Marion Cotillard is barefaced and sleepy eyed. "I just woke up," she says, not quite stifling a yawn as she orders room-temperature still water in a restaurant across from Central Park in New York.

The 37-year-old French actress has been on something of an American journey. Her flight from Los Angeles had been diverted to Detroit the night before because of weather. Upon landing in New York, she made a beeline for Shake Shack, devoured two burgers and promptly took a nap that had made her slightly late for a conversation about her latest film, "Rust and Bone," which opens Friday in the Bay Area.

The film, co-written and directed by French auteur Jacques Audiard, also stars up-and-coming Belgian actor Matthias Schoenaerts.

This film image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Marion Cotillard in a scene from "Rust and Bone." (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Classics)
This film image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Marion Cotillard in a scene from "Rust and Bone." (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Classics)

Mainstream, art-house star

After winning an Oscar for her role as Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" in 2007 (the first Academy Award for a French-language performance), Cotillard has been catapulted into mainstream American moviegoing consciousness with turns in films such as Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris" and the latest Batman installment, "The Dark Knight Rises," while retaining her art-house cred in Europe. She has caught the eye of the fashion crowd with Vogue covers, red-carpet appearances and a Lady Dior campaign; in France she and her partner, actor and director Guillaume Canet, are often referred to as a Gallic Brangelina.

"Rust and Bone" was a critical and box-office success in France, received strong early reviews in America and has earned Oscar buzz for Cotillard.

In the film she plays Stephanie, an angry, inscrutable orca trainer at Marineland in Antibes, France, who loses both her legs from the knees down in a freak accident with one of the killer whales. The tragedy transforms her from the outside in, as she becomes deeply involved with a struggling single father and former boxer named Ali (Schoenaerts). Audiard, who adapted the screenplay with Thomas Bidegain by combining stories in a collection by Canadian writer Craig Davidson, has made an over-the-top-sounding tale into an understated meditation on the happiness that comes from opening yourself to love.

Learning how to move her body to make the amputation look convincing ended up being the least challenging physical aspect of preparing for the role, Cotillard says. She took swimming lessons to strengthen her technique during breaks in filming "The Dark Knight Rises" in Pittsburgh, Pa., and spent a week at Marineland learning how to direct the whales.

But she only briefly watched videos of amputees to figure out how to move her limbs. It helped that they were seamlessly altered using digital technology. (She wore green knee socks during the shoot.)

'Compose a character'

"I realized pretty quickly that I didn't really need to watch those videos, because it suddenly happened to my character that she lost her legs, and she learns in the moment how to live with that," she says. "I put myself in the skin of someone without legs, and suddenly, I totally forgot the lower part of my legs."

For the filmmakers, it wasn't important to capture what an amputee might look like as if they were shooting a documentary. Cotillard chose to use a cane after her character is fitted with prosthetic legs, for example, something a real-life amputee might have no need for, but which was a visual cue to remind the audience of her condition.

For Cotillard, the bigger challenge was putting herself into the emotionally groundless state that Stephanie initially finds herself in.

"In the beginning of the film, she is empty, she doesn't know who she is or why she's alive," Cotillard says. "She is numb. ... It's as if she were drugged. I have never experimented with hard drugs, but I've been at certain moments of my life in a state of shock close to something where you lose your footing, your sense of reality. I think that's the gift of the actor, the ability to put ourselves in a state."

Audiard says that he knew after seeing "La Vie en Rose" that he would work with Cotillard one day. "What touched me about her was her capacity to forget herself," he says, "to really compose a character."

According to Cotillard: "I adore my own life, more and more I love being myself, but I love this work of totally changing personalities, of creating someone radically different from myself."

But she says she was no longer the person who was haunted by Edith Piaf for eight months after shooting stopped. "I want to go profoundly into my roles," she says. "If not, what's the point? But I don't think that will happen to me again.

"My life has changed. In a totally organic manner, when I went home to the hotel after shooting 'Rust and Bone,' I had my baby, and suddenly the separation between my life on set and off the set was very easy to make. Because at the time he was about 5 months old, he was a tiny little baby who needed me entirely, not me and my work."

Nevertheless, "I think Stephanie has moved me more than any character I've ever played. She rediscovers the carnal, sexuality, love. Everything is very positive in the tragedy she faces."

Though the film includes sex scenes made vivid by Stephanie's altered anatomy, Cotillard says that it wasn't those sequences that made her feel the nakedness of the part. "Her accident is the beginning of a rebirth, and I had in my head during all those scenes that this was the birth of a little baby." Cotillard notes that Audiard's working method kept the co-stars alert.

In the hands of a 'genius'

"Once he stopped a scene and said: 'How dramatic are you? Dramatic, dramatic, dramatic! It's boring!' " she recalls. "We laughed, and it could seem a bit rude, but he was right. We were happy to have someone with that kind of genius to help us avoid going in the direction of things that are perhaps realistic but are not at all cinematic. And that's why he's a great director."

She says that he often had them shooting scenes that weren't in the original script or trying radically opposed interpretations of the same scene, experimentation that she was happy to embrace. "I love the possibility of finding a moment that will be more than authentic," she says, "that will have a bit of magic and poetry."

After a busy year, Cotillard notes that she has no projects planned until next summer, though she isn't ruling anything out.

"I feel less like I have something to prove, but I still have things to prove to myself," she says. "I'd love to do a comedy, for example. There are still plenty of risks to take."

'rust and bone'

Opens: Friday
Rating: R (for sexual content, nudity, violence and language)
Cast: Marion Cotillard, Matthias Schoenaerts and Armand Verdure
Director: Jacques Audiard
Running time: 2 hours
(In French with subtitles)