In the span of about 48 hours last week, 69-year-old British actress Charlotte Rampling became a first-time Oscar nominee and an accused racist. The former was for her work in director Andrew Haigh’s film “45 Years,” which opens on Friday, Jan. 29, in Portland at the Living Room Theater. The latter was for some ill-advised (or, as she claims, misinterpreted), comments in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
Those comments may have squelched whatever minuscule chance she had of taking home a trophy on Feb. 28, but they shouldn’t detract from the marvelous performance she gives in “45 Years” opposite the equally veteran, and equally impressive, Tom Courtenay. (He had his breakthrough role in 1962’s “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”; hers came in 1966’s “Georgy Girl.”) They play a long-married couple (hence the title) whose marriage is tested when news arrives that the body of Courtney’s long-lost first love has been found.
Rampling’s career has been a peripatetic one, taking her from Britain to France to America, the latter with mixed results—she was memorable in “Stardust Memories” and “The Verdict,” less so in “Zardoz” and “Orca.” She’s been an emblem of continental cool, and the subject of an admiring documentary, “Charlotte Rampling: The Look.” Throughout, she has played by her own rules, and that includes during our brief phone interview, which took place last November, well before the ups and downs of her more recent notoriety.
It was, to be honest, one of the more awkward interviews I’ve conducted. She seemed impatient, brusque, and intolerant of any questions that went beyond the scope of “45 Years.” At one point, she moved the phone away from her mouth, but I could still hear her when she asked her handler “How much longer is this? He’s starting to ask me about my whole career!” This was approximately ten minutes into our talk. In any case, at least some of the answers I could pry from her were interesting. Here are some excerpts:
When you were first approached for the film “45 Years,” did you have any doubts that director Andrew Haigh, who’s not even forty-five himself, could capture the experience of a long-married couple in their seventies?
Charlotte Rampling: No, because I believe in what artists can do. They don’t have to necessarily know about something, but they have a strange sort of innate understanding. When I saw “Weekend,” his previous film, I understood how clever he was at being able to get into what makes couples work, what makes relationships work, whoever they are or from whatever background or age.
Had you ever worked with Tom Courtenay before? Or had your paths crossed in any other way?
We might have bumped into each other, but we hadn’t ever really met. But our roads have been parallel. We both started making films in the sixties, we’re both English. It’s sort of interesting that we end up as a couple together in “45 Years.”
Some of the key moments in the film require you to communicate an emotional intensity and turbulence while maintaining an external stillness. What strategies do you use to keep yourself in check during scenes like those?
That’s a whole lifetime technique I’ve developed. I don’t know how I do it, but that’s how I want to do it. That’s what I do. The camera doesn’t want much. What you do need in cinema acting is alot going on inside, which will come out through the eyes and into the eyes of the audience. I’ve always been fascinated by that.
The plot synopsis might lead one to think that this is merely a domestic drama, but the film has as much tension as a thriller, including in its final scene. Do you feel that level of intensity in the moment of the performance, or are you surprised at it when you see the finished film?
No, you feel it, but just through small moments, since of course you’re only filming a small portion at a time. The final scene was haunting to perform. We did it several times, because it’s one long take, and when you start to do something over and over, that’s where the technique of being a cinema actor comes in, because you have to keep that tension and that emotion up. It’s really exhausting.
You have worked with some of the world’s greatest filmmakers: François Ozon, Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Luchino Visconti, Lars von Trier. Is there any director working today that you haven’t worked with whom you’d like to?
Well, there’s a lot of talent out there.
But if you had to pick one…
David O. Russell. I doubt I could keep up with his pace, but you never know.
Among those you have worked with, you’ve credited Ozon for rekindling your enthusiasm towards acting. If he hadn’t come along, what do you think you’d be doing today?
Well, I’d probably be dead. Because you can’t stop what you’re good at. You can have moments where you don’t want to work at all, but you’ve got to cure yourself and come back. Metaphorically speaking, may I say.
Is there any role in your career that you had a chance to play but passed on, and that you now regret?
I’m not going to talk about those sort of thing. Are you crazy? I mean, the things I didn’t do, I didn’t do. What sort of a question is that?
Well, I certainly didn’t mean to pry. How about the reverse? Are there performances you’ve given that you would especially want to draw people’s attention to?
Yeah, probably, but it doesn’t really matter. If people want to know what I’ve done, they can look it up on the Internet. There are probably about ten films that I think I’m worthy of, that are okay but not great. But to have done ten good things in a lifetime, I would say, is pretty good.
(“45 Years” opens on Friday, Jan. 29, at the Living Room Theatres.)