Tilda Swinton :: making it up as she goes along
"Amid all the luxuries on display in the Italian film I Am Love - the chandeliers, tapestries and paneled walls, the paintings, statuary and white-gloved servants - nothing holds your gaze as forcefully as Tilda Swinton’s alabaster face," writes New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis of the Oscar-winning British actress in Luca Guadagnino’s lush melodrama currently in limited release in major cities throughout the country. (It opens in more cities throughout the month of July.)
In the film Swinton plays Emma the stylish matriarch of the wealthy Recchi family in Milan, Italy. While the family is ever important to Emma, she spends the film quietly realizing just how trapped she feels in her own life. Through Emma’s experiences with her daughter, who comes out to her as a lesbian, and Antonio (played by Edoardo Gabbriellini), a young chef she finds herself drawn to, Emma sees a chance to get out of her trapped life.
EDGE’s Jim Halterman recently talked with Swinton and film director Luca Guadagnino about making this subject matter of the film, how it was not her character that resonated with her the most and why Swinton didn’t quite understand that winning the Oscar was such a big deal. (Swinton’s promotional tour for the film brought her to screenings at the Provincetown International Film Festival where she was given the Excellence in Acting Award for her career to date.)
While acclaimed actress Meryl Streep is usually the go-to actor who can master a variety of accents and languages, Swinton may be next in line to inherit the honor. In I Am Love, the British-born actress (who calls Scotland home) beautifully speaks Italian but manages to downplay her skill overall. "I don’t speak Italian well enough to speak it fluently but the strange thing about the language question is that I’m very often speaking a language that’s not my own."
American audiences may know her roles in Burn After Reading and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but playing an American comes with its own challenges. "When I’m impersonating an American person," Swinton remarked, "I’m not actually speaking in a language that’s my own... particularly if I have to improvise in American, that’s a stretch because I may want to come up with something that is a Queen’s English construction and I very often have to work very hard to translate it into American. My Italian and my American are probably on a par."
The next obvious question was then why do an Italian film if you are not fluent in the language but Swinton had an answer ready. "I’m not choosing to do a role. I’m choosing to make a film with my friend." Swinton and director Guadagnino have known each other for years and have worked in several other projects together including The Protagonists (1999) and Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory (2002). In fact, they said it took 11 years for I Am Love to finally make it to the big screen.
Swinton went on about this film’s inspirations and explained, "We germinated an idea which came inspired by all sorts of films [by] our favorite filmmakers and the kind of emotional cinema that we feel hasn’t really got a sort of modern incarnation. The cinema of Douglas Sirk, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston or [Luchino] Visconti. That feeling of rich, language of cinema [with] a camera that’s very expressive, a soundtrack that’s very expressive, a lot of silence in the film, a lot of atmosphere in the film." Swinton also shared that while they never thought they’d get it for this project, the music in the film is that of celebrated American composer John Adams.
Guadagnino, who is openly gay, was inspired by Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks and wanted to combine the familial elements of that book with an earlier project that involved Swinton. "I did a film with Tilda called The Love Factory, which is a portrait of Tilda and a conversation in which Tilda addresses her ideas and feelings about love and she says to the camera and looks to the viewers how she believes love is a subversive force." Guadagnino took elements from both projects to help shape I Am Love. "It’s like a marriage between my love for this novel of a portrait of a family with this radical idea that Tilda addressed to me."
Story continues on following page:
Watch the trailer for I Am Love.
In crafting the story of Emma’s emergence from her trapped state, it is when Emma’s daughter, Elisabetta (played by Alba Rohrwacher, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Swinton) tells her that she’s in love with another woman. "That’s the story that I have the most relationship with," she explained, "because I grew up as the artist daughter in a family that never did know and didn’t expect to harbor an artist in its midst although they are very tolerant and kind now."
The director made sure to explain that Emma’s interest in her daughter’s life is not about her own gender identity but about how her daughter has made a choice to step out of the expectations for the path of her life, which is something Emma has not had the courage to do. "It’s about how we found out that we are in the situation that we are in. It’s like a plant that looks for the sun but maybe starts to grow and hits a wall or something and its shape changes. The shape may not be the way it was supposed to be for the plant and it may be beautiful in any case and maybe if the plant is freed by the limitations it might grow a different way. I like how things can change if you break down the boundary."
Post-Oscar Life and Love Scenes
As for how her life has changed since she was handed the coveted Academy Award in 2008 for her role in the George Clooney film, Michael Clayton, Swinton shared a shocking revelation about life post-Oscar. "Honestly, the only thing that has changed since winning an Oscar is that people now ask me how my life has changed since winning an Oscar." In fact, the actress said she didn’t quite realize what a big deal it was to win an Oscar until she checked her emails in the middle of the night and saw over 600 emails in her in-box.
Swinton also spoke candidly about what some would call a very smart career path in her cinema work. "I don’t want to tell you the truth, which is I’m absolutely making everything up as I go along. I’m not aware of having a career at all let alone a career path. I’m aware of having a life and I’m very invested in my life."
Another cinema myth she was happy to extinguish was how she’s often seen as an actress filled with fearlessness in film. For example, in a beautiful love scene in I Am Love her character is fully nude while having sex in a garden with her lover. "I’m always very tentative about this concept of fearlessness," she said. "I don’t feel fearless. I feel curious and I feel very blessed principally in that I seem to be provided with a pretty endless supply of colleagues even when they fall out of the tree like darling [filmmaker] Derek Jarman."
While the love scenes may not be an example of fearlessness in her opinion, Swinton did confide, "I don’t know if it would be possible to do scenes like that with people who weren’t very close friends. We were all very close friends, that particular team in that garden that day; a very tiny little team who have been friends a very long time... Edoardo Gabbriellini, who plays Antonio, is a great friend and we all knew what we wanted to do and we all knew that we wanted to show was something really, very precise and real and natural and it felt really easy. It felt very easy because nobody had to have anything explained to them. Everyone was on that exactly same note and we just laid down and got bitten a lot by bugs and then got up again and went to have lunch."
Speaking of lunch, food is a very sensual component of the film, too. Guadagnino talked about his great love for food and his desire for it to be a prominent piece of I Am Love. "I respect food very much. I respect the chef. I respect the people who believe what it means to nurture other people. It’s a secret language. It’s a non-verbal language. You cook for someone you like and you do something with care, the taste is going to say more than any other words."
I Am Love is playing in New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington DC. It opens in other cities throughout the summer. For more information on the film, go to http://www.iamlovemovie.com/.
Watch this interview with Tilda Swinton and director Luca Guadagnino on I Am Love.