On the second day of this year’s Cannes Film Festival, one actress emerged as the frontrunner for acting honors — Tilda Swinton, playing a mother living in the wake of her teen son’s killing spree in the film version of Lionel Shriver’s novel “We Need to Talk About Kevin.” Directed by Lynne Ramsay, “Kevin” is a stark and grim story of guilt, shame and sadness — and yet Swinton’s performance is full of as much light as it is darkness, and contains hope with the hurt. I had the chance to speak with Swinton in Cannes about the film’s long, challenged production and about the specific challenges it offered her as an actress.
“There was no script when I was first talking to Lynne about this film. The script evolved during the course of our developments. I would say that the rollercoaster moment — apart from the rollercoaster moment yesterday, when we first showed the film to an audience — was probably when I read the book. (I) was so caught by this material, the taboo that Lionel Shriver, in her novel, approaches — the idea of a woman in this predicament of having a baby that she doesn’t have a bond with. (When) I realized what (Shriver) was dealing with, it felt to me such uncharted territory — certainly in terms of fiction, in terms of cinema — that it’s really new territory that’s a taboo subject.”
For all of the tension and trauma in “Kevin,” Swinton didn’t find herself especially haunted. “I’m always reminding people that making films is easier than watching them in the sense that we have a long time and bite-sized chunks to chew things through. We were aware that what we wanted to do was keep the entire territory of the film ambiguous … because of course the film is a fantasy. It’s part reverie; it’s certainly nightmare. Who knows if it’s true? I think very early on, I hope, the audience becomes clear that we’re not dealing in truths, we’re not dealing in facts, we’re not in the court of law, we’re not dealing in any kind of judgment. We’re dealing with a human cesspit of worst-case scenarios. We’re entering the woman’s psyche, really. It’s a virtual notebook of all the possible ramifications she could imagine.”
Swinton was also delighted with the fact the film was at Cannes: “What’s the downside of that? That’s the best news we could have got. Literally. It was what we dreamed of. Making little independent films — this is a little independent film with the modest ambition of breaking new ground cinematically. It’s really, really tough out there, particularly now, to get cinema like this out there and into the cinemas. It’s a little bit like you need to take your pig to market, and if you get into a big competition slot in a big festival, particularly Cannes, you get a juggernaut driven up to your door, and you get to sit in a very plush cabin as your pig is ceremoniously driven to market, meaning the cinemas. If you don’t, then it’s really tough.”
“The very fact that you’re all here talking about it and thinking about it, that’s all we ask: We don’t want much more than that. The fact that it’s well-received is almost too much to ask.” In our dwindling time, I ask Swinton if she reads her own reviews; her ice-blue eyes smile. “I will read them eventually. I don’t necessarily read them in the middle of a day like today … but I like to hear that it’s all going very well.”