of work I’d need to do. And I didn’t really have that much time to prepare. I had two months, which is nothing, and Polish is a very, very complicated language, and it shares almost no words with English or French. Sometimes, I would ask my teacher if she was really teaching me Polish, or if it was actually Chinese or something! But when you know that you won’t have enough time, you just have to jump into the work and not think about the result.”

With such little preparation time, the 38-year-old actress “really just learned phonetics [of the language.] But I did need to know the meaning of every word. You cannot act if you don’t know exactly what you say.”

Her character goes to such a dark place and takes an emotional journey throughout the James Gray-directed film, so Cotillard had to map out a path for who she was playing.

The La Vie en Rose star shared, “I need to figure it out before we start shooting, so I can be free and let the character live inside of me — to let it create itself, in a way. I try to find this space inside myself for the character to live by itself. I don’t want to control things, but I want to create a very strong base, so that I can let myself go. And if I know exactly who this person is, then I have a strong base. So that if, for example, there is a new scene, I will know exactly how she will react, without the need to sit down and think about it. I just want to let it go, and then sometimes you’re surprised by what is coming. This kind of surprise is very inspiring, and that can happen only if you don’t control everything.”

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