Charlotte Rampling has had quite a life: a peripatetic army childhood; a glamorous 1960s It girl existence; devastating family loss; artistic fulfilment; an unmooring experience of deep depression; an Oscar nomination; a couple of husbands; a great love.
The 71-year-old could fill a thousand pages of a memoir; there is plenty to say, lots to reflect on. But, when a journalist acquaintance of hers suggested they work together on a biography, it didn’t take long for Rampling to realise it was a project she had no interest in: “It turned into something I really didn’t want to do. I realised I didn’t want to write a biography or a memoir. I didn’t want my life written about – it didn’t interest me at all!”
Rampling is sitting in front of me in a central London bar. She wears a pinstripe navy blazer, no make-up and an air of sophisticated detachment. She is in town from Paris, where she lives, to promote her first book, Who I Am. It’s a slim little volume that is certainly not a tell-all memoir, but rather a knotty meditation on the devastation that occurs when we conceal the truth. She wrote it (in French; it’s only recently been translated) with an editor and writer called Christophe Bataille and describes the writing of it as an “adventure”: “He said: ‘Look, we won’t have any contracts or discuss money. It will just be between us – it will be a secret.’”
We’re far too politically correct, far too much; you couldn’t possibly make Georgy Girl now. But you could in the 1960s
It’s interesting that she uses that word “secret” to describe the working process, because a secret is at the very heart of Who I Am. After a privileged childhood, Rampling – the daughter of Godfrey, an Olympic medallist and British army officer, and Isabel, a painter – lost her only sibling, Sarah. The two had been close – pictures in Who I Am show them in matching dresses, beautiful little girls on sunny summer days – but, when she was 21, Sarah moved to Argentina, where she married an older man and had a baby boy. In 1966, when she was 23, Sarah shot herself. Godfrey Rampling was only informed after she’d been buried in Argentina and he made Charlotte, then 20, promise never to tell her mother what had happened to her beloved first-born daughter. So from then until Isabel’s death in 2001, Rampling went along with the kind lie that her sister had died of a brain haemorrhage.
Today, when Rampling reflects on the legacy of keeping such a huge, devastating secret, she avoids eye contact and fiddles with her iPhone’s earphones. Looking down at the table, she says: “That secret shadowed a lot of other stuff. We all have these fences around us in a way that we then have to jump out of. It’s when those fences become imprisonments, and when they become confining, that the problem arises and you have to really address them. In my forties, I was in the prison, which is the prison of depression. I could go nowhere. Then you find your way out of it, which is the big adventure of life. You find other ways to be, other ways to hear, other ways to see. And that’s coming out of it – coming out of your depression.” She takes a long pause before bursting into disconcertingly loud laughter.
The year her sister died, Rampling made her first major film, Georgy Girl. She had previously been in advertisements and posed nude, a 1960s model with a haughty, sensuous beauty, but the role of Meredith in Margaret Forster’s film adaptation of her own novel made her a star. She played Meredith with sinewy sex appeal, a taut humour and a desperate vicious anger. Watching that film now, 50 years later, it feels revolutionary, far more daring in its pessimism and its rejection of women’s traditional roles than anything I’ve seen recently. Meredith is promiscuous and has a couple of abortions before deciding to go ahead with one pregnancy, but having given motherhood a shot, she rejects it violently. “I hate it,” she screams, referring to the baby she has recently given birth to.
“When I read it, I thought, ‘This is amazing, how far can she go, this woman, when you think about what she’s saying the baby at the end,’” Rampling says. “You know, ‘Get this fucking baby away from me – who gives a shit?’ The topics that come up, about relationships, about abortion, about motherhood, about friendships, about fidelity – you could say that Meredith is outrageous, or you could say that this is the beginning of the 1960s and this was the beginning of women showing how feminist they can be.”
I wonder why Georgy Girl – which was, Rampling tells me, commercially successful and critically acclaimed – didn’t usher in a wave of other films that dared to portray women as mean and beautiful and sexual and immoral. I don’t think you could make a film like that now, I say. “No, you couldn’t,” Rampling agrees. “We’re far too politically correct, far too much; you couldn’t possibly do that now. But you could in the 1960s.” So, does she think that we sacrifice something in art by being politically correct? “Oh completely! I think everyone could agree with that. It’ll ease up, but now we feel we have to be so careful.”
Last year, Rampling found herself front-page news after she suggested that the diversity row engulfing the 2016 Oscars could be seen as “racist towards white people”. It was arguably a very careless – and offensive – thing to say and it taught Rampling a lesson about how quotes travel in a social-media age. She worries that it means we are policing our thoughts, language, humour: “We’re in danger of controlling ourselves and everything we say, to make sure that we’re not going to do something that is going to go viral. And we’re not even able to have fun or make a joke – because it was almost a bit of a joke what I was saying. But then it backfired.” She adopts a loud mocking voice: “You don’t joke about those things!”
Spending time with Rampling, you get the sense that she doesn’t particularly care about how she comes across – she doesn’t appear to have lost sleep over that Oscars row and she commands a dignified distance, rather than taking a fake-chummy approach to the celebrity/journalist interview. She is articulate and honest and very funny – but she doesn’t seem interested in anything so banal or insipid as likeability. She’s intimidating and I think she knows that. Is that a fair assessment, I ask her. And it brings us back to Georgy Girl. “It’s interesting how things connect up,” she observes. “That character of Meredith was much more [unlikeable] than I am, but if you’re chosen for a character like that, and I really played her… Well, after that, nobody wanted to hire me. They thought I was a horrible ghastly woman – but she was just a character. I was actually terribly upset because I thought that people thought I was horrible because I had this reputation that was nothing to do with me.”
It’s a disheartening notion – this idea that we can’t separate an actress from her character – but one that rings true. And, actually, it might explain why Hollywood wouldn’t make a film like Georgy Girl in 2017 – you could struggle to find an actress brave enough to take the part on. But Rampling has always been bold, from her role in controversial The Night Porter to the nude portraits she has posed for throughout her career. In 1973, she appeared naked in a now famous Helmut Newton photograph and, a quarter of a century later, struck up a working relationship with Juergen Teller, a photographer known for his grungy nude portraits. Today, she says she has never had “any problem” with nudity and posits that “maybe it’s easier for a person who is secret to be nude”.
“Maybe it is actually about being reserved – not being someone who is expansive or out in the world – so nudity is quite a good form of expression for those kind of people,” she says thoughtfully. “But I’ve never had any problem – not that I’ve necessarily enjoyed it, but I’ve thought it’s an interesting form of expression.”
How does it feel though to have all those men lusting after you, I wonder – what does it feel like to be a sex symbol? She looks me in the eye, her head cocked cheekily. “It’s great!” Then she shrugs. “Because I don’t have to do anything about it. I don’t have to have sex with them, nothing – you just turn them on! It’s very refreshing; I’m all clean.” She lets out one of her big laughs.
Being a sex symbol is great. Because I don’t have to do anything about it. I don’t have to have sex with them, nothing, you just turn them on
There has been no let-up in Rampling's career. She stayed working throughout the depression that blighted her forties, and her work with French director François Ozon made her freshly relevant in the early 2000s. This month, she stars in the film adaptation of Julian Barnes’ The Sense Of An Ending and, in 2015, she was nominated for her first Oscar for her role in 45 Years, a quietly brilliant film about the slipperiness of marriage. That was also the year she first published Who I Am in French and lost her partner of 17 years, Jean-Noël Tassez. “It was rather beautiful, the timing,” she says. “He died on the 2nd of October and, on the 3rd of October, the book came out. Oh my God. Then what happened was that 45 Years went to the Oscars, right after that. It was a very powerful year, in all senses.”
She is frank on the subject of working in film after 60. “You’ve got to know that the work will drop off; now, women are looking great in their fifties but, after that, it’s going to drop. You’re not going to be front of stage any more, so you need to really think about that and learn and accept. You must be prepared to take on the fact that you are older. And you don’t want to stay young.” She puts her hand to her face, making the motion of pulling the skin back her face, the symbol we all make for excessive plastic surgery.
Longevity is about wise film choices, too. “I’ve been really lucky – I’ve had some great roles and then I thought, ‘OK, now what do I do?’ So, you say no to the yucky ones, where you’re just being Mum or just being Granny.” She pronounces those words with an exaggerated disgust, before making clear: “I’m a beloved granny, but I don’t want to be a granny on screen.”
Retirement isn’t an option – “Arty-farty types don’t really retire” – and neither is moving back to the UK from Paris. She doesn’t want to talk about Brexit except to say that she was disappointed at the referendum result but “it’s England’s choice” – and she describes herself as an “English European”. “Paris is really my home – I’ve had different men there, I’ve had different families there, one of my men died there… It’s a whole world for me, Paris, and I really love living there, you know. It suits me, it really suits me, so why move?”
Her sons both live in London – she had a son with her first husband, publicist Bryan Southcombe and another with her second husband, composer Jean-Michel Jarre – and towards the end of our meeting, she breaks off to take a call from one of them. “I’m sorry, I really have to answer this,” she says. “It’s his birthday and I haven’t wished him happy birthday yet and it’s the afternoon. I’m a terrible mother.”
I turn the dictaphone off and look at her chat animatedly, her face alive with humour and love, and, my God, I think, she’s just so likeable.
Who I Am is published by Icon Books