By Sara Vilkomerson
Updated December 09, 2011 at 09:53 PM EST
We Need to Talk About Kevin, Tilda Swinton
Credit: Nicole Rivelli

We Need to Talk About Kevin, the harrowing drama directed by Lynne Ramsey, arrives in theaters today after buzzy festival runs at Cannes, Telluride and Toronto. It stars Tilda Swinton as Eva Khatchadourian, a woman struggling to survive after her teenage son, Kevin (Ezra Miller), commits an act of shocking violence. Swinton, 51, gives a performance that’s already won awards from the National Board of Review and European Film Awards and spurred unsurprising Oscar chatter. EW got a chance to sit down with the Oscar-winner:

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How familiar were you with the 2003 Lionel Shriver book of the same name that this film is adapted from?

TILDA SWINTON: I had already read the book when I met Lynne, and I met her as a friend. I was supporting her to make Kevin her next film, but it didn’t occur to me that I should be in it. For the longest time I thought it had to be the real deal: An American, someone from Armenian descent, the whole lot. But then, over the course of time, the drafts progressed. And I began to think maybe I could be useful. I’m not as young as Eva is at the beginning or as old as she is at the end, so we had to kind of play with that.

You look quite different with the brown contacts.

And I’m wearing more makeup than I’ve worn in many films. [Laughs] It’s because Ezra Miller looks the way he does. If he looked like I do, I wouldn’t have had to shape-shift so much. That was another great risk the film takes: Lionel is so clear about Kevin being featureless — it serves the book very well. That’s a problem when making the film. The truth is there was a moment when we talked about shooting the movie without a Kevin, filming around the elephant in the room, so you never really knew what he was.

The story of Kevin, the son who commits unspeakable crimes, is really a real life kind of horror story

I think it’s not social commentary. It has as much to do with the business of bringing up children as Rosemary’s Baby had with the practical business with being pregnant. Kevin’s misanthropy and his violence and his general antipathy is really familiar to Eva — and that was another shift we had to make. Lionel writes a tough cookie with Eva. We wanted to be as tough as we possibly could be.

It certainly would be tough, I’d imagine, to watch this movie as a parent of young children

I can tell you as a parent, parents really don’t know what they’re doing. We really really don’t. The greatest statement I’ve ever heard came from a friend who was expecting at the same time I was getting ready to have my twins. She went before me and I rang her up the first evening and asked how is it on the other side of the fence. She said, “It’s not a fence. It’s a chasm.” You cannot prepare. When they send you home from the hospital you think surely their real parents are going to turn up. I have these moments of looking at my children, and they’re 13 now. And I’m so proud that I got them to this stage. They’re alive! Not to be flippant, of course, for many people that’s sadly not the case. But it does feel like such an achievement.

Will you let your kids see this movie?

Not yet. They can’t. One day….

There’s already a lot of chatter about Oscar nominations…

Ohhh. I don’t know what to say about that! It’s like a bran tub….

What is a bran tub?

It’s like a lucky dip. I mean, I don’t know who’s in charge of that ward of the asylum … I don’t know … I have no idea. I live somewhere where I have lots of other things to do and I don’t read things. I’m out of the loop! What I do know is that the more people that see this film, the better. The more seriously it’s taken, the more centrally positioned, all the better.

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