Geraldine Chaplin the internationally-acclaimed film actress who has worked with some of the greatest directors of the 20th century, might have lived and starred in movies across the globe, but when I had the chance to meet her when she was in town for the Museum of Fine Arts’ Latin Wave film festival, I could find no better expression to describe her than a distinctly American one: Wow, that women is such a hoot.
I was anxious the night before I was set to interview this screen legend, not the least of which was because I had just watched the Karl Lagerfeld directed short film, The Return, where Chaplin plays an aged Coco Chanel with a mix of poise, style and venerability.
Her powerful depiction of the fashion icon left me agonizing the next morning over that most profound question: What should I wear?
So of course when I walked into the Beck Building conference room, I discovered the 71-year-old Chaplin, daughter of Charlie Chaplin, granddaughter of Eugene O’Neill, clad in a Sponge Bob Square Pants T-shirt accessorized by yellow Angry Birds sunglasses. Hence, the first point of our conversation was not about any of the 140 movies and television shows she has starred in or even Sand Dollars (Dólares de Arena), the controversial film she was in Houston to discuss at the MFAH.
No, we had to begin with her grilling me about who exactly this Sponge Bob is, since she only purchased the shirt because she liked the colors. This was the moment my what-a-hoot assessment first began to form.
Latin American Cinema vs. Hollywood
Leaving the Sponge and Birds behind, we dived into Sand Dollars and her role as Anne, a mature, wealthy French woman who falls for a much younger and poorer Dominican woman. One is looking for a youthful love; the other is looking for a better life in the form of a passport to France. When I asked Chaplin what led her to the role, she said it all came down to the directors, Israel Cárdenas and Laura Amelia Guzmán, whose previous films she greatly admired.
And after working her entire life in film, what does she still love about movies? Stories that stay with her and make her think instead of giving her pat answers.
“They’d gotten in touch with me and asked ‘Would you like to work with us?’ I didn’t care what the script was, just the opportunity to work with these two directors. They’re brilliant. They’re everything I love about movies.”
And after working her entire life in film, what does she still love about movies? Stories that stay with her and make her think instead of giving her pat answers. These are qualities she’s especially seeing lately in Latin American cinema much more than from the big Hollywood blockbusters.
“Films that I like to see are always a little edgy, that don’t give you pre-digested material,” she explained, adding “I like to see a film where I can go home and think and grow.”
While she does think there is cinematic beauty in some of the big spectacle films, even citing the first Transformers movie as a kind of visual art, she definitely doesn’t like the simplistic stories Hollywood often delivers, or having a “message rammed down” the throats of a viewer.
It's All About the Director
Yet when we discussed her own films and the stories they tell, she kept going back to the directors, not the parts she played. “There’s not a role that I wouldn’t play for a good director. I’m still of the old school that thinks it’s the director’s medium," she said.
In fact when I asked her if she sees herself in any of these roles, or if she finds any commonality in the parts she plays, she once again referred to how the directors saw her.
“I’d always be playing more or less the same part or the same kind of personality the way the director saw me.” With someone like Carlos Saura, who she had “a very long affair with” in the '70s seeing her as “the foreigner, neurotic, spinster and bipolar” and then she would cross the Atlantic to work with Robert Altman who kept casting her as the “crazy, funny and outrageous” woman.
Yet Charlie Chaplin’s daughter has never felt the call to be a director herself.
“I love being directed. I love being the clay that the director molds to be what they want. I love pleasing. I can’t imagine myself directing. I wouldn’t know where to start.”
Being Charlie's Daughter
In most profiles and interviews with Chaplin, she gets defined by her family tree. Even her daughter Oona Chaplin, an actress in her own right, has to contend with her famous grandfather and great grandfather. (At this point in our interview we wandered into a Game of Thrones fan discussion, since Oona, as Talisa Maegyr Stark, was the first one down at the Red Wedding. And no Oona did not warn her poor mother about what was to come before the episode.)
“He was not only a great actor and director, but he was also the most loved person in the world, and that is incredible.”
When I asked Chaplin if she ever tired of having to talk about being Charlie Chaplin’s daughter, she gave a definitive no.
“I love it because he was not only the most universally recognized fictional image of a human being in history, he was not only a great actor and director, but he was also the most loved person in the world, and that is incredible.”
She’s even played her own paternal grandmother in the Chaplin biopic starring Robert Downey Jr. With several depictions of her father and even her grandfather’s, Eugene O’Neill, life on film, I had to ask her if she thought her own life would also make a good movie.
“I can’t remember my life,” she said laughing at this idea. “I really can’t remember much about it. If it was fictionalized maybe. I don’t think so. It was pretty boring. The only interesting thing about my life is that I’m not robust but surviving. If I could only remember. Maybe someone else could remember for me and make it more interesting.”