For her astonishing turn in Andrew Haigh’s 45 Years, Charlotte Rampling, an indomitable force in cinema for decades, is garnering some of the greatest reviews of her career. As a woman who’s created a very stable and comfortable life with her husband (played by Tom Courtney), only to see it unravel when a letter arrives with some news from his past, Rampling projects such intelligence and fearlessness that viewers are at once drawn to and wary of her gaze—a unique pull that partially explains why she was branded an “icon of desire” in Angelina Maccarone’s 2011 documentary Charlotte Rampling: The Look. The actress cuts to the bone of her character’s dilemma through haunting layers of steeliness and vulnerability. In person, she may seem a bit like Kate, able to communicate her opinions with as little as a glance. And while this coolness is certainly part of her allure, she’s careful to point out that, unlike her character, marking milestones “isn’t my style.”
What observations do you have about marriage?
I can’t say that I’ve ever had a relationship like the couple in 45 Years. The kind of marriage Kate and Geoff have is a very fusional marriage—because they don’t have children. If you have children, it’s different; that tends to bring other dynamics in, which Kate and Geoff haven’t had. You would think with a relationship like they have that they would more or less tell everything. Geoff more or less has told her everything.
Do you think that partners should share everything about their lives?
When do you tell [a partner] something? You sort of don’t in the end. It’s one of those things that if you don’t tell someone right at the time, then there’s never a good time to tell them. We’ve all had that thought: “Would it be bad thing?” Not really, but it won’t actually be a good thing. So it’s preferable not to say it. All of that is quite justified and understandable. What makes it difficult for Kate is his reaction to things. Their relationship, until this week, was okay. Their lives, and ours, are triggered by external events that reawaken things. This is where the haunting starts. It’s way back, before they met.
How did you decide to play Kate and her slow burn?
We shot the film in sequence, so it was just living through each situation. It wasn’t difficult. The moments reveal themselves, and Kate reacts accordingly. You can only react in a certain way when things like this happen. You’re bemused, and you try to hide the fact that you’re disturbed by it, because you are disturbed by it, and you try to understand why you’re disturbed by it. It’s like bringing up things that you didn’t expect to have to deal with. You’re going into a transformation, and changing because there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re propelled into another way of being for a while. We leave the film when Kate is actually in that state completely.
There are marvelous scenes where viewers know exactly what she’s thinking even though she’s saying nothing. What can you say about calibrating her emotions so that they’re so palpable?
I’m in the business of make-believe. I can make people feel what I’m feeling. It’s about really being in the moment and living in that moment. Not acting it, but just living it. I’ve always found that fascinating in film, because if you do that, the audience will come with you. There actually is a real feeling, and I was feeling that.
Kate seems to be another in your gallery of characters who doesn’t seem to suffer fools gladly. She’s tough toward the anniversary’s event planner, and at times she’s tough toward her husband. What is the appeal of playing these kinds of characters?
What I bring to a character has a lot to do with a certain blueprint of who I am. I know that I can, with the flick of a thumb, turn from somebody being extremely nice and friendly into somebody quite chilling. I can do that. I refrain from doing it too much because people shouldn’t always see that side of me.
What’s the cause of that? Is it contempt for people?
It’s not contempt for people. It’s an inner state—a form of inner dialogue. It doesn’t have much to do with the outside world. It’s about you. I don’t have a problem with people. People are people. You like some and don’t necessarily like others. It’s not that. It’s a problem of my own inner language.
Your talent has always been to convey the strengths and vulnerabilities of the characters you play in a way that wrings real emotion. Can you speak to that aspect of your craft?
I think there’s an authenticity about it. I do feel I am who I am. And that’s how it has to be. And I’m not going to pay homage to society’s demands to be correct, or to be this or to be that. My behavior with people is always courteous, and I respect people. The one thing that my father always said about people is whoever they are, you respect them. I really do that. But apart from that, the fire of one’s own imagination, and originality, and authenticity is, for me, very precious. You know what you’re getting, and you can’t really mess with it. You can engage, but you can’t mess. If you mess, you know you’re going to get slapped somewhere. [laughs]
Kate doesn’t like theoretical questions. She doesn’t want to play “What If?” And yet, she does in a scene where she asks Geoff a particular question. What are your observations about reflecting back on life? Is it purposeful?
You can reminisce a bit, but I don’t like to go back too much, I must say. And I don’t like to play “What If?” at all. That is a game I absolutely don’t want to play. Kate plays it, but I wouldn’t have played it. But she needed to know. If you need to know something, you’ve got to ask. But you have to be prepared for the response. Actually, there was a line in that scene where she says, “Thank you for being so honest,” but it was taken out.
What are your thoughts on aging, which is something the characters in 45 Years confront, but you also spoke about in The Look? Is there a different mindset playing a character like this?
She’s led a very different life than me. She lives in this one place in the country. She’s a teacher of children. But if you accept to play a part, you’re going to put your spirit into that person. Then you can change and develop and add things and take away. But every character I ever play is going to have my spirit.
Do you look for roles like that?
There are a lot of choices in that, but they’re always going to have something, a form, or the same sort of spirit I have. Otherwise, it’s not going to interest me, unfortunately. I’m not that kind of ac-tor. I don’t want to play a downtrodden housewife in Mississippi. [laughs]
Kate seems to do most of the work with the party. Are you organized, a planner?
No, I’m not a planner. I like other people to do all that. I’m a dumper. I dump all that. There’s a sense of organization in that. You have to tell the person what to do!
Music is very important in the film. It is associated with history and memory. Kate is responsible for selecting the soundtrack for the party. What does music and memories mean to you?
Music and memory is huge. Music is very much connected when you’re young. It’s really ingrained. All that would have a real resonance, which is why you’re thinking that. Perfume and smell is the most important sense memory, but the next one is music, I think. They say that falling in love you actually fall in love with the smell of someone.
What music has the most meaning for you?
I listened to all the music of the ‘60s and ‘70s that everyone listened to: the Beatles, the Stones, Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, the Who, and all the singers of the ‘70s, the Monkees, and the Animals.
Does making a drama like 45 Years drain you, given Kate’s emotional arc?
No, no. Andrew doesn’t play scenes over and over again. In a lot of scenes, Tom and I are both in the frame, so you do a whole scene in one shot and you do two or three takes like that, so you don’t have to go back and do the close-ups, or get different angles. So you’re quite fresh because you’re not repeating endlessly the same scene. Because when you repeat endlessly the same scene and in so many different angles, then two hours are gone, hammering the scene to death. That’s tiring. It’s not that you just do things once and it’s magic, but you have to make it seem like it’s been done once and it’s magic.
Do you think the characters respond appropriately or overreacted?
I don’t think you could ever say that about any reaction—that they overreacted. You react how you react, unless you’re faking it, or pretending. But if not, that’s actually what you’re feeling. You are knocked over by it.
Is your film prompting viewers to determine how they would react in a similar situation of someone dropping a bombshell in a relationship?
I’m sure it will. People are thinking that they have a secret life, or a secret life that I have before that we haven’t really talked about as a couple. Well, I’d keep it secret. I really would. You bring it up, and you could open a can of worms. You don’t know how the person is going to react. That’s what the story is actually about. You don’t know. You might think, “Why are they reacting like this?” But it’s too late, because it’s out. That damage is done. So you’re really going to play a dangerous game. So maybe you should just wait for the letter to come through the door. Then you open it and think, “Oh my God! Here we go!” [laughs] Or you hide it. He didn’t hide it. He read it. Innocently. Then he got the gut effect. So…keep your secrets.