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AT THE MOVIES : CANNES 2011

One's French (Marion Cotillard), one's Spanish (Penelope Cruz). Both flourish in Hollywood and internationally.

May 12, 2011|Steven Zeitchik

CANNES, FRANCE — For French actress Marion Cotillard, it's not the directors, the scene, or even the casting grind that can make Hollywood exhausting. It's the accents.

The "Inception" star is the rare performer with a flourishing career in both the United States and continental Europe. But even after nearly a dozen English-speaking roles, getting her mouth around the words is still tricky.

"I tried to do it for a little while without a dialect coach," she said by phone from Paris, in nearly flawless (but accented) English. "I couldn't do it. I have trouble even with the coach. There are so many subtleties in English, just in the way you stress the words. And words are a big part of how you act."

Switching between languages, both the literal and filmic kinds, is a feat few performers can manage. But as the Cannes Film Festival kicks off this week, the spotlight will be on two Oscar-winning actresses with different backgrounds who display that versatility.

Cotillard stars in "Midnight in Paris," a Woody Allen romantic comedy that opened the festival Wednesday night. It's a perfect showcase for the 35-year-old's two-continent status -- she plays a period Frenchwoman who speaks English.

She sandwiched the part between two movies that couldn't be more different: an intimate French-language dramedy called "Little White Lies" directed by her romantic partner, Guillaume Canet, and the upcoming comic-book sequel "The Dark Knight Rises," which reunites her with "Inception" director Christopher Nolan.

On Saturday, Penelope Cruz will help unveil her movie, Disney's 3-D extravaganza "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." The Spaniard -- who made her first major blip on American radars in 2001 opposite Tom Cruise in "Vanilla Sky" (after playing the role in the Spanish-language original) -- came to this festival in 2009 with a very different film: Pedro Almodovar's "Broken Embraces."

In "Pirates," she plays a swashbuckling foil to Johnny Depp's Jack Sparrow -- the confident Angelica, who tries to one-up Sparrow, flirt with him and help find the Fountain of Youth all at the same time.

Cruz said she doesn't intentionally alternate between the U.S. and Europe, but it often works out that way. "It seems to happen in a natural way," she said by phone from Los Angeles. "After I finish doing a movie and I start reading scripts, I naturally pick something that's the opposite."

Cruz, 37, will continue the continental shuffle by following "Pirates" with an Italian-language movie with director Sergio Castellitto, then a Rome-based film that Allen is making.

Building a transatlantic career isn't easy. Few non-native English speakers become bona-fide Hollywood stars. Those who do usually leave their homelands behind. But an increasingly multilingual international acting community, plus Hollywood's belief that foreign actors expand a movie's appeal globally, has led more performers to attempt the two-continent trick.

Cruz's husband, Javier Bardem, of course, was a star in Spain before crossing over to American films and winning an Oscar for "No Country for Old Men." But the dearth of juicy female roles in Hollywood makes it harder for women. Noomi Rapace recently leveraged her star turn as Lisbeth Salander in the Swedish-language Millennium trilogy into a role in "Prometheus," the sort-of prequel to "Alien." Time will tell if she'll pull it off.

Both Cruz and Cotillard say they benefited from working with directors in their home countries who are on Hollywood's radar: Cruz, via her frequent collaborations with Almodovar, and Cotillard in the Luc Besson-stewarded franchise "Taxi," as well as with American auteurs such as Tim Burton ("Big Fish").

Born 17 months apart, the Paris-raised Cotillard and Madrid native Cruz came to acting in different ways, but their careers have converged in recent years. Cotillard hails from a family of performers, solidly middle class, and began acting at a young age.

Cruz is from a working-class background and spent much of her teens and 20s studying dance.

They won their Oscars a year apart, Cotillard in 2008 for her playing singer Edith Piaf in "La Vie en Rose" and Cruz in 2009 for her supporting role in Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona."

They also costarred in the 2009 musical remake "Nine." They even were pregnant at the same time (Cruz gave birth this year; Cotillard is due soon.)

Producers say performers such as Cotillard and Cruz could stand at the head of a burgeoning new group as Hollywood goes more international.

"Whenever I'm starting to cast a new movie, I'm always thinking about who could help me in Europe or other places," said "Fast Five" producer Neal Moritz, who recently cast German actor Christoph Waltz in a film.

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