Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay both came to fame in London during the Swinging '60s, though they never met until they began working on the marital drama "45 Years," which opens Wednesday.
But two-time Oscar nominee Courtenay ("The Dresser," "Doctor Zhivago") almost had a brief encounter with Rampling 50-odd years ago when the actor was "not unpopular with the ladies."
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Rampling was a breathtakingly beautiful model-turned-actress who was getting attention for her film debut in Richard Lester's 1964 comedy "The Knack." (Rampling has gone on to star in such noted films as 1966's "Georgy Girl," Luchino Visconti's 1969 "The Damned," Liliana Cavani's 1974 "The Night Porter," Woody Allen's 1980 "Stardust Memories" and Sidney Lumet's 1982 drama "The Verdict." And she's become a favorite of French director Francois Ozon, appearing in several of his films, including 2003's "Swimming Pool.")
"We had the same agent," Courtenay recalled. "I have checked it out with Charlotte, and she assures me that what happened was not her fault. Our mutual agent promised me that Charlotte Rampling was going to come to a play I was in Chichester. It must have been 'The Cherry Orchard.' She was going to come around ..."
"Backstage," added Rampling
"I was quite excited," Courtenay said, laughing. "She never showed. My agent was winding me up and making fun of me."
Courtenay, a distinguished 78, and Rampling, still stunning at 69, were recently in Los Angeles attending the AFI Fest screening of "45 Years." They clearly developed a close personal rapport after working together on the film.
Courtenay is still a bit of a tease. Because his character in "45 Years" had heart surgery, the makeup artists would have to apply a scar on his chest during his shirtless scenes. "The girls loved making up my chest," he said, laughing. "We will see Tom's chest today?' They loved doing that scar."
They weren't the only ones who enjoyed the application of the scar.
Rampling looked over at Courtenay, who was knighted in 2001 and has continued to work primarily in Britain in film, TV and theater. "He especially loved that," she said, with a smile.
Directed and adapted by Andrew Haigh ("Weekend") from the short story "Another Country" by David Constantine, "45 Years" revolves around Kate and Geoff, a retired childless couple who live in the countryside in Norfolk with their dog. In fact, the only pictures they seem to have in the house are pictures of their dogs over the years.
They have entered into a routine. "It is unconsciously isolated," noted Rampling of their existence. "It's a country life. We are living a quieter version of our lives."
The couple are preparing for their 45th-anniversary party when their comfortable existence is shattered. Geoff receives a letter from Switzerland informing him that the body of Katya, his girlfriend before Kate, had been found. Katya had died in a hiking accident on a glacier when they were on a holiday in 1962.
Though Kate knew about Katya, she is surprised when Geoff reveals he was considered her next of kin because they had pretended to be a married couple.
Couples, said Rampling, "have lives before they get together. Some couples choose not to get into that life. I don't want to know anything about your life before. People actually live side by side with great gaps in between. Those gaps are fine."
But the news shakes up Geoff and Kate's marriage. Geoff becomes obsessed with Katya and spends time in the attic looking at the pictures and slides he had of his time with her. He even begins smoking, which he had quit since his heart surgery.
Curiosity gets the best of Kate, and one day she ventures into the attic when Geoff is out to look at the photos and is crushed when she learns a secret about Geoff and Katya.
"She's smashed into a thousand pieces," Rampling said. "How could she know what to do? She could do everything and nothing. She could trust him, but she can't trust the magnitude of her feelings. She doesn't know what's going on."
Kate isn't the only one who is devastated. The news and revelations also have a gut-wrenching experience on the viewer.
"It resonates so because everybody hopes to be a couple, is a couple and was a couple," said Courtenay.
The film deliberately doesn't let audiences know that much about Kate and Geoff's history early in the film. "Andrew leaves so much to the imagination of the people watching," noted Courtenay.
Rampling added that as Haigh slowly reveals their past, "you understand who they are."
Courtenay noted that "45 Years" has similarities to the story of his 27-year marriage to his wife, Isabelle, who was a stage manager when he was doing the play "The Dresser." They are childless, and like Kate and Geoff they have a dog.
"He could have a lot of skeletons coming out of the closet," Rampling said, laughing. Rampling has been married twice and has two adult children. Her longtime fiancee recently died.
Rampling, who has never been nominated for an Academy Award, has been getting a lot of Oscar buzz for her radiant performance. She recently received the European Film Award, and the Los Angeles film critics group awarded her its lead actress honor.
For Rampling, who has been acting for more than 50 years, the overwhelming response to her performance has been heartening. "It's like musicians having second careers."