WHEN YOUR GRANDFATHER is none other than film icon Charlie Chaplin and your great-grandfather Nobel Prize Laureate Eugene O’Neill, storytelling runs through your veins. Carmen Chaplin, the Londonbased actress and director whose big blue eyes and olive skin belie her half-English and half-Trinidadian background – her mother hails from the Caribbean island – did indeed follow in the footsteps of her forebears. However, unlike many descendants of famous artists who spend their lives trying to live up to their parents’ success, Chaplin has been quietly operating in the world of independent film, acting in – and now directing – only small productions that pique her interest and that she feels instinctively drawn to.
Although the actress and director isn’t yet a household name, that didn’t deter Swiss watchmaker Jaeger-LeCoultre from choosing her as one of its brand ambassadors. The reason behind the watchmaker’s involvement with the actress, however, dates back to her illustrious grandfather’s own relationship with the company.
When Charlie Chaplin moved to Switzerland, the government celebrated its new honorary citizen with a symbol of its manufacturing excellence, a Jaeger-LeCoultre Memovox watch, its back engraved with the words “Hommage du gouvernement vaudois à Charlie Chaplin – 6 octobre 1953” (A tribute from the government of the Canton of Vaud to Charlie Chaplin – October 6, 1953) – the timepiece is still in the family. To celebrate the manufacture’s 180th anniversary, Chaplin has directed a short film, A Time for Everything, in which she stars alongside her mother and daughter. Here, she talks with Prestige Hong Kong about her childhood memories, her love for directing and her new life as a mother.
You had a very international upbringing. Where did you actually grow up?
I was born in London and my parents moved to Switzerland for a bit and then the South of France. I went to boarding school in Madrid and then I moved to Paris when I was 16. I also lived in New York and now I’m in London but I’m not attached to any particular place – my parents were around a lot when I was a kid, so I like to live in new places as long as I can see my family and friends.
Given your background, you probably always knew that acting might be your career. Can you tell me more about your early exposure to films?
I shot a lot of films with my family because we had a Super 8 camera so I directed and acted in films. They were with my sister and friends and we’d dress up, and when we were in school we’d do plays and I’d direct them and my sister and I would act in them. I always loved it. Then as a teenager I was shy about saying I wanted to be in a movie because my grandfather was such a big icon so I felt silly saying that I wanted to be an actress and I started off modelling.
Did you enjoy that?
No, I wasn’t a very good model because I was too shy so I started taking acting classes and I found acting much easier because it was easier to pretend you were someone else. When you model you’re presenting yourself, whereas when you act you’re presenting yourself as a character, pretending you’re someone else. When you have to go in front of an audience and speak as yourself, you’re more vulnerable.
Can you share a memory of your grandfather?
I remember that my father was in one of my grandfather’s films, A King in New York. He was 14 and my grandfather plays the king and my father plays this little boy in an orphanage. My father told me that my grandfather coached him throughout that film, and seeing that as a kid, it made me want to act too in some ways. My father then started writing because he felt acting wasn’t for him. I think when you’re the son of someone like that it’s almost lucky that he didn’t act.
What about you? Do you feel the same pressure?
I’m the granddaughter and I’m a woman so it’s a bit different.
Looking at your career so far, you seem to be more drawn to independent films rather than blockbusters.
I think that as an actress, unless you’re Meryl Streep, your choices are based on what’s offered to you. When I was in New York I did some very underground films that went to festivals but will never be successful, although I really enjoyed doing them. It’s not like I wasn’t given the choice to do big romantic comedies – I don’t really like them.
Is that why you now write and direct?
Yes, I prefer to write my own films, to direct and to only work if I really love the project. I find that when you make films you’re not crazy about but you think there’s potential somewhere and you trust the director – and as an actor you put in a lot of blood and tears and you give a lot to it – often the result doesn’t live up to it. Especially now that I have a child, I don’t do things just because I’m offered the part. I realised that there’s something wonderful about directing because you really get to create the story you want to make.
What do you find most challenging about directing a film?
I didn’t know if it was going to be a challenge but as an actress I always thought that directors had all this knowledge and knew everything and that they had a much bigger job than actors. But actually when you direct, you realise that the important thing is to surround yourself with very creative people – and I love that – when you have an idea and you build upon it with other people who are creative. I love that collaboration.
Besides your grandfather, is there an actor or actress you’ve always admired?
I love actresses from the ’40s and ’50s because I feel they had amazing roles – someone like Bette Davis because she was so versatile. She was beautiful but she wasn’t Ava Gardner and yet she could still play big parts like in Jezebel, where she’s the most beautiful woman in the world and she’s so good that you believe it. I love to watch old movies. I can watch them again and again. All About Eve – I’ve probably seen it about 25 times and I can still watch it again: I like it as if it were the first time.
Can you tell me more about your relationship with Jaeger-LeCoultre and the short you directed for its 180th anniversary?
My grandfather was given a watch by the Swiss government after he moved to Switzerland and it stayed in the family. My grandfather gave it to my father when he was 14. My father kept it and my mother was even wearing it on their wedding day. It stayed somehow very connected to us and then I did a short film because of that watch. The relationship with them began like that. It was very natural. I love the fact that my dad gave it to my mum as proof of their love on their wedding day. It was a real goodluck charm because they have been in love now for 45 years.