The Ongoing Mystery of Charlotte Rampling

The actress and icon has always been a cool enigma. And as it turns out, Rampling, at 70, has still more undiscovered, hidden depths. She lets us in on her latest turn as conspirator in artist Loris Gréaud’s film, SCULPT.

© Minsk Studio.

On a recent afternoon, Charlotte Rampling was at home in Paris, reading aloud a series of texts she’d been exchanging earlier that day regarding a Voodoo High Priestess. “He said, ‘I was feeling really angry and I broke three new works that I liked very much,’ so I said, ‘Well, lucky your film work is protected on hard discs and kept by the Priestess,’” she recalled with a chuckle.

The 70-year-old actress was discussing her latest work with Loris Gréaud, the 37-year-old French artist who burst onto the scene with explosive, elaborative concepts, like when he opened his solo exhibition at the Dallas Contemporary last year by destroying the works featured in a choreographed riot, which left not only guests shocked, but the artist himself a little shaken.

Gréaud’s first feature film, SCULPT, features Rampling as a so-called Grumpy Bear alongside Willem Dafoe in a dystopian sci-fi world. The film’s eeriness has been only amplified by the fact that the screenings at LACMA, which began in August, only permitted a single viewer at a time into its 600-seat theater, from which the other 599 seats were removed. Though SCULPT has since finished its run in L.A., a series of underground screenings kicked off this week in Paris, which Gréaud says will soon carry over to New York, London, and Rome. Here, Rampling talks about the latest phase — as collaborator and artist — of her endlessly fascinating career.

Between your collaborations with Loris and the performance series you just did with Olivier Saillard and Tilda Swinton, it seems you’ve been doing more and more projects outside of film. Have you found yourself looking for different outlets as you’ve gotten older? It just happens, you know. I’m a bit like that in life; things happen to me. I let them happen, things pop up, somebody needs me, somebody says, “Do you want to do this?” I’ve never been much of an entrepreneur; I don’t sort of go out and find things myself at all, so it’s all collaborating with people who see something in me on things they’d like me to join in on. And that I get really excited about. That’s what I enjoy most of all, is that form of collaboration.

You’ve also been painting. Painting, actually, I like because it is something I’m doing really on my own, and it’s really coming from that quiet area you have when you’re either just reading quietly or doing something with your hands.

Is that why you’ve only shown them to a few people, including Loris? I like to be very secret, you see, but a few people have seen them. [Laughs.] It’s not really painting, though I suppose you could call it artwork, because it certainly has a representation in the artistic world on a canvas — or on a piece of wood, actually, because I do stuff on wood. I’ve been doing that for a while, just finding a way to bring things out. I call them my monsters. I work with a lot of modeling paste and paint at the same time, so it’s finding a way to bring something out of that that resembles a life form. It sounds all a bit gooey, but it’s not. [Laughs.] They’re actually quite minimalistic and quite strange, mostly with dark colors.

Are they self-portraits? You told him if you ever did a show, it’d be called “Autoportraits.” No. I mean, I probably look like that inside, yes. Some of them are scary, so yeah. [Laughs.] It would be fun to show them. I’d like to, but not quite yet. I think I want a few more.

When did you first start painting? It became this style about 10 years ago. When you start to paint without knowing anything about painting, you just start and keep on and things happen or things don’t happen, and this sort of emerged. It became evident that this was going to be what I was going to be doing. It took quite a long time before that happened. Before, it was just a mess of nothing really, just trial and error, trying to get something that actually spoke to me.

What would you say unites all your projects, or that you look for in all of your collaborators? Daring is important. Not necessarily having boundaries and limits, but trying to have a certain sense of freedom in your creative thoughts. You then have to put that into certain boundaries, obviously, an installation or a performance or a film that will then have to be contained. It’s the exploration of how you get there, really, that I find very interesting. It depends who you’re with, but it’s the ones you commune with really who are the ones closest to your own way. It’s slightly mysterious, all this. Why things work with people. It’s mysterious why it works with me and Loris. It’s just that we have something that happens between us, and it works, and that makes a friendship and that makes us do things together.

How and when did you first meet him? He wanted me to be the voice of — and in a sense actually be him — in [his 2012 film] The Snorks. It was going to be just a voiceover, but he filmed it and in the end used that as well. I didn’t know actually it would be his interpretation of the story, but it was. He told me that later.

After that, you also “incarnated” him again, as he put it, in a series of portraits you did together inspired by Bruce Nauman. Did that concept ever come across as strange to you at all? Well, he didn’t tell me that in the beginning, and obviously in a voiceover you can be anything really, so that wasn’t strange. And then I decided I would sort of take him on, as I had done in The Snorks, and he could reinvent other ways of showing me becoming him. What became interesting really was the participation in it, because then I sort of became a persona which was actually speaking in his voice. I found it rather fascinating — why he would think to do that, and why he would want that — and I think this was the beginning of our connection together. I don’t know why I found it fascinating, because it does often happen.

That people ask you to embody them? Well, it’s not so much that, but when you’re in the business of actually becoming others, you can become whatever they want you to be if you’re in performance. But he’s in a milieu that’s not completely about film or narrative, which I do like.

Charlotte Rampling and Loris Gréaud, “Reenactment.”

© Minsk Studio.

What did you think about taking on the role of the Grumpy Bear for your latest work together? I like that. Anything that’s a bit off the beaten track, a bit wild, a bit untamed, that sort of makes you inquire really into actually who this person is. He was working on SCULPT, and one day when he called me, I said, “Well what am I going to do in this film?” He said, “Oh, I didn’t know you wanted to be in it.” And I said, “Yeah, well I’m sort of your mascot, I think I should be. You should find a character.” He didn’t answer immediately, but he called back a few days later and said, “I think I found your character.” And that was the Grumpy Bear. So he hired the Châtelet theater in Paris for an afternoon, which has this huge stage where the Grumpy Bear was able to sort of rant and rave and scream at people — screaming at whom in the end, one wonders. I suppose at the one person who ends up sitting in the cinema.

Have you seen the film? No, I haven’t. Not many people have, I don’t think. [Laughs.] He told me that’s what he intended in the beginning, but I didn’t know whether he’d actually get away with it. It’s really kind of amusing.

How would you describe your relationship? Are you friends as well as collaborators? I mean, friendships all have different ways of articulating, don’t they? Some people chat away or on a regular basis, but I tend to just ping in and out of my friendships every now and then. With Loris, we’ll text back and forth for a while, and if we’re in the same country, we’ll see each other. We don’t see each other very much, but he’s my friend, somebody I’ve adopted and have taken into my circle, somebody I think about, somebody I know I can just text or call up any time. And if he’s there, he’ll be there for me. We just like each other.

Would you say you’re very similar in the way your brains work? Probably not, but I’m prepared to go into his world without a problem. It’s a daring world, and I think there’s a wildness about it. Sometimes he’ll get violent — not with people, but with his artwork, smashing it up and things like that. That’s what he tells me, but I’ve never seen him do it. I think he knows that I sort of get where he’s at when he’s in his odd moods, and we can talk about it. We like to do that together. He’s unbridled a lot of the time and wants to be so that he can test people’s reactions in different ways, and that’s sort of something I like to do anyways. If an artist is doing that, I’m happy to go along and do it with them. You’ve been in those places in your own way, so you recognize them in other people.

What are the ways in which you deal with getting that emotional? I know that you both meditate. It’s difficult to really understand how you do get through. But you have to get through. Otherwise you go into a funk or a horrible mess or a form of chaos — just horrible states that you do come out of, thank goodness. We all have them, and some people get them stronger than others, and artists do tend to go a bit overboard, perhaps because we are overly expressing feelings and overly demanding of our bodies and our minds. Certainly with acting, you sort of think, ‘Christ, I’m really pushing myself here.’ But you need to get into those states. And I think it’s the same with artists.

Are you spiritual at all? Well, yes. I believe in the spirit as much as the body. We’re made up of body and spirit and soul. Oh yeah, that’s all good. [Laughs.] I’m not religious, but I like to pray to god, because you want to pray to someone — to god, to angels, to heavenly bodies or creatures. I like to invent all that, because it doesn’t matter. It can be my reality and my way of thinking, that there are people out there watching out for me. If you’re not feeling good, you talk to them, and I think it helps. It’s the mystery side of it which I think is very beautiful. I love little signs, coincidences and things that mean there’s possibly a connection to much more than we know about.