Interview with Geraldine Chaplin
What was it that attracted you to this project?
I don’t think I’ve ever been offered anything sci fi before, and I read the story and I loved it. And I like the fact that the director is also the writer [of the adaptation], that’s really important for me. It seemed a natural evolution. I’ve played all the grandmas – the nice grandmas, the horrible grandmas, the murdering grandmas, the cannibal grandmas – I did a whole load of horror films, and then this came along and I thought “Well, maybe there’s a whole new career in sci fi!”
Tell us about your character
She’s a 342-year-old lady. Earth is destroyed, it no longer exists, but she doesn’t know that. Her grandmother, who was 279 years old when she died, had told her about time on Earth as a child. My character is sick, and she’s saved up a lot of money and wants to take a tour to Earth as her dying wish. She wants to visit the places her grandmother told her about. It’s a very romantic and very nostalgic story.
Did you do anything by way of research for this, or is it all there in the script?
It’s hard to do research on a 342-year-old woman. I didn’t meet any. But I think it’s all there in the script. Although it’s set in the future, the humans in it are very recognisable. There’s the good guy, the bad guy, the greedy guy, there’s romance and falling in love. It’s future and past, and the set is just incredible.
What are the stories her grandmother told her?
She’s especially heard about a place in Carolina, where there was a beautiful waterfall and a natural pond, and her grandmother used to go skinny-dipping with her future husband there, when she was young. The whole thing is wonderfully weird.
The whole thing is quite ambiguous, including the ending. Do you quite like a project where the audience is left to draw its own conclusions?
Oh yes! I think it’s one of the few projects I’ve read recently that doesn’t insult the viewers’ intelligence. I hate that kind of cinema so much, when you feel you’re having your intelligence insulted and everything is pre-packaged and pre-digested for you. For Pete’s sake, leave some things suspended. And this has that, definitely.
What did you take from this? What do you think the message was?
Well, it’s not really a message, but I found it so pleasant that hope isn’t disappointed in this. That’s beautiful. And it’s impossible. But it happens, through space and time and all sorts of things that come together.
You play a lot of you scenes with a robot. What was that like?
Oh, it was amazing. He’s even older than she is. He’s really on his last legs, and he’s so squeaky, when he walks. It’s incredible, the role is being played by Malik, who’s a mime, he does the movement, and then the voice is done by Christopher Staines, who’s an actor. They’re doing it together live, at the same time, it’s not done in ADR afterwards. So the robot has this wooden face with nothing, no expression, and meanwhile Christopher is doing all the acting with his voice, that’s coming out of this expressionless face. It’s quite a trick. The robot is very important to her. He’s an old friend. He’s an old robot, she’s a very lonely old lady, all of her descendants are off on other planets, and she lives with this robot, who’s sort of like a super-butler. I think he’s been with her for a very long time, and he’s the last one of that style, they now have new ones. He says himself “I’m a dinosaur.”
How did you find working with Jack Reynor?
He’s so lovely! He’s so gorgeous, and he’s such a good actor. There’s something very emotional about him. I think he loved his grandmother very, very, very, very much, and I don’t know if he’s using that at all. He’s a gentle soul, and he’s done all these really violent films. I haven’t seen any, but he’s told me about them – he’s in Transformers and stuff like that.
Has it been quite emotional to film? In what ways?
Oh yes! I identify with the old bag a lot! The emotion, the loneliness, being old. A dying animal. I mean, I’m 73, I’m not 342, but I feel I’m a dying animal. I feel as though I’m about 98, and I have for about 20 years. I feel that in my body, in my bones, in my head, everything. So in fact, when my birthday comes round and I’m 73 I think “Oh! My gosh! That’s nice!” But I identify with that. And with the hope and the emotion.
Is there an element of parable in this? Is it referencing how careless we are with the Earth?
I think it’s a bit of a shock when, at the beginning, this woman comes and asks them to take her to planet Earth, and it doesn’t exist. They look it up, and it was last inhabited in 2400-and-something-or-other. That’s a shock.
Do you get a buzz about turning up for work on a really cool set in a space ship?
Oh completely! Getting into costume, putting the wig on – no make-up, I look 342 years old as it is – and then coming on to that set – it’s so strange. It really is another world.
Has this awakened an interest in sci fi?
Yes it has. It’s a whole world – I’m discovering something. It’s always fun, when you’re old, to discover something new and attractive. I don’t know if all sci fi is like this.
You’re filming a sci fi, and everything is so high tech these days. Does this feel like the same industry you started out in, and that your dad worked in, or does it seem a million miles from that?
It feels a million miles away, because of all the technical stuff. A few days ago we were shooting stuff in the spaceship, and the planets actually go by! It’s not as green screen, it’s all there! And the lighting director has made all the different planets have their own colours and lights. The technical part of it is mind-boggling. And the set is extraordinary. I know it’s sort of retro-looking, but it’s incredible. It’s a big deal.
You’ve said before that you choose roles because of the director. Was that the case here?
The fact that he [David Farr] wrote the script, and that he was also directing it, was a big thing or me. I suddenly thought “Oh, cinéma d'auteur!” That, for me, meant a lot – more than looking him up and seeing other things he’d done.
What’s he like to work with?
He’s very demanding, and I love that. You can’t go wrong, you can’t get a word wrong. And he wrote it, so he knows what’s in there! I made a mistake the other day. Instead of saying “My mind is as sharp as a razor,” I said “My mind is razor sharp.” He said “No, that is not the line!” And he’s right. It’s the rhythm of it. That’s very new. I’m used to working more with directors who say “Oh, very good.” This is lovely. I did a Shakespeare once – you have to know your lines then!
You’ve been working non-stop since Dr Zhivago [in 1965]…
Well, after Zhivago, I thought “The scripts are going to come in, and I’m going to say yes to this and no to this…” but nothing came in for a long time. When I started working in Spain, then suddenly I was in the notch that I wanted to be in. As soon as I started working with Carlos Saura he opened the doors for me, and suddenly Jacques Rivette was phoning me, and so on. That was the place I wanted to be. And then, when I got to about 50, I didn’t do too much. And ever since I got really old – boy! I’m working thanks to my wrinkles. Most ladies of my age in the business can play ladies who have had facelifts. But if they’re looking for old-looking grannies, I can do them all.
You’ve worked in films all over the world. Does each country have its own film-making style? Is it different working in Spain to working in America to working in the UK? Or is it fundamentally all the same?
It’s all about the different directors and the different budget. Oh, in France, if you’re working in a studio, the hours are midday to 7:30pm, which is incredible, it’s such a luxury. At 7:30pm everyone turns the lights out, that’s it! In Spain, there’s always a stop for bocadillo – a sandwich. That’s very, very important. And they’re quite long lunches. And wine with lunch, which you don’t get in England. So it’s idiosyncrasies like that. And then there are good directors and not-so-good directors, and big budgets and small budgets.
In all the time you’ve been working, one thing that’s changed is that people now talk about TV as being a great area for exploring stories.
Yeah, so my daughter tells me! And she’s done so much, and is so good in them. She’s just done Taboo. I’ve worked on television, but not that much. But television now has become dangerous and good.
More so than cinema?
Oh yes. Cinema is divided. If I want to see good films, I go to film festivals in Latin American countries. And then there are the popcorn movies. And I’m doing one now. I’m doing a Jurassic World 2. It’s because of [director J.A.] Bayona – he thinks I bring him luck. I was in his first movie, and it was a huge success, so every time says “I have to have you in it.”