No one would have faulted Charlotte Rampling for not showing up today. It is mid-morning on December 1, and the art-house legend, who has just turned 70, has flown to New York from Paris, where her adopted hometown was still reeling from a horrific terrorist attack, and where just two months earlier her partner of 18 years, French media tycoon Jean-Noël Tassez, had died. She is stationed at a banquette in the Soho Grand Hotel, receiving a parade of reporters, who’ve come to talk to her about her long career and her performance in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years as a woman who discovers on her 45th wedding anniversary that she perhaps doesn’t know her husband at all. “Of course I was affected,” says British-born Rampling of the Paris attacks. “Who wouldn’t be? What affected me more was the death of my husband before. So there have been a lot of deaths just around in the last month.” She stares at the table and plays with some small jars of marmalade.
I was supposed to write this article on Rampling over a month ago, but for various reasons, I delayed. The immediate excuse was that I had other pressing deadlines, while the deeper, subconscious one was that our interview had not gone well — at least to my mind. I’d struggled to make eye contact with her, and two-thirds of the way through our time, she abruptly told me, “We’re going to have to stop, okay? I’ve had it.” I began to say I was sorry. “And please don’t say that,” she cut in. “You sound weak.” She then told the movie’s publicists, as I stood nearby, not to schedule her again for any interview that long.
At the time we met, talk had been thick with the possibility of her getting nominated for an Oscar. When her name was indeed called as a candidate for best actress, she joined a field of 20 actors who, for the second year in a row, all happened to be white. Then, a week later, she went on French radio and made comments on the #OscarsSoWhite movement that have come to eclipse a five-decade career of mostly provocative, often feminist, films. Among those comments: that the proposed boycott of the Oscars is “racist to whites,” and that “one can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final list.” She also pushed back on the idea of the Academy’s introducing quotas, saying, “Do we have to take from this that there should be lots of minorities everywhere?”
Rampling was excoriated, by everyone from Chelsea Clinton to Spike Lee, in Twitter reactions ranging from reasoned outrage to violent bile and hate, and her initial apology, saying she’s sorry her words might have been “misinterpreted,” didn’t stem the vitriol. In a more extensive statement she gave to New York, she says, “I have always been fiercely against all kinds of discrimination and I hope my life and my films prove this. I am so pleased that after all these years the Academy has made the historical decision to make diversity and parity their priority for the future. It was high time. I’m thinking about young actors, directors, and screenwriters living with the uncertainty of being an artist and also fighting discrimination; my apologies are going to them first.”
When I read her initial remarks about the Oscars, my first reaction was to be angry at her. But then, as the attacks came — mostly from people who seemed to be hearing Rampling’s name for the first time — I also had a confusing urge to protect her. Were we really turning the debate on diversity into the vilification of the oldest acting nominee, with a long history of socially conscious work, for a single (very unfortunate, very ignorant) statement, uttered during one of the worst years of her life?
I thought back to our interview at the Soho Grand. I’d told Rampling that I was surprised she was there, still in mourning, doing the promotional dance. “Yes, but in a sense, you know, he [Tassez] would have kicked me out of the house to go and do it,” she said. “He even said, ‘You’re not going to not do it because of me, because I’m gone.’ ” The body, she believes, has a memory of loss, which began for her at age 20 when her older sister, Sarah, committed suicide. “Death really does something particular to the human being and the psyche — I’ve had that most of my life,” said Rampling. She’d already begun acting by then, with her breakout as a kind of Holly Golightly of Swinging London in 1966’s Georgy Girl, but found that after her sister’s death she wanted more meaningful work.
Rampling talked about loss with the clarity of someone deeply familiar with digging herself out of sadness. (She’s also been vocal about her battle with depression.) “With new loss that I’m feeling, with Jean-Noël having left,” she said, “I’ve got a more stable inner structure. Construite. The word actually is a sort of translation from French. It’s like a house. I’m a quite solidly built house now.”
That foundation seemed essential for 45 Years, which required Rampling and her co-star, Tom Courtenay, of Doctor Zhivago fame, to be completely comfortable with each other, even though they’d never met. By chance, they stayed in adjacent rooms at a bed-and-breakfast and shared a car to and from set. “I’d knock on her door in the morning when the car came and say, ‘Your carriage is without,’ ” said Courtenay. When the day ended, they’d go back to their B&B and have a good lunch and a nap; sometimes they’d steal sandwiches from the tea table on set and take them home. “They were like a really sweet couple,” said Haigh. They still email often.
Haigh had long been fascinated by Rampling’s work, ranging from 1974’s The Night Porter — in which she played a concentration-camp survivor in a sadomasochistic relationship with a former Nazi officer — to 2003’s Swimming Pool, François Ozon’s erotic French thriller. “She is an actress and person that you don’t fully know or understand. I like that she kind of draws you close to her but then pushes you away at the last moment,” Haigh said.
Rampling embodies a certain boldness in life as well as work. Her first husband was actor and publicist Bryan Southcombe; she once joked that she was in love with a young man who shared a flat with the couple, and the press hasn’t stopped asking her about a ménage à trois since. She left Southcombe to run off with French composer Jean-Michel Jarre (never mind that they were both married) — before their divorce amid the scandal of his dalliances, and her subsequent engagement to Tassez. (They never married: “I didn’t want to have the state’s stamp on me,” she said.)
Her beauty and its power have made her the subject of iconic photographs, such as the one by Helmut Newton for Vogue shot in 1973 of her sitting naked on a table in a grand drawing room at the Hotel Nord-Pinus in Arles. And a series of shoots from 2003 and 2009 with Juergen Teller was something of a reprise; the first set of photographs featured the two of them in a variety of very intimate positions: Teller licking her ear, or splayed across the top of a piano she’s playing, his genitals exposed to the camera. “He was doing all of the exposing. I wasn’t. I was staying resolutely dressed!” Rampling said, laughing. The later set was shot at the Louvre, with Rampling, then 63, naked alongside the much younger, also naked model Raquel Zimmermann. “There’s nothing like being naked in front of the Mona Lisa,” Rampling said. “Would you have refused?”
Actually, I’d have qualms, I told her; I’ve always had body-confidence issues. “You wouldn’t have just because you don’t like your body?” she asked. “The Mona Lisa probably doesn’t have a very good body.” Well, I’m asking because I admire her apparent fearlessness, I said. “What you do is you just jump off the deep end,” she said. “Can you swim?” Not well. “Ah, you’re not a very brave girl then, are you? You have to learn the basics of survival.”
What are the other basics of survival, I wondered. “I’ve given you one,” she said. “That’s enough.”
*This article appears in the February 8, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.