To walk through the West End with Tilda Swinton is a bit like being swept up by a well-spoken whirlwind. Her gait is swift and buoyant, while her ideas circulate at speed. We’re talking dysfunctional families – in particular the one at the heart of We Need to Talk About Kevin. In it, Swinton plays Eva, the mother of a son who goes on a high-school killing spree. ‘They’re just faking it, there’s almost nothing that is said around this family’s table that isn’t kind of … bollocks,’ she declares briskly. ‘Whether it’s the “hey-buddy” school of fatherhood, or the bang-down resentment of the mother, it’s all a performance. There’s a scene – from the original book that isn’t in the film – when the mother asks Kevin, when he’s incarcerated: “Why didn’t you kill me?” And he says something like: “When you’re putting on a show, you don’t want to shoot the audience.”’
Given the disturbing subject matter of our conversation – and, to an extent, Swinton’s somewhat other-worldly reputation – I’m surprised by the ‘whoosh’ of friendliness that greets me when I meet her in Soho. As we walk through Chinatown and down to Leicester Square, the affability only cracks on the couple of occasions when I use a term imprecisely. At one point I make the mistake of saying ‘authoritarian’ instead of ‘authority’ to describe an aspect of being a mother. Instantly she’s on it like a peregrine falcon, picking the offending word to pieces: ‘Did I ever sign up to be authoritarian? Aren’t “authority” and “authoritarian” different things?’
There shouldn’t be anything that surprising about her hyper-articulacy or beak-sharp intelligence. The 50-year-old Swinton has, after all, chiselled a reputation for herself as an intellectually fearless and emotionally versatile actor. She’s worked with filmmakers as diverse as Derek Jarman and George Clooney, Sally Potter and the Coen brothers – at one end of the spectrum dazzling as the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; at the other, sleeping for a week inside a glass box in the Serpentine Gallery. It’s just that when you consider some of her defining roles on film, it’s striking how good she is at expressing an awful lot of emotions without saying very much at all. Take the opening of Orlando, where she conveys the naivety of a young man about to meet Elizabeth I through bulging eyes and a dash across the landscape on legs as comically angular as an Anglepoise lamp. Or the scene in Caravaggio where – grubby-faced and in a grotty headscarf – she seduces Ranuccio (Sean Bean), swinging in a hammock, saying little, yet somehow exuding an effortless sensuality.
Journey to motherhood
When I tell Swinton I feel violated by the movie, she looks triumphant. And so she should: the film, like the book, manages to explore the unspoken, sinister aspects of any parent-child relationship. ‘I remember when I had my children [twins: a boy, Xavier and a girl, Honor], I was aware of really, really liking them,’ she says. ‘More than that: really, really loving them. But the second I felt this, I was aware that it might have gone the other way. Can you think of how many countless millions of other women it goes the other way for? And often they think they cannot talk about it because they think that no one has ever experienced that emotion before.’
I’ve been granted an unexpected insight into Swinton’s relationship with her children – something about which she is notoriously private. Just as we arrive at the Haymarket Hotel to continue the interview, we pass by an indoor pool. Playing boisterously in the water are a boy and girl in their early teens – the boy most striking because of his waist-length hair – and a handsome dark-bearded man in his early thirties. Swinton laughs with surprised delight. These are her children and her partner, the artist Sandro Kopp, down from Nairn, the remote Scottish seaside town where they live, for a rare trip to London. The children’s happy yelps as they catch sight of Swinton – insofar as one can deduce anything from a few happy yelps – give some indication of just how far she has had to travel emotionally in order to give such a brilliant onscreen evocation of stifled motherhood.
In 2008, she drove media into a frenzy as it speculated – wrongly, she asserts to me a little later – about a ménage à trois between her, Kopp, 17 years her junior, and her then partner and father of her children, artist John Byrne, who is 21 years her senior. There was a period of overlap – she started seeing Kopp while she was still living with Byrne – but she and Byrne both stressed that they had a civilised arrangement where everyone was happy. ‘John Byrne and I hadn’t been together for a couple of years before I even met Sandro,’ she says to me, as we perch on the slightly overplump sofa in the Haymarket Hotel. ‘It was all Chinese whispers – there had been no acrimony, no divorce between me and John, but that was because there was no marriage.’ So who do the children call daddy? ‘Their father!’ she declares, slightly horrified. And what do they call Sandro? ‘Dude.’
Identity and silence
Swinton, as her observers have long known, has always resisted both convention and easy categorisation. The Cambridge University-educated daughter of a major-general went to the same school as Princess Diana, but resisted tiaras to go in the opposite direction, joining the Communist Party in her twenties – the closest, she confesses, she’s ever come to accepting any kind of label. As a young adult she quickly found that she was most at home among artists and filmmakers, and this is where the games with identity began.
Wordlessness is also central to her role as Eva. ‘Lionel Shriver’s book [which is in letter form] is so much more political than the film,’ she says. ‘There’s much more social commentary, looking at modern America during the Bush-era moment. But the film, we knew from the very beginning – partly because we wanted to make a piece of cinema – was not going to be that. It was going to be about inarticulacy, it was going to be about her being isolated, alienated and therefore, being dumb.’
‘We’ refers to Swinton and the director Lynne Ramsay, who, together, have created something – there’s no other way to say it – disturbingly beautiful about this devastating, ugly subject. Male violence is central to We Need to Talk About Kevin, but the film’s core theme is to what extent Kevin’s evil actions are his mother’s fault. What’s so brilliant about Swinton’s performance – and about the performances of the three boys who play Kevin at different stages of his life – is that no simple answer bounces off the screen. ‘Lynne and I wanted to make sure that Eva is available to as much projection as possible from the audience,’ she explains. ‘It would be so easy to over-characterise her, even by tweaking it a bit so that it would be possible for mothers in the audience to say, “Oh well, you see I’m not like that, so that’s not my problem.”’
What is clear is that from the moment she becomes pregnant, Eva is gripped by a morbid dread (summed up most hilariously in a changing room scene where Swinton sits there, hunched, her bump veiled in a white top, while other pregnant women dart in and out of view, baring their bumps like beachballs). Immediately after Kevin is born, when most mothers would be beginning the love-in, she sits in her hospital bed looking like a dejected crow, while her husband (John C Reilly) holds the baby. The movie is not filmed chronologically, but in the jumping backwards and forwards of the scenes, you watch the silence and the accompanying hatred between Eva and her son manifest, his little acts of attention-seeking cruelty marking an increasingly deterministic dance towards the ultimate massacre. The stunning imagery does not spare the squeamish viewer – at one point, following an incident in which Eva’s daughter loses an eye, we watch as Kevin gloatingly peels a lychee.
Ramsay has chosen the colour red as a terrifyingly seductive visual leitmotif – through everything from paint to strawberry jam. In the opening sequence of the film, Swinton appears to be drowning in a sea of bodies covered with what initially looks like blood but turns out to be pulped tomatoes. ‘We had an hour altogether, or maybe a little less, to shoot that at the Tomatina Festival in Buñol [a Valencian celebration that ends with a tomato fight],’ Swinton explains, ‘and we wanted to do it partly to show that my character loves to travel the world, and this is part of what she’s sacrificed to be a mother. The first time we went out, the camera was completely submerged in tomatoes within three or four seconds and we had to change it. The whole experience was intense. But what I feel comes off that footage is not just the smell of tomatoes mixed with beer, mixed with urine, mixed with sweat, but the smell of testosterone, pure and simple.’