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Memoria, 2021 (Film still)

Tilda Swinton on the Life-Altering Potential of Great Cinema

As three of her films land at the London Film Festival, Tilda Swinton talks us through her defining roles, her awkward adolescence, and the award-winning talent of her thespian dogs

Lead ImageMemoria, 2021 (Film still)

Tilda Swinton is a magnet for like-minded conspirators. In her own inimitable way, she has carried forward the anarchic, collaborative cinema she experienced at Derek Jarman’s Thames-side warehouse during the Thatcher era, gathering an itinerant family of kindred spirits and proving herself a loyal ally to the directors in whom she profoundly believes. Her three films at this year’s London Film Festival are a testament to that, all three the result of long-simmering and fruitful creative friendships. Each is as different in their vision as the next, and all are masterclasses in Swinton’s chameleonic powers. 

The French Dispatch is her fourth Wes Anderson feature, a meticulously composed jigsaw of tales revolving around the eccentric Gallic outpost of a New-Yorker-style literary journal. Swinton skewers the role of a loquacious American art critic – all tangerine hair and outsized gold jewellery – enamoured of a genius artist who happens to be a convicted murderer. For Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film Memoria meanwhile, Swinton reshuffles the deck, crafting a hushed performance that seems to vibrate at its own frequency. The pair travelled to Colombia to shoot what became a ghostly exploration into memory that was partly inspired by the director’s experience of “exploding head syndrome”, a rare sleep disorder.

Swinton’s third film at LFF may be the most personal of all – the sequel to Joanna Hogg’s achingly bittersweet Souvenir. With its needle-sharp observations of human behaviour, Souvenir II is an unflinching portrait of Hogg’s younger self and her unsteady artistic coming-of-age. Not only is Swinton directed by one of her oldest friends (Hogg and Swinton met aged ten, forging a friendship in the chilly environs of a mutually loathed private school), she also plays the onscreen mother to her own daughter, Honor Swinton-Byrne. Even Swinton’s three springer spaniels step in front of the camera, for what turned out to be an award-winning performance – Dora, Rosy and Snowbear were joint recipients of the Palm Dog at Cannes this year. Swinton accepted their commemorative red collars on the Croisette, the canines preferring to remain in the damp green hills of their Scottish home. 

Hannah Lack: You’ve known Joanna Hogg since school – had you heard or experienced parts of the story she tells in Souvenir and Souvenir II, and what is it like bringing this story to life with her now?

Tilda Swinton: The narrative world of the Souvenir films is one I lived through alongside Joanna: some parts of it in lockstep, others, adjacent but within hearing distance. To dip back into the atmosphere of that time is inevitably somewhat electric for us both. 

HL: How would you describe your teenage self and how do you remember Joanna back then?

TS: Joanna and I were close from the start. We shared a discomfort in our school environment. Neither of us felt particularly well equipped to stand the robustnesses of that particular landscape. Both of us stood back a good deal and tried to keep our heads down. We became practised observers there, I suppose, evaluating social dynamics from an outlier’s position: awkwardness and inarticulacy were paramount benchmarks in our own experience. Latterly, when a certain bullying influence moved on, I became much happier and was able to integrate with a close group of friends, but Joanna had left by then. We were reunited on the other side of school and have continued to celebrate that period in our lives coming to an end ever since … 

“It is a kind of drop-dead miracle for me to see my oldest friend’s story traced out by my own child with such grace and understanding” – Tilda Swinton

HL: What has it been like to watch your daughter Honor going through the experience of her first films, playing the role of such a longtime friend? 

TS: There is no doubt that had Honor not been perfectly equipped to play Joanna’s Julie in these two films, I would not have been encouraging of the idea … as it happens, I noticed some time ago something in her that occasionally brought a younger Joanna to my mind … a certain sensitivity and inward-facing attention … She was, just before the first film, a recent school leaver preparing to go to Africa as a volunteer teacher. By the time we shot the second, she was on the other side of that adventure, and two years older. And we all stepped back into Julie’s story as if only a matter of days had passed. 

The openness and intelligence Honor brought to the entire process was a really wonderful thing: unencumbered by any expectations or particular agenda of her own, she remained responsive and instinctively inspired from first to last. In any scenario, this would have been beautiful, but it is a kind of drop-dead miracle for me to see my oldest friend’s story traced out by my own child with such grace and understanding.

“I have had a great love of cinema that witnesses the ‘unwatched’, the solitary, the awkward social navigation ... the cinema that makes animals of us” – Tilda Swinton

HL: Often there are certain circumstances that propel people into a life of creating imaginary worlds … Looking back at your childhood, can you pinpoint anything that you now see as formative in terms of what you do now?

TS: I remember very clearly sitting on a train when I was about 11 going back to boarding school and suddenly becoming aware that the chances were that nobody in the carriage would be able to tell from looking at me quite how desolate I was feeling. I realised, as I looked at my fellow passengers that I, too, was unable to know for sure what was going on in the inner lives of each of them. I have come to see this moment as a formative revelation, not only about the power of our ability to keep – or reveal – ourselves from/to each other, but a crucial insight into the capacity of cinema to occupy a middle ground of ‘secret’ scrutiny and disclosure. Ever since, I have had a great love of cinema that witnesses the ‘unwatched’, the solitary, the awkward social navigation, the push-me-pull-you of trust and the lack of it, the cinema that makes animals of us, as we properly are.

HL: Many of your films are the result of ongoing conversations you’ve had with directors, sometimes over many years. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria is one of those …

TS: Since I first saw Apichatpong’s (Joe’s) film Tropical Malady in Cannes in 2004 I have been besotted by his cinema. The experiential aspect of his work for the spectator is something I feel I was always looking for in film: the pulse of a human heartbeat and the encouragement to observe and immerse oneself in his frame and rhythm is something I find profoundly nourishing. This is pure cinema of the most evolved kind: especially when met on a big screen and in a dark room, as intended, it offers the possibility of a profound – potentially life-altering – shift in perspective. We became friends over email and collaborated over the years on various smaller projects – we co-curated a film festival in Thailand together and we made two shorter film pieces for exhibitions – although from the very start we were always talking about a feature film that slowly emerged as Memoria

HL: His films feel firmly rooted in the moment – we don’t necessarily know the backstories of his protagonists. How did you go about finding the essence of your character Jessica, and how did the environment of Colombia influence you?

TS: From the very first, we were talking about finding a place which neither of us previously knew, where both of us felt alien. Similarly, we neither of us were invested in the idea of projecting ‘character’ and were mindful to keep Jessica (named after the sleepwalking wife in Jack Tourneur’s I Walked With a Zombie) as free from any context of biography as possible. 

So: she is a twice-removed outsider, an ex-patriot living in Colombia met in the film when away from her home environment, not embedded in the fluency of her adopted language, solitary (we pick up fleeting reference to her husband having died), further detached from the world around her by the compelling mystery of the sound within her head. Joe and I even wonder if she actually exists at all ... maybe this can be read as a ghost story, after all … 

As for Colombia, we found there an environment that we could walk on without roots of our own, but with our ears and eyes wide open to the resonances we could pick up there. Both Thailand and Scotland have in common the reverberations of a long established traumatic past: in Colombia we found a place that we recognised as humming a similar song. We originally went for the jungle – Joe was eager to encounter the Amazon and its wilderness – but we became fascinated and entangled with the people, their stories, their memories …

“A lack of the performative, an authenticity of presence, is always my drug of choice” – Tilda Swinton

HL: You speak Spanish in Memoria – you have also played roles in Italian, or without using your voice at all. Does speaking in a different language or accent liberate you somehow? 

TS: I find the whole place of spoken language in film very interesting. The first question that gets my attention involves the actual level of communication desired between the people speaking to each other. How fluent must they be? How well do they need to understand each other and make themselves heard? I tend to side with Hitchcock, who – dare I say, like I did? – cut his filmmaking teeth in silent cinema and advises us to let the camera tell the story and “resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise”. Meanwhile, playing with the portrait of a person who is speaking a language in which they are inhibited or struggling to express themselves is really interesting to me. I love the gap between the satisfaction of feeling truly eloquent and coherent and the isolation of dumbness. I am a great believer in acknowledging inarticulacy as a site for deep connection in art, especially cinema.

HL: You’ve played such a wide range of roles. Can you name one or two characters in your career who bump up against you every so often, who continue to occupy a space close to your heart?

TS: I suppose Orlando will always be stamped in my psychic passport under ‘identifying marks’. And I’m incredibly proud to be able to say that. This was a film I made with my dear friend Sally Potter so many years ago, but which seems to remain as fresh as a field of daisies on steroids. Every few years, Sally and I stand behind a curtain in the front of a cinema waiting to introduce yet another anniversary screening and look at each other wide-eyed at the marvel of its somehow never-ending appeal. Orlando’s cousin in immortality Eve in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive comes an honourable second – hand in hand with the entirely mortal Julia of Erick Zonca’s film.

HL: Can you name a performance by an actor that shifted the way you thought about cinema?

TS: I’ve said before, the donkey(s) in Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar remain the pinnacle of screen performance for me. A lack of the performative, an authenticity of presence, is always my drug of choice: the two-legged Roger Livesey as Colonel Blimp hits the same spot. 

“This is Circus Wes. We who serve on this ship are lucky travellers indeed” – Tilda Swinton

HL: The French Dispatch is your fourth film with Wes Anderson. What keeps you returning to his set?

TS: I write the answers to these questions from the set of the next one – in Spain – and have, on my arrival here this week, been marvelling once again at the good fortune of returning to this extraordinarily happy atmosphere. I thought this morning of one of my favourite books as a child: Round the World with Ant and Bee. Ant and Bee travel the globe searching for a lost umbrella and everywhere they go, they seem to be completely self-determining and comfortable and receptive and curious. Their hats remain in place and they have fun wherever they land. This is Circus Wes. We who serve on this ship are lucky travellers indeed.

HL: Can you tell me about a journey you’ve made recently that affected you?

TS: Last month, I drove up between my childhood home in the Borders and the Highlands of Scotland, where my children have grown up, on a new road: or rather, a markedly ancient road, but one new to me after all these years of bouncing between these two points. It was a high summer day, we were showing our Bengali friend our country, and we were bowling along with entirely fresh eyes on a previously undiscovered landscape. We stopped for a dream lunch in between hills at a dog-welcoming inn: we were in the pages of Josephine Tey that day, we even drove an hour out of our way to have cocktails at another (known) oasis: a crisp and orderly day, nothing broke, or ran into nettles, and nobody yearned for a beaten track. Renewed, we were, briefly, tourists in our own land which seems to throw up more glory round every turn. Healthy and self-sufficient and sound. Counting our blessings – Scotland Scotland Scotland. 

HL: Your dogs won a special award at Cannes this year, the Palm Dog. Did they get any advice from you before stepping in front of the camera?

TS: They needed zero advice from any of us. They taught us all a refresher course in stamina, good nature and limitless interest in any take that involved jumping onto beds and sofas, running about in fields looking for rabbits, or clustering under the table in the dining room when there was prop lunch in play. All anybody needs to know about the most appropriate and collaborative attitude to filmmaking. They clearly must have had at least one eye open and on that donkey when we were screening the Bresson at Christmas …

MEMORIA will be released in UK cinemas 14 January 2022.

The Souvenir II is out 21 January 2022.