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The new film “The Immigrant” stars Oscar winner Marion Cotillard as Ewa Cybulska, who flees war-torn Poland to come to the United States with her sister in the early twentieth century. But on Ellis Island, the two are separated and Ewa is forced into prostitution to survive and save her sister.
James Gray, who directed and co-wrote the screenplay tells Here & Now’s Robin Young, “my grandparents came over to the United States in 1923 from Russia and I heard tons of stories and I tried to put as many of them as I could into the film.”
Gray and star Marion Cotillard also found inspiration in photos of immigrants who passed through Ellis Island, as Cotillard tells Robin Young “it’s very interesting, the mix of hope and fear and even though it’s still pictures, you can see inside of those people, it’s tumultuous.”
Cotillard on taking inspiration from photographs
“I remember one of the women, one of the pictures I had, she had those big, surprised eyes. And what is interesting is that you can see surprise, but at the same time, you can see that she’s begging, with her eyes, ‘Let me in.’ And that was interesting for me, because Ewa, as well as Bruno and Orlando, they’re very complex characters and they very have complex relationships. And all those pictures, and all this complexity that I saw in these pictures, well, that was very inspiring.”
Gray on visiting Ellis Island with his grandparents
“The first time I ever went to Ellis Island, which was in 1976, right when the opened the doors, basically, for tourists, it had not yet been restored, and there were essentially kind of half filled-out immigration forms on the floor, and the mess hall had half a cup of coffee on the table and stuff. It was incredible. My grandfather took one look at the place and burst into tears. So it was very moving, to be back there.”
Cotillard on her character facing adversity in America
“Because she faced horror in her country, nothing will reach the level of horror that she saw in her country. And if this is something that she has to do — I mean prostitution — to get her sister out, well, she just shut her brain and she does it, because she has no other choice.”
Gray on “the American dream”
“When you talk about the American dream, it’s, I think, very important to consider it something that is not some kind of fantasy, you know, where the typical conception is, ‘I came to America and all of a sudden, it was great and I made lots of money.’ That’s, really — it does, actually, a disservice to the American dream, because it actually paints it as a total fiction. And one of the things that we tried to convey was this whole idea that it’s both fake, but also, real. There’s always the potential.”
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. In the new film "The Immigrant," a boat arrives at Ellis Island in the early 1920s, aboard a jumble of colorless clothing and faces. Ewa, played by Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard, and her sister Magda, who have left the war in Poland behind them, stare wide-eyed at the new world of New York. Ewa tries to eat a banana without peeling it.
But right off the boat, Magda is quarantined, a cough. Ewa is detained, told she'll be deported. Enter Bruno, played by Joaquin Phoenix. He offers to rescue Ewa, and soon she is on the ferry to Manhattan but leaving her sister behind.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IMMIGRANT")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
JOAQUIN PHOENIX: (As Bruno Weiss) What's the matter?
MARION COTILLARD: (As Ewa Cybulska) I left my sister here.
PHOENIX: (As Bruno) Do not worry. She's going to get the best medical care available. Do you have a place to stay?
COTILLARD: (As Ewa) No. Do you know somewhere?
PHOENIX: (As Bruno) Yeah, I know a place. If you'd like, I can take you there. Yes?
COTILLARD: (As Ewa) Yes.
(SOUNDBITE OF SHIP HORN)
YOUNG: And the horn seems to scream no, don't do it. But what choice does she have? Bruno turns out to be a pimp. He forces her into prostitution even as he falls in love with her. We're not going to give too much more of the plot away, but Variety says the film calls on Tolstoy and Flaubert to tell this very American story.
Oscar-winning actress Marion Cotillard joins us from the NPR studios in New York to talk more about it. Hello.
YOUNG: And there with her, James Gray, who directed and co-wrote "The Immigrant." Welcome to you, as well.
JAMES GRAY: Hi, how are you doing?
YOUNG: Good, and start with you. The story has personal resonance for you.
GRAY: Yeah, I mean, my grandparents came over to the United States in 1923 from Russia, and I heard tons of stories, and I tried to put as many of them as I could into the film, you know, details from not knowing how to eat a banana to the attitude of the immigration officials and of course the story itself, you know, coming over on the ship.
YOUNG: And Marion, you're from France. What did you - was there reading that you did? Was there some story about New York that you could hang your role on?
COTILLARD: Well, the first thing I started to research was Poland history. But the thing is I didn't know, I had no idea, how the immigration happened back then. I didn't know Ellis Island. And what I really researched was pictures of immigrants to study their look because they did those pictures of all the people who came through Ellis Island, and it's very interesting, the mix of hope and fear and even though it's, like, still pictures, you can see inside of those people. It's tumultuous, and that was very, very interesting for me to study this.
YOUNG: What else did you see in their faces? Some tumult, you say, but what else did you see?
COTILLARD: I remember one of the women, one of the pictures I had, she had those big, surprised eyes. And what is interesting is that you can see surprise, but at the same time, you can see that she's begging, with her eyes let me in. And that was interesting for me because Ewa, and as well as Bruno and Orlando, they're very complex characters and they very have complex relationships.
And all those pictures, and all this complexity that I saw in these pictures, well, that was very inspiring.
YOUNG: Let me in, let me in to your country but into your culture. And then it's so wacky sometimes when they step into this culture. It's not just a brand new culture, but it's one filled with characters like, as you said, Bruno and then his cousin Orlando. He's the magician played by Jeremy Renner. Your character first sees him when he comes to perform on Ellis Island.
It's not - you know, it's not as if this place is crazy and new enough. Suddenly there's a magician dropped in the middle of it. Let's listen to a little of his levitation act.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IMMIGRANT")
JEREMY RENNER: (As Orlando) Tonight I will attempt to rise before your very eyes. Now there are those who query the possibility, and I understand that. I've heard it all before. But I have to ask those people: How is it that you found yourself here, at this very moment, in America?
YOUNG: In other words, I'm going to levitate myself, but look what you did. James Gray, what were you thinking, dropping a magician to entertain the immigrants that are detained on Ellis Island?
GRAY: What happened was I doing research, and I was looking at exactly the photos that Marion was talking about. In fact those are a series of photographs taken by a great photographer named Lewis Hine. And there's a library at Ellis Island where I was doing research, and I read about a concert that Enrico Caruso gave to the immigrants.
And it said that a juggler and a magician opened for him. So knowing that a magician opened for Caruso, my mind started of course to wander to who that guy would be, and I started to read about a magician named Ted Annemann, who met with quite an unsavory end, and I thought, well, that's an interesting character, and that's how he became part of the story.
The concert itself we tried to get as accurate as possible, and it was very moving to me to actually shoot it in Ellis Island.
YOUNG: Oh, it's amazing, I mean, to think of Caruso singing before these people. You know, he also came, you know, over, and there they were looking at him with those eyes that, Marion, you talked about.
GRAY: It is an astonishing thing, isn't it, because if you think about it, the equivalent today would be like having Beyonce walk into the Social Security office and start singing for everybody. I mean, it's unheard of.
YOUNG: What was that like, given that - I mean, did your grandparents come through that building?
GRAY: They did in 1923, and when I first - the first time I ever went to Ellis Island, which was in 1976, right when they opened the doors, basically, for tourists, it had not yet been restored, and there were essentially kind of half-filled-out immigration forms on the floor, and the mess hall had half a cup of coffee on the table and stuff. It was incredible. My grandfather took one look at the place and burst into tears.
GRAY: So it was very moving, to be back there.
YOUNG: Yeah, I bet. Marion, your character Ewa, she steels herself. Yes, she is wide-eyed, but she soon - I don't know, how would you put it? What transformation did you feel, and before you answer, I just want to listen to another scene. As we said, she's forced into prostitution. It revolts her, but it's going to help her get her sister. Let's listen to a little of a scene where Bruno gives her some share of money from a client.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IMMIGRANT")
PHOENIX: (As Bruno) Here. Here's your cut, for your sister. What, you don't like money? You don't want it, I'll keep it.
COTILLARD: (As Ewa) I like money.
PHOENIX: (As Bruno) Good.
COTILLARD: (As Ewa) I don't like you. I hate you, and I hate myself.
Because she faced horror in her country, nothing will reach the level of horror that she saw in her country. And if this is something that she has to do, I mean prostitution, to get her sister out, well, she just shut her brain, and she just does it because she has no other choice.
YOUNG: Yeah, you know, on the one hand, everybody in the film is on the take, it's hard to know who to trust. On the other, these characters escape something far worse they've left behind, and they have a chance at a new life.
GRAY: When you talk about the American dream, it's I think very important to consider it something that is not some kind of fantasy, you know, where the typical kind of media conception is I came to America, and all of a sudden, it was great, and I made lots of money.
GRAY: That's really - it does, actually, a disservice to the American dream because it actually paints it as a total fiction. And one of the things that we tried to convey was this whole idea that it's both fake but also real. There's always the potential.
COTILLARD: Yeah, the cliche's always true, in a way.
YOUNG: Marion Cotillard stars in the new film "The Immigrant." Director, co-writer James Gray has joined us, as well. It's really a beautiful film, and we thank you both for talking to us about it.
COTILLARD: Well thank you.
GRAY: Thank you.
YOUNG: And Jeremy, look, I'm at our website. We've got some of those Lewis Hine, you know, this era pictures. Aren't they something?
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
YOUNG: Look at these black and white photos.
HOBSON: Yeah, nice slideshow at hereandnow.org.
YOUNG: Yeah. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.