Award-winning Tom and Charlotte on the rich tapestries of life
Is honesty always the best policy in marriage, and where do you draw the line? Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay, stars of 45 Years, discuss secrets, steamy love scenes and the thrill of awards with Jeananne Craig
AFTER more than half a century in the acting business, Tom Courtenay finally got to film his first `love scene’, in his new film 45 Years.
"I don't think I've ever done one, I was very excited at the prospect," says the 78-year-old, chatting alongside his co-star, Charlotte Rampling. "I had to wait. Now it's too late," he laughs.
"No," Rampling interjects to support him. "You're going to be around the world in your underpants!"
In the film, a moving tale based on a short story by writer David Constantine, the pair play retired couple Geoff and Kate Mercer, who are about to celebrate their 45th wedding anniversary when they receive some unexpected and unsettling news.
In real life, the lead stars, who had never worked together before, enjoy a warm, tactile rapport, which helps make Geoff and Kate's long marriage seem totally convincing on screen - and no doubt made the bedroom encounter that bit less awkward.
But while Doctor Zhivago actor Courtenay found the scene "utterly easy, because it was so ungratuitous", Rampling confesses that, although it was important to the story, she felt uncomfortable on the day.
"Intimate scenes, I don't like doing. I've never liked doing them," the 69-year-old admits. "I'm at ease with my body, but intimacy is intimacy, it's not supposed to be seen."
45 Years, directed by Andrew Haigh, has already picked up awards at the Berlin Film Festival (where they were named Best Actor and Actress) and the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where it landed the Best British Feature Film prize.
The story begins with Kate, a retired teacher from Norfolk, finalising anniversary party plans. The event has a particular significance because the pair's 40th celebrations had to be cancelled when Geoff underwent bypass surgery.
This loving relationship and cosy equilibrium is rocked, however, when Geoff receives a letter informing him that the body of his former lover Katya, who died in the Swiss Alps during a walking holiday they took in 1962, has been found.
Katya (his girlfriend before he met Kate) had fallen into a fissure in a glacier, and as a result, her corpse has been frozen and preserved.
As Geoff tries to process the news, and more details from the past begin to emerge - that he was regarded as Katya's next of kin, and that the young couple had pretended to be married to avoid disapproval - Kate finds herself beset by jealousy.
By the time the day of the party comes around, there may not be a marriage left to celebrate.
"We were both separately very excited to be sent the screenplay," says Hull native Courtenay, who is married to stage manager Isabel Crossley. "When I got it, Charlotte was on board, so I could imagine her as Kate. It was a wonderful thing to be asked to do."
Essex-born Rampling - who is based in Paris and has two sons from previous marriages, to publicist Bryan Southcombe and French composer Jean Michel Jarre - can understand why Geoff didn't tell Kate earlier just how close he was to Katya.
"It was two years before they met, and he's not going to tell his next girlfriend, two years later really, all about this relationship. So if you don't say it at that moment, when do you say it?" she notes.
"Suddenly there's no convenient moment to say certain things, and you end up keeping secrets that aren't really secrets. It's not that you want to hold something back, but they become a huge thing. It becomes the story of this film, this haunting, this so-called elephant in the room that he's never talked about."
Rampling, who had met Courtenay only once briefly before the film came along, says she didn't find it difficult to portray a relationship spanning almost five decades.
"It's just about experience, life experience. We've both had relationships, long marriages or companions, we've lived a life each, and you give that over to the story and another character, but it's still you.
"Because it's very much a film about being, it's not a film about acting, really," she adds. "It's about living within the lives of these characters very closely."
These jobbing actors aren't sure if the quietude of Geoff and Kate's retired life would appeal to them, however.
"I don't know. That's what's lovely about playing someone like Kate," says Rampling. "I was just borrowing her life."
Courtenay, who will soon be seen in an upcoming movie version of Dad's Army ("It's not quite as soulful a part as Geoff, shall we say"), adds: "I think it's nice to work, but I'm thrilled now not to have a prospect; I don't know what I'm doing next. It's nice not to work all the time, and it's nice to have a project to think about."
Do the awards that 45 Years has already received mean anything to such seasoned veterans as this pair?
"I think anybody would be lying [if they said they didn't mean anything]," says Courtenay, who has two Oscar nominations to his name, for 1965's Doctor Zhivago and 1983's The Dresser.
"To have an award is a thrilling thing," Rampling adds. "Andrew has created a beautiful canvas of a relationship. We feel as human beings watching it, very involved in it, because it's the tapestries of our life, whatever age we are."
:: 45 Years opens in cinemas tomorrow.