Looking for the Alchemy: An Interview with Charlotte Rampling (Web Exclusive)
by Graham Fuller
“I’m fascinating but I’m trouble,” says the actress Dorrie on being approached for the first time by her director, Sandy Bates, in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980). Sandy was played by Allen himself and Dorrie by Charlotte Rampling who, with those words—fall in love with me at your peril—summed up the dangerous appeal that has characterized most of the women she has portrayed since she made her film debut in The Knack…and How to Get It (1965).
Intimidatingly rather than comfortingly beautiful, Rampling (born in the village of Sturmer, in Essex, England, in 1946) recognized early on that her antagonistic aura recommended her for character parts. Instead of seeking out conventional heroine roles she looked for victims, neurotics, and femmes fatales. The most farsighted of the British actresses who emerged in the mid-Sixties, she quickly broke with swinging London, segueing from her bitchy gadabout in Georgy Girl (1966) to a paranoid Englishwoman in Sardinia in Sequestra di Persona (1969), and then to victims of Nazism in Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (1969) and Liliana Caviani’s The Night Porter (1974), in which, definingly, she was the menaced death-camp prostitute who embarks on a postwar affair with her tormentor. The latter, a serious if morally dubious film that had the seminaked Rampling sashaying around S.S. guards as she sings a Dietrich song, was the first indication that she had a taste for perversity.
She made a few forays to America, playing the slinky, amoral Velma opposite Robert Mitchum’s Philip Marlowe in Farewell, My Lovely (1974) and the woman who cruelly betrays Paul Newman’s lawyer in The Verdict (1982). Working steadily, she was a chilly diplomat’s wife in love with a chimpanzee in Nagisa Oshima’s Buñuelian Max, Mon Amour (1986), but it was more bizarre to find her playing a Thatcherite politician—and looking the part—in Paris By Night (1988). Her Nineties work demonstrated her admirable catholicity, though not many of her films opened here at that time. She was particularly memorable in three costume dramas: The Wings of the Dove (1997); Great Expectations (1999)—she is the most morose Miss Havisham of all; and The Cherry Orchard (1999).
It was in the 00s that she revealed she had become a great actress. She was deeply moving as a woman coming to terms with widowhood in François Ozon’s Under the Sand(2000), one of her more sympathetic characters; and at her brittle best in Ozon’s Swimming Pool (2003), as the lonely vacationing novelist who fantasizes into life a Bardotesque slattern (Ludivine Sagnier) and a disposable homme moyen sensuel. Her portrayal of the Wellesley professor who pays for sex with young Haitian boys in Heading South (2005) was one of her most satisfyingly complex. She was the social-climbing mother in The Duchess (2008), another sexual predator—and altogether demonic—in Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime (2009), and the deceiving headmistress in Never Let Me Go (2010). She remains diverse in her mid-sixties: affectingly delivering the interior monologues of the Flemish Virgin Mary, fearful for her son, in The Mill and the Cross (2011), and as disturbing as ever demolishing the concept of marriage at her manic-depressive youngest daughter’s wedding reception in Melancholia (2011).
Her most recent film is a documentary self-portrait, The Look: Charlotte Rampling (2011), directed by Angelina Maccarone. It consists of nine chapters, in which the subject discusses subjects like “Exposure,” “Age,” “Beauty,” and “Demons” with various friends, including the novelist Paul Auster and the artist-photographer Juergen Teller. Perhaps because Rampling had final cut, the piece is not as revealing as one might want it to be, but it gives a fair idea of Rampling’s thoughts and feelings about her vocation and her uneasy existence. She was promoting the film in New York in November when I sat down with her for the following interview.
Cineaste: What prompted you to participate in The Look? Did you think it was time to put some thoughts on record?
Charlotte Rampling: It certainly wasn’t me thinking that. It was the German producer who, five years ago I think it was, wrote me a very long letter saying that he wanted to make a film of me. It took a long time before I could quite take this on board. I didn’t know necessarily if I wanted to do a documentary that would expose myself. And I thought, anyway, to do a film was far too ambitious. The idea of it didn’t seem to hold. But little by little…we found Angelina who found lots of different ideas about how we could do it. I didn’t want anybody going out and interviewing people that would talk about me—I didn’t want that kind of biography. I’m too private. It didn’t suit me.
We started doing it, and I didn’t even know if it was going to work until right at the end. But I think something did happen. It’s almost like I’ve written something, but because I’m not a great writer, it uses the medium I’m better in, which is cinema.
Cineaste: Did you feel you were performing for the camera when you were making it?
Rampling: I wasn’t performing at all. We’d only do one long take [for each sequence], one stream of consciousness, whether I was sitting down or walking around, wherever we were, whether it was a monologue or whether I was with somebody, and we’d never do it again. It’s just as you are—and you can’t fake that.
Cineaste: Did you learn anything about yourself in the process?
Rampling: I gained more confidence in myself, yes. All my doubts and inhibitions and the darkness that I wander around in actually emerged into the light quite often, and that’s quite attractive.
Cineaste: One wouldn’t think you lack for confidence.
Rampling: Most people think that. But I think the people you think have the most confidence show you they’ve got it, but they’ve probably got the least amount of confidence and have to battle with that all the time. It’s quite interesting what I see in the film—I know what’s actually going on inside the person who’s sitting there chatting away.
Cineaste: How did you come up with the nine different concepts explored in the film—exposure, taboo, love, and so on? They all seem very germane to our perceptions of you and your body of work. It all makes sense.
Rampling: That was all Angelina. I said, “Look, you have to do all of that.” I didn’t know how to handle any of it. You have to choose [the concepts] and I’ll sit down and talk, and I’ll choose my friends who’ll talk with me, if they want to. It was difficult choosing people, because I felt quite shy asking them.
Cineaste: I was reminded from the two clips used from Georgy Girl how, right from the very beginning, you went against the general tendency that actors often have to court popularity. Did you intuit from an early age that difficult, spiky women are more interesting to play than more obviously likable characters?
Rampling: Before Georgy Girl, I’d played zany British girls—fun parts. I played my character in Georgy Girl with verve and style and wit, and I thought she was fabulous, but people thought she was a monster. I was hated after that film, but I realized that these kind of women were much more interesting to play than the little, pretty, soppy ones. Possibly my looks—my face—didn’t really attract those kinds of roles. And it was from then on that I knew I would need to seek out women who really had something to say and not court, in any sense, popularity or love.
Cineaste: But presumably you wanted to be admired for your acting?
Rampling: Oh, yeah, why not? But I also realized it was possible that I wasn’t necessarily going to be loved. I thought maybe there’s an edge to me, and I’m going to want to use that edge. I had a feeling I was going to be going off the beaten track.
Cineaste: There’s a phrase you use in The Look—“There’s a wicked danger in me,” you say, speaking of your characters, “but I enjoy it because it’s very much who I am as well.” Do you think films have been—and continue to be—a safe place for you to enact that?
Rampling: Yes, absolutely. I daren’t do it in real life because I don’t want to hurt people. I’m actually a good girl with a wicked side that I can play out. But when the chips are down, I wouldn’t do it—the bad stuff. I can do it in a film, and that’s fabulous.
Cineaste: Because people associate actors with their roles, some may think you’re a dangerous personality. Is that totally misleading?
Rampling: It’s fine if they do. It doesn’t matter what they think of me, as long as they think of me. As long as there’s something about me that they can talk about or remember. If they remember me, then I’ve got there, I’ve got them, I’ve got through.
Cineaste: You say in The Look that you never wanted to train as an actor or do exercises. Yet you must have developed some kind of process, even if it’s more about using your “animal instincts,” to use your phrase, than about a particular method. Can you talk about this?
Rampling: I’ve dipped into bits and pieces in terms of techniques and different schools. I did a little bit at the Royal Court Theatre when I was twenty. I dipped into improvisation work, mask work. I’ve watched different ways people do different things on stage and screen, and I’ve mixed that all together and made up my own particular functioning technique, which is particular to me. And that’s what I wanted. I did not want to have any formal training. At twenty I was quite stubborn…not stubborn, but I was able to say, “I don’t want to be an actor, I want to be me. I want to perform me.” I wanted my performances to be being performances, not acting performances. And that’s what they are. That’s why I do a lot of cinéma d’auteur and a lot of noncommercial work, because I want to go into the lives of my characters. Independent cinema allows me time to find the psychologically attuned characters that are really talking, really being.
Cineaste: When did you become aware of the potential for psychological depth in acting?
Rampling: It started with the kitchen-sink dramas of the early Sixties and the Nouvelle Vague. That’s what I wanted to be part of. I didn’t want to do any of the artificial stuff. That’s why I didn’t want to be trained—I didn’t want to have a good voice, and this, that, and the other. I wanted to be as real as possible. That was my pride speaking, perhaps, but I think when we’re young we do have that and it’s good, in a way. As you go on you break your skin, you break things down, and you evolve, but it’s good to start with an ideal of how you think you want things to be.
Cineaste: When you agree to do a role, do you psychologically analyze the character and create her history, whether or not the director asks you to? Or do you simply turn up and let it flow?
Rampling: It’s a thinking process, but I certainly develop the character. I’ll give that character a whole story. But it’s only thinking, because for the actual doing of it I need the alchemy of the set, the director, the other actors. I need the vibe of doing it for it to happen. I can’t imagine it on my own. I need the input of the other actors, because it’s always a collective work.
Cineaste: You did The Damned with Visconti early on. Was that a formative experience for you?
Rampling: Very formative. He had seen Georgy Girl and my first Italian picture, Sequestro di Persona, with Franco Nero, before he asked me to do The Damned. When he did, I said to myself, “This is where I’m going. I’m on the path here. Visconti’s showing me the way.”
Cineaste: What did it mean to you to be immersed in that world he created—the decadence, the evil, the sumptuousness of it all?
Rampling: I realized I needed beauty and I needed the exotic. There was something about me that needed to be able to grow within that. When I went to Italy for the first time, I was astounded by this feeling of beauty and the love of beauty. Because in England we don’t really feel that, and we certainly didn’t feel it just after the war. I grew up Protestant—we don’t really show our feelings, we just get on with life. I was brought up in that environment. To then be part of something so thrilling—though not in a falling-in-love-madly way—I said, “I want to have this as part of my life.”
Cineaste: The atmosphere?
Rampling: And the aesthetics.
Cineaste: Because you have this fabled “look,” as Dirk Bogarde called it, which is a combination of your appearance and your rather withering gaze, there’s a tension in some of your work. When the camera objectifies you, which it’s the camera’s job to do, there’s often the sense that you’re responding in kind. You know that whole notion of the male gaze? You subvert it a little bit. Is that something you’re aware of?
Rampling: It has been mentioned quite recently a few times, concentrated round The Look, but no, I’d never thought of it. So you’re saying that the camera looks at me in a certain way and I send it back? That would make sense with who I am.
Cineaste: It’s true, I think, even of The Night Porter. Your character, Lucia, is not straightforwardly passive...
Rampling: Not at all, no.
Cineaste: When she and Max [Bogarde] rekindle their relationship in the hotel in Vienna, she is sometimes the sexual aggressor, which alters her relationship with the camera and the audience.
Rampling: Yes, she’s controlling the relationship.
Cineaste: Contemplating the thought of playing someone like Lucia, do you suspend moral judgment?
Rampling: No. I can’t completely do that, but I can bend my understanding of morality if I wish to, if I can make it acceptable to me. But I can’t do something that’s unacceptable to me. For instance, if [Lucia] is willingly going the way she goes, then that’s fine for me. It’s also fine if she becomes the instigator of it—a player in the same game as him, because they’ve decided that’s what will happen, in view of what it was like before when she was a complete victim in the camp, and is thereby able to turn it into a true, beautiful, tragic love story, and to decide to die with it. I was concerned about the ending, and Dirk certainly was, too, and I said, “That’s what has to happen.” Their dying was very important.
Cineaste: Dirk Bogarde was a mentor to you?
Rampling: Yes, and we remained very, very close until he died. He and Visconti were both mentors to me when I was in my early twenties. When I knew the way I wanted to go, I knew that they could teach me what I needed to know to help me get on with it. My big tragic regret was that I couldn’t be in Visconti’s last film, The Innocent . He’d written it for me, but I wasn’t well—I don’t have a very stable nervous system. I was in Mexico filming [Foxtrot, 1976] and Visconti had to go quickly with his film, and he died afterwards. It’s awful when those things happen because you can’t end something the way you’d like to. You’re just sort of left.
Cineaste: You made a good film noir, Farewell, My Lovely, with Robert Mitchum, and a good courtroom drama, The Verdict, with Paul Newman. You were shot by Mitchum’s character and slapped by Newman’s. [Rampling laughs quietly.] I wondered if you ever questioned playing women who were the recipients of violence—obviously that includes Lucia—particularly at the time when the women’s movement was at its height. Indeed, did feminism resonate with you?
Rampling: Certainly, feminists were up in arms when they saw that slap. They really went to town, though feisty women were always getting slapped in films of the Thirties and Forties. I’m not against feminism—I see the good of it—but it gets a little too intense for me. Even though I work on films, I stay away from any kind of group action or activities for a cause. I get a little nervous about that.
Cineaste: You’ve also stayed away from Hollywood, though you have made some studio films.
Rampling: It’s just a place that doesn’t inspire me. I am really a European. I know a lot of Europeans are in America, but I need Europe—it suits me better.
Cineaste: How was your experience on Todd Solondz’s Life During Wartime?
Rampling: It was fantastic. The woman I played was just so…talk about violent. And there was me running to get that part. These things call you.
Cineaste: She was a kind of sexual monster.
Rampling: Yeah, and I had to be the one to do it. So people think, “Ooh, she must be like that.” And, again, I say, “If they want to think I’m like that, fine.” I needed my fix.
Cineaste: One of your most indelible performances is in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories. You have that remarkable scene, filmed in close-up and edited with jump cuts, where your character, Dorrie, breaks down at a psychiatric hospital. When you play something like that do you draw upon your own anxieties?
Rampling: Yes. It’s all about that. It’s got to be really, hasn’t it? When actors become actors I think they have a lot of broken stuff inside themselves that’s patched up together that they don’t understand. There’s a churning in them that they want to express, which is why they become actors. I’m certainly talking about myself. Acting is the way I want to get it all out, to use it and to transform it alchemically so it can be made into magic, rather than just feeling very uncomfortable living with it inside.
Cineaste: So it’s therapeutic?
Rampling: Yeah. It’s what therapy is—it’s life-giving. It’s making things into other things. It’s about transformation, which is what art is about. And as a result of the transformation there’s release. The doing of it, the actual acting, is not comfortable at all. It’s difficult—not enjoyable. But the act of doing it is extraordinary.
Cineaste: Do you get nervous, even now?
Cineaste: And do you think that nervousness is essential?
Rampling: Yeah. It’s that sudden leap you have to take. And you can’t ever prepare for it, but there’s always going to be one.
Cineaste: Is another reason for doing it to experience being in the moment—or is it less mystical than that?
Rampling: I don’t know how to answer that because I don’t know.
Cineaste: Is there a danger in analyzing it too much?
Cineaste: I was very struck by the rancor and bitterness of the woman you play in Melancholia—Gaby, the mother. Did you have to psych yourself up to play her?
Cineaste: With all your experience, I’m surprised in a way that it doesn’t just flow out of you, because actors do learn tricks and methods of triggering emotions.
Rampling: What doesn’t flow out of me? Are you saying it doesn’t look as if it’s flowing?
Cineaste: I’m just wondering how you get there. She seems horrifyingly real.
Rampling: This is very important to me. Because that’s what I’ve always wanted. I want it to feel completely real, because it is real—because I’ve made my technique that way. There is no technique. You don’t want the acting to show. It’s got to be real each time it comes out. I don’t want it to be flip. I can easily do it the other way [makes a sound like snapping her fingers]: Acting.
Cineaste: You demonstrate that in The Look when you and your son [director Barnaby Southcombe] do an acting exercise in a boxing ring, and you’re suddenly performing a confrontation without apparent effort. So you can will it into being.
Rampling: Yes, but I don’t think there’s any difference in Charlotte talking to her son and performing with her son.
Rampling: Going back to Melancholia, how did you find Gaby?
Rampling: Well, she’s Lars’s mum. And she fucked up his life, so he says. She said terrible things about him and just overpowered him with stuff that little boys obviously can’t bear, and rightly so. At the same time, these kinds of women are very attractive, because they’re all about, “Come on, just live your life as you should.”
Cineaste: She’s full of hate. And her ex-husband [John Hurt] is an alcoholic and a fool, though he’s found his own strange way of coping. Clearly it was a terrible marriage.
Rampling: It was the beginning of feminism, the beginning of women speaking out like that, so they’re really speaking out too loudly and too violently. They’ve started to really say, “Come on, we don’t want this anymore.” Gaby is saying to her daughter [Justine] at her wedding party, “Get out of here, leave him, dump him, get out.”
Cineaste: Yet she’s obviously contributed to Justine’s crippling depression.
Rampling: Of course she has. It’s double-edged.
Cineaste: Did you feel that working with François Ozon on Under the Sand and Swimming Pool reinvigorated you?
Rampling: Absolutely. I thought I’d met another master.
Cineaste: It’s not many actors, particularly women, who have a second act to their careers, such as you have. To what do you attribute that in yourself?
Rampling: It’s the ability to still be there. Looking the way I do, wanting what I want. I wasn’t particularly looking for someone like François, necessarily, but I did want to come back a bit. I’d taken a backseat for quite a while in my forties. And I started to work in my early fifties with directors like Michael Cacoyannis [The Cherry Orchard] and Jonathan Nossiter [Signs & Wonders, 2000]. My agent showed me François’s short films and I thought they were interesting. A year later, François called up and asked to speak to me and we met, and I knew, instantly, that I had taken the next step in my life.
Cineaste: Did Under the Sand speak to you because it’s about a woman grieving? You’ve said that you’d suspended your own grief for many years [for her sister, Sarah, who committed suicide at the age of twenty-three in 1966].
Rampling: I never thought of it as grief. I just went through a very rocky time, and I’ve been through rocky times all my life. I just had to fasten my seatbelt, carry on, and do my stuff, even if it meant I wasn’t working so much. In fact, it was only after I’d done Under the Sand that I realized this is a film about grieving, it’s a film about somebody dying, disappearing, leaving.
Cineaste: Marie in Under the Sand put me in mind of your Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Both are abandoned by the man they love, but whereas Miss Havisham consigns herself to a living death, Marie continues to live to the full, including sexually. Ellen, your character, in Heading South is another woman in her fifties who feels entitled to have sex. I wondered if there is a cultural aspect of that which appeals to you, above and beyond choosing psychologically complex roles. In other words, is it important to you to show that middle-aged women can live a fulfilled life, romantically and sexually?
Rampling: I think it’s a good thing to have opened up—the theme that women want to have sex. It’s been neglected in films. Men supposedly get better and better as they get older and have younger and younger women, whereas women get stuck in a time warp, which is not particularly attractive. It’s good to open the doors and let a little bit of air in.Heading South certainly did that. I remember when it was released here, people were really pleased to see [women’s sexuality] exposed in that way. And even though the women in the film are like men, in that they buy sex, they actually love it.
Cineaste: It’s problematic, though, because it’s sex tourism and cultural imperialism, isn’t it?
Rampling: Yes. Men have done it from time immemorial, but women doing it is something else. They have been doing it for a while—this film is set in the Seventies, which is the beginning of it. It certainly wasn’t talked about much before. I’m not saying whether I agree with it, yes or no. I don’t have an opinion about it. It is a bit dicey for women. I’m glad I don’t feel I have to do it—that’s all I can say.
Cineaste: I never expected to see you playing the Virgin Mary as you do in The Mill and the Cross [Lech Majewski’s film inspired by Pieter Breugel the Elder’s 1564 “The Way to Calvary”]. You capture the pain and incomprehension of any mother whose son is being persecuted and make it timeless. I wondered if the key to playing Mary was taking the holy iconography out of the role.
Rampling: Yes. In the painting, even Jesus is not depicted as the great prophet. He’s just a man who is going up to be crucified. The painting is not about the iconography of religion, so the people in it aren’t represented in that way. Mary knows that Jesus is being followed by prophets, and she knows that he is an extraordinary man who has great gifts, but it’s not on a massive scale as it is now. It’s about what was happening then, we must remember, and not the image we’ve made of it.
Cineaste: In Fred Schepisi’s The Eye of the Storm  you play a dying matriarch. Did that make you think about your own mortality?
Rampling: No. I don’t think about dying. I’ll have to think about it one day, but now it’s such a waste of energy. We don’t know anything about it. I just pray I’m not going to be ill and have to wait for it, but as it’s not the case at the moment I’m just not thinking about it. But playing someone who’s dying is rather special—I rather like that. I’ve done that a few times. My character, Elizabeth Hunter, is shown when she’s just about to die. That is actually rather filmic and wonderful, because you know it’s not happening to you. They say cut and I get up. Defied it again! [Laughs]
Cineaste: What’s your approach to directors—do you demand a lot from them?
Rampling: I’m completely not demanding, no. I don’t really want to demand anything of anybody, but I’m prepared to receive anything people can give me.
Cineaste: You don’t need encouragement at all?
Rampling: I do, usually, but I’d rather not ask for it. If someone can give it, I’m grateful. But if you ask for things, you can be refused, and I don’t want to be refused.
Cineaste: Do you like to be left to your own devices when you create a character?
Rampling: You usually are anyway. A director likes to see what you’re going to do with your character, and then he’s usually like a conductor. He’ll say, “A little bit higher here, a little bit lower there. Just adjust it here, not quite so full on, a bit sadder, a bit happier.” But you’re the body of work, you’re the character, and you come in with it all, because that’s why he’s chosen you. You know that he wants you and what you’ll bring to the character you’re playing. So you have the confidence of that.
Cineaste: Was Von Trier like that?
Rampling: Yes. He had wanted me to do Europa [aka Zentropa, 1991] but I couldn’t do it for whatever reason—I was somewhere in my head, I don’t know—so he really hoped I’d play his horrid momma.
Cineaste: And Woody Allen? He traditionally leaves actors alone pretty much.
Rampling: But not then. He was very different then from what he is now. At that time he’d just parted from Diane [Keaton] and was not yet with Mia [Farrow], so we had a platonic love affair. He was very seductive. [Laughs]
Cineaste: Do you ever feel you’ve failed in a role?
Rampling: Not failed, though some probably didn’t come out as well as I’d hoped. I wouldn’t know what it would be like to fail in a role because I don’t put those expectations on a performance. I know some people who do and they get very upset about it. I’m more cowardly about that, but I live better that way.
Cineaste: Do you like seeing yourself on screen?
Rampling: Sometimes. I can handle it much better now than before. Even when I saw that Todd Solondz film, where I looked wrecked—trashed—I thought that was interesting. Yes, I’m much more confident now.
Cineaste: Is there one performance that you are more proud of than any of the others?
Rampling: I don’t think like that. They’re all my babies, my kiddies, my little ones, these roles, so I don’t want to single one out. Some are more fragile than others.
Cineaste: Can you say what your intellectual journey has been over the course of your career?
Rampling: It corresponds in some way inherently with, as I’ve said before, who I am as a person and who I’m aspiring to be as a person. Perhaps the person I’ve become. All the work I’ve done in the cinema, all the roles I’ve played, is integral to that. There’s not been a separation, so intellectually…. This is the baggage—that’s what it’s about.
Cineaste: What you’ve consistently highlighted is how many people live with, or exude, asperity, anger, manipulativeness, vindictiveness at times, and that’s more honest than placebos.
Rampling: That’s what I wanted to put across.
Cineaste: Most audiences like happy endings, of course…
Rampling: And you can have them, but I wasn’t put on earth for that—that’s for sure.
Graham Fuller has written about cinema for Sight & Sound, Film Comment, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times, among many other publications. His Website is at inalonelyplace.com.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine