There's always something admirable about performers who take the road less traveled, and Tilda Swinton didn't merely veer off of the conventional path en route to stardom, she forged her own. After starting her career as the muse of late director and artist Derek Jarman, Swinton gained international recognition as the star of the 1992 gender-bending drama Orlando, and then went on to play in a string of films that provided her with rewarding challenges that earned her a reputation as a peerless chameleon and all-around performer of unpredictable roles.
Her new film is I Am Love, a collaboration with filmmaker and longtime friend Luca Guadagnino, where she plays the mother in an upper-crust Italian family who unexpectedly succumbs to a torrid affair with one of her son's young friends. Cinematical recently was lucky enough to speak with Swinton at the film's Los Angeles press day, where in addition to offering background information on the film itself, she provided some insight into how she finds entry into the characters she plays, and reflected on a career path that has been anything but conventional.
When you're doing a film in Italian and it's not your first language, do you think in English or do you think in Italian?
Tilda Swinton: I don't speak Italian well enough to speak fluently, so no. But you know the strange thing about the language question is that I'm very often speaking in a language that's not my own. When I'm impersonating an American person, I'm not actually speaking in a language that's my own. I very often, particularly if I have to improvise in American, that's a stretch because I may want to come up with something that I realize is actually an English or a Queen's English construction and I often have to work very hard to translate it into American. So it's not that. I probably speak...my Italian and my American are probably on a par.
So if you don't speak Italian or you don't feel you've mastered it, why would you choose to do a role in Italian?
Swinton: Well, I'm not choosing to do a role, I'm choosing to make a film with my friend which we developed over 11 years and he happens to be Italian and he wanted to make a film in Italy. So it's not like I chose a role that came to me in script form, it's something that I'd developed from scratch. I suppose very early on there was a moment when we fantasized about the film not being in Italy but I think quite quickly we realized that we wanted to make the film in Italy. There was probably a moment when we thought about making it in English and I think that passed very fast. Why would we make it in English? It's a film about an Italian family. The spoken language is really not the language we wanted to concentrate on in the film. We wanted to look at the language of cinema and we wanted to remember what Hitchcock says about the camera telling the story and the dialogue just being atmosphere. Nobody really says anything of much importance in the film.
Cinematical: How difficult was it as you were conceiving this to create this intersection of the personal and the cultural? It feels like an updated version of a film like The Leopard.
Swinton: Well we wanted to make something original and we did. We germinated an idea which came inspired by all sorts of films. When I say it took us 11 years to make the film, I mean that we started for about 3 or 4 years to what a friend of mine in advertising would call blue sky about our favorite filmmakers and a kind of emotional cinema that we feel hasn't really got a sort of modern incarnation, the cinemas of Douglas Sirk or Alfred Hitchcock or John Huston or Visconti, that feeling of rich language of cinema – a camera that's very expressive, a sound track that's very expressive, a lot of silence in a film, a lot of atmosphere in a film. Our project was to try and find a way of downloading all that we love about classical cinema and trying to make it modern. So I would say it's inspired by those classical notes but we were trying to find something original.
What was it about the role of Emma that resonated with you?
Swinton: The role that resonates with me the most though, which is in a way my contribution to the narrative of the story, is the daughter's story. Personally, that's the story that I have the most relationship to because I grew up as the artist's daughter in a family that doesn't necessarily, never did really expect her to harbor an artist in its midst, although they're very tolerant and kind now. Emma, what resonates with me about Emma? Personally, I would say her quietness, her interior life, [but] in terms of her story, not really that much personally. She's someone who lives and has lived a very different life to the life I've lived. But, the rhythm of her, the rhythm of her quietness, I was able to access in myself that feeling of being a foreigner which I spent a lot of my life being a foreigner in a country where I'm not particularly fluent in the language and I just sit quietly at the table and let everybody else talk. That, I was able to download very easily. That's something that I'm very good at doing – just saying I don't speak the language and listening.
There's a very open-ended sense of your character's childhood, or backstory. Can you share anything about that?
Swinton: Well, all we know is, she's the child of an art restorer. So we have this sense of her coming from a world of art. An artisan world, and an artisan household in that sort of era Soviet Russia, as I understand it, and I first went to Moscow in 1988, and I knew people who lived that life. They were extraordinarily cultured, and internationally educated, and in a way, very privileged, in terms of Russian society. But that's all we know, that she came from that world, and that household. She doesn't mention her mother, or anything else. She doesn't even remember her real name. She mentions what she was called at home, Kitesh, and Kitesh isn't actually a human name; this is a reference for those who know it, and no one would ever pick this up. Kitesh is a legendary Russian village that was being ransacked by – I don't know who, the barbarians, of some kind – and the idea was that the village, when the marauders were coming, sank down into this lake. The village was located next to this very beautiful, clear lake. The idea is that it sank down into the lake to protect itself from the marauders, and you can go there now, and go see it in the lake, because it's so clear you can see the reflection. But that's what Kitesh is, and we called her Kitesh because of the idea that she would be submerged. She's not suppressed, oppressed, or repressed, in any way, but she is submerged. It's like she's waiting to come up, which she does, of course, at a point in the film. That's all we know.
Talk about the preparations that go into playing a role like this – a Russian woman who has become completely Italian. What details do you have to pay attention to in order to honor both of those ideas?
Swinton: I got to know several Russian women who were the right age and had lived in Soviet Russia as it was when she left, when Emma's character left Moscow, and had a similar sort of experience. [She] had left in the late '70s and had come to Milan, and in fact two of them had married into a very similar sort of milieu in Milan. So they were very, very important references for me, and I talked to them a lot about what that experience did to them – how it meant they behaved, and how it meant they held themselves. I remember them talking about the experience of knowing that they'd come into this almost more circumscribed environment where they knew they had to wear exactly the right thing, and that if they wore the wrong shoes then they might not be invited to a dinner the following week. And that whole feeling of entering a code and having to learn a code and not get it wrong for the sake of their husbands or whatever. That was very interesting. I remember one woman telling me that she took years to learn to smile; she just could not show her teeth. She felt so closed down. And also just conversations about what it was like to encounter that kind of wealth, that kind of abundance, to go into food shops especially as the wife of a rich man, and to be able to buy anything you needed.
Cinematical: How careful do you have to be in the storytelling to communicate the containment that she endures and yet not overstate the level of oppression that drives her behavior in the film?
Swinton: Well, we knew that we wanted to work within a kind of melodramatic trope, so we knew that we wanted to play our emotions very close to our chest. When you're working with melodrama you sort of need to play your jokers at the right time; you can't play them too early, and you have to withhold. And that suited this characterization of Emma very well because she is someone who has a very well-developed inner life, but is not particularly communicative, and is pretty lonely, in fact. She isn't really met by anybody very much in the film, apart from her son, which doesn't have that much to do with him these days. And we also knew that what we wanted for the film from the very beginning of preproduction and planning it and shooting it, we knew that what we really wanted was a score by John Adams, but we knew that was extremely unlikely because he had never allowed his music to be used in a film before. But we had this fantasy as we did eventually have this great, great honor to be able to do, is sort of a cut-and-paste version of his greatest hits of our favorite John Adams bits to kind of fill the emotion in the soundtrack so the restraint and the behavior in the film could remain kind of meted out so that we didn't have any kind of big histrionics at any point except at the very end of the film. So I don't know if that answers your question, but that was a game we were playing – we knew we wanted to keep it very cool emotionally. We wanted to keep it almost [like a] documentary in the way we shot it, and it's a milieu that's often shot in a very theatrical, slightly dramatic way, and we wanted to set up the milieu realistically but we wanted to shoot in this sort of modern and very kind of almost eavesdropping sort of a way. The great Yorick Le Saux, who was the cinematographer, is a master of just noticing behavior, and so we knew that we wanted it to be pretty cool, but then we wanted the soundtrack – and finally we were very blessed because we got John Adams and he said yes.
Can you talk about the love scenes in the film? They're really beautiful, but how comfortable were you shooting them, and what was involved?
Swinton: I don't know if it would be possible to do scenes like that with people who weren't very close friends. We were all very close friends, and that particular team that was in that garden that day, I mean, it was a tiny little team of people who have been friends for a very long time. Yorick Le Saux was the cinematographer and I made Julia with him – he's a very good friend of mine. Edoardo Gabbriellini, who plays Antonio, is a great fried. And we all knew what we wanted to do, and we all knew what we wanted to show was something really very precise and real and natural and it felt really easy. It felt very, very easy, because no one had to have anything explained to them; everybody was on exactly the same note. We just sort of lay down and got bitten a lot by bugs and then got up again and went and had lunch (laughs).
Cinematical: There's also the mythic implications of the final shot of the film, in the cave. Did you see this finale as purely triumphant, or is there a greater cost for her freedom? [SPOILER ALERT!]
Swinton: In one way, entirely unrelated, the random death of her son, is tragic. Genuinely, in the Greek tragic sense, a tragedy. I don't know if it's possible to imagine ever getting over that. I'm not talking about any kind of moral judgment, or any idea that her choices have led to it, because of course it has this random quality to it. They haven't even gotten to their melodramatic argument yet, and he falls off the side of the swimming pool. Who knows? We'd have to wait for the sequel to know how she goes on. But we did want to place her back in the cave with Antonio. At least, that's the place she goes to. When she's leaving the house, she puts on his clothes. She has nothing of her own. She has nowhere else to go. This is one of the reasons why we chose for her to be Russian, we wanted her to be someone from a place that she could never go back to. I mean, of course she could go back to Russia, but she can't go back to Soviet Russia, she can't go back to where she's come from. If we made her Scottish, she could always go back to Scotland, if we made her American, she could have gone back to America, and we wanted to make her awakening. Something that meant that even after the tragedy, she has to keep on going. She can't run home to Mummy. [END SPOILERS]
If there is one, do you feel like the message in the film is that connection between the daughter and women everywhere who feel constrained or oppressed? What connection are we to make about the two things being similar?
Swinton: You're to make whatever connections you want, and I wouldn't say that we're interested in any messages particularly. But something that I find in the film is the idea and the reality of the fact that change is the only thing that we have to rely on, and the underlying idea that we can choose to change or not is really folly and a terrible waste of energy and that change is nature and nature is change. And the sooner we recognize that, the more honest we can be with ourselves and our loved ones, and just the more peaceably we can live. The women definitely are the more enlightened in the film, in the sense that they are the ones we see transformed, but I would be loathe to pretend that we are trying to say anything about that being inevitable. I think that transformation is there for all of us.
One of the things I've always admired about you is the way in which you have plotted out the road in your career. You decided what road you wanted to take. I don't see you on a bunch of celebrity magazines. I'm wondering how your life has changed since winning the Oscar, which gives you an incredible visibility.
Swinton: I love the idea that I'm planning my own course. I almost want you to keep that fantasy in your mind. I don't want to tell you the truth which is that I'm absolutely making everything up as I go along and I'm not aware of having a career at all, let alone a career path. I'm aware of having a life and I'm very invested in my life. My work is in Europe. A film like I Am Love which has taken 11 years to make or a film like Julia which I made which was released here last year which I made with the French filmmaker Erick Zonca or a film like the film [We Need to Talk about Kevin] I've just finished shooting with Lynne Ramsay which we've been working on for about 5 years. These are seeds that get planted in the ground and they take a long time to come up. Meanwhile, I was invited to America to other people's parties like Tony Gilroy's film, Michael Clayton, or the Coen Brothers film or David Fincher's film and I have been so happy to come and so astonished and happy to be given an Oscar for one of them. But frankly it's business as usual because the seeds are still in the ground and needed watering and needed bringing to fruition. Honestly, the only thing that's changed since winning an Oscar is that people now ask me how my life has changed since winning an Oscar.
Was that a comfortable process for you to go through that whole machine – the whole Oscar process of going for the nomination, getting the nomination and then winning? It's like the Superbowl leading up to that night.
Swinton: Possibly it should have been that way. If I had been conscious, it might have been that way. I remember about the week before the Oscar ceremony, I remember asking my agent in London, who happens to be an American who was brought up in Rhode Island, and I said to him "Can you take some time at some point to explain to me what the Academy Awards are because I feel a little guilty that I'm in this sort of strange circus and I don't really understand what the Academy Awards are. I've never seen them on the television and I've certainly never been to one and I don't really understand why they're such a big deal for people who have access to them on the television." He never got the time to tell me but I will say that having gone to the Academy Awards and having been given one, I mean we went to the Academy Awards as we would if we had been given free tickets to the center court at Wimbledon. But what I didn't expect was someone would hand me a racket in the middle of a match. I came home after this experience and checked my emails in the middle of the night and I had something like 600 emails, and I went "Right! Now I'm beginning to get the hang of what an Oscar is." It's just the most famous prize in the world. It's much more famous than any Nobel Prizes or Pulitzer Prizes or anything. I am astonished that I should be in the firing line for one. I didn't engage before. I'm really grateful, especially if it helps a film like this. But I still don't know what it really is.
How do you think your life might have been different if you had not had a mentor?
Swinton: You must be referring to Derek Jarman. Well, I don't know if I can imagine having any life as a performer in the cinema without Derek Jarman. I wasn't ever interested in being a performer; I certainly wasn't interested in being an actress. And at the point at which I met him I was really on the verge of not performing at all. I'd gone to university as a writer, and stopped writing the second I got there - because I was encouraged to read too much, I think. And I sort of slid sideways into performing in the theater there, but I was never invested in performing in the theater, and by time I'd left university I'd done a little bit of experimental theater, a little bit of industrial theater, and knew I didn't want to do that and was on the verge of stopping performing altogether when I met Derek Jarman. And through Derek Jarman I found myself in this extraordinary sort of kindergarten atmosphere, which meant I could develop this way of being a performer but not being an actress, and I don't know where else I could have done that. I can't imagine that there was anybody else who would have given me the license to play in that way and be in seven films, five of which I think are silent, most of which are home movies shot on super-8 with me looking into the camera and crawling about in the dirt and just experimenting with being in front of the camera. Not interpreting, just being myself. I don't know - if I hadn't had that experience, I don't think – because I knew I didn't want to be an actress, and I still don't want to be an actress. So I don't know that I would be without him in this position. And I suppose people find mentors in strange places and at strange moments in their lives; sometimes people's mentors are their children, and one of the things that I love about this film is that Emma's mentors are her children, particularly her daughter, who's sort of the gateway to her liberation – leads her down the path to liberation.
Swinton: I'm always very tentative about this concept of fearlessness because I don't really locate it in myself. I mean, I don't feel fearless; I feel curious, and I feel very blessed, principally in that I seem to be provided with a pretty endless supply of fantastic colleagues. Even when they fall off the tree like darling Derek Jarman, what I couldn't possibly imagine is that I would be able to go on finding collaborators that I could work with long-term, in the way in which I work with Luca, in the way in which I work with Lynn Hershman-Leeson, the way in which I work with so many people – that sort of continual thing. Jim Jarmusch. These long-term relationships are what I really, really love, not just because it was what I cut my teeth on with Derek, but also because I think it really suits me to work in a kind of family atmosphere. So one man's fearlessness is another man's ease, and it's very easy for me. I'm not really aware of it as fearlessness. But I suppose it is sort of curiosity – I think I have a low boredom threshold.
Cinematical: At the risk of drawing an inaccurate parallel to the themes in the film, is there a sense that because change is inevitable you give yourself over to that?
Swinton: I am really puzzled when I notice sometimes when people are thinking change is an option. It's not an option! It seems to me so obvious and it seems to me that it's something to be embraced. I mean, maybe it's something to do with the fact that my sort of northern star when I was a child was my very much older than me grandmother, who died when she was 97 and I was aware even when I was a child that she had already lived many lives, and here she was – I mean, she was, whatever, 60 when I was born. So it's this sort of feeling of – she was young as far as I was concerned, and had another three, nearly four decades ahead of her. That feeling of reinvention, transformation and long life, like Orlando, it seems to me completely inevitable. You know, I'll probably fall over tomorrow, but I've sort of always had this sense that life is long and it's long even if it's short. We just keep rolling with the punches, and change is a good thing.
It seems like you will be a dame one day.
Swinton: A dame? I'd so much rather be a knight.
But what would you think of becoming a dame? Would that mean something to you?
Swinton: It would, of course, be a great honor to be asked whether one would. I don't know. But I think Sir Tilda sounds so much better.
Do you think knights have more fun than dames?
Swinton: Knights get to have Ladies. I don't think sweet hearts of dames get anything. Like David Furnish, is he the Lady? Maybe he is.