Charlotte Rampling on Beauty, Grief, and Aging

Charlotte Rampling.
Charlotte Rampling. Photo: Hidiro

An encounter with Charlotte Rampling, like so many of her performances, isn’t something one easily forgets. A recent interview I conducted with the film icon for her Oscar-nominated performance in 45 Years as one half of an elderly couple whose marriage gets upended by secrets from the past was — to put it politely — difficult, and like so many of Rampling’s fans, I am struggling to reconcile her comments on #OscarsSoWhite with her amazing cinematic history. But through the course of writing a profile of her for New York’s print magazine, I was also struck by the depth and thoughtfulness of some of her answers — insights that, along with affectionate stories about her from her 45 Years director Andrew Haigh and co-star Tom Courtenay, largely had to be cut for space from the initial article.

The purpose of sharing these additional musings on love, loss, and the day-to-day of Rampling’s Parisian existence here isn’t to sway opinion, but I have found myself referencing them often, both in trying to sort out my complicated feelings about this complicated woman and in just muddling through my own life.

On not feeling like a mentor to younger actresses

“I don’t think of it like that because I’m propelling myself on until, I suppose, the end. Do you know what I mean? I’m not in any way stopping. I just feel timeless. I mean, you can see me and think, Oh, she must be that age, and obviously people can refer back. But me, in myself, I feel timeless. I think some people just are that way.”

On why she chose to come to New York from Paris to promote 45 Years two months after her partner of 18 years, Jean-Noël Tassez, died

“What would I do? Would I stop and just sit in the house? You’ve got to carry on. All those people that lost their friends and their children in the Bataclan, in the cafés [in November’s Paris terrorist attacks], what do they do? The last thing they want to do is sit around. You must go back to life, where it’s being lived.”

On how the body intuits loss

Asked if the sorrow of her 45 Years performance was related to Tassez’s illness, Rampling said both yes and no. She didn’t know about his cancer diagnosis until months after shooting wrapped, but perhaps what’s onscreen “could almost be a premonition of things,” she said. “The body actually understands a lot of things way before you do.” From her vast experience of loss, starting with her older sister’s suicide when Rampling was 20, and her mother’s mental disintegration in the wake of that, along with Rampling’s own battles with depression, she’s come to believe, she said, that “the body has a great memory when things happen to it. There is a lot of language there that we’re not necessarily able to connect with, but when things happen we’re sort of able to say, ‘Ah! Oh, yeah.’ You feel the correlation.”

On one’s capacity to love over time

Having gone through, as she said, “two very big, very long relationships,” has she learned to love better over the years? “Yeah, I’m sure you do, but in the global sense of loving. Because loving is about everything. It’s not just about loving a man or loving a child or loving a mother or loving a sister. It’s a whole attitude and a whole relationship to the world.”

On running off with her second husband, composer Jean Michel Jarre, while still married to her first, and 20 years later running off with Tassez soon after her divorce from Jarre

“You see, those aren’t really choices,” she said. “When they become choices you’re hoping that it’s going to be all right and you’re thinking, Well, maybe it’s this person, and then you start to think of all the different consequences, and it’s, Oh, I’ll go with them. The two that I had, there was nothing I could do about it and I had to go. The French call it the coup de foudre, which is love at first sight. It’s the fusion of love. It’s just” — she punched her chest — “’Oh my god!’”

On still being open to love at first sight at age 70

“Now that [Tassez] has died, I don’t even think about it,” she said, bringing up the subject herself. “It’s an energetic thing, I guess. So when I say I feel in a way a bit timeless, it could be that somebody else comes into my life in the same way. Because energy is timeless. We are just energy, and that energy goes until we crash and then we die. There’s no reason that everything can’t not happen until the day you die, as long as you don’t give in and break and decide that it won’t or just close down, which a lot of people do, and that’s fine.”

On where she got the inclination to do such provocative movies

“It’s an innate thing,” she said. “You test yourself, and you don’t really know what you’re doing, but you want to do something, you want to say something, you want to help make some kind of mark on the world, so you go out there and you’re guided in a very untrained, rather animalistic way.”

On wedding anniversaries

“I’ve never done it myself, ever,” she said. “I’ve never remembered a wedding anniversary. I wasn’t married, anyway, to my partner that died. I didn’t want to get married, and my other one, we never even remembered our wedding.”

Why didn’t she want to get married again? “Because I wanted for both of us to be free within the relationship. Marriage for me was for children. It wasn’t for the adults. I had the children before and then got married. I don’t know — I just wanted us to be a married family.” When she met Tassez, she accepted his proposal but never wanted to go through the act and ceremony and paperwork again. “I didn’t want society necessarily to tell me when I could or when I couldn’t leave if I wanted to leave,” she said. “I wanted the complete freedom of my own movements and my own thoughts. I didn’t want to have the state’s stamp on me.”

On what’s behind her confident gaze in photographs, famously dubbed “The Look”

“It’s something that is actually within. That’s me. That’s who I am. Which doesn’t mean to say that I’m confident about everything or that I’m strong about everything. But that is who I am. What you see through the eyes is who the person is. You actually see a world and you say, Oh, she’s strong. I don’t necessarily think it’s particularly strong, but if you want to say it, say it. A lot of people do it. If you want to say it’s confident, say it’s confident. I know that I’m not necessarily that confident at all, but if that’s what you see, say it seems so. That’s fine with me. Because you’re the one that’s looking — you and the people that are watching the films or looking at the photographs.”

On her relationship to her beauty

“Even though you are beautiful and you can see you’re beautiful, you don’t think that,” she said. “I don’t know any beautiful woman that actually says, ‘Oh yeah, I knew I was beautiful when I was …’ I don’t think beautiful women have a relationship with their beauty. You can use it. Models can use it and I can use it and we all use it, but we don’t have a relationship with it.”

On aging

“I mean, you have to do it and I don’t want to have too much done to my face, so I’m ambivalent; I don’t spend time on it. I look at myself, I see the film, I say, ‘Oh yes, I look different there.’ But I only look different because I’m now in a different part of my life.” Many actresses her age have anxiety around aging, but said Rampling, “I choose not to. That’s all I can say. Nobody likes the idea of decaying, but I choose not to have a relationship with all that. And just get on with it. You do the best with what you’ve got.”

She does think, though, that she has it easier than actresses across the pond. “I think that culturally speaking, the Europeans are permitting actresses to age gracefully, more than the Americans are. The Americans do kind of have a fixation with aging.” But she praises Helen Mirren, Judi Dench, and Meryl Streep for being examples of aging actresses doing good work, and proving that audiences will show up. “It’s bankable. When people start making money on a project, then they stop worrying about it. It’s like, Hey, we can make some serious cash off these older ladies, so this is great! I think that is starting to happen quite a bit, so it’s becoming less of a problem. There is an audience.”

On sexiness

“It’s more about just feeling alive. If you have a deep passion for life, then you give off a sexy vibe. It’s authentic, and that’s true of any age.”

On whether age has made her a better actor

“I wouldn’t necessarily say better. You’re using more because you’ve lived more. That’s all. And living is good for film roles. You have more to use.”

On her Parisian life

Rampling stays pretty demure when asked about her day-to-day life in Paris, but Haigh spent three days with her there before shooting 45 Years, riding the rickety elevator up to her little studio on the Left Bank, filled with books and abstract paintings she makes only for herself, then back down to the restaurant on the corner where all the waiters know her and she seems to order the same thing each time. “It was very lovely and perfect,” says Haigh, “the ideal of what I wanted Charlotte Rampling’s life to be in Paris.” (On the day we met, Rampling was also dressed in the ideal of how you’d want Charlotte Rampling to dress: white T-shirt, gray tweed blazer, cropped black Jil Sander trousers, and androgynous Church’s oxfords.)

In addition to the paintings, Rampling swims once a week and does yoga and meditates. She made a cabaret album in 2002, but when I ask if she still sings, she says, “No, I don’t sing. I’ve made a record but it’s pfffft. It’s nothing.” The very moving scene at the end of the movie where Kate plays a mournful tune at the piano is actually just Rampling improvising; she often composes on the fly. “The whole story is about a woman unable to express how she feels,” says Haigh, “and Charlotte composing this piece in the moment, to me, perfectly expressed the subtext of how she’s feeling. I think that is the thing about Charlotte. Underneath what anybody thinks, she is an incredibly emotional, passionate person.”

On what it’s like to get a beer with her

“She’s a bit bossy, Charlotte, I would say. She wouldn’t argue with that,” said her 45 Years co-star Tom Courtenay. His favorite story to tell about Rampling is how 20-some people from the film went to a famous beer hall to celebrate their Berlin wins, and Rampling felt the need to correct the interior decorating. “They were going to sit us at a long table, and we’re all desperate to have some of this beer, and Charlotte decided it would be better if the tables were rearranged. So we had to wait while the poor waiters were moving these tables,” says Courtenay. “I have to say, though, she was quite right; it was more cozy when it was square, rather than an elongated strip of a table.”

On her memories of her iconic 1973 Helmut Newton photo shoot

Sofia Coppola wrote an essay on how this photograph of Rampling sitting naked on a table in the grand drawing room of the Hotel Nord Pinus in Arles in the south of France is the inspiration for the confident woman she wishes to be. How did that shot come about? “I was doing a film down in the south of France in Arles and there was this very powerful room where the toreadors used to dress before they went into the arena,” said Rampling, “and Helmut wanted to do some pictures there and he said, ‘Maybe we could do some naked shots there, if you want.’ He said, ‘I’m not used to doing this.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ve never done it.’ It wasn’t amazing. We just met for half an hour in the room and that was it.”

Looking at the photograph now, she said, “It represents who I was at that time. And it represents what women also were at that time. There’s a sense of freedom and there’s a sense of mystery and a sense of taking responsibility for your own world. It was the beginning of that whole thing [sexual liberation] opening up. The women of my generation were starting to do things that other women — our mothers — had not been able to do.”

On depression

I told Rampling that my experience with depression is that it never goes away. “That’s normal, though,” she said. “As long as it doesn’t get debilitating — if you still in the end can leave the house, then you’re okay. That’s your gauge, isn’t it? It’s when you can’t leave the house that you know you’re in trouble.”

How did she get through it? “Well, you just do, with help, with therapists, with medication, just faith, praying, Help! Please! But not thinking of it as an enemy. It’s an illness.”

Do the bad days still come for her? “Now? Much, much, much, much, much less.” She took time off acting to deal with her depression, so what made her feel able to go back to work? “Can’t tell you. It’s a whole process, love, and each person will live it differently. You can’t push yourself too soon, but you have to push yourself, you have to dare again. You have to join your life again.”

Additional reporting by Jamie Sharpe.