Tilda Swinton's Passion Project
“What have you read? That I’m in some troilistic relationship?”
Tilda Swinton is sitting upright in her chair, eyebrows raised, green eyes glinting. It takes a minute to pick up on the fact that she is asking whether her domestic life is being described as a tawdry threesome, because the eyes—which are the first thing you notice about Swinton—are so distracting.
“I never wanted to be in films,” Swinton says bluntly. “And after being in a film I always assume and determine never to be in another one.”
“There are some fantastic myths going around,” Swinton says, her eyes still boring into her hapless interviewer (one can only feel terribly unfantastic when in Swinton’s regal presence) as she sits in a grandiose, marble-floored hall in the Four Seasons Hotel, wearing a jade green blouse that dramatically offsets her hair (colorless and cut in a Bowie-style pixie), smart navy trousers, and killer shoes. “But I’m afraid they’re myths. I’m sorry to be dull.”
Perhaps to Swinton, whose life is somewhere between an Emily Brontë novel and an Andrei Tarkovsky film (she devoured the latter’s work as a student at Cambridge), but to most of the rest of us, Swinton’s domestic arrangement is anything but ordinary. The Oscar-winning actress has 12-year-old twins, whom she raises in her native Scotland with the children’s father, the playwright and artist John Byrne. Meanwhile, she’s in a relationship with New Zealand painter Sandro Kopp, who’s 20 years her junior.
“Maybe it’s an American thing,” reasons the 49-year-old Swinton of why her personal life elicits so much interest. “I think people in Europe are quite used to it. And maybe it’s because I’ve never been married. The Americans are big ones for getting married. Married and divorced. Maybe that’s what's radical.”
She pauses. “As Jim Jarmusch said to me, 'More love, Tilda. More, love.' ”
It’s a subject, as it were, that Swinton is quite an expert in, or at least has thought an awful lot about, and happens to be the subject of her new film, the aptly titled I Am Love, which she spent the last 11 years making with Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino. (And which has been receiving rave reviews since it screened at Sundance.)
The arthouse film comes out in limited release on Friday, and is a reminder that Swinton’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Michael Clayton hasn’t changed her life one bit, other than the fact that, “Now people ask me how winning an Oscar has changed things,” she says dryly. Based in Scotland, she remains determinedly self-determined, which in her case means keeping Hollywood at an arm’s length. (“Working here is a kind of tourism for me,” she says.) She’ll swoop in now and then to star in a Coen brothers comedy ( Burn After Reading) or a big studio movie ( The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), but otherwise remains happily nourished working on the indie fringes, usually with European filmmakers, such as Guadagnino.
The pair met in 1994 and formed an instant friendship and collaborative relationship that has spawned three films so far, most of them dreamed up “over many a bottle of red wine,” Swinton says. The projects come from “the kind of conversations that friends have way into the night, egging each other on. ‘Let’s have this holiday’ or ‘Let’s build this house on the beach.’ You know, just dreamy friend conversations about the films we’re going to make.”
I Am Love feels very much like a film concocted over a bottle of wine and a decadent meal. Everything about it is lush and meticulously crafted, from Swinton’s Jil Sander wardrobe to the painstakingly prepared platters of Italian and Russian cuisine, which were also designed, by Carlo Cracco, the Michelin-starred Italian chef. Set in Milan, the film follows the story of an haute-bourgeoisie matron (Swinton) who does the unthinkable: falls into a passionate romance with the cook.
Food, naturally, is an essential ingredient in I Am Love, and Swinton says, laughing, “We knew that we wanted food to play some part. I think that was quite soon on the agenda!”
Forget Big Night: Italian food has never been more beautifully and lovingly fetishized. Swinton herself calls it “gastro porn.” As for the climax—culinary and otherwise—when Swinton’s character, Emma, first tastes suitor-to-be Antonio’s prawn dish: “prawnography.”
The scene, Swinton says, is actually an homage to one in the animated film Ratatouille, when the crotchety French food critic, Anton Ego (voiced by Peter O’Toole), takes his first bite of the film’s namesake, which, unbeknownst to him, has been prepared by a rodent.
“I mean, to try and compete with Anton Ego at that moment, or to try and match it in any way!” Swinton gushes. “That extraordinary moment that I love so much, when he’s—she makes a loud, slurping noise— sucked back into his childhood and fallen off his bicycle.” She sighs. “That was a tall order. But we tried.”
The rest of the film’s references, and there are many, are a tad more highbrow. Swinton ticks them off as though she were in the middle of a film history lecture. Visconti. Passolini. Antonioni. John Huston. Douglas Sirk. And, of course, Hitchcock, to whom the filmmakers practically got down on bended knee.
Describing a scene in which Emma, who’s on the cusp of consummating her relationship with Antonio, runs across him in the town of Sanremo and begins furtively following him, semi-disguised in dark sunglasses, Swinton says: “We call that Sanremo section our Hitchcock homage. She’s wearing her hair in a sort of pleat that is pretty much a repeat of Kim Novak’s hair in Vertigo.
“It was rather vulgar of us, and indulgent, to put that pleat in the hair, but we just couldn’t resist it, really.”
But for all the subtle and unsubtle nods that pepper I Am Love, at the core of the film is, as advertised, a treatise on love—its strictures and impossible ideals; its messy reality; its indefinability; its, at times, shocking simplicity.
Swinton describes it in somewhat more cerebral terms: “The idea of love that we started with, was the idea that this concept of love, in the sort of romantic idiom—being about oneness; being about two together, never apart, able to solve all each other’s pains, distract each other from any kind of suffering, and solve the possibility of any kind of loneliness, was a terrible red herring, basically.
“In our construction, love is about a kind of recognition of loneliness as the deal, and recognition of loneliness in the other, and a commitment to not mess with the loneliness of the other—to not ask the other to solve one’s own loneliness, but to actually keep each other company in a kind of mutual honoring of the loneliness.”
Swinton’s collaboration with Guadagnino (she’s a producer on I Am Love) is similar to the relationship she had with the late experimental film director Derek Jarman, whom Swinton credits for getting her in front of the camera in the first place. When she enrolled in Cambridge, the idea was to become a poet, but she found herself, rather than reading and writing, spending more time in the Cambridge Arts Cinema. Through friends she began acting in plays, “and when I left, I was working in the theater as a performer, but slowly losing steam, and on the verge of stopping being a performer completely, when I met Derek Jarman, and he put me in a film ( Caravaggio). And I just hung out in his world for the next nine years, and we made seven films.
“I never wanted to be in films,” Swinton says bluntly. “And after being in a film I always assume and determine never to be in another one. So having just been in a film, I can tell you, I have no plans to ever be in another one. That’s always the case. It is.”
The green eyes show no hint of mischief or bluffing. But nor do they give any indication that Swinton has any intention of giving up her passion-filled life. And she does admit another film is in the works with Guadagnino.
“Whether it will take 11 years or not, I don’t know, but don’t hold your breath,” she says. “It will take a while.”
Nicole LaPorte is the senior West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast and the author of The Men Who Would Be King: An Almost Epic Tale of Moguls, Movies, and a Company Called DreamWorks.