The actor on her new film, Hannah, 2016’s ‘racism’ row, her silence on #MeToo and learning to care for herself
Rebecca Nicholson -the Guardian
Charlotte Rampling is sorry for being late. She arrived at Gare du Nord in time to catch her train from Paris to London, but when she got there, she realised she had left her passport at home. She has just moved, she explains, to a new place in Paris, the city in which she has lived for decades, and nothing is where she expects it to be.
“When you move, it’s quite disorienting. You don’t quite know where you are.” Not that she is in any way ruffled by the train fiasco. It is hard to imagine her being ruffled by anything. She needs a minute to put her bags down, she says, as she checks in at the hotel, then I should come up to her room and we can talk. She puts on her sunglasses and disappears into the lift.
Rampling is 73, riding the crest of another wave of an extraordinary career. She is in the UK to talk about her latest film, Hannah, in which she plays a woman whose husband goes to prison for an unspecified but clearly terrible crime. We watch as her life begins to crack around her, but largely, that is it. It is so sparse that it makes the gorgeous 45 Years, for which she received her only Oscar nomination in 2016, look as action-packed as an Avengers movie.
Hannah’s director, Andrea Pallaoro, had always imagined Rampling in the part, and no wonder. “I think he wanted, more than anything, a presence,” she says. “He thought I was the only actress of my generation that could really hold this character.” There is barely any dialogue, and it goes through the monotony of Hannah’s days in painstaking detail. Everything hangs on Rampling’s face, her familiar heavy eyelids and downturned mouth, showing horrors but not speaking them. With this and 45 Years, she says, she is finally making the kind of films she has always wanted to make.
In her hotel room, she pulls an armchair around to face mine, folds her arms, and sits forward, legs apart, as if she means business. She looks out of the window, or off to the side, until she catches a thought, then turns those eyes to look at me. She speaks slowly and thoughtfully, and often pauses as she considers where she’s going with what she’s about to say.
She has just returned from Berlin, where she received the Honorary Golden Bear award, a lifetime achievement affair. When she gets something like that, she always wonders if she has really earned it. “My career has been sort of marginal,” she says. “I’ve always thought of it as something that’s not really in the big time.”
That may be so, to her mind, but Rampling has been in the public eye since the 60s. She was plucked from the secretarial pool as a teenager by an executive on the floor above who thought she looked pretty and asked her to appear in a Cadbury’s advert. She never quite felt comfortable in that world and thought she wasn’t very good at what she was doing.
“It was too show-off for me, acting. It didn’t suit my personality, either,” she says. Nevertheless, she made the most of the swinging excitement in the air. Her breakthrough came as the pregnant and furious Meredith in Georgy Girl. “For a few years there was a wonderful innocence. We had money, we had jobs, people were making a fortune with clothes, and it was as if it was happening by magic, really.”
Then, in 1966, when Rampling was 20, her sister, Sarah, killed herself. “After she died, I was obviously looking at life in a very different way. You go more underground, in a sense. You go into a certain form of darkness. You have to, because it’s just so weird, what you’re living, when somebody does what my sister did.” Everything had changed. She travelled to Afghanistan, and lived in a Tibetan monastery for a while. “It wasn’t only me, although my reasons for it were heightened. We were all searching for alternative ways of being and alternative ways of understanding the world we were in, trying to be much more together and spiritual, and less grabbing, less business.” She made a conscious decision not to lose herself in drink or in drugs. “I said: that’s going to send me completely out of my head, where I’ve got to remain in my head and in my body.”
Work helped her to cope. A lot of therapy involves acting out emotions, she says. “So rather than do entertaining-type films, which wasn’t my style anyway, that’s what I dealt in. I sought out more of those [marginal] types of films.”
It can be easy to look back on Rampling’s career as a series of provocations. She never seems to flinch at sex or nudity. Her most infamous role, in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter, about the sadomasochistic relationship between an SS officer and a concentration camp survivor, was received with dismay by many critics, and banned in some countries. Was she trying to be provocative, or seeking out dangerous parts? “I think the danger is within me,” she says. “It’s always provocation, or daring, or wanting to ignite things, or wanting to make things live. Not just to repeat scenes.
“Another thing about acting is that I got bored very quickly. I’ve got a very, very restless character … It’s a beast.” Does she know where it comes from? “It’s in my DNA,” she smiles.
Depression stopped her working in the late 80s and much of the 90s. “It’s the reverse of you, the depression. You’ve got to start almost from zero, because you’re just dead to the world … your desire for anything, everything’s gone. You’ve got to build yourself up again.” These days, she keeps a close eye on how she’s feeling. “If you have that form of sensitivity, where you can go up and down quite a lot, you have to be attentive about that. Because coming through a very big depression, you really, really know how to do things for yourself better, so that you can carry on.”
On the surface, it seems as if she has been relentlessly busy since she started working again. She even returned to Hollywood, for a part in the TV series Dexter (she stayed at the Chateau Marmont, the most European hotel she could find) and in the Jennifer Lawrence blockbuster Red Sparrow, although she points out that she only had to go to Budapest to shoot it and didn’t set a foot in Los Angeles. Around the time of Red Sparrow, she says, she experienced something new. “I felt this strength I hadn’t ever felt in my life. I’ve been able to surf on that for quite a while. Whether it’s because getting older is easier, I don’t know. But I know that in my case, I had never felt, in that way, strong, capable, able to do it, no problem.”
When she picked up the Golden Bear, Rampling said that Hannah and 45 Years were the films she had been working towards, “a coming-home of what I wanted to do in cinema, that form of expressionism. The kind of presence given to a character is what I always wanted to achieve. So I can say now that has happened, and that’s very beautiful.”
It has been a long process, she says. “Not that I’ve studied all my work, which I could possibly do when I’m really an old lady, but there’s definitely an essence of it in there, somewhere. It’s a life’s work, in a sense.”
It is rare to find a mention of Rampling that does not refer to her credentials as a muse. She has been a muse to François Ozon, who revived her film career in the late 90s, to designer Yves St Laurent and photographers Helmut Newton and Juergen Teller (posing nude for the latter in front of the Mona Lisa), and now to Andrea Pallaoro, too. Given that her career has, in its own right, been extraordinary, I wonder how she feels about the idea of being a muse. “Is it sort of now not acceptable?” she asks. “Are we being used if we’re a muse?” she hams, dragging out the vowels. “I think it’s a question of age, because when you’re much younger, you could be.
She says that when Ozon came along, she was in her early 50s, and when Pallaoro sought her out, she was in her late 60s. “When it’s that way around, there’s something very beautiful about it. They just want to film an older woman. Especially for something like Hannah, a woman on the verge of having to handle all these very very difficult situations and emotional challenges.”
At the Rotterdam film festival in January, Rampling declined to talk about #MeToo, saying she was wary of being misinterpreted. Does she still feel that way? She takes a moment to think. “What would you want to know?” Given her experience of the industry, from arthouse to Hollywood, from being at the heart of it in the 60s to where she is now, it would be interesting to know what she has made of it all. There is a longer silence. “It’s a vast subject, actually. I’d rather not go there.” Then she appears to be reconsidering. “It’s a very, very important one. I mean, I’m thinking, what would I say? It’s so vast.”
At this exact point, there is a knock at the door. The PR in charge of the film comes into the room to ask us to wrap up. Rampling has a screening of Hannah to attend. And with that, she has made her decision. “It does feel [as if we don’t have time], because there’s the problem, sometimes, with interviews, or when I say something and it’s taken …”
In 2016, Rampling was nominated for her first Academy award, best actress, for 45 Years. Around that time, she gave an interview to a French radio station and said that the diversity row over that year’s all-white shortlist was “racist to white people”. It caused an outcry, and she subsequently apologised, saying her comments had been misinterpreted. “I had lost my husband, my companion for 20 years, just three months before,” she says, today. She had been engaged to Jean-Noël Tassez for 18 years; he died of cancer in 2015. “There were a lot of interviews going on and I was so unbelievably happy about what was happening with the film, because it was suddenly so loved. I felt supported by it. She was a current affairs journalist, whamming it, and I sort of batted it away. Suddenly, just …” She claps her hands together. “You know how things come out? I heard myself saying ‘racist’ and I thought: oh fuck, what have I said? Why did I use that word?”
Still, she wasn’t aware of the fallout from the interview until a friend texted her about it that evening. She had been, until that point, relatively unaware of social media. “They listen to absolutely everything and there’s a whole group of people who grab, all the Twitters and the Tweeters that do it. They blast you and that was it. It was off.” Eventually, she shut out the news, and stopped reading about it. “Well, it calmed down, but anyway, some people were saying: ‘Oh, you didn’t get the Oscar because of that.’” She shrugs. “If that’s the way it is, that’s the way it is.” She didn’t watch the ceremony this year, because it was on too late, but was pleased that Olivia Colman, with whom she had worked on Broadchurch, won. “She really is a lovely woman. What a trip, I imagine, winning those two prizes. Boy, does she deserve it. She’s the real thing.”
Rampling is so known as a woman of mystery, so often defined by her imperious, implacable characters, that I wonder if there is something contradictory in how open she seems to be, outside of her films. “I’m a complete contradiction,” she smiles. “And that, I think, is what saved me. I’ve always been at ease when I’m talking to people, all through my life. I’ve always enjoyed interviews, because I just talk, and if I say a stupid thing, you know, all right. It’s a way of understanding where I am at a given time.”
Where are you at this given time? “I don’t know about that,” she bats back. “Because there’ll be a contradiction that comes in.” She is, though, still busy, still working. She is about to go back to Budapest to film a small part in Denis Villeneuve’s take on Dune (“I’m Reverend Mother Mohiam, who initiates Timothee Chalamet”) and then a Danish TV series, about which she can tell me absolutely nothing, other than that it’s in four languages. “It’s a very different story, I mean really chilling.” It sounds very Charlotte Rampling. “You know, I need the thrill of difference,” she says.
- Hannah is on general release now