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Where does Tilda Swinton find the time to make movies the way she likes to make them? After years in theater, she started out in film by way of a nine-year creative partnership with experimental-cinema icon Derek Jarman, whom she lived with while collaborating on seven features, including Caravaggio, The Garden, and Edward II; she’s still one of the artists most consulted for commentary on Jarman’s life. She similarly spent years helping Sally Potter develop and finance 1992’s Orlando, a heady adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel, starring Swinton in her breakthrough role. Swinton describes her latest film, I Am Love, as an 11-year collaboration with Italian writer-director Luca Guadagnino, whom she also worked with on 1999’s The Protagonists. She’s always tended to partner over and over with a few likeminded creators, absorbing herself in long periods of planning and consideration before stepping in front of a camera.
And yet she’s also somehow found time to appear in a lengthy slate of other people’s films, from blockbuster-budgeted studio fare (Constantine, the Narnia movies, The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button) to still-relatively-large mainstream features (Michael Clayton, Vanilla Sky, Burn After Reading, Adaptation) to indies like Broken Flowers, Female Perversions, Teknolust, The Deep End, and 2009’s revelatory, intense Julia. In most of these films, she plays a variant on her signature role as a brittle, imperious woman who often (but not always) masks a vulnerable interior. She brings a similar sense of wavering control to I Am Love, an Italian production in which she stars as the matriarch of an upper-class Italian family that starts to unravel as she pursues an liberating affair with her son’s friend and business partner. Swinton recently spoke to The A.V. Club about working with friends, being lazy, and not really having a method to her madness.
The A.V. Club: You’ve told a story in the past that you met I Am Love director Luca Guadagnino in 1993; he confronted you outside a theater because he wanted you to be in a short film of his, and your agent had already turned him down. What interested you about him at the time? Why did you get involved with his project?
Tilda Swinton: Well, first of all, I have to correct your story. It wasn’t an agent that turned him down; it was that I had very impolitely not replied to his letter. I don’t want to blame anybody else for my rudeness. I just liked him. We just very quickly became friends. We just started talking. It was a little later than that; I think it was 1994, because Derek Jarman had just died, and it was in Rome at some symposium that the British Council had put together about Derek Jarman. So we started talking about Derek, I think. And we just became very—you know, we felt like fellow travelers. And I did then go back to Rome, and we recorded this voiceover that he wanted me to do for this film that we never actually made. And we just formed a bond, and became friends, like friends do. And a large part of our conversations over the years have been dream conversations about films we wanted to make.
AVC: You’ve said you have been working in some way toward I Am Love for 11 years, and it’s been in planning for seven. What was that process like?
TS: Well, it was, again, a pretty un-exotic process of developing a relationship, a friendship. Not that different from two friends sitting around the fire drinking wine, dreaming about the holidays they’re going to go on, or the houses they’re going to build, or the parties they’re going to throw. And just doing that over and over again for 11 years, and daring each other, every time, to up the stakes, and to repeat it often enough that it just became a plan rather than a dream. First of all, it was about really establishing a shared language, which was very easily done, because we’ve got a very compatible sensibility. Occasionally we will see films that one of us will hate and the other will love, but generally speaking, we’re on the same page cinematically. And so just developing a common language, a dream list of all the things our dream movie will have in it—including Marisa Berenson, and Gabriele Ferzetti, and music by John Adams. And just daring ourselves to make it a plan.
AVC: What kind of involvement did you have in building the story and the characters?
TS: Well, the 11 years was that kind of egging each other on into a kind of dreamscape. And seven years ago, we made a film together which was a conversation between the two of us; it was called “The Love Factory,” and it was a close-up of me while Luca interviewed me and asked me various questions about life. And the sort of main theme-tune of that piece was a section of the conversation which was all about love and the nature of love. And at the end of that shooting, we turned to each other and said, “Let’s make that subject the germ of a narrative for our feature film. Let’s write about the revolutionary aspect, the brutality and revolutionary aspect of love.”
And so with that starting point, I would say the second factor that came in was the idea of a woman, who I would play, who we wanted this revolution to sort of happen in her life. We wanted to place her in a milieu that was somehow breakable, combustible, under the hand of this revolution. We wanted her to be quite silent. We wanted her to have a kind of alien presence. It was like detective work; we started with these couple of elements, and slowly worked out what the rest would have to be—if we were going to place her in an alien environment, where would she come from? What would that environment be? If it was going to be combustible, then it would have to in some way be wired as anti-love, wired in some slightly fragile or brittle capacity. And so then we started to think about the kind of rich family that was built around a relationship to money that meant that everyone was sort of operating under a state of denial, and weren’t really looking for change, were looking for a way of keeping the status quo.
So anyway, we just sort of worked it out, kind of mathematically, almost, what that story would have to be. Then over the course of the following years, we would ask various people to write drafts of the script, because we were involved in other things. Then we would sort of fine-tune, and then someone else would write another draft. And then finally, we sort of started to pre-produce it.
AVC: You’ve said that you don’t really believe film should have morals or messages. How do you square that with building a film mathematically, or starting with goals like reviving sensational cinema?
TS: Well, we knew we wanted to make a melodrama, which of course brings with it… If you’re going to work with melodrama, you’re going to work within a kind of moral universe. Our understanding of the sort of classical concept of melodrama is that you’re dealing with characters that are to an extent following a certain type. So you’re dealing with the concept of goodness, and someone who is a challenge to your protagonist. It’s a fairly simplistic moral universe. You’re dealing with someone at the heart of the film who is going to transform, and who’s going to be liberated, and you’re also dealing with the idea that tragedy at some point is going to rear its head, and there will be some question, at least, about blame. Whether you apportion the blame or not, is not really the point. [Laughs.] But there will be some question, certainly, in the story about who’s to blame. So yes, we took that on, that’s what it’s about, and it’s about the kind of milieu where these sorts of moral issues raise their head.
AVC: Filmmakers tend to come to you for a very specific kind of role: this removed, elegant, distant person with an intense inner life. You play the same type of part here. Do you have a personal attachment to that kind of role?
TS: Well, I’d have to ask you which projects you mean, because maybe they were things I was involved in generating in the first place, so maybe I have to take responsibility. [Laughs.] I mean, that’s certainly true of Orlando, and Julia, and my work with Lynn Hershman. [The two have made three films together: Teknolust, Conceiving Ada, and the documentary Strange Culture, with a fourth film Gene To The Fourth, in development. —ed.] I’m trying to think of things that came to me fully formed that were people having that idea.
AVC: It’s true of a lot of your recent work as well: Benjamin Button, Burn After Reading, Michael Clayton—
TS: Well, those films of course were not my idea at all; they were people coming to me with a sort of projection that they were slapping on me and asking me to provide, and I was very happy to do so. Those particular films, those what I would call “away games,” are projects I was involved in tangentially. They are films that I think of as the invitations to people’s parties: I went to them very happily and provided something. Mainly because the people involved I liked very much—I liked the Coens very much, I liked David Fincher very much. I got that out of it, but in terms of those pieces of work I don’t think that anyone would think they were very creative experiences for me, because I didn’t create them. [Laughs.] They’re me covering my own work, maybe; but they’re covers.
AVC: You’re also called on often to play the otherworldly character—an angel in Constantine, the immortal witch in the Narnia movies, the gender-changer in Orlando. Do all these roles speaks to you the way they seems to speak to other people thinking of your career?
TS: As I’ve explained, the Coen brothers film, the David Fincher films, the Narnia films—those are formed projects that come to me with very limited requirements of my time and energy. I take them on very playfully—and they’re things they have asked me to do, so they’ve obviously had the idea that I would be good, or I would be in some way useful to them to play those parts. They’re not things I would necessarily seek out.
AVC: You talk about being brought in as an outsider, but you do tend to build relationships with writer-directors and work with them over and over. Does that flow naturally out of working on one project? Is it about more about standing by people who work with your mindset?
TS: Well, it’s all of the above. And it’s where I started. I started working with one filmmaker, who I worked with for nine years, on seven films, and I haven’t really moved on. I’m very lazy. I like to work with my friends. It’s sort of what I’m interested more than anything, that thing of being in a conversation with somebody, and that conversation goes on for many years, and then every year or so, if you’re lucky, you’ll throw out some sort of project. But the conversation is actually more important than any of the evidence that comes out every year or so. And on it goes. It’s just sort of where I started, and it’s where I’m stuck.
AVC: Have any of these studio films where you’re just called in been particularly personally or professionally satisfying for you?
TS: Well I’ve only ever accepted any of these invitations if I’ve liked the people. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with anyone that I haven’t really liked hanging out with. David Fincher, and the Coen brothers, and Spike Jonze, and Francis Lawrence, and Andrew Adamson are all really, really great people who I would happily see downstairs in any hotel breakfast room any day of the week. So that’s all business as usual for me. And then, of course, if they say they have money given to them by a studio to make a multi-million-dollar epic, then that’s all to the good. It’s like a sort of play date.
AVC: What most defines a good relationship with a director for you?
TS: Oh my Lord. Enthusiasm. [Laughs.] I would say enthusiasm, and… [Long pause.] I don’t know, I’m so spoiled. As I say, I’ve very rarely worked with anyone who hasn’t been a friend to start out with; I tend to develop these projects with people and by the time we get to shoot, we’ve known each other for several years, and it feels like we’ve had a baby together. Yeah, just that. So enthusiasm, and the ability to let things go is really important—to just go, “Oh well. On we go.” Even, “On we go to another film.”
AVC: With many of your characters—Emma, or Karen in Michael Clayton—there seems to be a conflict between their inner lives and their outer affect. How do you prepare for these roles? How do you balance what they’re feeling with what they’re doing, without going too far in one direction?
TS: Emma… It took us a long time to develop the project, which in a way makes my work as a performer very graceful and easy, because no preparation is needed, in a way. Because it was so drip, drip, drip over the years, the whole concept of the character and the whole concept of the story; it was such an organic process that no point came where I had to sit down and work out who the character was. It came up very organically. She is somebody who felt very familiar to me, and somebody who is no one person that I’ve known. Again, to kind of trace the seeds of her, someone would have to acknowledge Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary. She just felt familiar; not in me, but in my experience, both my experience reading and my experience watching because also Delphine Seyrig in Last Year At Marienbad is in her somewhere, and Catherine Deneuve in Belle Du Jour. But also people I’ve known in my life. So she’s not someone who… My curiosity about what someone like that is thinking is as much the fuel as anything else. I’ve seen women like that in films, or have read about them, or have met them in life; that whole question of what you see isn’t necessarily what you’re getting, that there’s so much more that could be said, that’s not being said. I will always find that very interesting.
I mean, she does have a reference to, for example, the character at the heart of The Deep End. She’s a similar kind of good mother, who has done a good job of supporting her children, and being steady for the children, and not being prepared to negotiate any change in herself, and gets a big shock at the point at which her children start to move away, and she has to kind of notice that she is in the threshold of change as well.
AVC: Did all those references come up after the fact, from talking about the performance? How do you get from what you identify as an instinctive, unconscious performance to these nuanced, specific identifiers?
TS: I suppose yes, it is to do with after the fact. It’s to do with people like you asking me questions like this, and me having to explain where it all came from. If you weren’t asking me the questions, I don’t think I would come up with any of these references. But they were probably silently coming up in me when we were preparing it. All I can remember is that over the 11 years, Luca and I never had to sit down and discuss Emma. We never had to say, “Oh, she’s the kind of person that would do this, who would do that.” She was very natural to both of us, somehow. And that’s why I also wonder about these references. Because we did talk about them, but we never talked about Emma. So she’s like a symptom for both of us. But obviously, there is absolutely no method here for us at all, and it is all smoke and mirrors.
AVC: Is that typical for you? Can you identify roles that you had to sit down and consciously think about?
TS: I do too much thinking, to be honest with you, Tasha. I really don’t know what I’m doing at all. Of course, sometimes—with Orlando, Virginia Woolf wrote a wonderful novel that was the reference for the film. And I’ve just made a film based on a novel again, the Lionel Shriver book, We Need To Talk About Kevin. That’s a different mechanism, dealing with a reference that exists. But when you’re working from scratch, with a character like Julia—and I hesitate even to use the word character, because we’re not talking about characters, we’re talking about the story. The story of Julia only exists because the character is who she is—so in a way, one only needs to look at the story, and work out backward who the character needs to be. And the same is true of Emma. We worked out the story, and what happens in the story tells you who the person has to be.
AVC: Julia seemed like a different kind of role for you—she’s so loud an uninhibited and expressive, outwardly instead of inwardly intense. Was playing her freeing in any way?
TS: Well, Julia is a different rhythm entirely, because Julia is an actress, a real proper actress, and deals with a certain mechanism of insincerity that is different from the gear I’m generally in. So I wouldn’t say “freeing”—it was an adventure. And it was an energetic adventure, I got a lot of energy from it, but it was exhausting. [Laughs.]
AVC: You’ve talked about wanting to revive melodrama with I Am Love, and how the genre has fallen on hard times. What about melodrama appealed to you?
TS: I wonder. I think it was something to do with the idea of this emotional cinema that we wanted to just tap into for a minute. The idea of looking at Douglas Sirk, or even… We wanted to make a film about a family that implodes at some point, and it just felt to us like we were talking about a melodrama. And yet having said that, one of our great references was [Luchino] Visconti, though Senso Visconti than The Leopard Visconti. We wanted to make a tragedy, something that had a kind of Greek aspect, and maybe it feels more modest of us to say that we wanted to make a melodrama than that we wanted to make a Greek tragedy. [Laughs.]
AVC: How did the language work into your preparation for I Am Love?
TS: Well, the language is the language of the film, and the language of the story. It’s an Italian film, so it needed to be made in Italian, and I play a Russian person, so she needed to speak Russian and Italian with a Russian accent. It was what it was, and we were where we were.
AVC: Did you speak Italian before you began to think about this film?
TS: I was always very scrupulous to say that I didn’t speak Italian, because when I do speak Italian, everything slows down quite a bit. But I had a fair bit of Italian in my head, and understood a fair bit. I’ve spent quite a long time in Italy, not least in preparation for this film. But I didn’t speak it before with a Russian accent, and now I do forever. I learned with a Russian, and I learned with an Italian. But funnily enough, I actually spoke better Russian before starting the film than Italian. I learned some Russian when we made Orlando in the ’90s. So my Russian’s actually more confident.
AVC: Conan O’Brien recently said he’d like you to play him in the movie version of his life—
TS: I love this! I’m actually thinking of asking him to make a film for me. [Laughs.]
AVC: To direct?
TS: No, no, I’m… I don’t know what to say to that. I think that’s absolutely delightful.
AVC: Obviously it was a joke, but there is a sort of a resemblance. Do you think you would bring anything in particular to the role of Conan O’Brien?
TS: Well, I’m more concerned with what he might bring to the role of me. I’m thinking of asking him to stand in for me at the first screening of I Am Love in New York next weekend. [Laughs.]