Published: Verve Magazine, March 2017
How Charlie Chaplin’s granddaughter is carrying forward his legacy…
The bright red of her sophisticated outfit sits sharply against her skin, and is offset nicely by her pulled-back dark hair; her height is unnerving as she rises to greet you with her trademark wide smile. Carmen Chaplin’s bloodline packs a punch — besides being the granddaughter of comic actor, film-maker and composer Charlie Chaplin (and on the maternal side French artist Patrick Betaudier), she is also the great-granddaughter of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Eugene O’Neill, and daughter of actor Michael Chaplin and artist Patricia Betaudier. There are aunts and cousins in the movie industry, who run the gamut between Doctor Zhivago and Game of Thrones. But for this family, you can tell that it’s not show business, it’s art. As she says, ‘It’s in your DNA to love films.’ She made her acting debut in 1991 and has since appeared in nearly two dozen movies including All About The Benjamins (2002), besides directing a short, Tryst in Paname (2012).
Itching to get out of school, she simultaneously started attending acting classes and modelling at the age of 16. As a child, she would act in, direct and co-write plays (with her sister). In The Greatest Moments of our Time, a short film by Jaeger-LeCoultre, she says, ‘I love every part of the process of directing. In a way, it’s much fuller for me. I find the process of writing very painful, but it’s one of the most satisfying things when you get a script together’. When she was around eight years old, she made short films with her sisters and friends with a Super 8 camera. ‘Film sets are a lot like staying a child, because you get to pretend that you are creating a world that doesn’t exist, you get to play like you did when you were a child. You don’t have to focus on any other realities of life — you just focus on telling the story.’ Excerpts from the interview below:
How much does legacy count in creativity?
“I think we’re always looking to what has been done to create new things and I think it’s always been the case — you always inspire yourself with something someone else has done. So, it’s a part of art.”
Is it difficult entering a creative field that’s been previously dominated by legends in the family?
“Yes, and I think that’s why I didn’t start directing in my 20s…even though as a child it was something that I was really interested in. I guess it was daunting. But I wasn’t very conscious about it until I began directing. Then I thought, oh, why didn’t I start earlier? Because comparison is just something that will make you stagnate in life and paralyse you; and if you’re free of that, then you’re free to create.”
What does art mean to you?
“That’s a very big question. (Laughs.) I guess it means a lot because my mother is a painter and my grandfather was a film-maker. On my mother’s side, too, my grandfather was a painter. My father writes. I have a lot of artists in my family, so…maybe it’s a way of living, but also something that makes your life more beautiful.”
Can luxury and art meet?
“Definitely. I think they meet in all artistic mediums; but, in some ways, they pollute art and in other ways, art needs that side of things, too. Sometimes you feel it’s just become so commercial that you don’t know where the art is. And the same with cinema or with luxury brands. But at the same time, it’s a continuous act of balance.”
You’ve been a ‘friend’ of the Jaeger-LeCoultre brand — we see the Rendez-vous in yellow gold on your wrist….
“The association feels very natural even though I didn’t know much about watches before collaborating with them. I find them to be a luxury brand on a very human level, and I love their love for cinema. I enjoy wearing their old watches from the ’20s and ’30s. People have such a passion for watches, including the people who make them — in that sense it’s similar to making movies — you need people who are extremely talented at one very specific thing.”
What was your first experience with fine watchmaking?
“There was one Jaeger-LeCoultre watch (Memovox) that was given by the Swiss government when my grandfather moved there. (He was forced into exile from the United States, for alleged communist sympathies.) My grandmother gave it to my father when he was a teenager, and my father gave it to my mother when they got married. When I met with the brand, in one of our conversations, we spoke about this watch and then had the idea of making a film together.” (A Time For Everything, which features not just the watch, but Carmen’s mother and daughter as well.)
Tell us about Bombay Nights….
“Oh, that’s a film I wrote and really wanted to direct. Before my pregnancy, it was my passion project! Then I had my daughter. My partner is Indian and my daughter is half Indian — I thought that it would be the easiest thing to make as a first feature. But Mumbai is such a hyperactive city and it’s so different from the way my daughter is used to living, that I then felt it would be better for me to make a movie in Europe before I made one in India.”
Are you familiar with India?
“I’ve been to India three or four times: to Kerala, Delhi, Mumbai, Varanasi and Jaipur. I love India. I think it’s a very exciting place to be and a world apart from Europe — all your visions of life and death are so different in India. I was always struck by how death is kind of a part of life. In Europe, we hide people who are dead. I remember seeing processions in Mumbai with the dead just wrapped in white cloths and their faces being shown. It just felt like it was a much healthier view — something that isn’t as taboo. So, lots of things are very inspiring…just to be confronted with a culture that’s so different. At the same time, because of my daughter, I hear a lot of Hindi. It isn’t my culture, but it’s one that’s becoming more familiar to me.”
Have you watched any Indian movies?
“I’ve seen some old Indian movies by Satyajit Ray and some Bollywood films. My daughter likes the latter, particularly those from the ’70s and ’80s — she loves the dancing and singing. I find them fun, but they have an element that to me seems kitsch because I didn’t grow up with them. I prefer the more independent Indian cinema….”