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Charlotte Rampling

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The British actress discusses what is was like being directed by her son in her new film I, Anna.

Charlotte Rampling has been a reliably fearless presence in cinema for almost half a century. After an apprenticeship in Swinging Sixties comedies such as Georgy Girl, she embarked on an intermittent Hollywood career – she was a '40s femme fatale to Robert Mitchum in Farewell, My Lovely, Woody Allen’s dream woman in Stardust Memories and got punched in the face by a betrayed Paul Newman in The Verdict.

But it’s in Europe where she’s found her true home, from Luchino Visconti’s The Damned and controversial Holocaust S&M games with Dirk Bogarde in The Night Porter, to a strong recent revival with François Ozon (Under The Sand, Swimming Pool, Angel), Lars von Trier’s Melancholia and as a sex tourist in Heading South.

In London-set film noir I, Anna, directed by her son Barnaby Southcombe, Rampling plays a trenchcoated enigma pursued by cop Gabriel Byrne, mixed up with sex and death, guilt and loneliness. She met LWLies in the intimate sitting room of a central London hotel to discuss the film and her extraordinary career.

LWLies: How would you compare I, Anna as a film noir to your role in Farewell, My Lovely?

Rampling: Well it’s in the same family, except that the femme fatale is very flawed now. She’s got older, and she hasn’t got the same kind of power as she had before. We don’t quite know who Anna was before, but you could think that she did have another life, where she was probably a very vibrant, quite attractive woman out and about. So we’re seeing the other side of the femme fatale.

Is the genre being used to show something about these two people?

It is exactly that. You take the genre, then develop it into a more psychologically aware story of what goes on behind the minds of these people. Instead of all the archetypal situations in a film noir, you go more into the depths.

You've described your character as, "a mystery, as much of a mystery as I am to myself" Do you think that we are all essentially unknowable?

I think there is a certain amount of illusion that we need to feed to ourselves, yeah, to keep us stable, to keep us on some kind of track. To make us believe that our life does actually mean something, and that what we’ve done means something, even if it’s just to us and a very few people around us, that there is a significance. But the mystery for me is always still there. Because I always feel that your life can change, any moment, and I’ve always lived on that kind of edge.

And is that how you act?

Probably, yes. I sort of live on a precipice. Not necessarily in everyday life. But I know that the precipice is there, and that there could be a moment at any time that I will fall into that precipice. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes it’s bad. Sometimes you don’t come up, sometimes you come up. Sometimes you might fall into the abyss and actually not find yourself. 

Do you find that thought of the abyss bracing?

Yeah, because it’s me inventing that, isn’t it? Nobody’s actually saying that I’m going to be on the edge and fall into the abyss. It’s a game that you don’t want to go too far into playing. But I’m allowed to, because I make films, and you can play with it in films. So I can get away with it.

Do you approach all your best roles with that sense of there being a mysterious core to the people you’re playing?

Yes, that I actually have always done, right from early on, when I realised that the interest in me in being in a film is that. What happens behind. What happens in the silence, what happens in the space in between, in that inner state of being. It’s all those areas that have always interested me. It’s not even that I’ve cultivated it, that’s where I actually find myself when I’m thinking about being in a film, that’s where I am. So I’ll say yes to those roles.

That comes out in I, Anna when Anna gets a look on her face that’s somewhere between helpless terror and physical shock. It’s like Munch’s The Scream. That absolute abject state. How are you feeling and what are you doing, in a moment like that?

Well it’s there. If you actually convey it, it must be that it’s there in you. People say, 'Have you lived that?' Yes, in different ways and different styles and perhaps different time-spans. You’ve been in that scream, we’ve all had that scream. Probably that’s how we were when we were born, that’s the scream we gave when we came out of our mother’s womb. So it’s all in us, we just tap into it as actors, and we can make it happen, if people believe that that is actually what it is.

Do you pass in and out of that state with practised ease?

Yes, I don’t have to plan how to get into it. Somehow I just trust my body, and I trust my psyche, and I trust what’s inside me to give it to me, the instant I want it.

Are you deep inside that feeling as it’s happening, as we see it on the screen?

Yes. Absolutely. But I don’t have to take time to get into it. I know that’s what the next scene’s going to be, and we’ve probably done quite a happy scene just before and now, right [claps hands], we’re going to be going into that kind of darkness. So you command your body to go to the place that it knows, because it’s been in all those places. So I ask it to bring it up.

Do you think actors who use that method technique of researching a role until they feel they are the person are perhaps missing the point?

I don’t know. I’ve never done that, and it couldn’t work for me.

How was filming around London? Has it changed a lot in the years since you lived here?

Not so much. The London that Barnaby chose was a London that I wouldn’t necessarily frequent. It’s more of a graphic London, more of a lonely London, more of how people live in high-rises like the Barbican. I remember when that was built, actually. I remember seeing it and thinking, 'Oh, my god,' and being very impressed by the beauty of it. And then when I filmed in it it does have a strange beauty, but it’s creepy, which is great for the film. Barnaby finds these architectural misfits. Because cities are full of misfits, because things have been built at odd times, and with different architects’ dreams. So a film-maker finds these and groups them together and creates his vision of London.

Do you take any particular interest in your contemporaries – in the fact that the Stones have just played some gigs, or Terence Stamp is starring in another film soon? Is the idea of being in a generation from the '60s of significance to you?

Yeah, absolutely. We’re all surviving, and the ones that are still out there – the Stones, Terence Stamp, myself, Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave – there’s quite a lot of us. Maybe actors can go on longer. Musicians too, but they need a lot of physical stamina, so bless the Stones, because they’re really out there still doing it. But also I think people love that, because it gives you a feeling of longevity. We are here for a limited amount of time, and if we can use that time as much as we can, I think it gives young people, too, a lot of excitement to see old guys still up there and really being cool. I think if we can feel that we can work until we drop, there’s something rather magnificent about that.

Is nostalgia part of your make-up?

No, I don’t think so. Because I think that stops you moving forward. It makes me feel a bit melancholy. I don’t want to feel melancholy. I feel it anyway, for other reasons. We need melancholia, it’s a very important feeling. But not for nostalgic reasons.

Jane Birkin said that when she went to France she was able to remake herself. Did any of that happen to you?

No, I don’t think so. I think she went there because she’d met Serge [Gainsbourg], and I met Jean Michel Jarre, and stayed there because I married him and had a home there. No, mine was more Italy, my first realisation that I really needed to fly to different places, and it soon became clear that those places were Europe and not America, because America didn’t quite correspond to me. Certainly not Los Angeles. So I needed to spread my wings, and Italy started it.

François Ozon said the other day that, with all the time you’ve spent in France and all the work you’ve done there, he still felt that you were very much English. Would you say that’s true?

I think so. I don’t think you ever lose that. All those English people that went out and lived in the colonies for years and didn’t really come back to England became more English than the English. You can’t just take it off like a jacket. I speak French fluently and I’ve been there with the culture, but the mix is glorious. I love this mix, especially with France and Italy, my two countries, and now I’ve done quite a lot of work with the Germans, too. There’s a feeling of European participation which I find is completely suited to me.

What was different about being directed by your son?

Just that I knew him so much better than I would know another director. That trust that we have, that bond, because I’ve always had a great relationship with Barnaby. He was with me when I was doing The Night Porter, he was three months old in his little basket. He was lugged around from film set to film set.

Can you be more intuitive working with him than with some other directors?

No, I think it’s the same. Because we suddenly became like actor and director. It just happens that I know him well, but it wasn’t Barnaby my son who was directing, it was the director. There was no ambiguity there at all, and it was that collaboration which I love with my directors. Like François Ozon, we had a very close relationship. Symbiotic. And it’s the same with Barnaby, we really are very much symbiotic. We’re the same blood. That’s always a very privileged thing to have.

Do you miss that sort of thing when you’re off the set? Being in those moments and looking over that abyss, when you’re playing these roles?

It’s a balance. I don’t need to be doing that for a continued, prolonged time. That’s why I’m somebody who doesn’t work a huge amount. I take time between, to actually cultivate other things. It’s almost a sense that I need the time and the space again, and the silence in between filming to feel that I’m growing something else, so that I can add some more next time.

Now read our review of I, Anna.

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