Marion Cotillard’s prep work for ‘Macbeth’ is the saddest thing ever

Lady Macbeth: She”s one of William Shakespeare”s most iconic characters, a scheming, ambitious woman. You can see her as a manipulative temptress who pushes her husband to go to murderous lengths to steal the Scottish crown, or you can see her as a mother who”s lost her child and, in her loss, pours her love and her longing into her husband and guides him to his full potential – or as some mixture of both.

In crafting the character of the two leads, the latest film adaptation of “Macbeth” embraces the Macbeths” apparent childlessness and the death of their child, which is hinted at in just a few places in the text. The very first shot of the film shows the Macbeths” dead child on a pyre.

Directed by Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (“The Snowtown Murders”), this “Macbeth” takes place in 11th century Scotland, transporting the 17th century play back to the time of the real Macbeth who inspired Shakespeare”s tragedy.

In preparing to star opposite Michael Fassbender in Kurzel”s film, French actress Marion Cotillard turned to expected resources – like a renowned Shakespeare expert – and to less expected ones – like videos of elephants and penguins.

Read on for what Cotillard told HitFix about transforming into Lady M.

HitFix: What parts of the play were you most looking forward to filming?

Marion Cotillard: All the scenes of Lady Macbeth are so powerful that I couldn't choose one over the other. But there are some beats that are so powerful – the scene when Macbeth has come back and changed his mind and tells her that he won”t kill the king, this scene for me really is the quintessence of the character because it”s fear, power, manipulation, pain. She”s drowning, but at the same time, there”s a lot of love for him. I love that scene.

What did you do to study Shakespeare”s text?

We had a Shakespeare expert. Our dialect coach, Neil Swain, is also a Shakespeare expert, so we really had, I would say, lessons to understand the play. So he gave us all the meanings of words, of sentences, and we worked thoroughly on the play. He got us familiar with the energy and the rhythm of the verse. That was really, really an interesting period. He was really amazing, making us understand and at the same time getting the rhythm inside of us, [so] that it would become organic. Because it”s already a very organic writing.

How would you describe that rhythm?

A very organic thing. Something that is alive and struggling at the same time. The meaning of the words is also in the rhythm. The fear, the pain, the power, all this energy that you feel when you”re powerful or in pain – all those feelings are in the rhythm of the verse.

Let”s talk about this idea of control – just how in control did you want your Lady M to be and how did you approach the pacing of that loss of control?

Well, she obviously loses control, but she loses control not only of what she has created, but she loses control of what she wanted to achieve, which is the vision of Justin. The conclusion we came to was she”s in love with her husband, and both of them try to escape their condition and escape their fears and pain. And obviously, if you don”t deal with your issues, if you just try to cover them with power, violence, anything that will bring you the illusion that you can escape what”s inside of you, it will lead you to madness because if you don't deal with your issues, there is no way you can go beyond them, and there”s nothing good that can come from being blind and trying to escape, especially pain and fears.

It”s very interesting that you have the “unsex me here” scene take place in what looks like a small chapel. How did that location inform your approach to that scene?

I spent some time there. You see it in the film – all the frescos, the wall paintings were very inspiring. I assumed that she spent a lot of time there, that it was her place. I spent a lot of time there myself, observing the walls and being inspired by this very warm space, and at the same time what was on the wall was really horrible – monsters eating babies. It was this mix of extreme things that is actually the essence of all those characters in that play and the essence of that play too.

Yours and Michael Fassbender”s performances were pretty understated and subtle. Why that approach?

Justin really wanted to bring intimacy. So that was his direction, being intimate, and something is boiling inside, but it”s not showing too much on the outside, and it kept us also from falling into a very theatrical version that wouldn't have suited his vision and the movie itself. Besides people who've lost their mind, nobody talks to oneself. I don't do soliloquy. I sometimes talk to myself but not like a long monologue! Especially Michael, because he has a lot of soliloquy – I only have one. And what he created to get this intimacy and this sense of authenticity and reality – the key was intimacy.

You”ve said before that this role was “total darkness,” and it wasn”t a character you wanted to bring home to your son.

Yeah, she was not a good friend to bring back home.

How did you go about “turning off” Lady Macbeth?

I was on my way back home. I was just breathing her out. When I work, there is something that is really important for me to find – the way my character breathes, where to put my breath, where it comes from, the rhythm of the breathing. So to switch from her to myself I would just go back to my own breathing.

How did being a mother inform your approach to this character who has lost a child?

I never tried to imagine how I would be affected because I don”t want to think about that. But I can totally understand that it”s the worst thing in the world. So I just connected to stories I had heard. Actually what I did, which might sound totally creepy – I watched a lot of videos of animals losing their babies. Elephants and a heartbreaking video of penguins, a mother penguin with her dead baby. Yeah, it”s horrible.

The famed sleepwalking scene – which isn”t really a sleepwalking scene in this film – tell me about the thinking behind that scene.

Well, in a way it”s a sleepwalking scene. She doesn't walk, but she”s totally gone already. And Justin's idea was just perfect. It made everything easy.

Have you gotten to talk with other women who have played Lady M?

No. The thing is, Judi Dench, for example, reached perfection. That”s a lot of pressure. I didn”t want to think about any other interpretations even though I thought about hers because it”s perfection. But then I thought, this is a total different production, this is movies, so I really put myself in the hands of Justin because he”s such an amazing director with such a brilliant vision of the play that is different from the other movies, so our Macbeth and Lady Macbeth would be different and hopefully unique.

“Macbeth” begins rolling out in U.S. theaters on Friday, December 4, following a world premiere at Cannes Film Festival this past May and an October U.K. release.