If Tilda Swinton didn’t already exist, a novelist with a truly Baroque imagination would have to invent her. She’s a true original, a mercurial medley of unlikely traits. Nearly six feet tall, with the androgynous allure of a changeling and a fondness for David Bowie-style hairdos, she’s sometimes taken for a man. She’s descended from a posh Scottish family that can trace its roots back to the 9th century and went to school with Princess Diana. At the same, Swinton’s sympathies are markedly left-wing.
A fiercely talented fixture of indie cinema, she’s notorious for choosing gender-bending roles. In the soon-to-be-reissued “Orlando,” she channeled an Elizabethan nobleman who morphs into a woman, and in “Constantine,” played the archangel Gabriel. In “Julia,” the chameleonic actress played a boozer who tested the sympathy of many viewers. With an aristocrat’s disdain, Swinton is less interested in standard notions of success than in personal artistic challenges. Yet she’s also found fame in Hollywood as the White Witch in the “Narnia” movies; and snagged an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in “Michael Clayton,” which, in typical Swinton style, she gave to her agent.
The super-articulate, Cambridge-educated actress has also explored installation art and cutting edge fashion. To further confound observers, Swinton has expressed a desire to give acting the heave to pursue her ambitions as a writer. Not surprisingly, in her personal life, she’s flouted convention, too, spurring gossip in her hometown of Nairn in the Highlands about a ménage à trois. Scottish writer John Byrne is the father of Swinton’s 12-year-old twins Xavier and Honor, while she’s romantically linked to painter Sandro Kopp, 18 years her junior, with whom she travels when filming.
In the ravishing “I Am Love,” which Swinton co-produced with director Luca Guadagnino, she adds a richly drawn new figure to her portraits of women engaged in recalibrating their identity. The film foregrounds Swinton as Emma Recchi, a Russian-born Milanese matron married to an über-rich industrialist who lives in apparent contentment in a sumptuous Deco palazzo. A mother of three who’s devoted herself to the happiness of others, Emma’s life is thrown off balance when the family patriarch passes the reins of the business to her husband and eldest son. Then Emma’s daughter comes out to her, opening her eyes to possibilities of love she’s never considered. When Emma falls for Antonio, a charismatic young chef and close friend of her eldest son, their passionate affair unleashes a domestic tragedy. She recently spoke to me about the film, the power of love and her love life in real life. [Spoilers follow]
Is there a unifying theme to the film roles you take on?
The thread between everything I do is an interest in transformation. The characters have the opportunity to metamorphose into something else. In “Orlando,” he changes gender and lives for four centuries. In “I Am Love,” Emma changes from the wife of a super-wealthy industrialist to a woman who lives for love. “We Need to Talk About Kevin” [her forthcoming film with “Ratcatcher” director Lynne Ramsay] is another installment in these Euripidean, Greek-tragic mother stories. I’m interested in the whole predicament around motherhood and the place that a woman finds herself in when she’s encountering and negotiating the maternal instinct.
Which aspect of the character of Emma did you respond to on the most visceral level and which aspects of yourself did you draw on?
You see, I so don’t work that way. This is revealing, that I don’t work like a real actor. I don’t draw things out of myself or get viscerally involved, to be honest. We wanted to tell a story about someone who had a really developed inner life but didn’t have much company. And we were drawing on fantasies of silent cinema and classic cinema and also the kind of classic novel — Tolstoy, Flaubert — where you have a female protagonist who is very often a mother, who has given a whole part of her life to loving and supporting other people, but hasn’t necessarily been paying much attention to herself.
We wanted this person to be very interior, very quiet, not very verbal, not particularly communicative. Self-sufficient, but unawoken. She’s not suppressed or repressed or anything, but not really fully alive when we first meet her. Though she’d certainly say she’s content. She lives a life that she’s pretty settled into. We wanted to look at a woman re-approaching the idea of being not just a mother.
Were you thinking of Madame de Rênal in “The Red and the Black?”
I don’t know “The Red and the Black,” I’m glad you thought of it. We were thinking of Emma in “Madame Bovary,” “Buddenbrooks,” “Anna Karenina,” and of so many women in cinema who have the sense of untapped inner life.
The film’s mystifying final shot, which appears while the credits are still rolling, shows Emma and Antonio in a cave, suggesting a further development in their life. Is there any way to explain that?
No. It’s not there to be explained. It’s not there even to invite explanation. It’s entirely a gift to the audience, like a little goody bag for the audience to go home with.
On some level, “I Am Love” seems to be a fantasy. As a viewer, it’s hard not to fantasize about where this romance can possibly go, considering all Emma has given up and the big age difference between her and Antonio.
You’re absolutely right; it’s a fantasy. It’s a fairy story, in fact, as much a fable as “Beauty and the Beast” by Cocteau. But it’s not about happily-ever-after. It’s about awakening and transformation. Yes, we see them in the cave. But it’s entirely up to everybody to decide whether the cave is in the present tense, or whether it’s a memory or a fantasy. What we do know is that this part of Emma’s life comes to a close and she either leaves the house or disappears.