Lynn Hirschberg: Your latest film, We Need to Talk About Kevin, in which you play the
mother of a violent, disturbed boy, is one of the most emotionally
unsettling movies I have ever seen. Halfway through the film, sometime
around the moment when it became apparent that this kid was going to
methodically destroy everything around him, I wanted to run. But I was
glued to the screen—mostly because your character, who is troubled,
quietly enraged, and often unsympathetic, was riveting. In films,
mothers are mostly characterized by their love and affection for their
children. It takes courage to challenge the sainted idea of maternal
perfection. Did that scare you?
Tilda Swinton: I don’t think I’m courageous. One man’s courage is another man’s comfort zone. The movie, which is based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, explored a taboo subject: the idea of a less than perfect mother. I knew that, when an audience watched the film, there would be a gag reflex at some point. But I was fascinated by the subject—it scared me, and that interested me.
When we were trying to finance this movie, we would reference Rosemary’s Baby. It’s every pregnant woman’s nightmare to give birth to the devil. And every mother worries that she won’t connect to her children. When I had my children, my manager asked me what project I wanted to work on next. I said, “Something Greek, perhaps Medea.” Nobody quite understood what I meant, what I was feeling.
You have twins, who are now 13. Did you worry about becoming a mother?
When I first saw the twins, I really liked them. And, at the same time, there was a ghost over my shoulder saying, What if I hadn’t liked them? Kevin spoke to that feeling. It is that nightmare scenario: What if you don’t feel that connection to your children? There’s no preparation for having children. In Kevin, the woman I play is in mourning for her past life, and yet she looks at this dark, nihilistic kid and knows exactly where he comes from. He isn’t foreign to her; she sees herself. And that is, quite literally, revolting to her.
In a strange way, Kevin is a love story between a mother and son.
However demented, they have a deep bond.
It is a love story: They understand each other. He doesn’t kill her, and in one version of the movie, she asks him, “Why didn’t you shoot me, too?” He says, “If you’re putting on a show, you don’t shoot the audience.” In that way, Kevin is a classic Oedipal drama—taboo, but not exotic. It’s just one of those things that’s never spoken about.
Your last three leading roles have all detailed the complications of
motherhood. In Julia, you played an alcoholic who kidnaps a baby; in I
Am Love, you played a bourgeois Milanese housewife who has an affair
that destroys her family; and in Kevin, you have subverted the idea of
maternal love. Was this troika intentional?
Absolutely. I call them my mother-lode trilogy—we’re working toward a boxed set [Laughs]. These movies are documentaries of a sort, where complication is the name of the game. They were all parts that I grew.