Charlotte Rampling has never been one to back away from more controversial roles, and, at 66, she isn’t about to change now.
In her latest film, psychological thriller I, Anna, she plays a lonely divorcee who meets a man via a dating service and agrees to go back to his London apartment.
At one point Rampling’s character has to perform a sexual act that, although not explicit, is the kind of scene that might have made a less bold actress shy away. To make things even more awkward, I, Anna marks the feature directorial debut of her son, Barnaby Southcombe.
“Be brave – you mean the oral sex scene,”she laughs, clearly enjoying my discomfort at mentioning such a delicate subject. “Even if it wasn’t my son directing, you just have to channel yourself and do what you have to do. It’s a question of just blanking your mind – it wasn’t too bad.”
At an age when many are contemplating the joys of being a grandparent, which she is, four times over (“I love the kids, but I’m not a very granny-granny. I don’t take them and have them to stay for days and all of that sort of stuff.”), Rampling is still waving the banner for cutting-edge cinema. Indeed, she has just finished filming with Lars von Trier on the provocatively titled Nymphomaniac.
The isolated, grieving woman she plays in I, Anna resorts to speed dating, where potential partners gather in a hotel function room and move briskly from one table to the next in the hope of finding a date. Anna, mousy and downtrodden by day, becomes a sexy vamp by night.
“Yes, it’s creepy, isn’t it?” she says of speed dating. “But I suppose it’s like playing the Lotto: you might win. You might find someone or you might have an awful time like Anna does. But if you really think that you could meet somebody, then why not? It’s better than sitting at home in front of a computer screen and having a virtual talk with somebody. You can’t damn people for trying to connect.”
Connecting with the opposite sex isn’t a problem Rampling has had in her personal life. In the 1970s, as her film career was blossoming, she married her agent Bryan Southcombe, and they had son Barnaby. The marriage ended when she met the French composer Jean-Michel Jarre in France. They married in 1978 and had a son, David, and she raised a stepdaughter, Emilie. She separated from Jarre in the 1990s following reports that he’d been having an affair.
She’s since been with wealthy businessman Jean-Noël Tassez, who is ten years her junior.
Relationships later in life are a little different, she admits. “Sex is about being young – young bodies and beauty and youth. And then you pass into other things. You don’t need it so much, I might add, if we’re being honest. When you’re older you need other things. You need to develop real companionship and go further into what sharing your life with somebody is all about.”
She arrives for our interview the day before I, Anna premieres at the Berlin film festival (it’s released here on Friday 7 December) looking chic in a sharp, two-piece beige designer suit. She’s willowy slim with piercing green eyes and famously high cheekbones with her copper hair carefully crimped into a neat, shoulder-length cut. “The best way to keep fit? Don’t eat much,” she laughs.
Born in Essex, the daughter of an army officer, and educated at public school both here and in France, Rampling came to acting via modelling. In the 1960s, she starred in films including Georgy Girl and The Long Duel. Along with Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy, she was one of the beautiful people.
She remains beautiful today and there’s not a hint of the surgeon’s knife or the puffiness of botox or collagen implants, so common in Hollywood.
“I think you have to be very careful with plastic surgery because once you start doing it your face starts to change. People lose their face; they lose their personality in a way. Inside they’re the same but they look at themselves and go, ‘F**k, it s not me!’ And it’s irreversible. And then you see their faces and they look round and scarred…
“Apart from Meryl Streep and Susan Sarandon, there aren’t actresses of a certain age getting the roles in Hollywood,” she says. “And they still look great without having done work on their faces.
“There are fewer roles for older women because cinema likes young flesh and we shouldn’t moan about that. We should just hope that there are roles, every now and then, which do show real women as they grow older.”