Oscar-nominated actress Charlotte Rampling talks about growing up in East Anglia
PUBLISHED: 11:47 12 March 2017 | UPDATED: 11:47 12 March 2017
Stepping in to Charlotte Rampling’s duplex in Paris’s 16th arrondissement, I meet not one glamour-puss but two. Joe, a magnificent Red Maine Coon, glides down the stairs as we shake hands. I’m privileged: he rarely greets strangers.
Like Rampling, who looks like a chic version of Kate from 45 Years, which was filmed in Norfolk and earned her a Best Actress Oscar nomination, he has jade eyes and high cheekbones – and knows how to make an entrance.
We follow him through to the high-ceilinged séjour and settle on the Chesterfield. Rampling has been travelling back and forth between Budapest for the filming of Red Sparrow, a thriller featuring Jennifer Lawrence and Jeremy Irons, and Athens, where she’s working on a project for the Venice Biennale. The Sense of An Ending, based on Julian Barnes’ novel, is about to open.
We are talking, though, about her book, Who I Am. Its emphatic title belies its style, which is impressionistic and episodic, vignettes mostly from childhood – happy if somewhat rootless in a peripatetic military family. Rampling was born in her grandmother’s house in Cambridge and lived for two years in Swaffham. She still has family in the region – “My family is from Suffolk, Norfolk – East Anglian counties sort of,” she tells me. “I still have family there, two or three cousins.”
In the book she recollects moving to Swaffham: “Once a small town. The trains go no further, it’s the end of the line – but the country roads push on beyond. Past the rose-entwined gorse hedges that shelter the fields, the long beaches stretch out empty and windswept towards the sea. Brancaster Beach.
“I walk past The Greyhound Inn and I see the huge granite church and, further on, the colonnaded bandstand with a goddess adorning its dome. It is 1950...”
Who I Am is also a chronicle of a death foretold, for at the heart of the book lies the tragedy that’s shaped Rampling’s life, defined her even. At 23, her older sister Sarah, from who’d she been inseparable, shot herself. She was in Argentina, married to a cattle rancher, her premature baby not yet home from hospital.
Both Rampling (in a dream) and her mother (with a fainting fit) suffered a premonition, at almost the exact moment of her death. By the time Charlotte arrived home, her father had decided the news was too terrible to share and told his family that Sarah had suffered a catastrophic brain haemorrhage. The fiction was easier to maintain in the pre-wired world of the 1960s but Rampling found out three years later from her brother-in-law. “I felt quite pleased in a way. I could be with my Dad and we could help each other.” By that time her mother had been felled by a major stroke. “She was so traumatised and shocked that she lost control of all her body… That was a manifestation of grief.”
Bravely, Godfrey Rampling – who’d taken gold in Hitler’s notorious 1936 Olympics – told his surviving daughter to “go out and live your life”. Her star quality had already been spotted: she’d made her screen debut in The Knack and played a lead in Rotten to the Core. “He said I will be there for your mother.” It was to her that her father devoted his life, finding new meaning. “He came to be another person…He came to be able to love, because he said he couldn’t love, that he was boxed inside himself, that he had a heart of stone… because he’d never known love, never had an example of it from his own mother.”
Out in her world, did Rampling wake up daily with a sense of impending doom – of “the tsunami” she knew would one day hit. “No, no, no. I didn’t think about it.” She worked: Georgy Girl made her a star in Swinging London. She hung out with the Beatles and knew Jimi Hendrix (“the sweetest man, so kind, so sensitive, so fragile”) but the druggy scene wasn’t for her. “LSD was “exhausting”, eight hours of “heaving and vomiting. Besides, I had to survive!” she laughs.
By decade’s end, Rampling was in Italy, embarked on a series of films that cemented her reputation, including The Damned and The Night Porter. She came to France at 30, combining movies with motherhood and marriage to Jean-Michel Jarre. In her forties the tsunami finally hit. “I couldn’t cope with having to cope. That’s what depression is. You lose it. Literally. Everything stops.”
For 10 years she kept a low profile, working only with a French TV producer in whom she’d confided. Like anybody who’s been depressed, she encountered incomprehension and fear and lived “a non-life”. Recovery is “a slow, slow process. It’s saying to yourself I will come out of it. Because if you’re not strong enough to say that you’re not going to come out of it.” Fear, she says, makes you courageous.
Following her mother’s death in 2001, the bottled-up tragedy could be shared. Rampling spent more time with her father, talking about “psychology, philosophy, about what we’d been through.” Who I Am, “a walk in the wilderness”, is the ultimate unburdening.
The past 15 years have seen a rebirth. She was a muse to François Ozon, with whom she made four films, and in addition to screen work there’s been TV series such as Broadchurch and Dexter and a touring two-hander celebrating Sylvia Plath.
Amid the triumph of 45 Years, Rampling lost her long-time partner, Jean-Noel Tassez, to cancer. This time she was able to grieve: the catharsis of “an amazing funeral” and a comforting feeling of companionship in the home they’d shared. “You’re accompanied for a very long time by your dead friends and dead loves, which I’ve never had before.”
“I’m working really well now because I can. Before I couldn’t. If good stuff comes up and it corresponds with what I feel I want to do that’s fantastic. There’s a lot that’s of interest.”
And will she write more? “Oh yes!”
• Who I Am by Charlotte Rampling with Christophe Bataille is published by Icon Books.