You never know what you're going to get with a film starring Tilda Swinton. Sometimes it's food related. In I Am Love (2009), she plays a woman who achieves ecstasy eating a prawn and then has an affair with the young chef — her son's best friend — who prepared it. In her new film, Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin, an adaptation of the novel by Lionel Shriver that opens March 9, her character, travel writer Eva, enjoys being engulfed by thousands of revelers and millions of gallons of squashed tomatoes at the La Tomatina festival in Spain.
Both films share another element: they are studies of motherhood, a subject that Swinton has returned to often in her films, at least since The War Zone (1999), which she shot just after giving birth to twins. But the title child in her new movie poses a test of maternal instincts — from infancy to adolescence he has all the benevolence and charm of Damien in The Omen series.
I discussed these matters with the Oscar-winning actress while she was promoting the film last September at the Toronto International Film Festival. Towering, in a sleek black suit and stark platinum bob, she resembled a bemused visitor from a myth or fairy tale.
YOU LOOKED LIKE YOU WERE HAVING A GOOD TIME THERE AT THE TOMATO FESTIVAL. It's quite a thing. The smell I recall most of all. Those people there were drunk since the day before, so the smell of rancid tomatoes, sweat, piss, and — let's face it — testosterone was quite a heady mix. We're going to bring it out as a scent. Even now I don't think I'll ever be able to look at another tomato.
IT'S A KEY SCENE, HOWEVER. It was her identity, her sense of herself before she got pregnant. That whole sense of her wanting to be a world traveler is an important part of her resistance to what happens when she became pregnant. She's constantly looking over the shoulder of her life at some far-off Patagonian hill. Of course, the person who first picks up on that is her son. At the same time, the mother picks up on something in the child. Not that he's her antagonist, but that he is, in fact, her reflection.
AS A MOTHER YOURSELF, WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU OFFER TO YOUR CHARACTER? First of all, don't listen to anybody's advice, because nobody knows anything, and stop acting. Get real with your child and connect with this irrevocable fact that you are now in this relationship. That first scene of them together, she's holding him screaming — and smiling because she read in a book that you have to smile at your child.
IT DOESN'T SEEM TO WORK. One of the tragedies in the story is how close the apple falls from the tree. The worst thing for her is not that she looks at his misanthropy and his violence and his alienation and thinks, "I don't know what this is," as if this is truly foreign. The worst thing is that she looks at him and knows it a little too well, because it's hers, and she's repelled by it, because she's repelled by herself.