In the new film Juniper – which is released in UK cinemas this weekend – Charlotte Rampling takes on the role of Ruth, an ageing alcoholic Englishwoman who moves to New Zealand to spend more time with her family. Following her arrival, she is placed in the care of rebellious grandson Sam – and what starts out as a fiery relationship soon turns into something far more tender, as the pair strike up an unlikely rapport.

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It's a moving film with an exceptional performance from Rampling at its centre – but the veteran actor very nearly passed up the opportunity to star in it before she'd even read the script, as she explains in an exclusive interview with RadioTimes.com.

"My agent read it and she said, 'You've got an offer from New Zealand,'" she recalls. "And I said, 'No way, I'm not going there!' Not that I don't like New Zealand – my first husband was a New Zealander, my son is half New Zealander – but it's so far away and I just thought I can't hack it."

Eventually, Rampling was persuaded to read the screenplay anyway – just so she could rule it out – and she ended up loving it so much that she felt the long trip would be very much worth it.

"I was really moved reading the script, there was just really something in it," she says. "And scripts are difficult to read – you know, a film can be moving and scripts quite often don't reveal that. But this did, it sort of came across on the page."

Charlotte Rampling in Juniper
Charlotte Rampling in Juniper Jen Raoult

Juniper is the feature debut of New Zealand writer/director Matthew Saville – who also has two short films to his name – and Rampling admits that she enjoys the experience of working with young filmmakers, something she has done on numerous occasions throughout her long career.

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On this occasion, she was especially fond of how collaborative the process was, with Saville more than happy to hear feedback about which directions to take the character.

"We spoke on the telephone after I first read the script, and I said, 'Look, I really need to talk'," she explains. "There was quite a lot of things I really wanted to talk about and maybe certain changes – and he came over with his producer, and we worked on the script for three or four days.

"I love being able to work with the director," she adds. "And with this – because it was a young man that was doing it – I really wanted to put in what I could of me in the film. It was [originally] a woman in her 80s, and I said, 'I don't want to play something, I want to be something'. So I said I'm in my 70s, so let's put her in her 70s. And that was fine.

"And then we started to branch out into areas that were more appropriate in a sense. So all the scenes stayed the same, but within the scenes we developed them from a 70-year-old woman's point of view. That all made it very moving for me to be able to do that. And he was so pleased to have that collaboration."

In addition to working with a first-time director, the film also sees Rampling starring opposite an actor at the very beginning of their career. 21-year-old George Ferrier plays the role of Ruth's grandson Sam, who has many of his own struggles to face even before he's charged with caring for his grandmother.

Rampling is full of praise for her young co-star – and in speaking of working with him, she reminisces about some of the acting royalty she learned from at the start of her own career.

Sam and his friend watch Ruth Shooting clays in Juniper
Sam and his friend watch Ruth shooting clays in Juniper Jen Raoult

"When you're working with an inexperienced actor, it's about putting them at ease as quickly as possible – just making it fun and making it so they're not trying too hard," she says. "So they're not sort of wanting to be able to show you what they've learned in acting school, et cetera.

"And George was very willing to do that. Which is what you have to be when you're a young actor, you have to be really willing. I mean, I was very led for instance by Dirk Bogarde years ago when I did The Night Porter. You need masters, you need to watch people with a lot of experience – and you're not trying to emulate them, but you need to feel that you're going to become part of the filming family."

For Rampling, one of the strongest appeals of this project was the way in which she could relate to the character of Ruth. Specifically she found common ground in the fact that the character was a former war photographer, something that tallied with some of her own ambitions from earlier in her life, before she became an actor.

"When I relate to a character in a film, it's already somewhere in there – I could have been that woman," she says. "I always wanted to be a journalist when I was young. Not necessarily a war journalist, but I wanted to be someone out there, someone experimenting with different forms and different people – getting into lives that were unknown to me so that I could experience how different things were and how unpredictable life is. I was very on the edge with that thinking, and so the character corresponded very much with that kind of spirit that I have in me."

Even if Rampling didn't end up following that journalistic route, her desire to take different paths and experiment with various forms has been very evident throughout her career. Since breaking out with a role in the 1966 film Georgy Girl, she's appeared in everything from hit TV series and blockbuster films to small independent dramas and arthouse films helmed by European directors. In the process, she's earned an Oscar nomination, worked with a host of legendary filmmakers and acted regularly in English, French, and Italian.

"I've always wanted things to be a different challenge each time," she says about the variety of her roles. "Not just because I'm seeking the challenge but so I'm stimulated, so I feel afraid again, so it's something that I'm really going to have to work at and go out and experience another step in the way.

"With the more intimate films, the more independent films – which are my predilection – I'm much more emotionally attached to them because, like with Juniper, they're about how we can get into really interesting emotional situations with the characters.

"That's what I seek, I guess – because I do a lot of films that are intimate in that way," she adds. "And they do search the human soul in all different ways, and the human condition, giving a lot of spice to it. Because that's what happens in real life. Sometimes it's more exaggerated than others, but often in films we follow life – and life is often more surprising than film."

One recent entry on Rampling's CV that could hardly be more different than a small independent feature like Juniper is Denis Villeneuve's big-budget sci-fi epic Dune – adapted from the classic Frank Herbert novel of the same name. Rampling had a key role in the film as the Reverend Mother Mohiam and will return for the sequel next year, for which she has already finished shooting her scenes.

"I wanted to do it because of Denis Villeneuve, and I wanted to do it because I knew Dune," she says of taking on the role. "I was in right at the beginning with the [Alejandro] Jodorowsky version that was never done [in the mid-'70s]. Jodorowsky wanted me to play Jessica at the time, then the film as you know was never made.

"And when I met Denis, he pleaded with me. He said, 'You know, it's not a big role, but it's so important at the beginning of the film'. And he's such a visionary, intelligent, very, very humble man who is very close to his actors. Because the thing about really big films is that it's difficult to feel that you're very close to what's going on because it's very big and it's on such a big scale. But with him at the helm, I felt safe."

Charlotte Rampling and Timothée Chalamet in Dune
Charlotte Rampling and Timothée Chalamet in Dune WB

The results, of course, were terrific. Dune earned all sorts of accolades – including an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture – and won the hearts of millions of cinema-goers around the world, performing very admirably at the box office.

"That was extraordinary," Rampling says of the response. "Everyone was sort of very surprised in a way that the audience got into it in such a... I mean, they really loved it! People who wouldn't normally go and see those kinds of films were really taken with it – somehow that story was very compelling to them."

Having played so many different roles in her time, you might wonder which characters have stuck with Rampling the longest, which roles she still thinks about regularly. The answer, she says, is every last one of them.

"They're all me – because they're all part of me," she explains. "And I put an awful lot into my parts, as actors you put a lot of who you are into each part. You can't not, because you are just made up with certain things and they're going to show and your emotions are going to show.

"You're just putting on another hat and putting on the costume, but it is still you. So I don't want to separate all that. They're all part of me, they're what I built in my life, all these people that are in those films. So I don't want to separate and I don't want to compare them."

Read more Big RT Interviews:

Juniper is now showing in UK cinemas. Find out what's on tonight with our TV Guide or visit our Film hub for more news and features.

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