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Charlotte Rampling says she's not scary (really)

The legendary actor talks to us about her acclaimed turn in "45 Years" and that time she made a chimpanzee romance movie.
Charlotte Rampling45 Years

When I meet Charlotte Rampling, I don’t get “the look” — that sharp-eyed, freezing gaze that is every bit as iconic as those wielded by Garbo or Dietrich. I'm slightly surprised to find the noted screen ice queen friendly, gabby and prone to full-bodied laughter, even if she’s not exactly upfront with personal details. Rampling doesn’t mention, for instance, that she lost her longtime partner, Jean-Noel Tassez, only two months prior.

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We’re speaking about a brutally honest and very human film about a possibly crumbling relationship. In “45 Years,” she and Tom Courtenay play a couple who discover a shocking secret soon before their 45th anniversary. We wonder how she’ll react to the news that he’s still pining for a girlfriend who died 50 years prior, in a performance that has netted the acclaimed actress, now 69, several accolades and counting.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is one of the most vulnerable roles you’ve played.

The vulnerability has always been there, but people have just used me on other registers. This has always been there, even if I come across as a bit scary sometimes. [Laughs] Underneath there’s a good quivering mass that can be used.

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Writer-director Andrew Haigh is in his 40s writing about characters in their 60s and 70s. What is it like working with someone making a film about characters older than he is?

I find with creative people they’re not wrong. Somehow they know. They know things they have no right to know because they haven’t actually lived. But the creative gift is there.

This feels like a very intimately made film, with shots that really allow you and Tom Courtenay the space to create your characters. The final scene, where you’re dancing with Courtenay and we’re not sure what you’ll do, in particularly seems like you found it on the spot.

That was always the last scene in the film; that didn’t change. But I didn’t know how I was going to feel doing it, or what I was going to do. I knew I was going to pull my hand down from him at some stage, but that was it. It really was a lived-in experience every time. It was that he gets up from the table and he’s just done his wonderful speech and you have no idea what you’re going to do next.

Did you do a lot of takes to find the scene?

Once I get there and I know it’s right, then I’m not doing anything else. You do it over and over, and it gets more and more haunting as you get deeper into it. The repetition of doing that scene makes it even more powerful. It doesn’t always happen that way, but in this case it did. I couldn’t do anything else.

Do you like multiple takes?

You have directors like Kubrick, who did 75 takes once. That’s not all the time he does that. That, I suppose, comes from insecurity, of wanting to imagine so many different possibilities. Lots of directors do many, many takes and just exhaust the actors. [She mock-slouches in her chair, as though drained of life] They think that’s good.

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There’s also those directors who just do one take, like Clint Eastwood.

[Nagisa] Oshima, when I worked with him on my chimpanzee film [“Max, Mon Amour,” in which she plays a woman in love with a chimp], he only wanted one take. “One take is the best take, I want that take!” Except when the chimpanzee got a bit clumsy — he was allowed to f— up. We weren’t, none of the technicians or the actors. It was great! It kept us on our toes.

Woody Allen is also known for not doing a ton of takes, and sometimes leaving his actors wondering if they’re even doing a good job. What were your experiences like with him on 1980s’ “Stardust Memories”?

I think mine was particular. He was in a particular stage in his life, and he was really quite happy, so we had a really good relationship. He was in between relationships, so he was in a really good mood. Obviously that’s changed. But that was a really good time for him.

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Back to “45 Years,” it flies in the face of the idea that relationships get easier with age, or that older people don’t suffer the same neuroses that plague younger people.

Look at how Tom reacts: like a little boy again — a teenager hankering over his little girlfriend. It’s exactly the same thing. Feelings are the most powerful things. Feelings can kill us. And it can be over something very, very small. It’s reminding us of other things that hugely upset us in our lives. Maybe someone else did that to [Kate]— she was abandoned, maybe. Those feelings ping again. Feelings, they certainly don’t age. They never — thank god — go away. Whatever happens till we die, we’re always going to be overpowered with feelings — let’s hope. It means we’re alive.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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