There are certain roles that scream out for a Tilda Swinton. You imagine the British actress playing characters who are sophisticated and wise, or luminous and otherworldly, which means you’d never have guessed she’d be the right choice to lead French filmmaker Erick Zonca’s latest, “Julia.” Being brilliant at what she does, however, Swinton indeed transforms into the titular bar floozy, a barely in control alcoholic who bullshits her way through every selfish, reckless moment of her day. Acting on an addled survivor’s instinct, Julia stumbles down a convoluted rabbit hole of increasingly horrific events, from an unwise scheme to kidnap a neighbor’s eight-year-old son (Aidan Gould) away from his grandfather to an illegal trip into Mexico, where a second kidnapping takes place. It’s a distressing but often thrilling film, Swinton’s nine-volt performance being the charge that powers the whole thing. Sitting down at the Magnolia offices, Swinton and I talked about self-destructive behavior, the shapes she makes and why the new Jarmusch movie has been so divisive.
Julia is such a damaged, out-of-control compulsive. How do you approach playing a character that’s so boldly unlikable?
I just think of all the people I know that she reminds me of, and how much I love them. I seem to know quite a few, and have all my adult life. She feels very familiar to me somehow, I don’t know. She’s boundary-less. She’s despicable, the things she does are so terrifying, and yet… that moment when the maid comes into the hotel room, you don’t want her to be caught, and I think: “Hang on, you upright audience, you law-abiding individuals — why on earth are you rooting for this freak?” It’s because she’s so unguarded and vulnerable, not that she would ever tell you that. She’s so naked, so unprotected and self-destructive that if you are remotely healthy, you long to look after her, or at least be her witness.
You really have friends who resemble Julia?
Don’t you? You’ve never met or hung out with self-destructive addicts, and still loved them, still found them fun, energizing and eventually forgivable? There’s a cliché about addicts in cinema, particularly drunks, that they’re weak. It feels and looks to me like such hard work, being so dedicated to destroying yourself. I remember somebody telling me the most brilliant anti-smoking program that they were on. The guy said to them, “Listen, you know how hard it is to give up smoking? Well, just remember how hard it was to take it up in the first place. You’re 13, you’re around the back of the bike shed, and you’re trying to force yourself to accept the smoke into your lungs, this revolting taste. You start feeling dizzy, you start throwing up, and you go on, you persist.” I thought that was really profound.
One of the things that Zonca, who has a well-developed relationship with alcohol himself, was talking to me about was the pain — that whole thing about the morning after [a night of] binge drinking, having an ache down your arms and legs. I’m not a doctor, so I don’t know whether it’s some meridian line, or just falling over and bruising yourself, but [there’s] that feeling of physical aching all the time. It’s a tough life.
How much of the on-screen alcoholism came from observation, compared to outside guidance or research? You don’t drink at all, I hear.
I’ve tried, but it doesn’t work. I fall asleep. I’m just wired so differently. But I get high off of other people being drunk. [laughs] Because of my inability to drink, it was like putting a coat on, more external than pulling something from within that I’ve personally experienced, or some part of myself that I’ve micro-dotted and made larger. It was really more observation for me, which is appropriate because Julia is an actress. I’m an actress in this more than I’ve ever been, but I’m literally playing an actress, someone who’s just talking the talk from start to finish. She tells the truth twice in the film. She’s a blabbermouth, basically. She’s faking it. It’s all about denial and lying.
I like this quote from you: “Before ‘Julia,’ I’ve never gone so far outside the shapes that I personally make.”
Yeah, the shapes that I make, and also my wiring. Someone I was talking to today said, “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you so loud.” I’m not a particularly loud person. Some people are naturally. [Julia] makes a lot of noise. Physically, she sits, walks and carries herself differently. She makes different faces. I don’t make faces like that, but for some reason, I don’t know why, they kind of came out of me.
Being wired differently, as you say, do you have any vices?
Nothing but vices! Sure, I’m a mortal human being. What are we calling a vice, something that one’s ashamed of? I’m not big on shame, so maybe I haven’t got any vices. Maybe cinema is my vice. If left to my own de-vices, that’s the word, I would happily sit in bed and watch films pretty much all day. That’s my idea of a lovely holiday.
Does it ever get uncomfortable doing immoral things as Julia in front of a child actor?