Tilda Swinton Experienced “Cathartic Healing” While Filming The Eternal Daughter

The actress considers her place in the world as a mother and as a daughter—roles she plays in both the upcoming Joanna Hogg film and in her real life.

A still from “The Eternal Daughter.”
A still from “The Eternal Daughter.” Courtesy of A24

“Flibbertigibbet!” Tilda Swinton said excitedly. “We’ve got to look that up—it’s too good a word.”

The actor and I were talking about ghosts and hauntings—as one does—when this odd word came up. Swinton stopped short: where did it come from? I had reached her over Zoom in Los Angeles, where she was “for a minute,” but she apparently had a dictionary at the ready. I’d mumbled something about hearing the word in an English class once upon a time and volunteered that it might be devil-related, to which she responded: “I hope so!”

Swinton’s contagious curiosity in that moment echoed the sense of fun and intrigue viewers often feel when she shows up on screen—whether it’s her impossibly cosmopolitan cool as a vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive, or her parodic zeal as an art snob in The French Dispatch, or her time-traveling bravura turn in the classic 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. On this particular day, we were speaking about The Eternal Daughter—her latest film, directed by Joanna Hogg (The Souvenir), opening December 2—and her reflections flowed effortlessly into profound insights about who we are to ourselves and to those we love.

The Eternal Daughter alights on the relationship between Julie, a filmmaker, and Rosalind, her aging mother, and takes place in a largely deserted, fog-enshrouded hotel in the British countryside. The trip was planned in celebration of Julie’s mother’s birthday, but it takes on deeper dimensions as we learn more about their bond and history. Julie fusses, racked with doubts about whether her mother is happy, and as she pecks away at a screenplay during lulls, her artistic career can feel hopelessly removed from the cozy universe of domesticity that Rosalind seems to carry around with her.

“In this relationship, it’s all about trying to communicate, and negotiating between two slipstreams,” Swinton said. “One is this very sort of high-frequency, sweet chatter, almost childlike. And then this deep well of truths, which they occasionally fall down a manhole into, but they also very often avoid.”

Swinton plays both mother and daughter in the film, lending an uncanny intimacy and (naturally) a family resemblance. As Tilda watchers well know, this is not the first time the star has done double duty. She rattled off a few other examples: “I played identical twins in Hail Caesar. I played identical twins in Okja. I played three roles—in my mind—a superego, ego, and id, in Suspiria. I played a computer genius who cyber-clones herself three times in Teknolust.” For Swinton, the multiple roles aren’t about the novelty, or the challenge for her as a performer: “I was most interested in the relationship between them, rather than the difference between them all.”

A still from The Eternal Daughter.

Courtesy of A24

The mirroring effect hits home with this relationship especially, as Julie tries to come to terms with how she resembles and differs from her mother, in the mysterious environs of the hotel. This was something on Swinton’s mind, and Hogg’s as well, since the deaths of their mothers. Hogg’s passed away recently, during the editing of The Eternal Daughter; Swinton’s, ten years ago. “Because I’d gone there first, I’d grappled with this whole concept of projection and with trying to pick up the strands of my mother’s identity in myself,” she said. “I’d had a few years already of that—and also forgiving oneself for being different from one’s mother.”

Julie’s mother finds herself with a daughter who takes her independence for granted, and who is more concerned with self-realization as an artist than pressures to get married and settled. “I suppose the emblematic era of people like Rosalind—Joanna’s mother, my mother–is the 1950s. It’s the dying fall of the ‘fine lady,’” Swinton said. The Eternal Daughter, in a way, continues the story of The Souvenir, where Swinton played an earlier version of the Rosalind mother character, opposite a Julie played by Honor Swinton Byrne (Swinton’s own daughter in real life).

“There’s a negotiation to be made when one starts to come into one’s own in one’s twenties. That’s what The Souvenir is about,” Swinton said. “The roots of their relationship is such a key to how Julie is able—or not able—to hold herself in the world of the ’80s. Because she wasn’t really equipped. It’s a sort of Edwardian childhood.”

Hogg and Swinton came of age at roundabout the same time—in fact, you can watch Swinton in Hogg’s 1986 thesis film, Caprice, a sprightly confection about a woman who steps into an alternate world of magazine cover models. But the two friends originally met on the first day of school, remembered “clear as day” by Swinton. “I was 10 and she was 11. We could tell that each was a kindred spirit, because we picked up immediately that we were highly resistant to this environment in which we’d been thrown,” she recalled. “We were both clearly observers. And fortunately, we had each other.”

Swinton appeared in Derek Jarman’s art films starting in the 1980s—Caravaggio, The Last of England, The Garden—and I said I was also a fan of another film she starred in then, Friendship’s Death, directed by filmmaker-scholar Peter Wollen. “It’s an extraordinary film,” Swinton said. “I thought about it in relation to this because it’s also an encounter, really, about basically sitting around, talking about the meaning of life.” It’s one of her very earliest roles, and she’s cast as an extraterrestrial, dialoguing with a war journalist and positively aglow like the subject of a Vermeer painting—an early indication of the otherworldly sense of serenity or wisdom Swinton can bring to the screen.

Tilda Swinton photographed by Tim Walker, styled by Sara Moonves for W magazine

The Eternal Daughter was illuminating for the actor, too. “I don’t, in life, look like my mother. I look much, much more like my father. But as Rosalind—Rosalind looks very like my mother, and it’s quite catching to watch Rosalind and see her the way she looks at her daughter. The unconditional love and this sense of absolute acceptance,” Swinton reflected. “Even when I did it, I didn’t get it, but when I see it, I get it. And that’s very cathartic and very, very healing.”

My call with Swinton came to a conclusion, soothingly so: “The sun, I can see, has gone down,” Swinton observed. We chatted a bit about recent reading—it turned out that Swinton also loved the work of British author Elizabeth Taylor, whom she read while she had COVID. And she told me about her tantalizing project with Joshua Oppenheimer, best known for directing the wrenching documentary The Act of Killing. “I’m the mother in basically the richest family on the planet. The father has been at the forefront of engineering the destruction of the biosphere, and they’ve lived for the last 20-something years in a bunker underneath Middle America, which is like Versailles,” she said. “It’s a musical about that, and it’s called The End.” And with it, another new beginning for the empathic imagination of Tilda Swinton.