It seems silly to try to describe film star Charlotte Rampling once you’ve spoken to her—as if a fleeting conversation could even begin to answer the questions that she’s spent a lifetime exploring through cinema. Her journey from international It Girl of the 1960s to the present has had many detours and unexpected passages, but the search at the heart of her work has remained the same: How well can you ever know someone, and how well can you even know yourself?
Rampling has been described for decades now as a kind of unknowable goddess, a Valkyrie in the true Norse sense, but the majesty that other people see in her has never been her reason for pursuing a career onscreen.
“It doesn’t relate and I’ve made sure that it doesn’t relate, because there’s nothing you can gain from that,” says Rampling, shrugging off my question about how public perception might have influenced the person she’s become. “You’d just dive into the pool of sort of strange, egocentric, narcissistic sort of blackout. You can’t have a relationship with what other people think of you. It’s almost blasphemous. People will have their ideas and that’s fine, that’s what it’s about. Because they’re grabbing parts of me that I have no idea that I’m even projecting but they’re deciding that that’s what they like of me.”
Projections have played an important part in Rampling’s work, and they are central to what makes her new film 45 Years so special, as we watch her character Kate become lost in the what-might-have-beens of her own marriage. What is undeniable however—in an interview as in her films—is that to spend time with Charlotte Rampling is to luxuriate in the presence of an active and curious mind. She takes her time answering, sometimes stopping only to start up again, sometimes looping in a later question back to an observation from an earlier moment.
“I’ve always been fascinated by the enigma of who you are, who each person thinks they are, or the work you can do to sort of dig up and find what really makes you tick.”
Questions of identity have never felt more relevant than they do at this particular moment in time. Identity politics have become the motivation for political movements, as feminism, Black Lives Matter, and LGBT rights movements have made us all more aware of our positions within the world we occupy and the privileges that those positions possess. With the rise of social media, we spend our lives in a constant state of self-construction—snapping selfies, sharing Tinder messages with nosy friends, editing Twitter drafts.
Maybe that’s why Rampling’s work feels so vital now. In a world where increasingly there’s a public imperative to know oneself, a look at Rampling’s work realizes the paradox of self-knowledge. Some performers achieve enigma by hiding in characters that have little to do with themselves, but Rampling’s enigma comes not out of an impulse to hide oneself, but from an understanding that there might not be a self to hide.
Speaking of how she’s chosen her projects over the course of her career, Rampling offers, “It’s completely involved in an unconscious form of understanding that your deep person has of the track that you want you to take, so you either make silly choices and you go against that grain or you go with it. I don’t know, I’ve gone with it.”
Where most actors play characters, Rampling plays a version of herself—expanded and molded and refit into the life of another. This technique was especially relevant for 45 Years, as the world crafted by filmmaker Andrew Haigh for Rampling and her costar Tom Courtenay to inhabit was a familiar and modest creation.
“We both brought the personalities that we have into the house, because we were shooting obviously in this one place, so we were able to shoot quite a lot in continuity,” says Rampling. “And we brought our own ideas of who Kate and Geoff were, which was kind of close to who we are. And then you just try to transfer the stories of those two, which is obviously not the same as who we are. But it was all very close to really being.”
The state of “really being” is an elusive quality onscreen, where the apparatus of the camera and the machinations of lights, sets, costumes, and makeup can all conspire to get in the way of a performer’s sense of reality. Rampling, 69, is by now a veteran of this industry, but in her words, the process is the same, even as her experience has changed.
“I’ve always privileged the idea that what we do as actors—we are contained in the space of childhood,” she says. “So if you privilege that space, which is very beautiful when you think of ten, eleven, twelve-year-olds where they have this fantastic freedom and they feel they have the world to conquer and they have the potential to conquer it. They have it all constructed and they have their minds set. So from that energy you then arrive at all these different stages of your life and there’s a sense of giving that innocence to other people.”
Innocence is probably not the word that most people would use to describe the experience of watching Rampling in films like The Night Porter, as a concentration camp survivor who romances a former Nazi SS officer, or Max mon amour, playing a woman who falls head over heels for a chimpanzee, but then Rampling doesn’t seem to be afraid of paradox. She’s got an easy laugh and for as much as our conversation veered towards abstract concepts, just as often she would interject with goofy impressions and gestures wholly incongruous with the cool image she projects onscreen.
But if Rampling is inevitably different from the all-knowing Valkyrie of the public imagination, doesn’t it get wearying, wondering all the time about the nature of your own being? How do you devote your life to exploring the loss of self without in turn losing yourself?
For this at least, Rampling has the answer.
“It becomes a way of life. You’re surfing constantly on life as an illusion; life as an invented form,” she says. “You balance it as well you can, but it’s always that. It’s lovely to be able to go into the illusion too and just leave the reality behind. And it’s great to come back to the reality too. You need both.”