The Contenders: Tilda Swinton on her role in ‘Kevin’

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Last seen (give or take a “Narnia” movie) as the matriarch of an Italian industrial family in “I Am Love,” Tilda Swinton plays a very different kind of mother in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” one whose son goes on a violent rampage that leaves several of his schoolmates dead. The film shifts in time between the horrific event’s aftermath, when Swinton has been reduced to working menial jobs in a town whose residents will cross the street to slap her, and Kevin’s ominous childhood, when he shows his mother signs of his increasing sociopathy but plays the perfect son to everyone else. It’s the occasion for a powerhouse performance, and Swinton follows through with the wholehearted commitment and utter lack of vanity that inform all her work. And it’s a performance that has, to date, earned the actress both a Golden Globe nod and a Screen Actors Guild Award nomination.

You developed your last movie, “I Am Love,” with the director over a period of a dozen years. How long were you involved with “We Need to Talk About Kevin”?

This one was short by comparison, about four years. I knew [director Lynne Ramsay], and like anybody who knew her work, I was longing for another Lynne Ramsay film. But for the longest time, I didn’t think I would best serve the film by being in it. As the script became more refined, and as it became more clearly the shooting script for the film Lynne wanted to make, it became something I wanted to be in.


How did the script change over that time?

I hesitate to say this, because I’m not condoning budgets in the way that our budget was cut, but the point at which we knew we were going to have less money than we wanted, it had to become much more about the family and much less about the society, and it became more and more centered and developed in the woman’s experience. It was at that point it became more visual and the whole story became about a kind of loneliness and what I call dumbness, which is what I’m particularly interested in, a kind of unspoken world.

When you say “dumbness,” you mean in the sense of “mute”?

Numb and inarticulate. Absolutely incapable of communication. In the present-tense element of the story, she’s beyond communication, really. She not only doesn’t have anyone to talk to, but if anyone came along, how could she describe, let alone explain, what’s happened to her?

When one of the victims of the school massacre speaks kindly to her, she doesn’t know how to respond. She almost looks frightened.

She’s so dismantled, light-years away from the person she was. Before she had Kevin, we have a sense that she was very self-determined, independent — unfazeable, really. This woman we see at the end is so dismantled, so unsocialized, she’s like somebody who’s just crawled out from under a tree. She’s being punched in the street by strangers. Why would she believe in kindness, particularly from this boy who’s been disabled by her son?


Why doesn’t she leave? Why does she stay in a place where almost everyone loathes her?

She’s painting his room and she’s making his bed and she’s waiting. She finds a job that can keep her alive so she can go every Thursday and visit the prison. At that point, she becomes his mother. That’s a very contentious thing to say. But I really feel that the way she serves her child when he’s incarcerated, that’s closer to a kind of real-life maternal love than she’s ever really had for him. He has her attention. There’s this moment in the book that we shot but didn’t put in the final cut, but it’s worth mentioning now. When she goes to visit him in prison, she asks him, “Why didn’t you kill me?” And he says, “When you’re putting on a show, you don’t want to shoot your audience.”

The film has an extremely stylized look, beginning with the first shot in which your character is passed above a crowd covered in what looks like blood.

There is no objective truth in the film. The film is filtered through her experience, her fantasy, her nightmare. It’s her memory, but it’s completely unreliable. We all went out of our way, constantly throughout the writing process, the production and through the cut, and now in presenting it to the world, to make sure people know that the film isn’t trying to come up with any answers. The film is looking at her sense of her responsibility, of her guilt. It doesn’t mean the filmmakers are, but she does. She’s probably seen “The Bad Seed.” She’s probably seen “Rosemary’s Baby.” She has a fantasy that there’s evil abroad, but she also knows that evil came out of her. She absolutely feels responsible or is chewing over the idea of responsibility.

Part of the subtext of the movie is that children put parents back in touch with our animal origins. Children can behave in monstrous ways because they don’t have any sense of morality at first.

Part of the deal of bringing up children is to introduce them to the idea of society, but they don’t have it. They’re little animals. I’m not a Lacanian analyst, but I know some, and what they might suggest is that they are watching us like hawks. That’s why Eva has a sense of guilt, because she cannot believe that he did not learn it all from her. That’s when you have to go, “Hang on, this baby came out as himself.” Society talks so much about the way in which people are haunted by their ancestors and their parents, but we very rarely talk about how we’re haunted by our own children. Obviously, Kevin’s story is an extreme case.


Kevin brings out a very dark side to his mother that’s angry, withdrawn, even occasionally violent. Is there a way in which Kevin’s actions actually bring them closer, in that she finally recognizes herself in him?

What’s worse for her than seeing his malevolence and his violence as something really exotic that she doesn’t know what to do with is that it’s really familiar, because it’s hers. He is an apple that hasn’t actually fallen that far from the tree. Maybe another answer to the question of why she doesn’t leave when he has revealed himself to really be who he is — and to the world, not just to her, because he’s been giving her hints all along — she can then become different to [how she was before,] because his spirit is out there in the world, and now she can become very different. She can become a much more sensitized individual.

Do you relate to Eva at all, as a mother?

There’s very little bounce in that ball. We’re roughly the same height. Her way of approaching life is really very different to mine. She’s much more interested in control than I am. The whole concept of chaos seems to be really abhorrent to her. I’m much, much too lazy not to make friends with chaos. Parenthood has not scared me in the way it seems to scare her. I remember when I had my babies, I noticed how much I — forget about loving them — I felt really into them and really up for it. I remember when I noticed this, feeling a sense of relief. Somehow I had known that it could have gone the other way.

How has winning the Oscar — for supporting actress for “Michael Clayton” — affected you?

I never won anything as a child. Once, I won a raffle when I was 12, a sort of hunt-jumble raffle at home in Scotland. It was just fantastic. I felt really a sense of achievement that I’d bought a ticket and that ticket had been pulled out of a hat. I feel a little bit like that about these awards. It’s an amazing piece of luck, and that’s it.