Jeannette Catsoulis talks with English character
actress Tilda Swinton upon the release of Mike Mills’s
REVERSE SHOT: Many of the roles you have chosen
must have seemed very risky on paper. Is risk
something you’re attracted to in a project?
TILDA SWINTON: I don’t really go for risk per se. At least it doesn’t feel like risk to me because what I’m choosing is the conversation. And that all began with Derek Jarman; he set the tone for everyone after—Sally Potter and so forth—and I just feel so spoiled. Because of him, I know how good it can be. So if the conversation is interesting I’ll go there, even if it’s somebody like Francis Lawrence making his first film, and it’s huge, like Constantine, which cost however many dollars, but it was great because the conversation was there. And the truth is I would have worked with Francis if he’d made a $200,000 film about a chair.
RS: You seem to have a knack for finding gender-ambiguous or gender-neutral characters.
TS: I can’t take credit for that because that’s the result of people coming to me. Francis Lawrence approached me with the idea of Gabriel. That’s the great advantage of having worked for a while now is that these people are starting to come in my direction, and Francis Lawrence, for example, had this idea for Gabriel, and I agreed with him. And all credit goes to Warner Brothers for going along with it.
RS: What attracted
you to Audrey in Mike Mills’s Thumbsucker?
TS: What I was attracted to was Mike Mills. He
may be a new entity in the film community, but
he’s a known quantity as an artist. Even though
this is his first feature, I knew of his work
in graphic art and music videos. He asked me to
meet with him about this film he wanted to make
and for which he’d already written the script.
We didn’t even talk about the narrative—we talked
about the emotional terrain of this family, and
of human inquiry in general, which is something
that interests me a great deal. And we clicked.
We wanted to explore the same things, so it was
a real meeting of minds. We’re also interested
in making a new film together, hopefully next
year, an original script that doesn’t have a name
Anyway, so Mike and I both had this interest in
showing how hard it is for humans to communicate,
particularly in families. There’s this myth in
fiction filmmaking, especially in drama—I don’t
know if it has something to do with the relationship
of film to theater, or something to do with television—but
there’s this notion that humans are able to communicate
what they really mean to say, and that they have
the words to do this. And also that people are
able to hear and respond. Neither Mike nor I believe
that reflects actual human experience. What’s
really difficult in life—and I’m trying to do
it right now—is to successfully say what’s in
your head. Most of the time we don’t mange it,
but that’s life; communication is a difficult
RS: Even if you’re not afraid and have nothing
TS: Exactly! It’s tricky under the best of conditions.
We’re all lonely, and connecting is the stuff
of life, and it’s not something we should take
for granted. So Mike and I started talking about
making films about this topic in general before
we even discussed the specific project of Thumbsucker.
RS: How much did you rely on Walter Kirn’s
TS: The book and the film are related, of course,
but they’re not identical. They’re more like distant
cousins. Walter was a real godfather to the project
and a benign presence in general, and we tried
to capture the book’s emotional flavor about how
frayed and unfinished life is, and how one never
grows up. Where are you supposed to grow up to?
RS: I think
it’s a very American notion that perfection is
attainable and that normalcy is definable. And
these ideas inform a lot of American film.
TS: Also, let’s not forget, fear of failure. There’s
no value placed in failure as a place you learn
from. A lot of films would have you believe you
only learn from success.
RS: The scene where you remove drugs from Benjamin
Bratt’s anus is surprisingly graphic. Were you
prepared for that?
TS: Yes! It’s a very important scene, in the book
as well, and we shot all sorts of stuff that we
ultimately didn’t use. So it’s hard for me even
to remember what’s been left in that scene. But
it’s also a great high point for Audrey, it bursts
a fantasy bubble, and it tells her something about
addiction—including her own addiction to fantasy.
So we always knew that was going to be a major
point in the film.
RS: A powerful theme in the film is that Justin
is holding the family together. Not simply that
he’s connecting the mother and father but also
that he’s a repository for everyone’s needs—for
his father’s ambition, and even, in a sense, for
Audrey’s matrimonial needs. He knows this but
can’t articulate it. And it’s almost as if his
thumb is in his mouth to stop him speaking, as
if he’s afraid of what he might say.
TS: That’s beautiful. And think about how anxious
that would make you. I think a lot of first children—especially
the oldest child of fairly young parents—know
they’re the reason the family exists in the first
place, and when they have to leave it must make
them terribly anxious. It gives me a chill just
thinking about it. I’m not in that position—I
was the third child, but I can imagine the stress
of that and of always being the responsible one.
One theme in the film that moved me is this idea
of being seen. True love is not about distracting
someone from their loneliness or even participating
in a fantasy of oneness; that’s a red herring
and a problematic romantic notion that stops people
actually growing into themselves. Real love is
a witnessing of the other’s loneliness—a kind
of “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours,”
a kind of mutual seeing. At one point Audrey says
to Mike, her husband [Vincent D’Onofrio]:
“It’s very important to be seen.” She’s talking
about Justin being seen as a debater, but she’s
really talking about herself.
And then there’s that amazing moment at the end
where she actually manages to say something of
significance to Justin: “I’ve been watching you
your whole life.” And he goes, “You have?” There’s
this feeling children have about not being seen
by one’s parent, so it seems to me the most important
thing you can say to your child is “I see you.”