Interview: Charlotte Rampling - What the Dickens?

Charlotte Rampling as Miss Havisham? I'm just right for the part, she tells James Rampton
The table is a seething mass of maggots, flies, cockroaches and spiders. Dead rats are strewn about the floor. The wind howls in through windows smashed by tree branches. Then, heads turn as she glides on to the set. With her haunted, luminescent face, there is an other-worldy quality to her. At 52, Charlotte Rampling remains the archetypal woman of mystery.

The role in question, though, is not at all what you would associate with the woman who, more than a quarter of a century ago, blazed into public consciousness with Georgy Girl and then shocked audiences in The Night Porter.

Rampling is eschewing overt seductiveness to play Miss Havisham in a dark new BBC2 version of Great Expectations, adapted by Tony Marchant, a writer who has previously specialised in hard-hitting contemporary dramas such as Holding On, Take Me Home, and Goodbye Cruel World.

With the help of state-of-the-art powders and periwigs, the make-up artists take an hour and a half every morning to tone down the crackling electrical field that Rampling seems to generate. But they cannot switch it off entirely. Even when the broken Miss Havisham whispers to Pip, "What would you have me do?", Rampling's magnetism is palpable. You can take the woman out of the glamour, but you can't take the glamour out of the woman.

David Snodin, the producer of Great Expectations, admits that he wanted to play on Rampling's enduring allure. "I've fancied Charlotte since I was 14," he says. "She comes with a lot of baggage that you can't describe as anything but erotic. She's got startling cat-like eyes and a natural sensuality about her which no man I know has failed to notice. That's why we cast her."

A faceless motel hard by the A1 in the industrial suburbs of Doncaster is not the first place you would expect to find Charlotte Rampling, but here we are in the bar of the Moat House after a hard day's shoot at the nearby location for Satis House. Free of Miss Havisham's wrinkles and lank brown locks, Rampling is immaculately done up in a blue Chairman Mao jacket and crisp white shirt. Sipping a glass of white wine and drawing on a cigarette, every now and then she sweeps her fine blonde hair out of her eyes. Her lack of make-up merely accentuates her translucent skin and exquisite cheekbones.

Rampling is an actress given to thinking rather than gushing. She pauses before answering questions. She rejects the suggestion that she is running the risk of being miscast. She is adamant that she is quite old enough to play this supposedly superannuated creation. "People keep saying I'm too young, but Miss Havisham was left at the altar at the age of 21 and, if the story starts 30 years later, she's only 51. People reading the book see this ancient person, but everything at her house is so decrepit because time has stood still. That has influenced the way she has been portrayed in the past."

Miss Havisham certainly chimes with the out-on-a-limb roles with which Rampling has made her name - for example, as the sado-masochistic former concentration camp inmate in The Night Porter, or her murderous Euro MP in Paris By Night. "I had no hesitation in accepting the role because Miss Havisham is so extraordinary," she says. "People who are out of time and place live by their own form of eccentricity. We'd all like to live like that - to defy convention and be free, to live on the edge of a precipice. It may not be satisfying in terms of happiness - but that's just what I like about it. Free-spirited individuals, however deranged, are people I like. Acting is about feeling you have a common spirit with someone. If you can go into those sort of psyches, it's fascinating."

If there is one quality that runs through all Rampling's characters, it's "danger". "Something happens when I'm on screen," she explains. "I'm not in control of it, it inhabits me. It's difficult to stop it appearing. I'll always be attracted to parts where there's an element of that. I have a calling for certain roles. We could have made Miss Havisham wacky, wacky, wacky, but what emerges is that dangerous, snaky, seductive element. I'm not like that in real life, but we're not talking about real life. We're all multi-faceted, and acting gives rein to that."

She elaborates on the theme. "It's something I know I can make happen from within. If I look at someone, there's always something going on underneath. It's like a knowledge that you could have a person, manipulating him through a cat-and-mouse game and making him your thing. Power lies in the absolute knowledge that you're in control. It's a wonderful feeling to be able to bring that out in any situation. In real life, we have to be good girls, but these characters don't give a stuff. Over the years, I've marketed that quite well."

Cod psychologists might put this down to a rather austere upbringing. Rampling's father was a colonel who won a gold medal at the 1936 Olympics. His career as a professional soldier meant she attended schools all over the place - including Fontainebleau when he was posted to Nato headquarters. She now admits that she reacted against his "perfectionist" tendencies by becoming a wild adolescent. By the age of 20 she had found an outlet for her emotions and made her film debut in Rotten to the Core, a run- of-the-mill Boulting Brothers heist caper.

Rampling went on to collaborate with such acclaimed directors as John Boorman, on Zardoz, Sidney Lumet on The Verdict and Alan Parker on Angel Heart. She made for a memorably icy girlfriend opposite Woody Allen in Stardust Memories and a haunting Anne Boleyn in Henry VIII and his Six Wives, but the film she remains most proud of is The Night Porter. Many reviewers were disgusted by Liliana Cavani's graphic portrayal of the sadistic relationship between a former concentration-camp guard (Dirk Bogarde) and his former prisoner (Rampling); one critic called it "a dismal and exploitative tale". In Rampling's eyes, however, it remains a work of rare force. "I can't bring myself to accept trivial parts," she says. "I'm only interested in roles that play with a lot of power."

For Rampling, this never encompassed Hollywood blockbusters. She has always been much more at home in the European arthouse arena. "I made two films there [the quickly-forgotten Ski Bum and a remake of Farewell My Lovely], but Hollywood didn't suit me. If they want me, they'll just have to come and find me. If they don't, I'm quite happy fiddling around here doing things I love. As you go along, you have regrets. But after a while, you realise there are certain things you shouldn't do for your sanity and your soul. Luckily I had a compass inside that steered me quite well." It has now guided her towards parts in a new film version of The Cherry Orchard with Alan Bates and Frances De La Tour and in Signs and Wonders, an "edgy" love triangle set in Greece.

Rampling has been twice married - first to a PR man, Bryan Southcombe, in the early 1970s, and then to Jean-Michel Jarre, the French musician responsible for the huge hit "Oxygene." She met him at a dinner party during the 1976 Cannes Festival and has since described it as a coup de foudre. "People talk of love at first sight. Well, that was it." Within a year they had married and moved into a spacious house on the outskirts of Paris. There she spent time becoming a first-rate pianist, artist and photographer. The French now see her - like Kristin Scott Thomas - as one of their own, dubbing her "la legende Rampling" and "la plus mysterieuse des comediennes."

There has been pain in Rampling's personal life - the death of her sister, three abortions, and the break-up of her marriage. But she gives no hint of it now. She presents a picture of serenity, happily ensconced with her two sons and stepdaughter in the leafy Parisian suburb of Croissy. She also maintains "a bolthole in England, because I'm very English. I need that fix."

If Rampling seems at peace with herself, it is perhaps because she has never been prey to the cult of celebrity that grips Hollywood. "I lived in LA for a year and was very distressed, a complete fish out of water. There the big stars feed the celebrity culture by arriving with an entourage of bodyguards. They feel they don't exist without them. In Europe everyone leaves you alone. It's much more civilised."

She is equally dismissive of the film industry's obsession with staying young. "In Europe there are still parts for older women because the cult of youth herer is not so strong. As you grow older you evolve, so you no longer play someone gorgeously young. There are still high-quality roles out there for older women. "There should be a place for everybody. In China the old are the most important people in their culture. Youngsters have to learn before becoming thesort of fully mature person that people listen to. If older people are relegated to a secondary position in society, then it unbalances everything. People are panicked by growing older in the States. Here we're a bit more relaxed about it. We can leave silicone to them."

Why should we, she concludes, be so hung up on the idea that attractiveness is connected with age? "I now feel in full possession of my life. If you're at ease with who you are, then you'll be more confident, and all through your life beauty comes through confidence. It's the same at any age. I know women of 60 who are seductive because they feel they are. Beauty is not to do with face-lifts: it's internal."

With that, she blows out a puff of smoke and flashes me her most enigmatic smile.

`Great Expectations' begins on 11 April on BBC2.