Between a Boxer and a Nun: An Interview with Geraldine Chaplin
“I’m very much in love with a Dominican woman.”
“How old is she?”
“I don’t know.”
Like age, there’s a tendency to lie when it comes to love. We lie about expectations, motivations and transgressions. We lie to friends, family, and, more often than not, ourselves, which tends to lead to the most painful consequences. In Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán’s Sand Dollars, Anne (Geraldine Chaplin) is no exception to this universal rule of the heart: she lies to her children back home, her white ex-pat friends in the Dominican Republic, and to herself about Noeli (newcomer Yanet Mojica). A young island girl, Noeli plays the part of the destination lover well, but this affair has now stretched out over years. With a boyfriend on the side, Noeli’s relationship with Anne has become increasingly complicated, as companionship in exchange for a passport develops into pathos and pity for this aged European woman. While Anne has the upper economic hand, she is the emotionally fragile one. Noeli, seeing her power—the only source that she has—needs to decide if she can exploit it; if she can live a lie under the guise of love.
While at the International Film Festival of Panama (IFFP) earlier this year, however, Chaplin was disinterested in untruths, especially when it came to her career and “aging gracefully.” (She doesn’t mince her words on the latter topic.) The daughter of silent screen icon Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neil, Chaplin is still best known for her part in David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago (1965). Only 19 years old at the time, she played the youthfully naïve Tonya, the wife of the titular doctor (Omar Sharif) who lives in the shadow of her husband’s blonde mistress (Julie Christie). But what’s unique about Chaplin, in addition to her candour, is that since her teenage debut she hasn’t stopped working—in the 1970s she worked with Robert Altman (Nashville), Jacques Rivette (Noroît) James Ivory (Roseland); in the 1980s, Alain Resnais (La vie est un roman); in the 1990s, Martin Scorsese (The Age of Innocence), Jodie Foster (Home for the Holidays); in the 2000s Pedro Almodóvar (Talk to Her), Jane Birkin (Boxes); and most recently with Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson in The Forbidden Room (2015). Beyond the name power of the directors on her CV, the longevity is more of note: for women in film, careers often cap at 35 or 40 years of age when it would seem as though actresses become invisible to casting directors.
Just hours before she was introducing her father’s film The Kid at IFFP, Chaplin discussed why getting a leading role in Sand Dollars was such a gift, how her years as a ballet dancer have shaped her sense of discipline, and about sex scenes at seventy.
cléo: The book that Sand Dollars is based on, Les dollars des sables by Jean-Noël Pancrazi, is about a man and a young boy. The film, however, flips the gender. How did this come about?
Geraldine Chaplin: I got involved in the film because I’m such a passionate admirer of [directors] Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán. I was talking about their film Cochochi  to a friend, and they heard that I liked it. I never thought I’d get an offer to work with them, but when they found out I was a fan, they asked and I said: “To work with you would be a dream.” In the book and original script, there was an older male character, and a younger man who wants to get out [of the Dominican Republic]—he wants to go to the States. He has a passport instead of a heart. And there was an older Italian woman who was also chasing the young man. That was originally my part. But they couldn’t find the right actor for the young man. So they decided to make him a lady. It’s sort of been done—the older sex tourist with the younger man; Charlotte Rampling did that. So they thought: we’ll make her a young girl. This brings a feminine sensitive [to the film], which is lovely. And very different.
How did the story’s approach change because of this gender swap?
I was all ready for heavy sex scenes and going all out. But they were very right in saying: “No, we don’t really need that.” It’s lovely what Noeli and Anne do together: they walk on the beach; they dance in Anne’s cabana; obviously things go on in bed. They know very little about each other, yet there’s a complicity between the two females. Which I think would be very different between men. And then at one point the older woman becomes almost a mother. When Noeli gets pregnant, Anne starts acting like a mother.
The choice to not have heavy sex scenes is also of note coming off of Blue is the Warmest Color—
I love that film! [Laughs]
But you are still willing to bare your body?
I’m 71. When people ask me to take off my clothes I say: “Well, okay. I’ll do it. But I don’t really want to see it.” [Laughs] It comes down to my relationship with the director—to not necessarily be discreet with my nudity, and use it how they want. At first, I really thought we needed a sex scene in this film; that it was necessary. But, no, of course it isn’t! It’s so much finer without it.
The film itself relishes in this lack of didactic clarity. Anne and Noeli aren’t really judged, which is pretty radical when it’s all about women making choices about their sex lives.
Absolutely. And it’s a film about bodies. That first shot of a gnarled white hand on this youthful black impeccable shoulder. It’s moving—but it’s also grotesque! The underwater shots of the women swimming show this too; the rippling, wrinkled flesh.
The use of bodily movement over dialogue is also central in the film. You trained to be a ballet dancer. How has that impacted your career?
It helped a lot. There was a lot of discipline in my life. My father [Charlie Chaplin] was a great disciplinarian. He was a Victorian, born in 1889. He was really strict. And then I went to a convent school. Then I went to ballet school, which is a life that sits between being a boxer and a nun. I didn’t give up ballet, ballet gave me up. I was very upset—like how you feel losing a lover. But the discipline has helped—in film it help me get to my mark mentally. Physically, there’s always the movement, and this character is, or was, a dancer. Anne dances with Noeli. Noeli dances for her boyfriend. These scenes are very intimate and suggestive. In one scene when Noeli dances for Anne, you see the older woman staring at the girl with this longing. Noeli sees her gaze and says: “Ahh, you like that!”
What was it like working with newcomer Yanet Mojica?
It was difficult. It was very difficult. Because she’s not an actress—that’s why it was so good. I had to try to not become an actress and just be. I had to try to get to her level. When you’re working with non-actors it’s so hard to get to their level. Because you immediately give yourself away. There is an accepted language of acting that’s understood by the audience, and as an actor I use that. But in this kind of film that doesn’t work; it would stick out like a sore thumb. Whatever she said I had to follow, I had to follow her where she went.
That dynamic sounds like it informed the story, as Anne is so lost and devoted to Noeli.
Yes, and you know, the more I watch the film I see how little they know about each other. I wonder if they’ve really been together for three years or if that’s just the old bag saying that. Would she still be teaching her those first easy dance steps after three years?
You keep calling her an “old bag” and you’re talking about yourself!
Well, it’s not really myself.
There is a dissociation, of course, yet it is your image. But you’ve been on screen since you were 19, and in a way have this incredible document of your face and body. What’s that like?
When I look back, I don’t recognize that person. No one does—in my house in my village in Switzerland we have a picture of me in the garage all dolled up from years ago—the gown, flowers. The kids from the town come and say: “Let’s see the picture of Geraldine when she was a princess!” That was when I was princess and now I’m the old bag! That’s the way the cookie crumbles. [Laughs]
But this comes up all the time when talking about women in Hollywood and aging, and that when you hit 35 or 40 there are no more parts.
It’s horrible to age. It’s a massacre to age. But, you know, I’ve always worked. I think that’s because I go for the directors, not the part—if it’s a two second part, I’ll take it because I want to work with that director. Maybe there’s why I’ve kept working. But there is a transition period where you have to learn to work in short parts. It’s very different if you have a whole film versus just a minute to develop a full character.
Is there a frustration there? To have to dig for leading parts?
This is why Sand Dollars was such a gift. But you always dig, look for parts. I love to work. But I probably could live without work. My ambition is to work until the end. But if it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. Because I also love watching film.
You said in an interview in the New York Times in 1977: “My career is taking off in Europe, but the only people who want to work with me here are Altman and James Ivory.”
In Europe I was doing very dramatic stuff. But in America I had Altman thinking I was a comic and Ivory thought I was neurotic and a spinster—it was great! These two directors with different visions of me. Altman was just so outrageous. I miss him a lot. I saw him towards the end of his life when he wasn’t allowed to drink or smoke anymore. I said: “Bob, how do you it?” He told me: “It’s easy. I walk into a room, do this [Chaplin stands from the table and spins on the spot] and it’s basically the same.” But the 1970s were an incredible time. I also worked with Jacques Rivette. I wish I’d learned more from David Lean, that I’d been more aware [while filming Doctor Zhivago]. He was so smart—he was a genius with everything, down to the costumes. We shot the scene when my character, Tonya, arrives at a train station multiple times. First, we shot it with her wearing black. David said no. We did it again with Tonya in white. Then he said: “No, she’s coming from Paris. It should be pink!” And it works. It became iconic.
Now you work in Latin America a lot. Do you ever miss Hollywood or want to return to it?
I don’t know. I hear there’s a lot of great television there, which is what my daughter is doing now. I tried to discourage her, of course. Because there’s so much heartbreak in being turned down. You do 100 auditions and you get one part. And she’s not used to people saying no to her. But you also have to keep your sensitivity because that’s your instrument. For me, it’s always been a day-to-day thing: I have a job, or I don’t have a job and I’m waiting by the phone. And the years go by. But I don’t think anyone ages gracefully. But as long as my wrinkles get me jobs, I’ll leave them alone. After that I’ll get Botox and donate so much skin I can’t even tell you!
This interview was conducted at the International Film Festival of Panama in April 2015.