'Awards Chatter' Podcast — Charlotte Rampling ('45 Years')

The 69-year-old, who's been acting in films for 50 years, garnered the best reviews of her career — and could land her first Oscar nom — for her portrayal of a woman nearing her 45th anniversary.
Miller Mobley
Charlotte Rampling

"If you really want to have me somewhere, you're gonna have me as I am," says Charlotte Rampling, the British actress famous for doing great work in tricky roles — including one in 45 Years that has garnered her the LA Film Critics Association's best actress award and considerable Oscar buzz — as we sit down to record the 17th episode of the 'Awards Chatter' podcast. "I'm not gonna compromise."

(You can play the full conversation below or download it — and past episodes with Will Smith, Amy Schumer, Eddie Redmayne, Brie Larson, Ridley Scott, Kate Winslet, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel, Ian McKellen, Sarah Silverman, Michael Moore, Benicio Del Toro and others — on iTunes.)

The 69-year-old always has marched to her own beat. Her father sent her to secretarial school to dissuade her from pursuing a career as a cabaret singer, but after completing her courses she entered into acting, at least as fickle a profession. Once she began getting acting work, she began taking courses, but eventually decided to "develop my own style." Just as she began landing major films in England, she up and left for Italy. And, at every opportunity since, she has avoided Hollywood — the place and its commerce-driven style of filmmaking — and yet managed to maintain a career for 50 years.

"The strange, the bizarre, the unusual and the roads less traveled are the ones for me," says Rampling, who, among other out-there tasks, convincingly played a woman in love with a chimpanzee in Max, My Love and operated within the world of Lars von Trier in Melancholia. "I am deeply attracted to them. I like to go counter-current. If everyone's walking down one lane, I want to walk down the other lane. That's just a trait of character."

The independent lane Rampling has traversed hasn't made her a darling of either the Hollywood establishment (she's never received so much as a nomination for an Oscar or Golden Globe) or the public (she's not interested in "entertaining" people onscreen or off), but it has won her the reverence of her peers and the respect of serious critics. It was charted in the wake of the massive exposure she received through 1966's Georgy Girl, when she was suddenly a "name" in England, but still felt out of place ("I had these heavy eyelids and a dramatic face, which didn't really suit the aliveness of the sixties' look") and professionally dissatisfied (she yearned for kitchen-sink dramas like those of the previous era rather than the "dollybird" roles then in vogue).

The final straw, though, came when "in my personal life there was a tragedy," she says — referencing the suicide of her beloved sister, who had suffered from post-partum depression, and the nature of whose death she kept a secret from her mother and the world for decades — "and that was what made the big change and decision happen."

The move turned out to be a happy one for her. "When I went to Italy, something very special happened there for me," she says. She attracted the admiration of Luchino Visconti ("He saw something behind my eyes"), who cast her in 1969's The Damned opposite Dirk Bogarde. Bogarde, with his life partner Tony Forwood, became her champions and support system "at a time in my life when I really needed guidance, and I needed stability, and I needed a protecting, loving feeling around me."

It was Bogarde who revived the term "The Look," which had been used to refer to Lauren Bacall's sexy and scary stare, to refer to Rampling's — "I've always been told there was a certain style and familiarity in the eyes and things between Lauren Bacall and I," she says — and it really stuck. And it was Bogarde who insisted on her being cast opposite him in 1974's The Night Porter, which provided her with a role that is, to this day, as discussed as any she ever has played. (Advertised as "the most controversial film of our time," The Night Porter caused a ruckus — it tells the story about a post-war love affair between a Nazi concentration camp officer and prisoner, and it makes 50 Shades of Grey look tame.)

Rampling would go on to make a few very good films in America — most notably Farewell, My Lovely (1975), with Robert Mitchum, Stardust Memories, with Woody Allen and The Verdict (1982), with Paul Newman — but, after "some very unhappy experiences here" in the late '60s and early '70s, when she "was not a very happy girl," she preferred to be in Europe, where she felt more at home personally (she's lived in Paris for the last 25 years) and professionally. "European cinema tends to go further," she asserts. "They tend to dare to go into more deeply psychological areas ... The commercial considerations really are much smaller ... It's a smaller market."

Over the years, for reasons rumored to be emotional, she has taken a number of hiatuses from the business, but always has come back stronger than ever. One "comeback" came in The Wings of the Dove (1997), which was followed by the beginning of one of the most important professional collaborations of her career, with French filmmaker Francois Ozon. Together, the two have made five films this century, all of which have received varying degrees of acclaim: Under the Sand (2000), Swimming Pool (2002), Heading South (2005), Angel (2007), Young and Beautiful (2013). "It's one of those magical things that you can't quite explain," she says of their working relationship. "It's like falling in love, really."

Rampling may never have done better work, though, than she does in 45 Years, Andrew Haigh's drama that had its world premiere at February's Berlin Film Festival and garnered Silver Bear acting awards for both Rampling and her co-star, two-time Oscar nominee Tom Courtenay (Dr. Zhivago, The Dresser) — a reception that she describes as "awesome." It's a low-key film about a happily married couple who receive some news on the eve of their 45th wedding anniversary — "and then 'boom,' something happens ... and it all shifts," as she puts it.

The actress still marvels at the fact that this film about older people was written for the screen and directed by a man who still isn't even 45 years old himself — and that this filmmaker was wise enough to work with her to choose the actor who would portray her character Kate's husband, Geoff. Courtenay was the first and only actor considered because, Rampling explains: "We both started in the sixties and we've had these parallel lives — we're very similar — so you could actually imagine them [their characters] fusing, imagine them being together all that time. I could imagine ... I knew somehow, instinctively, that I could easily fall in love with this man and think that I could live 45 years with him."

The two spent most of six weeks together, either at the film's one location or at the bed-and-breakfast where they both stayed during the shoot. The film, which was shot in-sequence, plays to one of Rampling's strengths: acting without dialogue. "Have I chosen those roles or have they chosen me?" she wonders aloud. "It's not by chance that I'm doing that. I'm not very good with words, really." But she is great with words unspoken — never more so than in the haunting final scene and shot of 45 Years.

"The last scene was very difficult because I knew that so much depended on that scene," she says of the span of the film that encompasses Geoff's delivery of an emotional toast, a dance and a final look, all captured in single takes that were attempted "quite a few times." Why? Because so much had to be conveyed, mostly through her eyes — a fact that evokes thoughts of the aforementioned "The Look" and the realization that it is not coincidental that a song prominently featured in the film is the old standard "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes."

As Rampling explains of the film's conclusion, "Something's changed dramatically, that's for sure. You never know if you can go back, but you know you have to go forward with it. That's what she has to do, that's what that look is. She [Kate] knows she has to go forward with it, and it's probably the last thing that she would ever want to do, but she has to." And of the way audiences respond to the story? "People are so profoundly taken in by what happens," she says. "A real connection has happened, and a very moving one."

45 Years will be released by IFC Films on Dec. 23. Awards voters are being asked to consider the film for best picture and Rampling for best actress.