Charlotte Rampling self-identifies as a “prickly” person. “Like a hedgehog or porcupine, you don’t necessarily get too close,” she told IndieWire.
You’d know that from any number of her roles. The 77-year-old, English-born, Paris-living actress has worked in the European arthouse for more than half a century, turning out kinky roles in divisive, sensuous period pieces like Liliana Cavani’s S&M concentration camp psychodrama “The Night Porter” and Luchino Visconti’s depraved Weimar tableau “The Damned.” But she’s also brought hard-shelled wit to character studies like François Ozon’s “Under the Sand” and “Swimming Pool,” Andrew Haigh’s “45 Years,” and Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia.”
In that film, Rampling played one of her prickliest characters, a callous and ambivalent mother who prefers to blithely take a bath during her daughter’s (Kirsten Dunst) wedding reception rather than make small talk or give toasts with the guests downstairs.
That character, Gaby, offers a bit of a sketch outline for the more psychologically complex but no less irascible Ruth in Matthew J. Saville’s poignantly realized directorial debut “Juniper,” based on his own prickly grandmother’s final days. Rampling plays an alcoholic war photographer staring down terminal illness who, now confined to a wheelchair, a buzzer, and a never-empty pitcher of watered-down gin, hopes for one last great love affair. Meanwhile, she’s under the de facto care of her self-destructive grandson Sam (George Ferrier), whom she becomes unexpectedly close with.
It’s the kind of role we’re used to seeing from the great Rampling, who received her first and only Oscar nomination stateside for the British “45 Years” but has a trove of César and European Film awards on her mantle. She’s remained defiant of mainstream studio productions — other than dipping into IP territory with “Assassin’s Creed” and “Dune” — preferring outside-the-box European work. “I’ve never really chased roles. It’s been quite strange in my career. I came here into the movies almost by chance,” said Rampling, who began as a model before being cast as a Swinging ’60s ingenue in 1966’s “Georgy Girl” opposite Alan Bates and Lynn Redgrave.
IndieWire spoke with Rampling, dialing in from her home in Paris, about “Juniper,” her career, thoughts on creativity, and what drew her to play the steely, black-veiled prophet, Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam, in Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune” universe. Before teaming up with Denis Villeneuve, Rampling nearly starred in “Dune” back in the 1970s, when Alejandro Jodorowsky was at the helm, as Lady Jessica. After that project infamously fell apart, and she didn’t star in David Lynch’s version, she returned to Frank Herbert’s source material once Villeneuve cast her.
IndieWire: I can imagine that the prickly spirit of Ruth attracted you to the role. She reminded me, spiritually, of your character in “Melancholia.” What else drew you to the role?
Charlotte Rampling: That kind of prickliness. I remember my father, when I was a young woman, he said, “You’re a…,” I thought, “Oh god, here it comes,” and he said, “You’re prickly.” Nobody ever said this before. I’ve always considered myself a prickly woman. It’s like somebody who has difficulty communicating but actually, when they communicate, they really communicate. But it’s difficult to get there with them. Like a hedgehog or porcupine, you don’t really necessarily get too close. The character of Ruth is very much that.
“Juniper” takes a nonjudgmental approach to Ruth’s alcoholism — including the pitcher of gin she foists upon her grandson daily for a refill.
I like the nonjudgmental approach to it all. These kinds of stories — you can get bogged down by knowing what’s going to happen. It’s not rocket science. You need to understand what’s going to be happening, but it’s how you get there, and how the director is going to choose to get you there, and I really love the way he does this, because I worked with him on the character. He came over from New Zealand to Paris. We worked a lot on this character. He’d originally made her older and I said, “Can we sort of take 10 years off because I don’t really want to be playing in my age just yet?”
How did that affect your performance?
Some of the way she behaved to me [in the original script] was really a sort of cranky old lady, and I said, this is not so interesting. It was a little too almost like caricature, and I said, I think we can still make some fun with somebody who’s still got it in her, who thinks she can have more great love affairs, which I think his grandmother sort of did too. So we played with the feelings, the alive feelings of this woman, knowing she was going to die, but her alive feelings.
What’s appealing about working with a first-time filmmaker?
It’s like somebody who’s just about to bud — or not — or blossom, or not. He’d been working on short films, trying to work his way into the industry as you do when you want to be a director. There’s no bucket box to say how you do it. So you’ve got somebody who’s really raw and has potential who hasn’t been able to show it. The reason I wanted him — he suggested to come over, and the reason I wanted to work with him was just to see who he was, how flexible he’s gonna be, how we’re going to get into this character together.
Matthew Saville traveled to Paris to meet you and then shaped the role around you. Is that unusual in your career?
I’ve never really chased roles. It’s been quite strange in my career. I came here into the movies almost by chance. It wasn’t what I was expecting to do, but it happened when I was young. I’ve never felt that — I’ve always preferred somebody [coming to me], so it has usually happened that way. There has always been somebody who wanted to do it that coincides with something that suited me.
There’s an effortlessness about all your performances. Do you make much fuss over them? I’m reminded of Anthony Hopkins’ feelings about acting, which is that he shows up, hits his mark, says his lines, and leaves it at that.
It’s sort of like that really with me. We probably say it’s like that, because we’re Brits, we’re English actors, we’re self-deprecating people, so we wouldn’t say, I go to all these rehearsals and I get terribly, you know, go through these workshops. We’d never say that, or perhaps our generation wouldn’t. The young ones might. When something is effortless, it’s usually actually had a huge amount of thought put into it, but then you let go of all the thought and the things you might have done and you go with how the scene takes you, knowing more or less what you’re going to be doing or saying, but you go through the feeling of the scene as if doing it for the first time. It’s that kind of subtlety that gives an effortless edge to certain performances.
What do you love about independent productions versus larger-scale films?
I’ve always been more of a European actor than an American actor, it’s closer to who I feel that I am. I live here, too. If you’re on a very big production, you will have your moment, but you can wait a long time for it, and when it comes, there will be a lot of people around… It’s fun to do that too, but as I’ve lived in Europe, I’ve made many films like “Juniper.” Small budgets, young directors, so you feel you’re going on an adventure, off into the hills, together, and to try things out. It’s more experimental. It’s not so ordered.
You’ve finished your work on “Dune: Part Two.” Did you feel a bit like you were subsuming yourself at all to a much larger machine? It’s delightful seeing you in American blockbusters.
I’ve always loved the book. When Jodorowsky was preparing it, he was thinking about having me play the role of Jessica. My husband at the time, Jean-Michel Jarre, really wanted to do the music. I loved this book and I loved the character of Jessica. He was unable to do it, and the next one was the David Lynch one, which I was not in. [Laughs.] Denis Villeneuve, I’ve been admiring his work, he makes very big films but he has a European heart — he’s Canadian, but he has a great intimacy in the way he works. When he asked me to do that, it seemed to make sense. I said, “There’s something happening here that’s working,” because it wasn’t just going into a big-budget film. It was a character.
Do you feel we’re at a positive moment for creativity overall?
When people say, it’s getting rough and times are bad, that’s when creativity really needs to come to the fore, and we should all try harder to make things happen. We need to match the balance of the two. Obviously, the world has to go ahead and do what it’s going to do, unfortunately. On our side, the artists, also, they can never sit back and say, “Oh yeah, we don’t have the money, we don’t have the people to follow us, we don’t have support.” You can’t say that. [You’ve got to] just get the ball rolling. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and wait for people. I also don’t want to make only French films. Oh, of course. Yeah, they have a lot of money. They have a lot of government support, fortunately. The French are always moaning and groaning. They don’t know how lucky they are.
Many of your movies, even as recently as “Benedetta,” seem to be querying the puritanical times around them. Is this ever on your mind as you’re selecting projects, trying to be heretical?
No, no, no. It has to be adherent with how I feel about the world and life and situations because if it goes into areas which I don’t agree with, then I won’t do it. I’m a pretty sort of expansive person, because I don’t have to get uptight about a lot of stuff, but there’s certain things that I wouldn’t do. And if the subject was something I really didn’t agree with, then I wouldn’t do it. So I do have principles.
“Juniper” opens in theaters on February 24 and on Apple TV and Amazon on April 4.