Though she might not describe as such, there’s only one word I can think of when trying to some up the experience of watching Tilda Swinton in I Am Love, a film that she produced which is entirely in Italian and listening to her be interviewed — fearless. I can think of many other words to describe her, witty, beautiful, intelligent, cerebral, but at the end of the day, there are so few actresses as open, free and willing to take risks as her. She’s made a real Italian Opera for cinema and given herself fully to the film. From her performance, to spending 11 years on the project, to the explicit love making scenes — it’s a successful risk and made for the real film-goer.
She’s one of the few Oscar winning actresses that’s not a celebrity or even a performer, but an artist. This interview is long, but it’s because there’s nothing that really needs to be cut. Go get a drink, sit down and soak it in and find out why we will now be calling her Sir Tilda Swinton. I suggest the same for the film, it goes well with some good wine and cheese…
How many languages do you speak?
Tilda Swinton: I don’t know. It depends who’s driving the taxi. A few. Not very many. But, as a European, you get used to speaking languages.
Was the language spoken on the set solely Italian?
TS: It was in a variety of languages because Yorick Le Saux is French, Marisa [Berenson] and I spoke English a lot. Yeah, it was sort of United Nations.
Doing a film in a language that’s not your first language, do you think in English or do you think in Italian?
TS: 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?
TS: 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.
Making the Film:
How difficult was it as you were conceiving this to have the intersection of the personal and the cultural?
TS: 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.
Could you talk about the food and how it was and what is your signature food that reminds you of your life and your home town?
TS: The food is a very important character in the film and we knew from the very beginning that Luca (Guadagnino) is a very fine cook himself and a gourmand. He values food very highly and through him I also met a number of great chefs. A lot of time was spent talking about food with Luca. We knew that we wanted to make a film about an artist cook. In fact, Luca made a very beautiful little documentary film as a sort of exercise in preparing for this film called Cuoco Contadino (Cook Peasant), about a friend of ours who’s the inspiration for the Antonio character… In fact, the place that we used to shoot Antonio’s place up in the garden, that was his place.
So, we’ve known cooks like that, that sort of vocational artist cook who grows his own vegetables and has an almost monastic relationship with his garden and with his cooking. It’s a very spiritual experience. Interestingly, there’s such an honorable tradition in cinema, particularly I would say in Asian cinema, of great cooking and the idea of cooking for people being sort of an act of love. We wanted to look at that. For me, my home food – I’m a peasant cook myself and I cook Scottish peasant cooking – my signature food that I always cook for my family when I go home, which they always ask for, is fish pie and rhubarb and ginger crumble. They always ask for it. I cooked it for them last week when I went home.
There’s a very open-ended sense about your character’s childhood, or backstory. Can you share anything about that?
TS: 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.
Can you talk about what it was like to work with such an extraordinary cast of women?
TS: Well we knew we wanted to make a film about a family and we knew we wanted to make a film about three generations of a family and we knew that we wanted to make a film that was very strongly about a kind of liberated impetus in the women in the family. We knew Alba Rohrwacher who plays my daughter and we always wanted to cast her as my daughter because we look so alike and we always thought we must play relations at some point, so we wrote her that part. And Marisa (Berenson) was sort of dream casting for us, not only because she is dream casting, but also because she brings with her a cinematic DNA of Kubrick and Visconti so it was wonderful to have her.
And then, of course, Maria Paiato, who is the extraordinary housekeeper, who is a great stage actress in Italy. It was a very important female presence in the film and a sort of holding, loving presence for the family. Yes, it was quite an organic business putting together that team of women. We didn’t put them together earlier than the men but kind of quite organically alongside them – all the casting. Pippo Delbono who plays Tancredi, my husband in the film, is wonderful and very well known in Europe as a theater performer, sort of a performance artist, very well respected and highly regarded performance artist, a very funny, very outspoken gay artist. So, to put him in this patriarch’s role was really wonderful.
What was it about the role of Emma that resonated with you?
TS: 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.
For you, how did you prepare for 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
The Dramatic End:
There’s also the mythical implications of the final shot of the film, in the cave, did you see this as purely triumphant, or is there a greater cost for her freedom?
TS: 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.
Besides the food, the fashion is great in this film because it’s set in Milan. But you also have a unique personal style. What is your perspective on fashion?
TS: For me personally, I wear exactly what I wanted to wear, whenever I have to put anything on. And I’m very fortunate in that I have a number of great friends who make clothes, and they give me them, or lend them to me. Sometimes they ask for them back, and sometimes they don’t… My character’s wardrobe was designed exclusively by Raf Simons of Jil Sander. We wanted to have a completely cohesive, sort of organic, expressionist costume for her, so that the scene where she falls in love, she has a red dress, and we have that sense that when she’s in the dress at the end with the son, when she goes to the hospital, it subtly changes color to a darker shade of gray.
You’re always traveling for work, since you work internationally, so do you feel any special connections to any place?
TS: Oh, I’m very rooted in Scotland. That’s the only place I live. I don’t live anywhere else. I live in the highlands of Scotland, and that’s my children’s home, and that’s where I go whenever I can. I’m never away from it for longer than three weeks. I was there last week, and I’ll be there next week.
It seems like you will be a dame one day.
TS: 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?
TS: 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.
See Sir Tilda’s latest film I Am Love, in select theaters now!