Tilda Swinton: In Praise of Inarticulacy and Budget Cuts

She’s completely out of the loop when it comes to Hollywood, but Tilda Swinton knows all about dark and difficult movies

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By now, it's certainly no surprise that Tilda Swinton has turned in another riveting performance in a dark and difficult movie; from "Orlando" to "I Am Love," that's what she does, with occasional detours to play the white witch in the Narnia films and win an Oscar as a corporate lawyer in "Michael Clayton."

Tilda SwintonSwinton's latest, which has made her a richly-deserving dark-horse Oscar candidate, is "We Need to Talk About Kevin," an intense, intimate and disquieting drama drawn from Lionel Shriver's novel about a woman struggling through the aftermath of a horrific crime committed by her son.

Her performance is often wordless; she may be the only person in the family aware of the depths of evil that reside within her son (played by Ezra Miller and two younger actors), but she's unable to communicate with her husband (John C. Reilly) or turn to anyone in the aftermath of his actions.

Swinton flew to Los Angeles from her home in Northern Scotland for the Governors Awards earlier in the month. Not surprisingly, she's out of the loop when it comes to Hollywood buzz – when I told her that Billy Crystal had signed on to host the Oscars just moments before we met, she was completely unaware of the turmoil that had surrounded the show in the previous few days.

Billy Crystal just tweeted that he's hosting the Oscars.
Things have been happening with that show, haven't they? I didn't know anything about it, and then I got to L.A. and people were talking about something. But the news doesn't reach those of us who live on other planets.

Yeah, the original producer had to quit because he said "rehearsal is for fags" at a Q&A, and then talked about his sex life on the Howard Stern show.
How fantastic! How fantastic.

You went through that circus once, with "Michael Clayton."
Well, apparently so, but it didn't feel like it. I was somehow oblivious at the time. I'm trying to remember anything from it. I think maybe the second time you can feel it happening. It's like taking an anesthetic the first time. You don’t feel it going in.

I understand your agent has your Oscar.
My agent has my Oscar. His  Oscar. I gave it to him. 

I expected "We Need to Talk About Kevin" to be disturbing, and it was, But I didn't expect it to be as lyrical as it was.
Did you know the book?

No, I didn't.
The book is a lot less lyrical. That's one of the great things about Lynne Ramsay adapting the book. Because she is someone who is … Lyrical  is not exactly the word that I'd use, but she is definitely someone who is interested in atmosphere, particularly a kind of atmosphere of discomfort. And it was important that it be beautiful. It’s got a kind of elegiac quality, this feeling of her nostalgia for this life, as well as being a horror story.

Were you familiar with the book before the movie came along?
Yeah, I was. I knew the book, and I was very keen to know what Lynne was doing next, and very interested that she had chosen to adapt this book. There had been this really unwieldy gap of time since "Morvern Callar," and I was wanting to help her make another feature film in any way I could. But then this point came when it became clear that I wanted to be in it.

I can't really remember if it was my idea or hers. But we sort of slowly moved toward that idea.

Tilda SwintonWhy?
As it because more and more developed, and less and less about the social atmosphere in the book, more and more about this woman's interior life, then the more interested I became in playing it.

And to be honest, I think it was partly to do with a sort of huge budget cut that we faced at a certain point. I always hate to say this, because it sounds like I'm arguing for the stringencies of people cutting budgets, but it became very clear that we were only going to get about half of what we wanted. Which meant that we were going to really have to streamline it and reduce the social context. And there had to be less people in it, less locations. More claustrophic, in fact. Much more Greek. All the action had to take place offscreeen.

The cheaper it got, the better it got. But that's not always the case.

So the more it departed from the book, the more it improved?
Well, it became much clearer as a Lynne Ramsay film. The book is very much about someone who’s trying to work it out. She's writing letters, trying to work out what happened, trying to explain it to herself and to her husband. It’s quite a political book about Bush-era America, and it's very socially aware. And we sort of pulled out of that, and locked into her mind, her memories, her fantasies, her nightmares.

It became a sort of phantasmagoria, and the more it became about someone who is lonely, who doesn’t have anybody to talk to or to explain things to, the more it became interesting to me. That's really something I'm interested in, the idea of inarticulacy or dumbness.

Does it take away some of your tools as an actress?
To me, it feels like you gain more capacity, the less you get to say, in cinema at least. I always say that I think cinema has gone downhill since people started talking in it. It's just a personal preference. I like it when people … Like what I'm doing now. I think I know what I want to say, but I'm searching for the words. I like that. I don’t like it when people become playwrights on screen. I like a level of inarticulacy, and also silence.

They may have helped develop the material, but did the time and budget constraints feel limiting when you were shooting?

It meant that we had to work in a more prescribed way than we would have liked to do. Lynne and I were talking earlier about how we're both looking forward to working in a more loose way. But that is a luxury in this kind of filmmaking. If you get two takes, you're lucky. It’s a discipline, and it’s painful at times, but you’ve got to keep trucking.

Can it be frustrating as an actor?
In terms of performance, when you’ve been thinking about doing something for four years and then you have to do it in half an hour and then leave it, that’s always a bit tricky. But you just have to do it.

Ezra Miller and Tilda SwintonYour character, Eva, has a complicated bond with her son – she's the one who really knows that something is wrong, but she's also connected to him in a deeper way than his father is.
We were always clear that we wanted this to be a sort of double portrait of one person. We knew that Kevin and Eva had to feel like two sides of the same coin. The thing that’s so horrendous is not that his violence and badness is exotic and foreign to her. It's really familiar — that's  the worst part. She knows It’s hers, and he's acting it out in front of her.

So we needed them to feel very closely linked physically. If he had been sort and round and red-haired, I would have been short and round and red-haired. As it happened, he looked like Ezra Miller, so I had to go that way. He led the way, and I had to follow.

Do you have to be sensitive when you're acting with younger children in a work that involves tough, disturbing material?
To me, it’s much, much easier to play with children. Children know that it’s play. You ask a six-year-old to dress up as a dog, he'll go there. You ask a 45-year-old to dress up as a dog, and you'll have to go through all sort of questions of method and psychological background.

With children, it’s very easy and relaxed. You ask a three-year-old to be bad and growl at his mommy, it’s easy. It’s what a three year old loves to do. So no, it's really graceful and easy, working with children.

As the lead actor but also a producer, was it easy for you to maintain the split focus required?
Honestly, that's always been the way that I've worked. If anything, it’s stranger for me and rarer for me to just come in and play and get a check and go away. That's only happened to me a handful of times in my life. Most of the time I'm minding the shop as well. And I like that.

There's a kind of myopia you get with performance that feels to me potentially hazardous and weird. And I quite like having the actualities of knowing what time it is, and knowing how quickly you have to work.

What are you doing next?
I feel like a farmer who's had a big harvest. There were three films that I was working on for the last 12 years. "I Am Love" I worked on for 11 years, "Julia" for five and this one for five. And they've all now been made, so I'm very happily facing a bit of a plowed field. I worked very briefly and very happily on the new Wes Anderson film, but apart from that I'm back to the drawing board.

Tilda SwintonDo Hollywood-type movies factor into your plans?
I don’t quite know how to answer that, because I never factored in Hollywood-type movies in the first place. You know, the mountain does tend to go to Mohammed, as far as I'm concerned. I'm totally available to have conversations with pretty much anybody who’s inclined to chat. I have some projects that I'm slowly beginning to seed at home, but given my track record, they'll probably take so long that there'll be room at the table.

Did "Michael Clayton" and the Oscar change your profile with the industry?
You'd be the one to tell me. I've got no idea.

Are you seeing different or better scripts from Hollywood?
Well, the thing is, everything that I've done since then, I was going to do anyway. Because that 12 years I've just described, "Michael Clayton" was in the middle of it. I was already working on "I Am Love," and "Julia," and this. So I don’t know.

The only real change I can see is that people ask me how my life has changed since then. And we'll see now, I suppose. If it helps take a little film like this and give it a bigger release that it would have had otherwise, then I'm really grateful."

(Swinton photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images; Oscars photo by Darren Decker/AMPAS)