WHEN I TAKE ON SOMETHING, I TAKE THE WHOLE THING ON. IT’S NOT EVEN A QUESTION OF SEPARATING, ‘OH, AM I GOING TO BE NAKED?’ I GO WITH MY WHOLE PERSON.CHARLOTTE RAMPLING
At 68, Charlotte Rampling still possesses a chilling beauty. Partly it’s those chiselled cheekbones, rivalled in ferocity by that hooded, penetrating gaze—which Dirk Bogarde, her co-star in The Night Porter, the 1974 cult classic in which she plays a concentration-camp survivor who has an affair with a Third Reich officer, famously called “The Look.” But it’s her imperial, impenetrable presence that is undeniably her greatest weapon. Many iconic directors, from Luchino Visconti (The Damned, 1969) to Woody Allen (Stardust Memories, 1980), have set out to harness her fiercely intelligent sensuality.
An elusive nature is not surprising given Rampling’s formative years. Born in Essex, England, she led a rarefied but peripatetic childhood owing to her army colonel father, attending Jeanne d’Arc Académie pour Jeunes Filles in Fontainebleu, France, and the prestigious St. Hilda’s School in Bushey, England. When she was 17, she was scouted on the streets of London for a Cadbury chocolate commercial, and soon decided to study acting at the Royal Court. In 1978, she hopped the Channel to Paris with her future husband, the electronic musician Jean Michel Jarre (she had previously been wed to Bryan Southcombe, her former press agent, and has a son by each husband). It’s the city she still calls home today. Throughout her career, Rampling has placed herself in formidable European and independent films, as well as some darker studio fare. Her choices tend toward on-the-verge characters that disrupt moral conventions, are highly libidinous, and not always easy to like: a haughty social butterfly who gives up her baby in ’60s London in Georgy Girl (1966), a knife-wielding “Eternal” in John Boorman’s dystopian thriller Zardoz (1974), a mean mom in Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). In The Verdict (1982), she betrays Paul Newman’s underdog lawyer; in Max Mon Amour (1986) she cheats on her bourgeois husband with a chimpanzee; and in Heading South (2005), she perpetrates sexual tourism with a much younger Haitian man.
This gravitation toward turbulent yet ultimately guarded roles to some extent parallels Rampling’s real-life emotional disturbances. Her career waned in the ’80s and ’90s, during which she suffered from severe depression and finally unburdened herself of a tragic secret she and her father had concealed (mainly from her painter mother) for more than two decades: that the death of her elder sister, Sarah, was not due to a brain hemorrhage but suicide. It was auteur François Ozon, against the advice of financiers, who helped revive her career, casting her in Under the Sand (2000) as a grieving wife and then in Swimming Pool (2003) as a mystery novelist obsessed with a coquettish houseguest. Her comeback has since kept up a steady pace. Recently, she appeared as the titular serial killer’s childhood neuropsychiatrist in the final season of Dexter.
Underscoring her enduring legacy, Rampling (sans surgery, she’ll proudly tell you) has become the new face of the cosmetic company Nars. It’s just the latest ode to her status as a fashion icon that includes Helmut Newton’s 1973 portrait of her naked on a dining table in Arles and the notorious visual of her half-dressed in Nazi-style S&M attire in The Night Porter. Over a glass of red Sancerre in Paris, Rampling reflects on and lets loose a few laughs about her 50-plus years of exquisite manipulation.
ZOË WOLFF: You’ve been living in Paris for 30-plus years now. What made you decide to—
CHARLOTTE RAMPLING: Leave London?
WOLFF: Yes. And choose Paris. You moved here in the ’70s.
RAMPLING: I fell in love with a Frenchman [Jean Michel Jarre].
WOLFF: Did you feel immediately at home here?
RAMPLING: Yeah, because I spoke fluent French. I’d had a French education for three years, my father being in the army. From 9 to 12, I went to French school. I’ve been sort of part of the culture, part of the geography, since I was quite young—the imprint was there. And I loved it. I was very happy here when I was a child.
WOLFF: Did it speak to you more than London did?
RAMPLING: I felt very special in Paris, more special than I felt in London. I love London for different reasons. I’ve always been close to London, being English. But somehow there’s something special about living as an Englishwoman in Paris.
WOLFF: Being an outsider.
RAMPLING: You’re not part of it, so you don’t actually belong in the way of having to be responsible for all the things maybe you don’t like about a country.
WOLFF: You’re exempt. You’ve obviously been very well received here. They call you “La légende.”
RAMPLING: Oh, sweet.
WOLFF: When you lived in London in the ’60s, it was such a vibrant, revolutionary place. From what I’ve read, your early career days sound fabulous—driving around town in your Mini Cooper, dating aristocrats and drug dealers. They called you “the Chelsea girl.”
RAMPLING: It sounds great in print.
WOLFF: It sounds fantastic.
RAMPLING: But that’s what it was like. The ’60s in London obviously brought about the explosion of music, the Beatles especially, and then the Rolling Stones and other forms of music, and then fashion and photography and films—kitchen-sink dramas we called them at that time, which was our nouvelle vague in Britain, films that talk about real life.
WOLFF: Being an It girl, were you hanging out in clubs with the Stones?
RAMPLING: Absolutely. Because there were not nearly so many people as there are now. I mean, we could park anywhere. I just dropped the car off anywhere, nobody hassled you. We did what we wanted, we were vaguely rebellious, but nobody really took much notice of us. We could just sort of say, “Fuck off, we don’t want to see you.”
WOLFF: Was there a clique you hung out with?
RAMPLING: Quite a lot of music people. I was friendly with certain members of the Beatles. I was very friendly with Jimi Hendrix because my boyfriend at the time, Tommy Weber, was making a film about him, so I would go to all of his shows.
WOLFF: What was Hendrix like?
RAMPLING: He was wonderful. He was the sweetest person. Gentle, sweet, kind. But terribly, terribly drugged.
WOLFF: As many people were then—and now, too, let’s face it.
RAMPLING: Thank God I did not have any desire to go that way. I saw so many people just really killing themselves.
WOLFF: Do you feel that there was, and continues to be, more resonance for you in Paris, in terms of film? France is so hospitable to cinema, an anti-Hollywood type of cinema.
RAMPLING: Yeah. Cinema d’auteur, cinema about people, about emotions. About la difficulté d’être, the difficulty of being, existential problems. That’s what the nouvelle vague is. The early ’60s was all about that. The Americans criticized this talking without stopping, these long conversations in films. But when I moved to Paris in the ’70s, there wasn’t very much going on in film in England. So when I started doing French films, there was a natural movement toward the kind of films I wanted to do. It wasn’t the reason I came, but it so happened that I stepped into a time and place that actually corresponded to what I wanted. That sometimes happens in life. And it was rather beautiful.
I KNEW THAT WAS A WORLD I COULDN’T SURVIVE IN, THAT HOLLYWOOD WORLD. I MEAN, I DIDN’T CONSCIOUSLY THINK ABOUT IT, BUT I THINK I WANTED TO BE A EUROPEAN. CHARLOTTE RAMPLING
WOLFF: Was there a director or co-star who you most connected to at that time?
RAMPLING: Dirk Bogarde was the first person that I had in the cinema world. He and Visconti.
WOLFF: Did you live in Rome at all?
RAMPLING: I did when I was working [on The Damned, 1969]. I didn’t set up home in Rome, but I was there quite a lot. At that time, I felt I really needed to be part of another, alternative culture—not just English culture. I wanted to be part of Europe. I’d been to Hollywood in 1969, ’70, ’71, but it was pretty rough times, when the whole swinging ’60s was going sour, and with Altamont and Sharon Tate’s murder.
WOLFF: Joan Didion’s book The White Album sums up that time so brilliantly.
RAMPLING: Exactly. And I knew that was a world I couldn’t survive in, that Hollywood world. I didn’t consciously think about it, but I think I wanted to be a European. And when The Damned came through, this incredible marathon film I hardly understood—it was all translated badly—I thought, “Oh, this is really interesting.” I didn’t know much about Visconti. I hadn’t studied European cinema. When I started doing The Damned, I immersed myself in what the cinema—which corresponded to me completely—was about. So then I started to—
WOLFF: Come alive.
RAMPLING: Exactly. And Dirk became my soul mate, and Visconti, but he died not so long afterwards. Dirk was really a soul mate in terms of the business, because we had the same sensitive form of intelligence, let’s say, and the same way of feeling things. And that’s quite rare that you meet people like that.
WOLFF: He was the one who insisted that you do Night Porter.
RAMPLING: He brought me into The Night Porter, yeah.
WOLFF: Which really defined and set the tone and the bar for the performances to come in your career.
RAMPLING: It absolutely did.
WOLFF: When you took that on, did you have a sense of, “God, I’m stepping into something seriously controversial”?
RAMPLING: Strangely enough, no. I had a baby of three months when I read the script. And Dirk said, “I’m sending the script, just read it.” And the only thing I thought was, “Dirk wants me to do this and I know I have to do it.” I didn’t really know what I was getting into. The best things I’ve done are because I’ve been chosen—it’s been that way throughout my career. In fact, I haven’t been able to go out and say to somebody, “Look, would you work with me? I love your work.” It’s not in my makeup and nature. So each time, it’s somebody choosing me. And this, for me, is like a gift. When he gave me this, I just saw the gift. I didn’t see the possible controversy, I didn’t see the possible success. Because I don’t think of it in terms of, Is it going to be a good career move? We didn’t so much then. Well, I say we didn’t, but I don’t know. I never did. It just didn’t suit me to do it. I prefer a more poetic way of being and working and thinking, “Hey, yeah, this is something I have to do.”
WOLFF: Did you feel comfortable with the sadomasochistic relationship and the nudity in the film? Or did you think, “Wow, okay, this is really challenging”?
RAMPLING: When I take on something, I take the whole thing on. It’s not even a question of separating, “Oh, am I going to be naked?” If you know you have to do something in life, for me, I go with my whole person. I’m not going to separate anything. So when I was doing those scenes, I was doing them because the story is about that. So you do it.
WOLFF: Tell me about working with Sean Connery in Zardoz, which you made around the same time. Was he very seductive?
RAMPLING: He is seductive and he wanted to seduce all the pretty girls. [Wolff laughs] That’s for sure. As long as his wife wasn’t there, I think he had a pretty good time with most of them. And that was Sean. You didn’t speak about much else with Sean.
WOLFF: Just women?
RAMPLING: Well, I don’t quite know whether he was incredibly cultured. It was all about seduction.
WOLFF: I’ve read that he was obsessed with you and trying to track you down.
RAMPLING: Oh, who said that? Absolutely. But I was a young married woman with my little baby, and I didn’t think anything of it. You know, I was a well-brought-up English girl. I said, “No, no, no.” [laughs]
WOLFF: And how about Paul Newman, comparatively? He seems like quite a gentleman.
RAMPLING: Yeah. Paul Newman was highly strung, highly sensitive, highly fragile, really. When we worked together on The Verdict, it wasn’t long after the tragedy of his son had happened [Scott Newman died of a drug overdose in 1978], and Joanne [Woodward] was there quite a lot. This film was a difficult one for him and he wanted to do it because it was literally about somebody coming from hell and getting back. I was pleased that Joanne was there because I felt this man needed to be protected.
WOLFF: Obviously he’s acting, but his fragility is very palpable in that film.
RAMPLING: Which is beautiful. That’s why I think he’s so good in The Verdict.
WOLFF: And how about Woody Allen? Your character in Stardust Memories was pretty complicated and manic, but it does feel like a comedic shift in terms of your work.
RAMPLING: Yeah, and it was a moment in Woody’s life when he was really in a good place. He’d just finished his long relationship with Diane [Keaton], and he hadn’t begun his relationship with Mia Farrow. So we had this wonderful, charged, platonic relationship that really worked for the film. And it was really charged because it was comedic. I hear people talking about Woody later on, and they say this, that, and the other, but it was a very special moment for both of us. As films can be, you capture somebody and encapsulate a moment. With Paul Newman, it was that moment. With Woody, it was that moment. And then we move on.
WOLFF: Have you followed the controversy with Woody and his daughter Dylan?
RAMPLING: Has there been more?
WOLFF: No, not since his response to her editorial piece [in The New York Times]. I’m such a devoted fan of Woody Allen. It’s like, what do you do with this information? There’s a sort of Faustian bargain you have with yourself when you support the artist by watching the work. Lars von Trier, who you worked with on Melancholia, which is brilliant, made those horrible Nazi comments.
RAMPLING: He’s just stupid. He says, “I have a really stupid side to me and I get stimulated and then say these stupid things.” It’s all very peculiar. As you say, how do you separate the artist and his work? If you’d had a relationship with someone like I’ve had with Woody, the only way that an individual can actually deal with it, unless you’re going out to crusade, is to maintain that the relationship doesn’t change.
WOLFF: You compartmentalize.
RAMPLING: How else do humans survive if we don’t compartmentalize? So that’s why we have to do that.
WOLFF: A lot of the roles that you’ve chosen push moral boundaries. Is that a requirement for you, that something be incendiary?
RAMPLING: It has to be demanding. It has to demand a lot of me because, if not, I don’t know why I’m doing it.
WOLFF: Certainly with The Night Porter and Max Mon Amour and Heading South, there’s a theme of sexual taboos being played with.
RAMPLING: I think it’s something that I actually carry within me. I carry that power to actually do those things. It’s nothing that I consciously do. I saw that quite early on when I saw films of myself. I didn’t know I had it, but I saw it.
WOLFF: A sexual power?
RAMPLING: A suggestive aggression.
RAMPLING: Withholding that could have the potential of manipulation. And I was, quite, Oh.
WOLFF: You were quite shocked by it?
RAMPLING: I was. But I was interested to have seen it because people would talk about it. And I’d say, “Me?” [Wolff laughs] Because it doesn’t have anything to do with me and my life. So that’s the interesting side of creation, with writing, with painting, with anything. Things come out of you but you have no notion of why or how. And it’s an otherness. Certainly it was manifested in The Night Porter, right at the beginning.
WOLFF: Heading South dealt with this older-woman-younger-man sexual relationship, something that seems to be quite a topic du jour. You see a lot of it in real-life relationships these days. What do you make of the term cougar?
RAMPLING: The character in that film doesn’t attract me at all. She’s one of the characters I’ve played that attracted me the least. But it was fascinating and I said to [director] Laurent Cantet, “Well, I have to do it but I don’t like doing this. I don’t like this kind of woman.” But then he said, “Do you have to like your characters?” I said, “Well, yeah, actually.” Or I have to go somewhere with them and enjoy, but I didn’t enjoy any part of who that character was.
WOLFF: Because the relationship was so exploitative?
RAMPLING: I don’t like what women feel they have to do in that sense.
WOLFF: Meaning acting from a place of desperation?
RAMPLING: I just don’t like it. I don’t wish anybody to be in that place. That’s why that one was difficult. So cougar, to answer your question, is something I’m not mad about. I’m not mad about it because I have no desire to do it. I have no desire to sleep with a younger man. I have two sons—I would think that I’m sleeping with my sons.
WOLFF: Was that role harder for you than, in Melancholia, playing a very cruel mother?
RAMPLING: That was much harder because that cruel mother I can completely identify with. [Wolff laughs] I dare say it. Because she’s actually pushing her daughter to free herself.
WOLFF: There’s a bit of a tough-love thing.
RAMPLING: Cruel, cruel to be kind.
WOLFF: I wondered if François Ozon is the director that you trust the most. I know that making Under the Sand was a very cathartic film for you personally.
HE WANTED TO SEDUCE ALL THE PRETTY GIRLS. THAT’S FOR SURE. AS LONG AS HIS WIFE WASN’T THERE, I THINK HE HAD A PRETTY GOOD TIME WITH MOST OF THEM. AND THAT WAS SEAN [CONNERY]. CHARLOTTE RAMPLING
RAMPLING: It ended up being that. I’d been through a traversé du desert, as they say. And I wasn’t sure that I was even going to come back to making films. I thought, “Second part of my life, I might just do something different.” I didn’t really know what, but I always wanted to write. Working with François was like an autobiographical thing. Literally, he was just filming me … choo choo choo. [makes the sound of a camera rolling]
WOLFF: In terms of your depression?
RAMPLING: Yeah, but also there was something about the relationship I had with François and his camera. Because François is not behind the camera, he’s on the camera.
WOLFF: That’s very different.
RAMPLING: And it became something really interesting because I re-realized my potential as a cinema actor, what I can do with my face and how I can use my emotions and how they can come through on my face. I’d been through many different periods of self-doubt and depression. It was really Under the Sand that cemented my coming back. I said, “Yeah, I’ve still got things to say on screen.”
WOLFF: I want to talk about beauty and aging.
RAMPLING: Yep. Let’s go for that.
WOLFF: You’ve always been regarded for your beauty. I wondered if you feel quite attached to your looks. I know you’re anti plastic surgery, for example, which I really respect.
RAMPLING: The thing is, it was in my forties that I had a long, long time when I was really questioning. And when you come out of those things, you don’t just come out. You’re evolving. Then Francois put me on screen. I was 53 in Under the Sand. You think to yourself, “This is the face that I’ve earned. This is the face that is me now. And if I’m going to carry on in the film business, I’m just going to watch my face grow older. I’m not going to change it in any sense.” I said to myself, “The challenge now, if I want to stay in films, is just to watch your face growing older. That’s got to be damn interesting. That’s got to be quite daring, because you can start to do things …”
WOLFF: Adulterate, sure.
RAMPLING: Yeah. But with all the experience, it seems when you start to do just even a little bit; you just can’t stop.
WOLFF: It’s addictive.
RAMPLING: And then you start to lose yourself. I had enough difficulty finding myself. Because that’s what I was doing in those years—finding some kind of understanding.
WOLFF: You’re still considered a sex symbol. Have you ever felt objectified by that?
RAMPLING: No, I think I really am a European because I’m flattered by it. It’s not a sex symbol in American terms. If you’re a sex symbol in Europe, you’re more admired because there’s an allure rather than, Arr, this woman—
WOLFF: Aging is revered in Europe and in Asian cultures, whereas in America it’s not at all.
RAMPLING: In Asian cultures, absolutely, it’s revered. They’re the wise women, too, and they’re the head of the families.
WOLFF: There seems to be a pleasant shift in terms of fashion and beauty companies looking at women above the age of 30 to represent their brand. The Row chose Lauren Hutton to be its model. Even American Apparel put an older woman in a campaign. How did the Nars campaign you’re doing come about?
RAMPLING: I think because it is more acceptable now? François Nars had always wanted to do something with me. I was quite surprised. I’d never done anything like this. I always thought I would never do it. One of my never-nevers. I didn’t want to brand my name with anything. I was too proud. I wanted to be me. But with François, I’m rather pleased to do that. We made a beautiful picture in black and white—it’s just the kind of picture I like. He photographed it and we worked on it together. We chose it together and it was just, “Yes.”
WOLFF: I love the ads you did with Juergen Teller for Marc Jacobs.
RAMPLING: And that was completely casually done. He said, “Do you want to come and do it?” And I said, “Yeah, but I don’t want to have all the big commercial …” He said, “No, we’re just going to do it. There’s nobody else there.”
WOLFF: “Let’s just get naked at the Crillon and …”
RAMPLING: Yeah, “Let’s just throw our clothes off and see what happens.” [both laugh] And I said, “No, I don’t think I will.” “Well, I will,” he said.
WOLFF: He sure did. He made himself very comfortable on that piano. [Rampling laughs] Of course, that wasn’t the ad picture …
RAMPLING: I know, but it certainly was a picture. It’s also about the fun side of it. I have to make commercial things fun.
WOLFF: You and Juergen were already friends, right?
RAMPLING: We were friends. I had met him through a shoot for Libération. So that trust and confidence comes.
WOLFF: I love that image of you two in bed together.
RAMPLING: When he’s like a baby.
WOLFF: It’s like, “What is this relationship?”
RAMPLING: Yeah, it’s wonderful, isn’t it? He’s in his little drop-boxer shorts, and he’s cradled on my torso.
WOLFF: I instantly thought Pietà. And then I thought, “No, this is post-coital.”
RAMPLING: Right. [laughs]
WOLFF: You and Juergen revisited that moment at the Crillon with William Eggleston.
RAMPLING: One day Juergen called me up. “I’m at the Crillon again. With William,” he said. “Come and join us!” So I joined them.
WOLFF: What’s Eggleston like? I’ve seen that documentary about him. Oh my God.
RAMPLING: He’s an extraordinary kind of personage. He’s wonderful because he’s somewhere else. And then when he starts to drink, he goes very somewhere else. [laughs] But he’s always perfectly dressed-tie and everything. He’s the last of a certain type.
WOLFF: Tell me about Helmut Newton. You were the first nude he ever did?
RAMPLING: I really was, strangely enough. I was doing the first nude I’d ever done for Playboy. It was for Zardoz, and the studio producing the film said, “We have the big spread in Playboy only if Charlotte will do a nude.”
WOLFF: At least Playboy was in its heyday at the time. There was some literature to be had in there.
RAMPLING: Exactly. They wanted a big thing on the film and it wasn’t just nudes. They said they’d gotten this very good fashion photographer, very tasteful and stylish. I was coerced into it. And by being coerced, met Helmut. He’d obviously been thinking about [doing nudes] for quite a while, it wasn’t just me that ignited it. He knew this room in Grand Hôtel Nord-Pinus, and he said, “Look, it’s this incredible room, what about spending an hour and we could just do a few?” And that’s what we did. Me in complete innocence, him in complete innocence—but a magnificent photographer. He said, “Sit on the table, lie on the bed …”
WOLFF: And the most indelible image is born.
RAMPLING: Because they’re done out of the blue.
WOLFF: Not premeditated.
RAMPLING: Completely not. And one thing I like about the time I’ve lived in this world is I happened to be born in an era when things were done like that. We’d talk about them later and think, “Oh, yeah …”
WOLFF: There was no strategy.
RAMPLING: There was no strategy at all. It was just about following your dream.
ZOE WOLFF IS AN EDITOR, WRITER, AND DIGITAL-CONTENT CREATOR BASED IN LONDON.