Tilda Swinton would be an overjoyed castaway. “The stories I most love are about the benefits of being blown off course,” she says during a lively phone call from her native Scotland.
That sentiment comes out especially when the Oscar-winning actress, 55, discusses the movies she adores. We chat about the 1945 romantic drama by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the ironically titled I Know Where I’m Going!, about a woman who’s en route to marry one man when she falls for another. “Apart from the fact that it’s a masterpiece,” she says, “one of the main reasons I cherish that film is because the island that it’s about is the island that is dearest to my heart. In fact, I’m going there soon. And it’s really like that. It’s really as magical as that. There really is a marvelous whirlpool that can suck you in.”
Swinton also waxes rhapsodic on Hayao Miyazaki’s 1988 animated classic My Neighbor Totoro. “In my family, we always say to each other, ‘If ever we’re in comas, just play for us the theme tune to My Neighbor Totoro and we’ll come around.” But she goes on to explain why the animated fable resonates so profoundly within her. “Sorry to be tough about it, but that film is about your mother being very sick in hospital and having to do without her. It’s about digging deep when there’s a big gap. And going out to a new house that’s kind of scary and finding magic. It’s about following a slightly uncertain path.”
All these factors funnel directly into Swinton’s newest film, A Bigger Splash (in limited release now), where the island wind is strong and the roads are bumpy and off-map. The movie takes place almost entirely on the sexy, sunbaked Mediterranean island of Pantelleria. Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a glamorous rock-star living in post-throat-surgery quietude with her lover Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), when her ex-manager/ex-boyfriend Harry (Ralph Fiennes) unexpectedly arrives with his daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson).
Danger and intrigue and sexual gamesmanship ensue — three flavors that Swinton, as if you didn’t already know, loves to throw into the pot.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: With this new movie and also I Am Love (2009), I’ve definitely become a fan of your director, Luca Guadagnino. I love his style, which builds tension in small doses and little changes in the atmosphere. I really like the random close-ups of things that he drops in, like, for example, car keys. And, of course, food.
TILDA SWINTON: You’ve now seen two of his films and its wonderful for me, as his long-term partner-in-crime, to hear you saying, straight off the bat, “I love his style.” Because that means you’re getting the hang of it. I’m just so grateful that people are able to see his work and get the hang of what he does. In I Am Love you’ll really have an atmosphere in this bourgeois milieu that’s really tangible. And in Bigger Splash you’ll have an atmosphere on this rock-and-roll island, with its holiday vibe. They are really different, but what’s similar about them is that they’re really rich — I don’t mean rich in terms of financially rich, though they’re that also — but I mean textually rich. You can taste everything they’re eating and you can smell everything. And that’s all Luca.
In the case of I Am Love, you developed that project with him for years. Was this a similar experience?
No, not really. This picture is an interesting one for me because I was never going to be in it. From the very beginning, we had discussions but for various reasons I wasn’t going to do it. So I wasn’t involved in any of those creative decisions and then finally when he approached me again, all those major decisions had been made. And so, uniquely in our work together, I kind of fitted myself into something which was already existent, rather than being a part of the genesis of it.
Was that difficult for you?
It was kind of great. It’s like someone throwing a party in your own house. And you go out for the day and come back as one of the guests, and you look around and you’re like, “Oh, wow, they decorated my hallway like this” and “Wow, they did this in my kitchen for the food.” I had this opportunity to play as an outsider in a way.
Luca took the title from a David Hockney painting. What do you think it means?
In the first instance, of course, it has a reference to the origins of the project, which is that Luca was commissioned to make a remake of the Jacques Deray film, The Swimming Pool. And so the title is a sort of witticism around the whole idea of making a remake or re-approaching a subject.
Oh, that’s interesting. A kind of meta-commentary.
Yeah, that’s one interpretation. For me personally, it makes me think of that Bruegel painting, The Fall of Icarus, where you have the plowman in the foreground and then Icarus falling into the sea behind him, but you don’t even notice Icarus, because you’re so caught up in what’s going on with the plowman. There’s something about the solipsism of these people in this bubble of luxury and in this ridiculous high-end life.
Right. And we won’t go into spoiler details, but drowning is a plot point.
Yes, there’s one that’s focused on, but let’s face it — there’s one drowning but hundreds of other drownings going on a little further away that no one’s really paying attention to. And for me that kinda rang a bell.
Apart from flashbacks, the film is entirely set on the Sicilian island of Pantelleria. I’ve heard about the drudgery of making movies, but this one had to be fun?
Oh, man, you won’t hear me talking about the drudgery of making movies. I don’t buy any of that. All those guys who made The Revenant, they loved it. They wanted to make a film and they were the happiest people around to be doing so. But yes, this was a wonderful summer holiday that just happened to be a film shoot at the same time. We really felt that sun on our necks and on our legs. And it’s an extraordinary place, that island. Its got a really pagan atmosphere to it.
And it’s a great foursome in the cast. It’s remarkable to see how loose and funny Ralph Fiennes has become as an actor lately. He’s so amazingly light and limber. That scene where he dances Jagger-style to the Rolling Stones’ “Emotional Rescue,” it’s just incredible.
Yeah, yeah! He’s just wonderful, isn’t he? I think Grand Budapest Hotel [in which Swinton also costarred with Fiennes] really released something magical in him. I think there was something in that character that Wes Anderson wrote that really was a special gift to Ralph. People saw this other side of him. And that seems to have bounced on into A Bigger Splash. And it’s so great to see.
Your character, Marianne Lane, was an actress in the original script but you asked for a change when you came on board. You wanted her to be a singer, post surgery, and to have minimal dialogue.
More than that, I wanted her to be mute. It was just a reverie I had on a long walk one day about how I could imagine myself playing a part in this film. It occurred to me that the tension of this milieu would be ramped up if one of these people — particularly Marianne because she’s the lynchpin — couldn’t speak. And it just amused me.
Also in I Am Love, you played a Russian émigré who only speaks Italian. Seems like there’s lots of imagination in regards to how you use your voice — or don’t — in Luca’s films.
That’s true. And the second this idea popped into my head I couldn’t let it go, so I put it to Luca and he was game for it and so we adapted it. Plus, there’s something really nightmarish and dreamlike about the situation. And it’s a dream that we all could imagine: You have this ex and he turns up and makes trouble. And I loved arousing that rubbery feeling in dreams when you want to express yourself but can’t. I had this idea of thinking this film is like, you know, some cheesy ’80s television series, and Marianne would wake up at the end and rub her eyes and turn over to Paul and they’d be in New York and she’d say, “I just had a terrible dream.”
You’ve talked about your mother passing away, and that detail is even woven into Marianne’s recent backstory? Did that also have something to do with you wanting to be mute?
I’m not particularly up for saying much in general, so I don’t want to overplay the fact that my personal desire to be quiet led to my wanting to be quiet as Marianne. But anyone who’s experienced a loss in the family — and let’s face it, we all go through it at some point — will tell you that it’s a time to be quiet. The idea of making any noise publicly was really tricky for me to imagine. It wasn’t just to do with my personal experience, but if one’s licking wounds and feeling a little small, that’s not the time to come out to play.
What about Marianne being an musician instead of an actress?
Well, it felt right that she should be a musician, particularly a singer because therefore the tension is around the loss of her voice. And then it links her to Harry more — that they were not only lovers but they worked together. And it just all started to fall into place.
In the flashback scenes, she’s got silver makeup on her face and she’s wearing a tinfoil jumpsuit. Seems like an obvious homage to David Bowie.
Well, not specifically.
Perhaps it seemed more poignant to me now, since he’s gone.
Possibly, possibly, yeah. I mean, a tinfoil jumpsuit usually has its roots with him, but he spawned a lot of tinfoil jumpsuits since then — fortunately! He was maybe a person in the whole potpourri of people that I thought about. People who have been rock stars in particular, who have taken a step back at a certain point in their lives for one reason or another.
If you say that, it seems like it could be anchored in a lot of artists.
Yes, people tend to tread similar paths at a certain points. The terrain of life tends to take people around the same sorts of rocks. And there’s that thing, that moment of precipice, for a million different reasons, whether it’s to do with physical illness or personal fatigue or spiritual fatigue or maybe being in mourning, as Marianne Lane is, for a family member. But there’s a moment of checking in and wanting to check out. And it feels like so many people, not especially artists, want at some point to take a break.
Thirty years ago you were in your first film, Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio.
Yeah, can you believe that?
Between then and now, was there a time when you could feel that you became famous?
Hmm, its funny. It’s a strange thing for me to consciously claim because I have always lived in a place where that currency doesn’t buy anything in a shop. I take that coat off when I come home. Maybe I would be easier to claim that stuff or accept it if I lived with that in my face every day. But it just isn’t with me.
But was A Bigger Splash any kind of conscious attempt to explore some aspect of your own fame?
In as much as, you know, one’s always looking for these guide roads to one’s own experiences. There’s a guide road from my experience as a woman of roughly the same age as Marianne. Yeah, I suppose I have had the experience of walking into a restaurant and hearing people whispering my name. I can’t remember ever doing a “Marianne Lane” in order to get a table. If you had Harry [Fiennes’ character] in your party he would be pulling that one. The idea of getting someone off [for a crime], just for the price of an autograph, that’s when it all becomes quite sick. And really interesting.
It makes you really wonder what terrible things famous people could get away with, right?
Well, exactly, that’s a reality. But in answer to your question about when I realized I was famous, you see I had a very interesting start in making cinema because I was working with Derek Jarman. Which was basically the art world, and then I was making films. I suppose the brief answer is when I made the Narnia film. That was a leap because my art world audience, which still exists, was only knee high. Then I made some kind of an outreach to a different world and my audience came up a bit higher.
But are you still sort of escaping that feeling of being so-called famous?
I think I’m still managing, yeah. I remember this beautiful moment earlier in my career when my friend Henry Rosenthal, who’s a producer in San Francisco, said someone had referred to me as an “underground superstar.” And he said that’s a little bit like being referred to as a “jumbo shrimp.” Which I thought was a completely fantastic description of me, more than “famous.” I’m a jumbo shrimp.
Luca fetishizes food, especially seafood, so I’m sure you would make a great jumbo shrimp in one of his movies.
Oh, very succulent!
And lastly, speaking of him, I’d be so skeptical if I heard that anyone was making a remake of Dario Argento’s fantastic horror film Suspiria.
Oh, you would? [laughs]
But not when I heard the news that it’s going to be done by you and Luca and Dakota Johnson.
I think it’s going to be so great. We start shooting this summer. It’s going to be such great fun to work with Luca again. And it’s such an amusement, really, to approach a so-called remake of anything. Of course, it’s based in huge respect for the original. But I like to think of remakes as just cover versions of something. That sounds better to me.
And it’s what Marianne Lane might say.
If she could speak. ◆