Charlotte Rampling’s Best Actress Oscar nomination for her turn in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years marks the first time she has been recognized by the Academy, despite five decades of work on the big screen that includes memorable turns in films like The Damned, The Night Porter and The Verdict. In France, where the actress—who turned 70 earlier this month—spends most of her time, she’s known as “La Légende”, and it’s hard to argue with the AMPAS selection when you consider the stoic, subtle and affecting work she showcases in 45 Years.
Giving her first in-depth interview since her comments on French radio in January sparked a brouhaha around the #OscarsSoWhite protests, Rampling arrives quietly and perhaps a little timidly. Her comments “could have been misinterpreted,” she later told CBS’ Sunday Morning in a statement, adding, “I simply meant to say that in an ideal world, every performance will be given equal opportunities for consideration.”
Rampling, understandably, won’t be drawn further on the subject of race, but as she discusses the film and her Oscar journey, she reflects on her interest in speaking between the lines, the ebb and flow of interesting parts for women and the new generation of Oscar-nominated actresses.
45 Years examines a marriage in crisis, when an ex-lover’s body turns up years later. But the catalyst could have been anything, couldn’t it?
What came up could be anything. It’s that fragile, really. Events can just suddenly happen, which they do in our lives, and we all don’t think about them until they happen. Only then do we start to feel how they can completely confuse us. 45 Years was just this beautifully simple story of a couple that had worked through their relationship. Nobody can do 45 years together without having all sorts of ups and downs, you know, and there they were, at the age they were, still feeling quite young and healthy, and probably both retired in their professions. And then it happens, and it’s like all that unfinished business, that maybe you pushed back into the corners of your heart, when you go along in life and say, “I can’t really deal with this.” Not even consciously, quite often. We just push things away and move on, and keep going, because we have to keep going.
What’s extraordinary is that after 45 years, that barrier never quite comes down. They never quite find that level of honesty with one another.
Perhaps we don’t, or perhaps we go through different phases of understanding, too, as we grow up, and as we grow older; as we gain information for ourselves about life. We’re still in the same relationship, but we’re gaining other information about how we feel about things becoming a bit different, as well. We don’t stay the same. Nobody. Human beings do not. We are constantly evolving, and quite often, we’d like to stop evolving and sort of put lids on things, but it will come and get us, I’m sure. Like this film proves, something happens and you’re completely unready for it.
One mark of great acting is being able to communicate between the lines, with the words that you don’t say, and 45 Years exists between the lines. Is that a challenge to telegraph in your performance?
I think you need to want to do that. You need to feel you can do that. You need, also, to seek out work where you can experiment by doing it, and seeing if it does work, because it’s not necessarily obvious that it will. There’s a relationship between the face of an actor and what you are feeling, which might not necessarily translate through the screen. Even though you’re really feeling the thoughts and the emotions of your character, it might not be coming through in a way that makes sense; that actually resonates. I’ve been really rather fascinated by that side of the acting world. It seemed to suit me better than the more declamatory kind of roles, and I felt rather afraid of those roles for some reason. They didn’t seem to suit me so well.
Is it important to have a great team around you, too?
Completely, and it’s very much from the director’s point of view, also, as to how he wants to be able to catch that. Andrew was quite surprised how much things were reading on my face, and in ten or fifteen chatty scenes, getting to know us, he pulled a lot of lines out because it was reading so much on my face. You didn’t really need it. You didn’t need to have things said to be able to understand.
It results in a quiet, pensive sort of film. We don’t see stories like this get told very often, but I think that’s what people have connected to with 45 Years.
I imagine so, because it did resonate so quickly, from a year ago in Berlin where it was first shown. Immediately, you felt that something was happening—that people actually were really affected. It was really necessary for us to be able to feel that we had something to say, because you don’t know with films like this. It could be a lovely film, but just pass by the actual understanding of what we were trying to say.
Are you always conscious of the way in which an audience will respond to your work?
Very much so, and I think you can’t always get it like that with every film. The part won’t allow it, necessarily, or it doesn’t need it. With this, it was a hundred percent that. It was a beautiful challenge to see whether it really could work in the way we’re talking about, and it did, and it’s been a constant source of happiness, really, every time people talk to me about it. They’ve really had an experience.
Having received your long overdue first Oscar nomination for this film, how have you found the awards trail? You attend so many events with your fellow nominees; has there been a strange kind of sisterhood in spite of the competition?
Yes: once you get the nomination, and you know that there’s only five of you, there is a complete sisterhood. You know that any of the five could get it, and we’re all equally interesting in what we’ve done, otherwise we wouldn’t be nominated, and we all obviously have a huge number of people behind us.
Were you prepared for the nomination? Had you read the tea leaves, so to speak?
Well, it was since Telluride and Toronto, really, that we were getting people saying, “Whoa, something’s going on here.” And then we were watching, watching, watching to see all the different ways these things happen. I didn’t really know how it worked, so I was fascinated to see it. The ripples went across and we were being selected [in Oscar polls]. There were like ten of us—the ones that were maybe going to be nominated—and I was there, and I thought, “Wow, this is just beautiful.” And you really don’t know for sure until you get that call. You only know that you’re in the running, and the bookmakers are giving good odds. And then people fall by the wayside and you keep going. It’s like a marathon race.
You’re up against three actresses who are in their 20s, and one of them—Jennifer Lawrence—has been nominated four times now. What do you think that says about the current generation?
They’re young actresses and they’ve all worked very hard. Brie [Larson] has been at it since she was seven or so. It hasn’t just happened overnight for them. They’re all turning out very mature performances now, because women can mature very quickly. The proof is in the pudding, there. They will actually have very long and beautiful careers, because they will be able to play very young women, but they will also be able to play older women. They have that sort of maturity. When you see Saoirse Ronan, you think, “Jesus, she’s so young,” but her presence is very much not to do with age. When you’re younger, your advantage is that you can play much wider than when you’re older, where you can’t really play much younger.
You’ve worked in this industry now for more than 50 years. The lack of strong female roles in the cinema is a topic that is ever more prevalent. Looking back, do you think there’s been a positive or a negative shift in that regard?
It really depends on the time. It’s been up and down, but if you think about the studio pictures, there were obviously fantastic roles there because they had women—actresses—on contract to the studio, so roles were being written for them. There were wonderful roles in the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, actually. Then it went off a little bit, maybe. It wasn’t quite so protected by those circumstances. We all had to get up and fight a bit for ourselves, because there were no studios doing what they did before. But I think that’s certainly not the case now. This crop now, I would say there have been some great roles for women in the last two or three years, for all ages.
There certainly is still a fight there, though, and Lawrence has spoken out about the gender pay gap in Hollywood.
Today’s younger actresses are even more ready for that fight, because they do have a voice now. They really do have a voice. There’s no reason why they don’t say what they want, and they do.
What are you working on next?
I’ve got a film coming out called The Sense of an Ending with Ritesh Batra, who is an Indian director who did a film called The Lunchbox, which was a wonderful success. He’s done The Sense of an Ending, a Julian Barnes book—a lovely, beautiful, meditative book of Barnes. So I did that, which will be coming out in the next few months, and then I’m going to be doing a Jane Austen film. It’s going to be one that nobody knows because it was the novel that she never finished. It’s called Sanditon, and actually takes you out of the Jane Austen world of the country, towards the seaside. This is about individuals starting to think that they got to start to make business, and the idea is to build a health resort.