The Lenny Interview: Charlotte Rampling

The celebrated actress and fashion icon talks feminism, film, and her fondness for Sylvia Plath.

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My Charlotte Rampling obsession was inherited along the matrilineal line. From the moment she appeared on the scene in Georgy Girl, as the glamorous and louche roommate Meredith, my mother was obsessed. At the time, my mom was 17 and living in the suburbs: what was she to make of this doe-eyed ingénue with the bite of an old Frenchman and the style of a true weirdo? When I let my mother know I would be meeting Ms. Rampling, she gasped and I could distinctly hear the adolescent in her leaving the movie theater, awe-struck. "It's impossible to understand what she meant to us," she said.

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"Us" now means my mother and me, as my film education has taken me through Rampling's work in English, French, and German. She has made a career for herself playing complex, sexually experimental, and fully realized women. Her commitment to showing the thorniness of human interaction is unparalleled, and the bravery and audacity of her talent — whether as a concentration-camp survivor locked in a lusty power play in The Night Porter or as a woman seeking satisfaction through sexual tourism in Heading South — is evident in every choice she makes.

In her latest film, Andrew Haigh's bleakly romantic 45 Years, 69-year-old Rampling plays a woman whose decades-long marriage is unseated by new information about her seemingly fragile husband's past. As Kate, Rampling cuts a stoic yet youthful figure (in fact, I complimented her choice to dress her character in skinny jeans, one I was sure she was responsible for) as she tries to understand if it's ever too late for a change of course.

I met Rampling in the lobby of the Soho Grand hotel, where she was in the middle of an exhaustive (and exhausting) press cycle. She wore just what you'd want a Charlotte Rampling to wear: a smart blazer, a white shirt, black pants, and flats whose shape evoked neither ballerina nor hippie gardener. She talked just like you'd hope a Charlotte Rampling would, exclaiming "How clever!" when the waiter presented honey for her soy latte. And she faced the below questions with a mix of elegant guardedness and arresting candor; she was generous yet self-possessed, exposed but shy. Not just one thing but many all at once, like a lesson in how any great role for a woman should be written.

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Lena Dunham: I'm so excited, I've come up with a bunch of nerdy questions. And you don't have to answer any of them. I have to say that getting dressed for you was the most I've thought about getting dressed in a long time, just because you are so iconic fashion-wise to the women who work at Lenny. I was texting them, saying, "OK, I'm going with the turtleneck, and I'm going to just hope it all works out." But you look as chic as I would have imagined.

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Charlotte Rampling: [Assuming a French accent.] It's nothing, my dear. We just throw it on.

LD: Truly, the movie, 45 Years, is so beautiful. I loved it. It has beautiful things to say about aging but also just as many beautiful things to say about relationships and what it means to be authentic in a relationship. What was it that drew you to the part?

CR: All that. I thought there hadn't been a more interesting observation of a relationship, or I hadn't read one, really since I don't know when. These little jewels come up and sort of land on your table once every 20 years or something.

LD: I was going to ask you about this tremendous dialogue that's happening about women in Hollywood and how women are engaging and being engaged in the film industry. Is that something that you've thought about or worried about in your career?

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CR: Not at all, no. It's never sort of … I mean, I can see that in certain areas it exists. And I was brought up in the age of one of the stages of feminism, and a lot of things needed to be done. Certainly, women needed to be put in better places.

LD: Have you felt the challenge of finding roles that so many American actresses talk about? Because you have played such an incredible diversity of roles, such an incredible diversity of women. Have you ever felt like there was a lack of material coming your way that was exciting to you? Was being trilingual and working in all these different countries helpful?

CR: Yeah, I think that's helpful. I think also if you're on a quest, it's helpful. I was on a quest to find these roles. I was on a quest to seek them out. I wanted to work in Europe, I wanted to work in different countries. I wanted to work in different languages. America was not … I mean, I'm not American, I knew a lot of very good American actresses, so it wasn't really my field.

I didn't want to play in that game because I felt that my needs were more European. Needs being these complex roles about human beings, psychological roles. In retrospect, you can see what I've done. When I was doing it, I was on a road less traveled. I was marginal.

Now it's become what it's become, but during the time, it was like, what are you doing? What are these films? Are they commercial? Are they going to make money? For me, it was a kind of apprenticeship. I wasn't in the business to be a big celebrity star. It was before that. But now everyone wants to be a celebrity. Now I'm actually eking into the celebrity.

LD: Were there moments where you made choices in your career that the people around you or the people managing you thought, Why the hell are you doing this when you could be playing a Bond girl or something …?

CR: Oh, yeah, completely.

LD: Turning to a different topic, I read a quote from you saying, "There are so many misunderstandings in this life. I once caused a scandal by saying I lived with two men, but we were just sharing a flat." And I wondered, not to be salacious, but because I've dealt with some gossip in my day …

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CR: Oh, you have.

LD: And I wondered how you've dealt with that as a public figure and what it's meant to you as a person who seems to be essentially quite private. Probably I just need help, so I'm asking you.

CR: Well, you've been very out there, right? More, in a way, than I have. But in a sense, people are very out there who are also very private people, and they can also have their way of being out there and their way of being really private. So I was out there saying, "I love these two men. I don't know which one I want to marry." That's all I said. Then the whole thing was made into a ménage à trois, whether it was or wasn't. It really couldn't matter, but it did so matter then that they made it into a big thing.

LD: Nowadays, it would be a very chic thing for you to do.

CR: Well, it was chic then.

LD: [Laughs.]

CR: But they didn't take it chic. The British don't take those sorts of things chic. If we'd been French — It's so cool, everybody, at least two, please, you know? But the English and the Americans, oh my God. A bit of shame there.

LD: You were a woman who was taking on these incredibly sexually complicated roles. Whether it's The Night Porter or whether it's Heading South, you've never shied away from parts that are really exploring not just the "pretty side" of female sexuality. I wondered, on the one hand, what gave you the sort of strength to do that? Then, on the other hand, whether you felt like it had exposed you in a way that was uncomfortable to you?

CR: The exposure was not a worry. A little bit afterward, but not when I would say, "Yes, this is the next one I'll do," and I go and do it. And even then, the uncomfortableness, that doesn't matter if it's working, and I think any form of creativity is uncomfortable. It's not a happy, happy thing to do. You are really going in there, and you're really turning things over.

LD: Sometimes you feel sick after a day of work, and that's the way you're supposed to feel.

CR: And that's the way you're supposed to feel, and then the next day you get up and say, "Well, I did get through that day, so I'm going to get through another one," and you do it. I would not be who I am, be where I am, without those ladies [I played] and without those films. That's what I needed. I didn't know why. You don't have to keep asking yourself Why do I do this and make these theories. You may do it as you come through and you look back on your life, and you can see that there was a coherence there.

LD: If I were going to write a thesis on you, I would argue that your career creates a political statement about women and sexuality. Were you ever thinking about it in those terms as it was happening, or can you think about it in those terms now?

CR: Never. All I thought about was how to get deeper and deeper into the woman's psyche. People, men or women, who are writing stories and wanting to try and put this on a screen, and I was there, I was the one I wanted them to come to, and from time to time they did. Why I wanted it, I have no idea.

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LD: Again, this is just me trying to suck all your knowledge from you: you've worked with all these incredible male costars … have you been able to feed off them? Have you ever had a sort of antagonism with a male figure on set? What has that dynamic been like for you? Because, historically, I find it very complicated to do sex scenes. And it's complicated because I'm in it and I want to be doing it, but on the other hand I would want to be doing anything else because it's so exposing and confusing. I wondered how you would speak about that dynamic?

CR: I've had no problem with that until it gets to sex. And the sex just … it's very strange because you say that I've had such a particular … what did you say?

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LD: I said that you've been a particular lens on female sexuality and that your work alone could serve as a timeline to understand the evolution of how we've looked at female sexuality in the 20th and 21st centuries.

CR: Right, so if I follow on right there, I absolutely agree with that. But when I come up to the moment when I'm actually on screen and have to do it and it goes completely ape-shit. It's completely … it's raw, it's awful, it's … there's nothing that you can do with it but shut your eyes and just hope you get on with it mechanically and it will work itself out, and then you can go on to the next scene.

LD: Yeah.

CR: But it's abysmal. And I'm only saying that because you're saying it.

LD: I'm so grateful to hear you say it. My body never wants to do it. Even if I've written it. Even if I've blocked it.

You have a very active fan site, and that site is where I learned that you have done staged performances of the work of Sylvia Plath. What inspired you to take her on? She's my favorite poet.

CR: Well, she would have been one of my mates. Whether we'd have been friends or what, I don't know. But she'd be one of the women that I'd … I would have walked along the road with. It would have been really powerful to have just been in her presence. She is … she's one of us. She's one of the people on my road. That particular type of woman. And she was a huge voice for young women at that time. Whether she is today still, I don't know, but I certainly wanted to bring her out and into the open.

LD: Do you remember when you first read her poetry?

CR: Oooh, yes. I was pretty frightened about it actually. I just sort of ran away from it for a bit, but then I came back quite a few days later.

LD: Something I admire about you, besides your body of work, of course, is you've spoken publicly about mental illness and about the challenges of a life lived with that as a shadow. And I wonder if that was something that attracted you to Plath's work or repelled you from her work?

CR: All of that, because it's all in there and she's talked about it all. About trying to commit suicide three times and ending up doing it.

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LD: Was that a hard choice that you made, to talk publicly about those things? Because here in America, there's historically so much stigma around mental health.

CR: Still is, isn't there? And that's interesting because I came out, as they say, with that. I decided I did not want to hold it back anymore. I said, they've got to know why I'm either not available, not around, don't want to speak, don't want to, you know … that I'm … I just … it was Elle magazine, I remember, French Elle magazine. I did a long interview with them in which I absolutely checked every single word because it had to be absolutely right. Words are so important … so from then on, it just opened up. I know if somebody read that article and was in a depression like I was in, they would have been so glad to read it.

LD: Did you have reactions from people who read it?

CR: [Nods.] But much less then because we didn't have social media then. I'm talking 25 years ago maybe?

LD: Have you found work to be helpful? Because I've been open about dealing with mental-health issues, and for me one of the biggest salves is work. And I wondered if that had been the case for you, by engaging with these characters, if there had been some therapeutic element?

CR: I hope I can say that. Because I really am well now, I really am for a long time now.

LD: You look very well.

CR: I'm very stable and sort of just in my skin. We have an expression in French which is: you feel well in your skin.

LD: Speaking of feeling well in your skin, you look incredibly chic today, but is fashion something you care about in your day-to-day life? What's your approach?

CR: I know what suits me, and I just know what designers I like. Yohji Yamamoto is one. I usually have his jackets, trousers, shirts. I just like that sort of thing. Flat shoes. I like the kind of androgynous feel. That's what I feel best in. I can look good in a dress. Sometimes I wear a dress with high heels … ugh.

LD: How do you find heels?

CR: OK. I'm very good in them. I walk well in them. Even the very high ones.

LD: I'm so impressed. I walk like the crippled baby giraffe. I can't do it at all.

CR: Well, actually, they are crippling ladies. Ladies must realize that men are trying to cripple them. Talk about women want to be equal to men, and then they're on those little high heels.

LD: It's true. And if the apocalypse came, none of us would be able to get away.

CR: [Laughs.]

LD: And the men would be running off. You convey this incredible confidence that I can tell is very hard-won. Our readers at Lenny tend to be women who are in their early 20s asking, Who am I in the world? And I wondered if you ever had that classic early-20s moment or late-teens moment of having no idea of what your function was?

CR: We all do, and we all have it actually for quite a long time. And there's no real remedy to it except: try and hold on to what your little voice is telling you inside from time to time. Just have a little listen when all the other people say neee-neeee-neeee-neee. Just get back to that.

LD: OK, this is the cheesiest question but also the most important, which is, what might you have wanted the opportunity to tell to your younger self? To, say, the Charlotte Rampling that existed in her teens or 20s?

CR: There's one thing. Don't make it so hard for yourself. Stop bashing yourself up. Don't make it so hard for yourself. You don't deserve it, and nobody deserves it. You wouldn't do that to anybody, so stop doing it to yourself.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

Lena Dunham speaks only one language.

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