From Parker Posey to Timothée Chalamet, the Sundance breakout is a tradition. Young talent is trotted up and down Park City’s Main Street to face an onslaught of interviews and offers for major new projects. But one of the most exciting new performers at the 2019 festival has stayed out of the spotlight: Honor Swinton-Byrne, daughter of Tilda and Scottish playwright John Byrne, has been generating a steady stream of raves for her extraordinary performance in “The Souvenir,” British Joanna Hogg’s intimate drama about a young love turned sour.
Conceived as the first installment in a two-part saga, “The Souvenir” stars Swinton-Byrne as Julie, a film student who falls for heroin user Anthony (Tom Burke) and faces devastating consequences as she comes to terms with his addiction. Appearing in nearly every scene, Swinton-Byrne is a quiet revelation, commanding many of the movie’s understated scenes with a combination of intellectual curiosity and wide-eyed naiveté. Despite the shadow cast by her famous mother — who plays Julie’s own mom in the movie — Swinton-Byrne stands on her own as a genuine talent to watch, but she’s barely spoken a word about it in public.
Much as she has been for the bulk of her life, the actress remained on the sidelines, with reps for the A24 film declining interview requests; at Sundance Q&As, she only took questions from the moderator, not the audience. “This is her first go-round and she really wants to take her time,” one publicist said, leaving Hogg to do the bulk of the talking. (Swinton-Byrne makes a brief appearance in Luca Guadagnino’s 2009 “I Am Love,” but other than that, she has never acted on camera before.) The result is the unique situation in which a young performer has been able to observe the spectacle of festival acclaim without letting it overwhelm her.
However, she’s been paying close attention to the promotional process. On a Monday afternoon after the festival’s first weekend, as Hogg sat down for an interview at A24’s condo, Swinton-Byrne settled onto the floor nearby to listen as the veteran director did all the talking.
A major British filmmaker whose measured character studies are best known for launching Tom Hiddleston’s movie career (“Archipelago”), Hogg has spent decades thinking about turning her own life into a movie. She first considered “The Souvenir” as a two-part project in the ’80s, but only recently felt confident about taking it on. A24 bought the rights to the second part at the start of the festival, and Hogg plans to shoot it this summer, with Swinton-Byrne reprising her performance opposite Robert Pattinson. (Hogg declined to explain the plans for his role.) After that, however, the actress has yet to decide if she wants to stay in the game. “I don’t think she knows that at the moment,” Hogg said. “She’s going to do the second part of ‘The Souvenir,’ of course and then she’s applying to university.”
Hogg worked with Swinton 30 years ago, on the director’s thesis film “Caprice,” and the pair remained friendly over the years. However, even after Swinton was cast as the mother character in “The Souvenir,” Hogg held off on the idea that the actress’ daughter belonged in the movie as well. “I already knew Honor, but I’d just never entertained the idea of Honor, because it wasn’t like she was planning to be an actress,” Hogg said.
The filmmaker had hoped to cast Julie early in the pre-production process. “I met a lot of actors and non-actors for the role of Julie, many different women, some who would’ve been great, I’m sure,” Hogg said. “But I just didn’t feel with Julie a version of myself at that time.” She only turned to Swinton-Byrne a few weeks before shooting started last year. “I’m interested in casting non-actors a lot, but with Honor it was kind of a no-go area in a way, because it was too close to home,” Hogg said. “But in the end, that home was the right thing.”
Hogg, who doesn’t use traditional shooting scripts, worked closely with the actress to develop the character. “I wanted to do a lot of work with her in terms of connecting her with some of my own memories, and some of the artifacts of my past, my films, and my photography, and my diaries,” Hogg said. “I was definitely looking for someone who connected deeply with myself, not even myself back then, but right now. With Honor, I certainly felt that when I first decided to cast her. But she’s also her own person so she brings a lot of her own self to it.”
As Hogg spoke, Swinton-Byrne paid close attention. “That was so wonderful,” she told Hogg at the end of the interview. Like many first-timers at Sundance, she beamed with the excitement over the new environment, and told IndieWire that she only regretted that there was no time to ski. She had found room to see other films, including the Peter Sarsgaard drama “The Sound of Silence,” which she enjoyed. From Sundance, she traveled to New York, where she was planning to see “Bluebeard’s Castle” at the Metropolitan Opera. (The music makes an appearance in the movie.)
While the actress’ future remains an open question, Hogg was optimistic about Swinton-Byrne’s potential. “My process is not about an actor performing a role,” the director said. “It’s very much taking it day by day. Honor hadn’t seen anything written down on paper, so she didn’t know what the story was, and she was very brave to decide to go on the journey with me.”