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A will to live when the odds prove overwhelming

Eye on the Oscar: Actress Preview

Considering what on-screen women are coming up against this season — including strokes, severed legs and a tsunami — you might think the actresses involved would approach their roles with caution. Not necessarily.

“It was the first scene we shot,” director Jacques Audiard said regarding his “Rust and Bone,” referring to the moment in which Marion Cotillard’s character realizes she’s lost her both legs. “And it was my introduction to how she saw the character:

“She howled, she screamed, she cried, she broke everything in sight. It was tough for me to tell her how I saw the role, which was much quieter and less violent.”

Nine takes later, they got what they wanted, which was OK, the actress says.

“I found it interesting, because it makes you dive into the heart of the story, which is about something you really can’t imagine,” she explains. “You have no idea how you would react in those kinds of circumstance, so we tried many different things. And he had a lot of material to work within the editing.”

Portraying the unimaginable was something required not just of Cotillard, but also Emmanuelle Riva, who plays a woman beset by multiple strokes in Michael Haneke’s “Amour,” and Naomi Watts, whose role in “The Impossible” — in which she plays a real-life survivor of the 2004 tsunami in Thailand — keeps her bedridden or under water.

“I was always in listening to Maria,” Watts says, referring to Spanish tsunami survivor Maria Belon, whom Watts plays, and who described her experiences in detail for the actress. “It’s hard to imagine yourself in that situation. And the things she said, sometimes I found hard to believe. I simply couldn’t relate. I mean, even in a mini crisis I’m pretty much a disaster.

“But she said that during the tsunami she never felt more centered and sure of every decision she made. I found that hard to relate to. I’m so full of self-doubt I just couldn’t imagine. But it helped me with the character, and I loved playing someone with so much courage, because I could use some of that.”

For Cotillard, the script was a big part of why she did the film, and how she embraced Stephanie, the woman who loses her limbs. “Even though she was a big mystery at the beginning, I fell in love with her,” the actress says. “I was very moved by her. The thing is, before her accident she is kind of an empty shell. She’s basically struggling with who she is.

“So the hardest was finding who she was in the first part of the movie. And after the accident, she really has to face herself, and becomes a full person.”

Stephanie is a fictional character; so is Anne, the woman Riva plays opposite Jean-Louis Trintignant in Haneke’s film about an elderly couple’s relationship tested by the wife’s determination to die with dignity. Like the director himself, Riva preferred to steer clear of anything maudlin or sentimental in the slightest, likening the film to a documentary.

“He didn’t do a lot of close-up like in most modern films,” she noted to one interviewer at Cannes, where “Amour” won the Palm d’Or. “He distanced the camera, so you wouldn’t see every tear flowing in close up. And that’s what gives the film its impact, the seriousness, the simplicity — so it makes you think it’s reality.”

For Watts, playing a woman who faces not only an unimaginable natural disaster but also unspeakable physical pain, came with the added responsibility of having to do right by the real people involved — who ranged far beyond the characters in the film.

“We were always very aware of the size of the disaster,” she says, referring to the disaster that killed 230,000 people in 14 countries, “and the fact it really happened, and we were talking to the real people, and were shooting in the real place.

“There were so many reminders of what happened that we never lost sight of telling what the story was about,” she says. “A lot of times, you can get caught up in the process of filmmaking. But I think we really felt the weight of it, and the responsibility of portraying it all in an authentic way.”

Eye on the Oscar: Actress Preview
Lit icons take on added dimension | Better-half roles balance support with strength | A will to live when the odds prove overwhelming | Sundance ripple effect pays off

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