“I like to be right alongside with my characters”: Charlotte Rampling on her career, acting “flow”

“Juniper,” out April 4 on demand, gives the incomparable Charlotte Rampling another plum part at Ruth, an ornery, alcoholic grandmother currently using a wheelchair with an injured leg. Her son, Robert (Marton Csokas) has a difficult relationship with her, so he leaves Ruth in the care of her troubled teenage grandson, Sam (George Ferrier), along with a nurse, Sarah (Edith Poor). Sam, who is not pleased by this development, is contemplating suicide as he is dealing with a suspension from school as well as the loss of his mother. Of course, grandson and grandmother bond as they get to know each other and find they are more alike than not.

“There are different ways of playing characters. If you have a particular way of being with yourself in your own character … that’s the best way because there is kind of authenticity and distance.”

Although it does feature a death-obsessed teenager and an older woman who embraces life, and encourages Sam to find some happiness, thankfully, writer/director Matthew J. Saville’s chamber drama is no “Harold and Maude

“Juniper” refers to the gin Ruth drinks in massive amounts, and Rampling plays this feisty grandma with equal parts stubbornness and insouciance. She can get Sam to do something just by giving him a withering look. And she is not against throwing her glass at the teen’s head when he waters down her pitcher of gin. 

Rampling excels at playing formidable characters like Ruth such as her Oscar-nominated performance in “45 Years” to her dazzling turn in François Ozon’s “Swimming Pool.” She recently spoke with Salon about making “Juniper” and playing unfiltered characters. 

Ruth is a hard drinker who imbibes bottles of gin. What do you like to drink?

I like to drink red wine. Good, French red wine. That’s the reason I’ve ended up living in France!

There’s good wine now all over the world. Used to be very exclusively French, but it’s not that anymore. 

You often play formidable characters who size up others with a withering, intimidating glance. Ruth certainly sizes up characters, from Sam, to a priest who visits, to even her grandson’s friends. As an actress, you certainly are observant about people. What details inform you about someone’s character?

It’s an instinctive thing. I came into acting — I was picked up off the street as they say, which may not be appropriate to say nowadays, but it was in the ’60s. Someone said, “Come and do a part in a film,” when I was 17, and it all went on from there. I never did proper [acting] school. I thought, I am just going to learn it my way, which was observing how people are and how I feel people are. There are different ways of playing characters. If you have a particular way of being with yourself in your own character — and that suits the character — that’s the best way because there is kind of authenticity and distance. It’s casual, there’s a flow. You are nearly three-quarters of the way there already.

Ruth looks at Sam and asks him to turn around, and sizes him up. Ruth presents herself in a specific way, not as a victim but as someone who has power, even though she is confined to a chair.

The reason I was attracted to this role was all those things. When Matthew came over from New Zealand with his producer to talk about it, I said that I thought this character had great potential. But she was too old for me. She wasn’t a war reporter, but she was a feisty woman. I said, “I don’t know how to be 80.” I’m in my 70s. I wanted Ruth to be in her 70s, because I wanted to be close to Ruth. I am not into characterizations of people. I like to be right alongside with my characters. I needed her to be my age, then I could play with her, and it would be authentic, and it would be OK. Not: would an older woman be doing these things?

There is a sense of legacy with Ruth, who was a war photographer and whose images reveal her life. What roles do you think define you? I flash on “Georgy Girl” and “Night Porter,” of course, but also your Ozon films, “Swimming Pool,” “Under the Sand,” as well as “The Verdict” and “Max My Love.” What do you want to be known for? That is something Ruth considers as well. Does she care what people think of her?

No, not really. I put a lot of myself into nearly all the characters I play. I never thought of being an actor. I felt into it in the early 1960s and I seem to have a talent for it. I am getting away with it, wasn’t I? I would choose characters that had the kind of spirit I did and take risks. I don’t take risks in real life, but in cinema I could! [Laughs] I never thought of myself as an actor in the sense of wanting to play different parts, like Shakespeare or have these wonderful texts. I thought, I’ll wait to see what happens, and see what comes up, and the things that came to me were enough to make it interesting for me. 

JuniperJuniper (Greenwich Entertainment)

Ruth is unfiltered in her language and certainly not shy about matters of sex — she hopes to have one more love affair — or other topics. You often play characters who are no-nonsense. What is the appeal of these parts, and how do you find something unique about them?

You have to have a heart somewhere. I look for the heart in characters, even when I play baddy-baddy girls, but there is always sort of a heart there somewhere, as there often is with people who are a bit outrageous and break frontiers down. There are reasons they go that far, and they are hiding a sensitive side, which is very appealing in cinema and storytelling — to have somebody come through and doesn’t stay entrenched in one aspect of their personality that you can transcend – I think you always needed in characters. I like that in a way. Not in a soppy or sentimental way. Matthew [Saville, the director of “Juniper”] is not a sentimental man. The story could have been sentimental.  

Ruth has a difficulty with her son, but she wants to connect with her grandson. Why is she motivated in this way?

She connects with her grandson because he has her kind of spirit. She sees he has the hereditary spirit in him. With her son, she knows she’s guilty for not having taken care of him or given him anything that perhaps a mother can do. She abandoned him. There’s guilt there, and when there is a guilt there, there is not much you can do about it. 

Ruth is, like Sam, quite stubborn. Do you share that quality? What are its advantages? 

For her stubbornness is a test. She meets her grandson. She knows she has no relationship with her son, but she’s coming to be with people who are supposed to be the closest to you. You go back to something familiar. She finds herself in New Zealand because that’s where she can go. With the son, it’s much more difficult because his resentment of her is much more entrenched and wounded. The grandson doesn’t give a s**t; his mom’s died and that’s all he cares about. She has not much challenge there, but it brings them both together to bring the father in and make things feel OK. Resentment is a strong feeling, and it makes you feel strong — I’m never going to give in or forgive — but there is a time it just needs to break down, and it does. 

There is a scene in the film where Ruth uses a gun to shoot a target. Do you have experience with firearms? 

No, I don’t, but you learn quickly on films how to use these things. [Laughs] I’ve used a pistol, but I haven’t used a big [rifle] like in “Juniper.” They put it in your arms, so you have to do it, and you have to be clever in films to do things or say you know how to do things. But I would not have ever said I knew how to shoot a gun.

I would be very afraid of you with a gun. I think of your femme fatale in “Farewell, My Lovely.” What about seeing sunrises vs. sunsets, which Ruth admires? 

Both are magnificent. Best times of day are when it comes up or goes down. There is an extraordinary, very poetic melancholy about a sun going down. When the sun comes up there is a hope for a new day or world then you get into the ordinary stuff. But they are privately powerful moments, you feel you can be just one with the world.

Ruth passes down wisdom to Sam, who slowly discovers a piece of her backstory and their family history. Can you talk about the importance of family history and giving your children advice, or your legacy.

I don’t think kids want to know, you know? I think they want to find all that out for themselves. They make up own history and stories, except if they are interested and ask. My kids don’t ask me much about anything. Some really do want to know, but others don’t. I’m not talkative, except in interviews, about what I am doing. I made a record and it’s going out on different platforms, and my granddaughter said, “Hey, Go Go,” — they call me “Go Go” in the family, not Granny — “How come you made a record, and you didn’t even tell me?” I said, “That’s what I do. Nobody asked. So, I don’t tell anybody. That’s the way it goes. It’s amusing for you to find out what I’m doing in your own way.” [Laughs]

I like the caginess! I assume you’ll be cagey if I we discuss another of your projects. Is there anything you can report about the upcoming sequel to “Dune“?

I’m not allowed to talk about it. We’ve done it last year. It’s coming out in October. My character is in it. You never know in these big productions when you are going to be politely asked to leave, but the Reverend Mother Mohiam is still in there.

“Juniper” is available on Amazon and AppleTV starting April 4.

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movie interviews by Gary Kramer


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