Tilda Swinton, The Big Screen's True Transformer The chameleonic actress takes on the role of Emma Recchi, the Russian wife of a textiles magnate from Milan, in I Am Love, her latest movie. She talks to NPR's Jacki Lyden about living with change, learning new languages and feeling comfortable in her own skin.
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Tilda Swinton, The Big Screen's True Transformer

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Tilda Swinton, The Big Screen's True Transformer

Tilda Swinton, The Big Screen's True Transformer

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

Actress Tilda Swinton is well known for her roles as hard edged as a lawyer in "Michael Clayton" and as mysterious as the sex-changing title character in "Orlando." Swinton, 49, who was born and lives in Scotland, is a storyteller and also a shape shifter, not unlike those found in old Celtic tales.

Ms. Swinton has done many period films set in Europe. Her latest was a decade in the making. In "I Am Love," Tilda Swinton plays Emma Recchi, the Russian wife if a textiles magnate from Milan who manages her household, but the household also manages her. Just below the surface, we can see the cracks beginning to form.

(Soundbite of movie, "I Am Love")

Ms. TILDA SWINTON (Actress): (Italian spoken)

LYDEN: The film is entirely in Italian. A few weeks ago - and I apologize, I had a bad bronchitis - I got to speak to with Tilda Swinton about the film. "I Am Love" is another collaboration between Swinton and her long-time friend, director Luca Guadagnino. This film grew out of a memorable conversation that the two of them had in Rome about love.

Ms. SWINTON: We weren't at that point thinking of a particular narrative or even milieu or any characters or any story at all. We were just thinking about a kind of cinema that's very emotional, very what I call sensational, you know, eyes, ears, smell, hot...

LYDEN: Taste.

Ms. SWINTON: Taste. That sense of really what my young son would call being inside a film.

LYDEN: May I turn to Emma and ask you a bit about what in your own life you take with you into this role?

Ms. SWINTON: Nothing in my upbringing was really useful at all for the portrait of Emma, I have to say. My family is from the lowlands of Scotland and is, you know, cash-poor, land-rich, you know, very much of a different kind of kidney all together. This film is about, you know, high capitalist, haut-bourgeois milieu, which is really anathema to me. You know, I'm as much a foreigner in it as anybody would be and as Emma is. I mean, Emma's not from this world. She's an alien. I could think of her as an avatar. She's come as an outsider into this world and she's learned to walk the walk and talk the talk but she's an infiltrator and a fraud, to a certain extent, as some many people in that milieu actually are.

(Soundbite of movie, "I Am Love")

Ms. SWINTON: (Italian spoken)

LYDEN: You did this entire film in Italian.

Ms. SWINTON: And Russian.

LYDEN: And Russian. And from what I can tell, these are languages in which you're quite comfortable.

Ms. SWINTON: Well, do you...

LYDEN: Or did you trick me?

Ms. SWINTON: Let's pretend. That's all fantasy of the cinema. Lovely, lovely thought. I mean, I'm very often working outside my own language. I mean, occasionally I impersonated American people and I feel when I'm impersonating Americans that Im outside of my own language, too. I would imagine I would only feel really at ease in my own language if I was playing mute, which I most love. That's my favorite is to make silent films.

LYDEN: Well, you slept in a glass box once in a London gallery. I guess you were mute for that one. Did you learn Italian for this though?

Ms. SWINTON: A fair bit, yes, both Italian and Russian. I had the grace of not having to sound like a real Italian. So, it's the Russians I really have to apologize to because I'm supposed to sound like a real Russian.

(Soundbite of movie, "I Am Love")

Ms. SWINTON: (Russian spoken)

LYDEN: You know, I do though, Tilda Swinton, think of you as a particularly protean actor, and it's one of the things I really love about your work. I mean, you have ranged all over in your career. This woman, who is Russian, becomes Italian. She says, the day I left Russia I became Italian. Do women who change the outline of their lives appeal to you as an actor?

Ms. SWINTON: I think, Jacki, that there's something very fascinating for me about the idea that transformation is an option. For me, transformation is inevitable. That's what I find endlessly fascinating about life and I have since I was really very small. And I'm always interested when people fantasize that they can deny that it exists or that they can have any kind of control over it or that change might be a choice. And change is the only thing we have, it seems to me, and that it's with us all the time.

LYDEN: And we need - it may sound rather shallow but it's not - those have to be embraced, they can't be denied, and that's what happens to Emma. I don't want to give away the arc, but let me just say that by the end she couldn't be more different than when we meet her at the beginning.

I also want to point out, this is a movie that really will, I think, resonate with anyone who's tried to leave an old world and move into a new one. It is beautiful to look at, and I want to say that in an affirmative sense. I mean, you helped design, I think, the look of Emma. We see her in these perfect pearls, gorgeous dresses, that I guess Jil Sander had a hand in.

And by the end she's sort of - can I say thrown a lot of that over. Cut her hair, lived a boy's life. It's liberating.

Ms. SWINTON: Well, this is the story we wanted to tell. I was talking to somebody the other day who was pointing out his opinion that, you know, how tragic it is that Emma starts off so beautiful, you know, with a lot of mascara on, long hair, and by the end of the film she's, you know, such a mess. And I was very intrigued by this, because so many of my friends believe that, you know, at the beginning of the film Emma is a doll, and by the end she actually feels real. You know, it's such a relief that she's washed her face at last.

LYDEN: Tilda Swinton, do you think of this as an Italian film, or is it a European film, or - how would you characterize "I Am Love"?

Ms. SWINTON: I think both Luca and I would really like to think of it as an intergalactic film. I mean, we like - we've been very gratified by the fact that very little has been made in these Anglophone places or the fact that it's in Italian at all. I mean, it is, in a way, Jacki, a fairy story. You know, it's not a documentary and it's not some social study really. It, of course, occupies a semi-realistic space and it does talk about a kind of milieu that really does exist or really did exist. But it's really something other. It's supposed to be able to touch people from everywhere.

LYDEN: Well, I think it does but, you know, so do fairy tales. And as someone who grew up loving them and who still collects them, you've inverted that. She's a fairy princess when we meet her and she leaves with the kitchen boy. I can't think of anything more gorgeous and transformative. So, thank you so much...

Ms. SWINTON: Thank you, Jacki.

LYDEN: ...for giving it to us. It's fantastic.

Ms. SWINTON: Thank you so much.

LYDEN: Tilda Swinton, her new film is called "I Am Love." She spoke with us from our studios in New York.

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