Watching Charlotte Rampling having her photograph taken in the basement of a Fitzrovia hotel, my heart starts to sink. It’s not that she’s stroppy or stuck-up. It’s just that when she gazes directly at the camera with her arms crossed across her chest, the temperature in the room seems to plummet by about 10 degrees.
Dressed all in black now, she makes her way between the tables. At 67, she looks extraordinary – she’s spoken in the past of her refusal to have plastic surgery. In France, where she’s lived for 30 years, they call her simply La Légende, and it’s easy to see why. There’s an elegance and imperiousness about everything she does. It’s plain, too, that she’s one of those rare people who carry their own space with them, holding the world – and everyone in it – at arm’s length.
As I’m watching her new film, an adaptation of John Banville’s Man Booker winner, The Sea, I keep thinking about this. The film switches back and forth between the present-day life of its main character – spent mainly in an alcoholic haze – and a seaside holiday he had as a child. The man’s childhood self is both lonely and alienated, and I wondered if his sense of not belonging echoed Rampling’s own upbringing.
“Whenever I do a film I always need to feel a soul connection with it,” she says in her clipped contralto. “There has to be something in the script that speaks to me. With this, I found a lot of things. That sense of being on the outside for one. And particularly the idea of loss, of someone disappearing at quite a young age. But then loss seems to colour a lot of my life,” she adds.
It’s not just loss that has coloured Rampling’s life, it turns out. So too has a sense of needing to keep moving, of not being stuck in the same place – or with the same person – for too long. She thinks this must also date back to her childhood.
“Actually, quite a lot of actors are from military backgrounds because you’ve got that gipsy in you and you can’t rely on anywhere being permanent. Throughout my life I’ve always wanted to be comfortably settled at home, but somehow I know I can’t be. As soon as I have a comfy home with dogs and cats and someone to be with, I have to leave it. I don’t really want to, but I still do. I can’t help myself.”
She pauses and stares into the middle-distance, frowning. “It’s very difficult to describe. It’s just that something becomes unbearable. There’s a restlessness which you either have or you don’t. That’s why I’ve kept doing cinema in a way. It’s enabled me to keep moving.”
Almost from the word go, Rampling was different. “I remember my father saying to me once, ‘I finally know how to describe you, Charlotte. You’re prickly.’ And he was right – prickly is a very good description. If I had to be an animal, I’d probably be a porcupine.”
She’s always seemed like someone who attached an unusually high premium to self-possession, I say.
“What do you mean by self-possession? Detached, watchful, hard to get close to … yes,” she says, ticking them off on her fingers. “All of those are true. I think that came about because I realised early on that I knew nothing about anything. I knew that I was alive and reasonable looking, but that was it. And so I thought, ‘I’m going to sit and wait and eventually the answers will come to me.’ It was a very strange feeling. Again it was like being on the outside the whole time. Always on the outside.”
At the same time she felt sure that she was cut out for something big in life. “I thought it might take a long time, but I knew I was going to be somebody. Somebody who did something that was worthwhile. Not run-of-the-mill stuff.”
As a teenager, was she confident with boys?
She had a sense of her own allure?
“Absolutely,” she says briskly. “That was never a problem.”
Rampling as a girl
In fact, her big break was not long in coming. At 17 she was spotted on the street and chosen to be in a Cadbury’s commercial. Then she was asked to audition for a film called Rotten to the Core. Rampling went along to the audition, but when the casting director called her in for a screen test, she was nowhere to be found. She was eventually discovered in a dressing-room, asleep. Wasn’t that weird – to be quite so laid-back about the whole thing? She shrugs.
“I was incredibly fatalistic. I just thought, ‘If it works, it works.’ But I’ve always been like that. I’ve never been easily impressed and I’ve never thought I didn’t deserve something. If I got it, then I deserved it.”
When she first heard herself on screen, Rampling was so appalled – “There was this awful squeak whenever I opened my mouth” – that she shut herself away in her bedroom and practised lowering her voice. “I knew I had a little bit of talent and I looked OK on screen. That was it, though. I wasn’t remotely ambitious, but somehow I knew I had to keep going.”
Soon she was famous, whizzing around Chelsea in the 1960s in her Mini Cooper. For a while she lived in a ménage à trois with Bryan Southcombe, her first husband, and a male model, or so it was reported. Now, she says it was much less racy – more of a flatshare than anything.
“I think the happiest time of my life was when I was in my late teens. I was a little bit of an it-girl. Making myself seen. And it was a wonderful time to be young.”
But then everything changed. When she was 20, her sister Sarah died. At first Rampling understood that she’d died of a brain haemorrhage in Buenos Aires. It was only later that she learnt that she had shot herself.
“We had always been very close. I think she was more conventional than me. She didn’t have my wildness or my strength. I know I have great inner strength, I always have. I can blank things out, cut people out, and I know that I can go and live in a cave on my own if necessary.”
Following her sister’s death, that’s exactly what she did.
“I suddenly had this vision that I needed to be in a cave in Lanzarote. I have no idea why it should have been Lanzarote – I’d never been there. I spent 10 days in the dark with this weird lunar landscape all around. It was just what I needed to do.”
At her father’s insistence, they kept the real cause of Sarah’s death secret. And it stayed that way for more than 20 years. As an actress there has always been something mysterious, something closed-off about Rampling, and I wonder whether this had anything to do with keeping the secret of her sister’s death for so long. “You mean, as if I don’t want to reveal something? Mmm, I think I do have that quality, but I can’t tell if there’s any connection or not.”
After a spell in Hollywood – “I was very destabilised by it; I found the place very hard to take” – Rampling headed back to Europe to work with directors she admired. She starred in Nagisa Oshima’s Max mon Amour, in which she fell in love with a chimpanzee, and in Liliana Cavani’s The Night Porter – where she notoriously played a concentration-camp survivor who has an affair with her former guard.
Rampling's iconic shot from The Night PorterIf something was edgy, weird and difficult, the chances were that Rampling would be up for it. “I made up my mind early on that I wasn’t going to do any old c---,” she says. “I had a pretty clear idea of the sort of film I wanted to make. It had to be morally just. It had to fit into my vision of what I thought a human being was, and it had to serve a purpose. That was what made the whole thing worthwhile for me.”
In 1974 she was asked to pose nude for Playboy. “I didn’t want to do it, but for reasons I won’t bore you with I did – but I said that I had to work with a number-one photographer.” The photographer turned out to be Helmut Newton, and it marked the start of a close and fruitful partnership. Newton succeeded in doing something that might reasonably have been thought impossible – making Rampling look even harder and steelier than she does in real life.
“That’s when I realised the iconic power that photography can have. I remember looking at his pictures and thinking, ‘Yes, this is how I want to be seen.’”
Rampling photographed by Helmut Newton
Four years ago, aged 63, Rampling again posed naked – this time for the photographer Juergen Teller. He shot her and the model Raquel Zimmermann next to The Mona Lisa: three enigmatic women side by side. “I find being photographed a strange process, but not unpleasurable. When a camera lens is scrutinising you, you go into battle with it. Or not necessarily into battle; you’re in a relationship, and that can be very interesting.”
Although she never stops working for long, this has more to do with wanting to keep moving than with any overwhelming urge to act. “If I don’t act it’s fine,” she says. “I mean, I’ve got me. I’ve never been one of those actors who feels a great need to fill myself up with someone else’s character.”
Rampling photographed by TellerBut for an eternal nomad she hasn’t done badly in terms of constancy. She was married to Jean Michel Jarre for nearly 20 years – they had a son together and she also has an older son from her first marriage. Currently, she’s engaged to a French communications tycoon called Jean-Noël Tassez. How long has she been engaged for? She gives a sheepish grin. “It must be about 15 years now.”
Does she think she’ll ever get married? Another shrug. “What’s the point?”
And then it’s time to go. She extends a hand on the end of what seems like a very long arm. Her handshake turns out to be a lot like her – firm and cool, but with rather more give than you might expect.