For 50 years she’s been one of cinema’s most elusive beauties, but when Charlotte Rampling smiles in a movie, her mouth becomes an emotional weapon on par with Bette Davis’ eyes. Rampling has never been the naive ingénue type, and her face, which is stunning in a hard, penetrating, enigmatic way, is not the face of a woman who suffers fools gladly. It’s led to her portraying many tough, authority figures, especially in the later phase of her career. But when she smiles, her whole appearance softens and glows, and suddenly you feel almost a bit of a triumphant thrill in receiving her warmth. It’s the power which has allowed her to seduce and bewitch audiences in dozens of challenging films like The Damned, The Night Porter, Stardust Memories, The Verdict, Under the Sand, and Swimming Pool. And at the age of 69 — and a mercifully unbotoxed, non-collagened 69 she is — Rampling is still doing it.
You’ll see that ravishing smile a lot in 45 Years, her complex new marriage drama, as it masks the melancholy that her character is feeling. She plays Kate, who’s spent two-thirds of her life married to Geoff (Tom Courteney), a man who she might not actually know. In the first scene of the film he receives a letter informing him that his long-ago girlfriend, who died in a hiking accident in the Swiss Alps, has been discovered, perfectly preserved. The film makes many references to the glacier that swallowed up the young woman. And though it’s never shown, it makes a stunning metaphor for the slow, icy carving-out that has been vibrating deep within Kate and Geoff’s relationship.
EW spoke to the actress about her performance in the film, her career-long preference for European cinema over Hollywood, secrets that she keeps, and the none-too-secret fact that, bafflingly, she has never been nominated for an Academy Award — an incongruity that might well be corrected very soon.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Andrew Haigh, the director of 45 Years, came to you with this script, what did you think?
Charlotte Rampling: When I read it, I was like, “Well, here we go. This suits me.” And when I spoke to Andrew, immediately there was this tremendous rapport. He had written it, and I knew it was for me. So there was something special already there.
And when you watched his first film Weekend, which is also a relationship movie, did you see the potential for something?
Absolutely. I might have been more nervous if I hadn’t had Weekend as a reference. Because this is a very difficult film to make, 45 Years, and to make it into something so compelling and haunting. As he showed with Weekend, he has a very special way of bringing us into these people’s lives and their relationships. Some things, even though we’ve known our partners for a very long time, it’s not necessarily secrets that they have, but things just not said. And these not said things can sometimes have a devastating effect. And we don’t quite know why, but they push many buttons, perhaps of unresolved things throughout our lives.
45 Years is quite a daring piece of drama. I think people will be very surprised if they just see the advertising and think it’s a quaint British film.
Oh, right, another sweet little story about an old couple in their sweet little English country house? No, it’s not that.
It reminds me somewhat of The Verdict, which is probably the best known American film that you made. That character is barely holding herself together and has a secret that she’s hiding from her lover, played by Paul Newman.
There was a secret being held, that’s for sure. And it’s being held back from someone she loves, and she’s never going to be able to tell that person. If it’s told, it’s going to ruin the relationship. They make good stories, don’t they, those subjects? So here we go again.
45 Years is a film with a certain degree of gloom, but what I love is how much we see you smile in it. And it’s such an iconic smile. Did that appeal to you, playing this woman who’s experiencing sadness but is presenting to the world something else?
A sunny side? Yeah. It’s very English, that. I was brought up not to show my feelings too much and to give a good face on things. I think also it’s respectful of others. You don’t lurch in with a whole bag of problems to other people. And Kate does that — and I liked her to do that. I quite liked that about her.
There’s a kind of naturalism that, as you say, suits you.
Yeah, I’ve always searched for it. As soon as I get into the big acting type of roles, you know, acting, it doesn’t suit me. I have done it a little bit, but I stopped doing it. I didn’t feel like it was what I should be doing.
I’m guessing that’s a reason why you’ve always preferred working in Europe as opposed to the Hollywood industry?
It just didn’t really turn me on. I guess it wasn’t for me. It wasn’t a question of doing it, but from a very early age I took the road less traveled. It was more auteur cinema, it was more experimental. And I didn’t want too much of the limelight. I didn’t want to be a celebrity. That rather scared me, actually.
Speaking of the road less traveled, at the Edinburgh Film Festival in June, actor Ian Hart was on the jury. It is so perfect, the thing he said when he gave you an award for 45 Years: “There’s an old actor’s joke when someone’s rehearsing a scene, and they come across a certain piece of text and they say, ‘I don’t need that line, I can do that with a look.’ But most people can’t, so the line goes back in. But certain people can, they can do more with a gesture, they can do more with a look than most people can do with ten words, and this is why this award goes to Charlotte Rampling.”
Oh, did he say that? That’s lovely of him. It’s very touching to me, because it’s what I’ve always wanted to do. I somehow wanted to get down and down and down in there, into myself, and I wanted that to be my journey through the acting world.
I’m a big fan of your movie Under the Sand. You play someone in that whose husband goes missing and it causes her to unravel. There are corollaries between that film and this one, aren’t there?
I love that film. It’s interesting. They really are like sisters to me. And it’s almost like the woman of Under the Sand has become the, well, older woman of 45 Years. There’s a real correlation there.
Do you ever think about your past work while working on a new film?
Well, I mean, all actors come onstage with the baggage that they have and the references that people have of them. And that makes you into who are. It can sometimes hurt a performance, but it can sometimes make it more interesting, with the other levels that come up from the underneath. But every actor has that.
What were nights and weekends like while working on 45 Years? I’ve heard you say that you could feel Kate’s vibrations after filming.
Yeah, in a way. Well, I wanted to find a little cozy bed and breakfast, similar to the house we were filming in. I heard from Tom’s people that he wanted to stay in the same place I was staying in. And so I found this little bed and breakfast, close by. There were just two lovely rooms and the owners were there. So when we came back from a day of shooting, we’d be there. We didn’t even really have dinner together, because I’d eat in my room. But we would literally be sleeping a room apart. We were always in a contained space together. And that was really important. In fact, I didn’t realize how important it would be.
Was it important to you that their sex life be addressed in the film? When that scene comes, it seems so intimate and crucial.
I agree, it’s very necessary. It was always there. We did a lot of scenes in the end that were cut, because Andrew wanted there to be this mysterious, haunting pull. He didn’t want all the scenes that were explaining the story. But that scene, the sex scene, was certainly always there.
And always with the revelation about Geoff’s inability to perform?
Yeah. We don’t talk about it, but in real relationships, especially ones as long as theirs, it’s something that’s there all the time. Everyone can identify that.
The movie is just opening now in America, so I’m not going to spoil anything. But let me ask you in a very vague way: When it ends, what is that look on your face?
Even as we were preparing to shoot it, I didn’t know what it would be, that’s all I can say. There’s a lot of stuff that you can’t prepare for. With a lot of stuff, I never prepare anyway, because it’s what happens in the reality of the moment which counts. That means it’s absolutely truthful. And then when you’ve got it, then you know.
It’s a very lengthy final shot. How many times did you shoot it?
Quite a few times. But when I get up from the table and he’s given his speech, I had no idea what would happen. I mean, I was feeling what I was feeling as Kate and it brought about that reaction.
I’ve noticed that men and women react differently to the ending. Men feel sweet for Geoff.
Yes, and so when it comes to Kate’s reaction, do they accept it or not? Probably not.
Correct. But women see it differently. Women cheer for Kate.
It is extraordinary, isn’t it? And I think when it is to do with something so lived, which is to do with couples, it’s such a powerful subject. It’s such a mine of stuff. People will all interpret it in certain ways.
What was it like working on the second season of Broadchurch, where you got to play a barrister?
It was a fabulous experience. The British do great television, and this is what this was, and really good writing and filled with actors that I wouldn’t necessary meet or work with ordinarily, like Marianne Jean-Baptiste and Olivia Coleman. And an exceptional camaraderie around the story, too. Great, loving, supporting people. It was a magnificent experience.
You won Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival and then from several critics groups, including the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. What’s that been like?
Well, it’s the first time. What can I say? First time for everything.
It’s come up in conversation that you’ve never been nominated for an Oscar. And when I’ve told people that, they think that it must be wrong. They go to the Internet to check.
Really? That’s sweet. But to think that a film like 45 Years could be Oscar material, it’s a pure delight. At least we’re being watched. The critics have been so lovely to us, and now we hear that a few Academy members like the film, but who knows. Just to be journeying along with it is a special experience. And special to me because I’ve never done it. I know a lot of the great actors have done it many times, but I haven’t. It’s very humbling.
Your career is not by any means over, but does this film feel like a culmination?
Well, it might be. You never know. And if it is, good. If it has that kind of connotation, then that’s great.
Perhaps your could forge a relationship with Andrew Haigh as you’ve had with François Ozon, who directed Under the Sand and Swimming Pool.
I’d love that. François keeps making many kinds of films. And always experimenting and experimenting and experimenting. I love his work.
Who’s a filmmaker you’d like to work with?
Oh, gosh. I’m sure there are a lot of them. Todd Haynes I’d love to work with. I’m really looking forward to seeing Carol very soon. And David O. Russell. I may not get a chance to work with them, and that’s all right. But if I can catch one or two while there’s still time.
What movies have you seen this year that you’ve liked?
I just saw Room, which was [pauses] dear me, very disturbing. That director dealt with the subject in a powerful way. It’s so powerful, but it’s not just the subject that’s powerful. It’s how he’s handled it.
Is there anything about Kate that only you know? Some secret bit of knowledge that you kept to yourself?
Perhaps. I don’t know if I kept anything secret about her, but even if you know a character quite well, your feelings are not always evident. Kate is going through a lot of difficulty understanding what she’s feeling, so in playing her, I could use certain things that I haven’t worked out in my life.
Oh, care to reveal?
No [laughs]. That’s not Kate’s secret, that’s my secret.
To read more on 45 years, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands now, or buy it here.