As a child growing up in the bucolic Loire Valley, Marion Cotillard didn’t covet her mother’s high heels. “I wore a lot of my father’s clothes as a kid, even though most of the time it was a disaster,” she says. She once paired a men’s sky blue thermal bodysuit with an orange polka-dot cardigan, black skirt and flats. “As soon as I put my foot in the school building, I thought, My God, what did I do?”
It’s hard to imagine Cotillard, the face of Christian Dior and an Academy Award–winning actress, feeling the same doubts today. She has been a red-carpet darling since collecting her Oscar for the Edith Piaf biopic La Vie en Rose in a mermaid-like Jean-Paul Gaultier dress—scales and all—back in 2008. Since then, she has racked up credits with Woody Allen, Steven Soderbergh and Christopher Nolan, who cast her in linchpin supporting roles for both Inception and The Dark Knight Rises, while her lead performance in Rust and Bone, in theaters later this fall, generated awards buzz after its Cannes premiere. And even under constant surveillance by the world’s fashion mandarins, Cotillard hasn’t tamped down her playfulness or originality. (Case in point: the ballet-inspired Dior dress, spiky Louboutin Mad Max sandals and shock of tangerine shadowing her blue eyes at the New York City Dark Knight Rises premiere.)
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Cotillard grew up shy and awkward, she says, but with a strong sense of adventure and a stronger safety net. “We lived in an amazing, creative, free and loving world,” she says of her family: father Jean-Claude, a mime and director; mother Niseema Theillaud, an actress and drama teacher; and twin younger brothers. She inherited a talent for the family business, and today, Cotillard never stops working. She arrived on the set of Rust and Bone just four months after giving birth to the now 16-month-old Marcel, her son with French actor and director Guillaume Canet. Since June, she has wrapped Canet’s 1970s Brooklyn crime yarn Blood Ties and James Gray’s as-yet-untitled Ellis Island drama, also starring Joaquin Phoenix and Jeremy Renner.
“By the time I got to the set, Joaquin and everyone had a running joke that Marion was a cyborg, that she never messed up, never faltered, she was always brilliant, every time, every take, every day,” Renner says with a laugh. “She makes everything look easy. Nothing gets under her skin.”
“It’s strange, because I had the feeling sometimes that I was directing Marion like I would direct a man,” says Rust and Bone director Jacques Audiard. “I don’t know how to describe it except to say that she’s very rational and direct and not fussy in a girly sort of way. This was incredibly surprising.” In Rust and Bone, Cotillard plays Stephanie, a marine-park trainer who suffers a critical injury and then—against a backdrop of sea and summer sky on the Côte D’Azur—claws her way back to humanity and love. “I was baffled by the character at first,” Cotillard says. “But the amazing thing about this job is the chance to search for and hopefully find this new person.”
In her fashion choices, however, Cotillard does not seek out reinvention. “If I don’t feel like myself in an outfit—if it makes me feel like a different person—I won’t wear it,” she says. Dries Van Noten appeals to her for combining simplicity and edginess, as do the bright sculptural prints of Tsumori Chisato. “I always find something that’s kind of crazy but at the same time is wearable and really looks like me,” she says about the Paris-based designer. Whenever she’s in Los Angeles, she likes to stock up on James Perse Tshirts and real cowboy boots—she has three pairs—at her favorite emporium on Sunset.
Cotillard also has something of a hat obsession, one that dates back to the making of La Vie en Rose, for which she had to shave her eyebrows and hairline. “I looked terrible, so my hat collection increased dramatically,” she says. She favors the masculine shapes of the trilby and fedora, in which she’s often photographed while strolling with Marcel on the streets of Manhattan and which reveal that Cotillard’s most enduring fashion influence may date back to her idyllic childhood. “I love men’s hats,” she says, “because my father wears them.”
PHOTOS: Behind the Scenes with Marion Cotillard