'The Longest Ride' Star Oona Chaplin on Her Family Name, Grandfather Charlie

Michael Tackett
Oona Chaplin in the new film 'The Longest Ride'

"My grandfather was a humanist. That's why he was successful."

For Oona Chaplin it all began with the Tramp. Her grandfather, Charlie, created the character, but it was when she dressed like him with a bowler hat and cane for a high school production of A Midsummer Night's Dream that she first got the acting bug. Of course it might have been dormant inside her for years, a genetic heirloom of her great-grandfather Eugene O'Neill. Or maybe she got it from neither of her illustrious progenitors but from her mother, Geraldine Chaplin, star of such classics as Doctor Zhivago, Nashville and the 1992 biopic Chaplin, where she played her own grandmother.

American audiences got their first look at Oona in a small part in the Bond film Quantum of Solace, but she became more widely known as Talisa Maegyr, a sort of medieval Florence Nightingale on The Game of Thrones. In her latest, the Nicholas Sparks adaptation The Longest Ride, in theaters April 3, Scott Eastwood and Britt Robertson play a bull rider and an art lover, whose romantic arc is mirrored in a subplot involving a refugee from the holocaust (Chaplin) falling in love with a local man played by Jack Huston (grandson of director John Huston).

"When I was graduating from drama school, I had a conversation with one of my teachers who said, 'Look, you'll never be good at period pieces, so you better get good at acting modern,' " Chaplin tells The Hollywood Reporter. "Ever since then, pretty much most of my body of work has been set somehow in the past."

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That could be a product of the Old World charm she exudes onscreen, or it could be that people just associate her family with the past. "My family name is the only one I've ever known," she observes. "It's not just about the talent and skills and the body of work; it's also the intention behind it. My grandfather was a humanist. That's why he was successful. He was trying to reach out to people and to make people laugh and love and cry, feel tenderness and feel OK about being human and feel OK about the human condition and strive toward being better human beings. And that's something that has inspired me."

In 1943, Eugene O'Neill disapproved of his daughter, Oona O'Neill, marrying Charlie Chaplin on the grounds that she was only 18 and her future husband (going on his fourth marriage) was 54, the same age as O'Neill. The irascible playwright disowned his daughter after the marriage, and the two never saw each other again. Oona's first of eight children with Chaplin was Geraldine, who in 1985, named her daughter with longtime companion Chilean cinematographer Patricio Castilla Oona.

Part of the story is covered in Richard Attenborough's biopic on her grandfather starring Robert Downey Jr. "I don't know how much of it was truth or lies exactly, but they captured the essence of my grandfather," says Chaplin about the film. "Robert Downey, Jr. was incredible in the part, and my mother was brilliant. When she starts crumbling the cookies over her face — that moment is forever engrained on my life."

Read more Chaplin: Theater Review

For the time being, her career seems rooted mainly in Europe, where it's always been, but among the dueling mediums of her ancestors, Chaplin can't decide between cinema or stage or something else entirely. "Cinema's gone very stale, and there's not very many interesting original things being done," she says. "Cinema is looking more and more real, and I find that more and more alienating. What theater does is it forces you into a place where you're actually exercising your imagination."

Pausing, she adds, with a hint of her pioneering forebears, "We've got to find a new way to tell a story, find the natural and organic evolution. We have to find something."