By Lawrence Ferber
Playing an uber-shady corporate exec in 2007’s “Michael Clayton,” Tilda Swinton snagged an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, but she grabbed our attention and devotion long before she claimed Hollywood’s.
First, in the artful, groundbreaking films of late, great queer filmmaker Derek Jarman, then as the gender-morphing title character of 1992’s “Orlando” – which receives a theatrical re-release this July – and as the protective mother of a gay teen in 2001’s “The Deep End.”
In director Luca Guadagnino’s Italian-language “I Am Love,” which she also produced, Swinton portrays Emma, the Russian matriarch of a posh Milan family, who has an affair with a sexy young chef at the same time she learns of her daughter’s homosexuality. En route to a shooting location, Swinton discussed “Love,” gay children, and how a little man called Oscar affected her life.
“I Am Love” is such a strange amalgamation of influences and tones; it’s otherworldly – like it’s from the other side.
I hope you’re going to write that verbatim! A film from the other side, I love that. The thing we started talking about all those years ago, because we started talking about it 11 years ago, was a kind of cinema that we love that feels like it has become impossible to make anymore. And we were trying to distill the work of all those great masters to some sort of lowest-common denominator. Boil down the soup to its basic ingredients.
Speaking of soup, there is some pretty spectacular food in the film. What can you tell me about the soup called “Oucha” that plays a sort of prominent role? Is it real?
It’s a fantasy soup. It is a real soup, but I like to think of it as a magic potion out of a fairy tale. It’s as delicious as you can imagine it being. It’s whatever you want it to be. It changes its form. It starts out in one form and morphs into another. And that’s one of the things Luca and I wanted to do with this film – to take the ingredients of cinema we know and love from Hitchcock, Sirk, Pasolini, Rossellini, Antonioni, John Huston, Visconti, and jellify it and put it into some different, modern form and affix some gold leaf to the top.
Did you put on a paunch shooting all the eating scenes?
No, because that food was too fantastic to put on a paunch.
What does the role of Emma represent to you as far as your body of work to date?
She has a relationship to Margaret in “The Deep End” and a relationship in a way to Orlando because she transforms. It’s par for the course for me. I love looking at stories of people who have these transformations, when they actually morph into some other state. In that way she’s no different from these other portraits. But one of the things I love about Emma is she’s genuinely quiet in a way I feel I haven’t had an opportunity to show before, which is maybe something my family and friends would recognize more in me. That was a little unfolding for me.
You’ve played a mother to young gays a couple of times now.
Somebody’s got to do it. I would rather it was me. I love the coming-out scene in this film.
How should a mother react to her child coming out in your vision of the world?
I find it hard to imagine that being a problem. And so that for me is a bit of an adventure to imagine what those challenges might be, because naturally I don’t get it. Apart from anything else, the whole question of one’s child being honest enough with one that they would share that development, one should be grateful.
You’re a mother of twins. And if one or both came out?
I have either a little bit of my brain missing or extra – I don’t get why it would be a problem.
In some ways, is it a bonus?
I don’t see it as a bonus, either. Just a fact. But I’m not a big believer in prescriptive sexuality. I think people are sexual and that’s it.
Did winning the Oscar change your life and career?
The only real change the Oscar brought to me is that people ask me what change it has brought me about three times a week. I struggle to find any other thing except that, because every (project) I’ve done since then I was going to do anyway. But if more people see “I Am Love” than would’ve before I got the Oscar, or if we found out we got the money for our new film because it was bumped along by the Oscar, then I will take that and be so grateful and have no complaints.
‘I Am Love’
Opens Friday, Aug. 13
603 E. Liberty St., Ann Arbor