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Icon of Cool Charlotte Rampling Talks ’45 Years,’ Sculpting Her Acting Muscles, and Working with Woody Allen

Icon of Cool Charlotte Rampling Talks '45 Years,' Sculpting Her Acting Muscles, and Working with Woody Allen


The longer you talk to Charlotte Rampling, the more you are drawn into her hooded eyes, her laid back insouciance, her mature strength. This is a woman who has lived. I want to read her memoir. Based in Paris, she’s worked in English with Sidney Lumet (“The Verdict”), Alan Parker (“Angel Heart”), Woody Allen (“Stardust Memories”) and Lars von Trier (“Melancholia”), French with Francois Ozon (Cesar-nominated “Under the Sand” and “Swimming Pool”) and Italian with directors Luchino Visconti (“The Damned”) and Lilliana Cavani (“The Night Porter”). 

Over the course of the year “45 Years” (Sundance Selects, December 23) has been blazing a festival trail from Berlin (where Courtenay and Rampling won Best Actor and Actress) to Telluride and Toronto. Haigh adapted “45 Years” from a short story by poet David Constantine, which anticipates the anniversary of Geoff and Kate’s seemingly long and happy marriage–until Geoff is sent a letter about the young woman he once loved, who died suddenly before he met Kate. Suddenly, everything changes. Geoff, it seems, had secrets. And while he seeks the support of his wife as he works through his trauma, she doesn’t want to keep giving it. Haigh fastens the camera on his expressive actors, whose silences speak volumes. 

Watch: “Tom Courtenay and Andrew Haigh Dig Into ’45 Years’ (Exclusive Video)” 

Rampling, who has never been nominated for an Oscar, enters an unusually robust Best Actress race populated by several senior women. Out of Sundance emerged romance “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” which offered veteran Blythe Danner her first lead role, as well as Lily Tomlin comedy “Grandma,” which both scored with older audiences. Helen Mirren can’t be ignored for Weinstein hit “Woman in Gold.” Another older dame chasing Best Actress is Maggie Smith, reprising her stage role of 16 years ago in playwright/screenwriter Alan Bennett’s moving and hilarious “The Lady in the Van.” 

READ MORE: Meet the Four Legends Bringing Back the British Invasion this Oscar Season  

When Rampling poses with a group of glam Oscar contenders on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter or The Los Angeles Times Envelope, she draws your eye. She looks dignified and chic, distant yet inviting, and doesn’t wear silly spike heels like her elder, Jane Fonda. She’s utterly, naturally beautiful, with the poise of someone who has always taken her allure for granted. She doesn’t mind looking her age, or hanging out with her manager of 37 years, Jean Simond (pictured). Rampling was married twice, and raised two children; she carried her own secret for many years, the fact that her only sister’s death in the 60s was a suicide. After the high of Berlin, Rampling suffered another loss, when her partner since 1998, French communications executive Jean-Noël Tassez, passed on. 

With me, she was thoughtful and candid, without being guarded, politic or promotional; she’s witty, and has a dirty laugh.
Next time I talk to her, I know where to go. 

Anne Thompson: What came across when I first met you yesterday — a quality
you have onscreen — is what you could call “British reserve.” There’s a
mysterious quality behind your eyes, that your director says you have. Do you have a sense of what that is?

Charlotte Rampling: No, because it comes from within, and then it comes through you.
You don’t know. Is it a form of shyness? I don’t know.

Do you feel like that’s always been a quality you’ve had since
the beginning of your career?

I was only aware of it when people mentioned it.

From the beginning? Dirk Bogarde called it “The Look.”

Not so much from the beginning. It would be later on. 

What words did they use?

It’s a form of not being able to get to the
person, which isn’t to say the person is blocking something.

I like that. And the camera likes that, too.

The camera likes that. It doesn’t mean to say there’s an
emptiness in there.

God, no! You seem to have a deep interior
life.

That’s what it seems to be.

Can you describe a sense of growing your acting muscles?
You’ve been doing this for a long time.

Yeah. It’s like you’re sculpting all the time, working away at a
substance — as if you are clay and you’re working at yourself. The way, to me,
to actually perform in cinema in the most real way is to be able to get a form
of technique so refined that you absolutely forget it. You have to have some
sort of a technique, so you aren’t going “duh duh duh duh” each time; you have
to be aware of so much when you’re filming. So many different things. But to be
able to condense and contain that in one moment when you’re going to give your
performance — that’s the practice over all the years, that you actually work at
that.

Are you confident about your ability? Is that something you
own in a really confident way, or do you feel insecure or anxious?

No, now I feel confident.

When you were younger?

When I was younger I would feel sometimes-confident,
sometimes-not. It’s a thing that grows and grows and grows until you actually
get to a point where your confidence is feeling that you can’t be knocked over.

A movie like “Swimming Pool” was, for me, you at your absolute
best. Is that because of your director and script, and it all gelled?

It all gelled, and, if you think about it with “45 Years,” we
were in this house, it was in the south of France, we were in there all the
time, and it was the most wonderful contained, safe, happy moment, and I loved
the character. I loved the way this woman was: this strange, bad-tempered
writer who was going to evolve into something else. The work I did with
François [Ozon] was so free. We did a film together, so I knew him well; he
knew me. We could just be so comfortable together. So that was why, probably.

Compare this to that in terms of experience.

Actually, it’s very comparable because,
with Andrew, when I met him — even when I spoke to him on the phone, because
our first time talking was for a long time on the phone — even the sound of his
voice, and the way he was talking about it, and the way he used words, and the
friendliness of his approach… I just loved him right from the moment that I
started speaking with this guy. And it just went on like that because, for me,
he’s so lovable. And to have someone like that to work with you that’s so
lovable, like François Ozon
was, it’s a gift.

He’s a writer, too, which helps. Did you see “Weekend”? Which I loved.

Oh, yeah. Me, too. He sent his story and “Weekend” together, so I
had the batch. So I saw on paper and what he could do. I saw his humanity on
the screen.

I find this married couple fascinating in that they behave like their generation. Maybe I’m the first feminist
generation, I see the way she looks after and takes care of him, and he
takes it for granted. 

It could explain what happens, also.

In what sense?

She hasn’t had that moment in her life. She has not been free.
She hasn’t had her moment — her moment.

The equivalent love and intensity that he had with the other
woman?

Not even comparing it… well, you could compare it with that. That
triggered it.

But her sense of betrayal is the center here, right?

Do you think so? I mean, you could say that.

We all have to figure it out for ourselves.

You’re thinking betrayal in what sense?

That he held a secret that was so large.

But she knew about it.

Not the end reveal.

Not the end reveal, no.

So it’s a secret that destroys.

Yeah. And, especially, as something happened and they didn’t have children. We don’t quite know why.

Exactly. Which is what’s so much fun to talk about. I have had
more debates with people after this movie, debating all of this, because he
doesn’t spell it out. Did he spell it out for you?

Well, yeah. A lot of scenes went out, so there were things
spelled out. In the end, he didn’t want it. It made a less-interesting journey.

I see. So you’re saying, as he responded to the mystery in
your eyes, he’s leaving mystery in the movie for us.

That is sort of what happened. [Laughs]

I think that’s what makes the movie work.

Yes. Which means that these discussions — which are, in a sense,
best left for the people to discuss — becomes about one’s own story. “What
would have I done in that case? What do you think they did if he had done this
and they had done that? Well, then…” And so on.

Who came in first, you or Tom?

Me.

How did they decide who your co-star would be? Did you work
together?

We worked together. We didn’t test together. What happened was,
when I said “yes,” Andrew said, “What about the man?” I said, “Who are you
thinking of?” He mentioned Tom. He asked what I thought, and I thought it was
an amazing idea. I’ve known Tom through his work, and it’s like we’ve had a
parallel journey. We’d never really met. You often don’t meet actors if you’re
not working.

I would think it would be a smaller community.

Yeah, it’s not necessarily. I was in Paris, remember, and he wasn’t in the film
world so much.

Did you return to England at some point or are you still in
Paris?

I’ve always kept the two countries sort of open — kept a place in
each. It’s like here; in Europe, the countries are very close. New York is so
far away, and, when I’m in Hollywood, I feel like everything’s so far away. In
Europe, we’re all on top of each other, actually. Anyway, his name came up. We
got him, which was fantastic, because he was perfect.

You worked, way back, with Robert Mitchum in “Farewell My
Lovely.” What was that experience like?

Oh, he was an extraordinary man. Really a beautiful, beautiful
person. Very wild as well.

Sad?

Yeah, probably. A sort of deep loneliness there, but a very,
profoundly deep person as well. We had some amazing talks.

I would have loved to have met him.

When he wasn’t…

He was mean, sometimes, to the likes of press.

Oh, sure he was. He couldn’t do so much work and do all those
things without kicking out people.

And also Michael Caine. How did you get along with him?

Just very briefly, but Michael I’ve known very long. Michael’s
great. Michael’s Michael.

Have you seen “Youth” yet?

No! I do want to see it. It’s on in Paris, and I’ll see it when I
get back to Paris.

You were directed by Woody Allen in “Stardust Memories.” He
leaves his actors alone.

Well, that’s what they say now.

Was it not true then?

Not at all. He didn’t leave me alone at all! [Laughs] But I was
playing his ideal woman, his perfect woman, so I did have a sort of privileged
position.

“Blue Jasmine” sounded awful for Cate Blanchett.

What does he do now?

He just lets people do it all on their own.

They just read the screenplay and then turn up and do it?

Yes.

Oh.

I’m not exaggerating.

Okay. I’ve heard this from other people, too — that he’s just “not there.”

He was a bit infatuated with you?

He was also a lot younger. He was between his two great
loves: he had just finished with Diane and hadn’t started with Mia, and I was just
in the middle, so he was…

Did you actually get together with each other?

No! We had this great platonic love affair. [Laughs]

You also worked with Lars von Trier in one of my favorite of his films, “Melancholia.”

It’s such a good film. Have you seen all his films?

I might have, because I
discovered him with “Europa/Zentropa.”

I was supposed to do that, I remember. I like his films. I
haven’t seen his last film, the nymphomania ones.

They’re actually really good. 

Are they? Okay.

They’re intellectual, not sexy. They’re not supposed to be.

I was told that. Yeah, okay.

I think you can go there and be safe. You… you were in “The
Night Porter,” for Christ’s sake!

No. But I didn’t want him to get nasty, because I don’t want to
see nasty things right now. I thought maybe he got a bit nasty in “Nymphomaniac.” I didn’t want images that I couldn’t handle, just recently.

What was it like with you and him?

Oh, he’s crazy.

Bonkers?

He’s the archetype of the bonkers genius. He really, truly is
bonkers, but genius. Borderline genius.

Did he do some of the behavior he’s known for, which is
torturing actors? Playing with them and making them unhappy?

No. Not with me. That’s not that kind of film. I’m sure he did
that with Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Nymphomaniac”: literally on four knees and
making her be whipped. [Laughs] She was fine. She says, “Look: I don’t mind
that. I like that.” So I said, “Great! As long as you’re consenting, okay!”

I’m curious if you’ve seen “Suffragette”?

I haven’t. Is that worth a little twirl?

It is. It’s your history; for that alone, it’s sort of revelatory.

No, because people really don’t know much about who these
suffragettes were and how important they were and the changes that they made. I’ll see it; I’d like to see it on a screen. 

Is there anything in “45 Years” that gave you pause, that made
you anxious? Any tall orders or tough scenes?

There really wasn’t. It was all about what I knew I could
actually do, which was great. To bring out that kind of inner panic, inner
neurosis, inner angst, is something I know how to do. I know because I’ve been
there. You have to have been there in order to bring those feelings into a
character and onto the screen — you have to actually know what they are. You
have to feel them while you’re doing it. You can’t just… it has to be for real.
Which isn’t to say you have it for the rest of the day and the night — not at
all. But you have to go back there.

That means you’re comfortable with silence, which is harder,
silent acting.

Yeah. Oh, it is.

He just zeroed in on you. Did he tell you to do it silently,
to give him a pause?

No. You do it and then they take what they
want. You give what you feel is appropriate.    

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