We Need to Talk About Tilda

Forget about canned Hollywood banter. Tilda Swinton opens up to Lynn Hirschberg about the complications of motherhood and her role in one of the most disquieting movies imaginable.

Photography by Tim Walker Styled by Jacob Kjeldgaard

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.

Grew? I don’t get parts, I grow parts. All three of those movies took years to finance and create. A “Hollywood” movie like Michael Clayton is a holiday for me.

You won an Oscar for that holiday! Yes, that was lovely, but I have to admit that I’d never seen the Oscars on television and really had no idea that it was so important. It was a very long show, but it did move me up from the children’s table, professionally, in Hollywood.

Since you won for playing a villain, did you suddenly get offered more bad guys to play? Not really, although villains are a diffusion line in my repertoire [Laughs]. The only movie of mine that my children have seen is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where I played the evil White Witch. My daughter said it was too loud. They’re just not Disney kids: They live in Scotland and don’t have a television. When I brought my Oscar home and showed the children, nobody knew what it was. The thing sat on the kitchen table for two weeks. It was kind of meaningless to them.

Did it have meaning for you? Not really [Laughs]. After winning, I went straight to Milan and started I Am Love. Since then, I haven’t done another Hollywood film.

I would imagine that the female characters in most Hollywood films are too generic for you. You seem to be attracted to complex and often very dark personalities. Do you have to like a character to play her? I have to feel compassion. And I have to be able to imagine myself in the situation. I can imagine myself as the mother of a scary son who looks at you with hatred. It’s not about liking the person, but it is about understanding. The Greeks speak about the violence of the real. I want to get at something real.