Spanning half a century, Charlotte Rampling’s filmography has included key works by Woody Allen, Luchino Visconti, Lars von Trier, Sidney Lumet and Francois Ozon — yet at 69, she may have sealed her career-defining role role this year in Andrew Haigh’s eggshell-delicate marital drama “45 Years.” Quietly wrenching as Kate Mercer, a rural retiree whose comfortable married existence crumbles when she learns a painful secret from her husband’s past, Rampling has thus far earned a shelfload of awards — including best actress from the National Society of Film Critics, the L.A. Film Critics’ Association, the European Film Awards and the Berlinale — for her performance. Yet the honors cap a bittersweet year for the actress, who lost her own partner of 17 years, French communications expert Jean-Noel Tassez, to a long-term illness in October.
Between “45 Years,” Guy Maddin’s “The Forbidden Room” and two hit U.K. TV shows — “Broadchurch” and “London Spy” — we’ve seen you shifting gears a lot this year.
I just like to do different things, I guess. That’s the only way I can describe my selection process. Different genres, different media, different scales of production — when I’ve done one, I like to move on to something else entirely. That’s how I keep myself interested.
What stood out to you about “45 Years,” then?
Purely the script. I remember receiving it out of the blue while I was away working somewhere in France; I read it in my hotel room one morning, and was really blown away. Those types of films only come along every so often — certainly to me, at least. And I seek out the unusual — whenever it’s there to be sought out. It made me think of “Under the Sand,” the film I did with Francois Ozon: a very sensitive story of a husband who disappears without explanation. They’re both stories of personal hauntings, in a sense, and those fascinate me. Something happens and you don’t know how the f— you’re going to get out of it, how to come to terms with the feelings that this particular thing is putting on you. And it can go on for a long time.
And do such stories compel you purely as an actress and storyteller, or do they resonate with you personally?
Oh, I feel very close to these situations, these people, these ways of life, these hauntings. I feel that I’m somehow connected to them. It’s the state of mind that Kate’s put into that interests me, because it’s the state of mind we’re all put into when unforeseen things happen. They unbalance us. That’s what I liked about this story; she’s led this life with her husband for a long time, and probably all sorts of things haven’t been addressed between them, but they’ve had a good life. But it’s the old problematics that you’ve never really addressed that, at some stage, come up when a certain button is pushed. Things you hadn’t bothered to think about, that you didn’t think were important — they all start dancing. And it all tumbles into a pile of chaos that makes you feel quite out of control and afraid and desperate.
Does that level of personal connection makes a role easier — or at least more intuitive — to play? Or more complicated?
Well, I’ve always been interested in roles that allow me to use what I know. I know it’s believable, that it’s going to be felt. Because I’ve been there, because it’s in me. I brought to Kate my understanding of these emotional states: We know what being unhappy is like, what being in pain is like, what being jilted is like, what being lonely is like. It’s acting, yes, but it’s more about being.
Did you have a rehearsal period to feel your way around these emotions? Did you play it very much as written?
The script was actually more explicit and more detailed than the final film. It had many more scenes in it so we could work it all out as we went. So there was no rehearsal, but it was more like a workshop in which everything was filmed. And because we knew we were going to be shooting in sequence, from beginning to end, with a small crew, we had time to experiment with a lot of ideas and emotions. Then when we came to the end, Andrew realized he didn’t want all these explanations. What we were doing, what we were able to convey in terms of feeling states, didn’t need all the extra words.
Your relationship with your onscreen husband, Tom Courtenay, feels particularly laden with unspoken history.
And I didn’t know Tom at all beforehand! When I agreed to do the film, Andrew said he wanted me to be involved in choosing the male lead. And when he said he was thinking of Tom, I just knew, quite instinctively, that he was the right one, and became quite desperate to get him. I can’t tell you why I knew, I just did. There was something in Tom that I knew I could absolutely relate to, so people would immediately understand that we were deeply involved.
You’ve already won several awards for “45 Years.” Do prizes have any particular meaning to you, to a film like this — or is it just a bonus?
Any bonus is useful, particularly if its draws a few more people to see the film. Awards give a film an added identity, which can be very beautiful. I can’t say anything against it. You say the role is the reward, but not if it’s not seen. If a film finds it’s audience, as this one has, that’s the most precious reward. And then afterwards, if the industry shows its appreciation too, that’s incredibly valorizing.
And are there any of your past roles or films that you wish had found such an audience?
To be honest, I don’t look back. I really, really don’t. I probably don’t want anything to come out of the past — not like what Kate has to deal with.