[Editor’s note: This interview contains spoilers about the plot of “The Eternal Daughter.”]
Tilda Swinton’s career has taken some unexpected turns in the decades since she was Derek Jarman’s experimental partner-in-crime. After her acclaimed turn in Jarman’s “Edward II,” Swinton’s gender-bending performance as an Elizabethan nobleman in Sally Potter’s “Orlando” solidified her capacity for audacious onscreen transformations. It wasn’t until 15 years later, with her Oscar-winning turn in Tony Gilroy’s “Michael Clayton,” that Swinton began to explore more commercial material.
These days, however, she has doubled down on the more singular undertakings that put her on the map, from Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s meditative “Memoria” to “The Eternal Daughter,” her latest collaboration with longtime friend and colleague Joanna Hogg.
“The Eternal Daughter,” which A24 released theatrically last week, merges Swinton’s performative ambition with a quasi-genre twist. She plays both Julie, a middle-aged filmmaker, and her mother Rosalind as the pair journey to a gothic country estate. While Julie attempts to make a movie about her mom’s life, the pair confront old memories and the strange negative space between them as it comes alive in the mostly abandoned grounds. As Julie wanders the foggy exteriors and investigates strange bumps in the night, “The Eternal Daughter” settles into a ghostly two-hander about the slippery nature of memory at the core of parent-child relationships.
Shot in the midst of the pandemic, it’s a tight-knit existential drama about coming to grips with intergenerational disconnection, mother-daughter bonds coming unraveled, and the impact of death on all those things. Speaking to IndieWire this fall after the movie’s North American premiere at TIFF, Swinton untangled the “Sixth Sense”-like twist at the center of the narrative and explained how the audacious material tied into the bigger picture of her career to date.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
IndieWire: When did Joanna first bring the concept for “The Eternal Daughter” to you?
Tilda Swinton: We’ve been talking about it for years. We’ve known each other forever and have been talking to each other about our mothers and the relationships we’ve had with them being the same generation. We’ve talked a lot about mothers and daughters of our generation and the chasm between them. However much affection, however much genuine love there is, there is also a very different way of communicating between that generation and ours. I know that because I now have a daughter of a similar age to the age that I was when I started thinking about this. She’s 24. Our relationship, my daughter and mine’s, is really different. There’s a different kind of understanding and sharing.
Joanna and I have not only talked about it all our lives but particularly through the “Souvenir” films. Even those are very much Julie’s journey, the relationship she has with Rosalind is an important string in that bow. It sets up her need to be independent. There’s also something I rather love that developed in those two films, which is Rosalind wanting to become an artist because she has an artist daughter. So it isn’t just about that chasm but about what it was like for women of that age, from that milieu, having artist daughters — which I think was not necessarily easy, however much they supported us, it wasn’t necessarily easy.
Does that inform your relationship to your own daughter?
My children grew up in an artist house: Their father, their stepfather, me. They’re surrounded by paintings and films and books by people they know — including their godparents. They know what it is to make art.
How challenging was it to play two people in one scene?
That was a real piece of work because we improvise. Joanna writes what’s really a scaffolding and it’s quite small. She works very diligently on it, but it’s really just a skeleton and everything else is improvised. Whoever starts the conversation when you have two people present, the other one will follow. We dream it up together. What was technically challenging here was that we had to decide every day, for every scene, who was the person that was going to start. In a way, we had to make more decisions that we did with the other films. We would shoot one person first but there was always a gap and a bit of magic to make them different.
It sounds like it must have been a discombobulating experience for you to keep the two characters straight.
But here’s the thing: Are they different people? That was the tightrope, for them to feel like different people — but when the credits rolls, you may consider the possibility that they weren’t, after all. One of the things that was also quite complicated but we knew early on we needed to do was to make a strong bond between them, and we decided to do that with the voice. So even though it was quite difficult for me to naturally play Rosalind with the same voice that Julie and I have, that really helped because they were the same person.
I don’t really know how we did it. It’s mysterious. It was like a child’s game. We’ve known each other since we were 10 and we felt like 10-year-olds.
Going back to “Orlando,” you have delivered these performances that require you to transform yourself. How did your experience on that film establish a template for you?
To be precise about it: I realized that I always want to find the sort of unchanging at the bottom of something quite mutable. So with “Orlando,” Sally Potter and I had a very similar journey because we started talking about the obvious differences between Orlando as male and Orlando as female, but very quickly we decided we weren’t interested in looking at differences; we wanted to look at something that was unchanging. We concentrated on that.
All the other mutations, which were mainly about costume and other kinds of projections — that’s where all the differences lay, but Orlando as a spirit, as a person, didn’t actually change. Once we realized that, it freed us up. It was something fairly similar with “Eternal Daughter.” That’s always been what I’m mostly interested in.
Finding the consistency within change is a fascinating idea, but what does mean on a more practical level?
I’m not really interested in acting. I’m trying to find the least performative that a person can be. I never like talking about character. That whole vernacular belongs to the theater. It’s about this feeling of the most relaxed and unperformative a person can be. Of course we have to mention “Memoria” in this. “Memoria” is, in many ways, the sort of sine qua non for the work I’m discussing here. It’s the least constructed, the least performative one could possibly be.
Looking back on your Jarman collaboration, why do you think it left such an impression on you?
He introduced us all to a way of working that I’m devoted to. The possibility of working collectively is what keeps me going. If someone wants to make a film that might be a good idea for me and they’re not interested in working collectively then it’s not going to happen.
Of course, those movies always had a very limited audience. Did that ever bother you?
That was what I knew. The whole way of working with Derek set the tone for me. It always felt process-based. We never really felt that invested in the product. It was like a tree and the films were like leaves that just came off it. We didn’t really pay that much attention to the releases of the films, partly because of the kind of films they were. But in any case, they have entered the splitstream of the canon. We were always sort of low-key longterm. If you have that, and that’s where I am with Joanna, I think these films are real word of mouth films people will connect with individually. They aren’t fanfare films. You have to see them to believe them.
Once you started to get more attention from the industry, did you turn down a lot of roles?
You get your name on a film poster and immediately you’re on a certain list and hear about a whole bunch of amazing ideas. I don’t want to say which ones, but you could go down years — 1998, 1999 — and go, “What films were made? What parts were in need for someone who was that age?” We’re all offered everything.
What finally compelled you to take a stab at more mainstream projects?
It was Tony Gilroy. To work with a screenplay like “Michael Clayton,” and then the Coen brothers after that [on “Burn After Reading” and “Hail, Caesar!”]— that got me starting to work with classic Hollywood screenplays, and it was a revelation to me, something I didn’t really expect. I found that really interesting. I’ve always been trying to find a way to avoid the theatrical in the cinema. I think there’s an unhealthy relationship between the theater and a certain kind of modern cinema. But the kind of screenplay that Tony Gilroy writes, that kind of architecture, is something else: It’s pure cinema. It makes you feel like you’re working with Billy Wilder.
You missed out on that opportunity by about a decade or so.
I know. Back in the day when I was working with Derek, whenever I went to LA, I’d wonder if I might see him at the supermarket buying yogurt. I mean, he was still alive! Then there was this really funny moment, when “Michael Clayton” was released and it so happened that all the actors who won Oscars that year were from outside of North America: There was Marion Cotillard, Daniel Day Lewis, Javier Bardem, and me. I remember the press being a little bit sort of coquettish with us and slightly condescending to us, like, “What this like for you Europeans?” And I remember saying, “Well, you know, Hollywood was actually built by Europeans.” There was a slight moment where they had to figure out that was true. But Billy Wilder was one of them.
How much do you pay attention to Oscar talk these days?
I have no idea. That’s another country for me. I’m out of the loop. Did it even happen last year?
A guy slapped another guy.
Ooh, yes! Even I caught that. Well, whatever, is all I can say. Yes, maybe, as Bong Joon-ho says, if people are getting less frightened of reading text onscreen then that’s a very good thing to be creeping along slowly. The Three Amigos have been doing that for a long time. Whether the really important people, who aren’t the industry but the audience, really pay attention to the Oscars — I don’t know if they do. Maybe they exist for what’s going to get funded next year.
How do you explain your more recent phase of collaborations?
People are beginning to know that I’m fairly lazy in terms of doing my own thing. I’ve been having had this quite intensive switchback ride between the worlds of extraordinary pure cinema makers — Wes Anderson, Apichatpong, George Miller, Joanna Hogg. All of them are making pure cinema but they’re all coming from different angles and occupying different stalls in the market. So in a way they all feel supercharged and super-valid. The fact that there are all these ways of skinning a cat makes cinema feel more robust, but that’s just my personal experience.
“The Eternal Daughter” is now in limited theatrical release from A24.