TORONTO - It took just one image for Oscar-winning French actress Marion Cotillard to nail the physicality of her "Rust and Bone" character, an orca trainer who loses her legs in an accident at Marineland.
"We were preparing the movie ... trying costumes and ... the first time I sat on a chair on my legs and I had those pants hanging, the image was so strong that we knew that the process of creating her was really on," said the 37-year-old Paris native.
"And then this image never left, so the special effects never got in our way," Cotillard said in an interview at September's Toronto International Film Festival, where "Rust and Bone" screened.
"It's weird because it was kind of organic. I think that when I saw this image of me without legs, that was it. I didn't have to research or to think to forget that I had no legs."
Besides, if Cotillard shows any awkwardness in the role, it's fitting since her character is also adjusting to life as an amputee.
"It would have been different if Stephanie was a character who had been in that state for like 10 years. I would have worked totally different," she said.
"But it just happened. Basically I discovered what it was with her."
Cotillard's method seems to have worked: she's earning raves from critics and recently picked up a Golden Globe nomination for best actress for the role.
The French-language drama, which opens Friday in Vancouver and Toronto, is also up for a Golden Globe for best foreign-language film.
Jacques Audiard co-wrote and directs the French-Belgian film that's adapted from Canadian author Craig Davidsonís short story collection of the same name.
Flemish actor Matthias Schoenaerts co-stars as Ali, an unemployed single father who turns to street fighting as he falls in love with Cotillard's character.
"I was really, really moved by her. Everything she does," Cotillard said of her character.
"The first time the relationship goes into something very physical with him, I always wanted to take her in my arms."
Cotillard, who won an Oscar for playing French singer Edith Piaf in 2007's "La Vie en Rose," also liked the challenge of taking on an enigmatic character who's sunk into a deep depression.
"When I work and when I take a character, I need to understand every part of the character. I need to go as deep as I can and to visit the whole house, every corner. I want to know every web, every spider, everything," she said.
"And with her, suddenly I realized that I didn't need to know everything. The fact that she was mysterious was very exciting."
Cotillard was shooting "The Dark Knight Rises" during rehearsals for "Rust and Bone," and Schoenaerts was at first worried they wouldn't have time to develop chemistry.
"In the beginning I was like, 'Oh my God, how is this going to happen onset?'" said the star of the Oscar-nominated 2011 crime drama "Bullhead."
"But from Day 1, Take 1, we had a very genuine pleasure in what we were doing and she was ready as hell, and hungry and dedicated."
And he didn't have a problem trying to picture Cotillard without legs, even in their intimate scenes.
"Somehow, once I'm in the scene, I just feel it the way Ali feels it, I guess," said Schoenaerts.
"I don't want to mystify it or whatever, but it didn't affect me, the fact that she still had legs and that I had to pretend she didn't. For me, she didn't have them."
Schoenaerts did boxing and kick-boxing when he was younger but had to train a lot to prepare for his role.
Though he didn't sustain any injuries during his graphic fight scenes, he was intimidated by the professional fighters he filmed the scenes with.
"These guys in front of me were huge and they scared the hell out of me," he said with a laugh.