The Rock Star Without a Voice: In A Bigger Splash, Tilda Swinton Finds Joy in Muteness

A Bigger Splash, which reteams Tilda Swinton with Italian director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love), features a brilliant opening flashback of Swinton as Marianne Lane, a globally famous rock star—think female David Bowie—performing in a stadium to 70,000 shrieking fans.

A close-up on Marianne’s face, with her slanted eye make-up and inscrutable expression, reveals a flicker of excitement—or is it ennui? Marianne used to get a rush from the multitudes of adoring fans screaming her name; now she realizes there’s an unspoken, impossible chasm between her and the masses that adore her without knowing her, and she wants to escape.

Marianne’s hideaway is a gorgeous house with a pool, a vision out of a Bill Hockney painting, on the beautiful island of Pantelleria in Italy off the coast of Tunisia. There she flees with her filmmaker boyfriend Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), who protects and nurses her as she recovers from vocal chord surgery requiring her to be mute for two weeks. There’s no shortage of activities to pursue on this volcanic island with its dark past and unique geographical location, which also makes it a route for political refugees—another subtext to the film, loosely based on Jacques Deray‘s 1969 French New Wave classic, La Piscine.

Marianne and Paul, a recovering alcoholic, swim, drink wine, tool around the island, sunbathe, unwind ,make love to their hearts’ content. It’s paradise until former record producer—and Marianne’s former lover—Harry (Ralph Fiennes) turns up with his recently discovered, Lolita-like daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson). The way father and daughter gaze at each other and intertwine is a bit incestuously creepy, and adds another layer of ambiguity to the plot. Soon the purpose of Harry’s visit becomes transparent: He’s on a mission to win back Marianne and prove he’s still relevant, both in her life and as a record producer. Fiennes steals the show with his frenetic energy and constant yammering. And his Mick Jagger moves to “Emotional Rescue” are worth the price of admission.

At a press event for A Bigger Splash in Manhattan, Tilda Swinton, looking ethereally beautiful, discussed her character Marianne, and revealed it was her idea to make her mute.

As for the actress’s future projects, there’s been much controversy concerning her recently wrapped film, Dr. Strange, in which she plays a Tibetan character known as the Ancient One. (“Typecast,” she said of the character’s name, though she adds, “It’s a badge of honor. I’m very proud.”) Marvel Comics has been accused of whitewashing the role now that the Ancient One has been rewritten as a Celt, no longer Asian or a man, although in trailers Swinton’s character looks androgynous (an old-hat quality in her work and personal life). “I come from a family who kind of all look like this, mainly boys. All the boys look like this,” she says.

Swinton is now filming Okja with Snowpiercer director Bong Joon-ho . And after Okja, she is reunited with Guadagnino for a remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria. Referencing films he’d seen as a teenager, such as Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and The Shining, the director said that it was his ambition “to make the scariest movie of the generation [of audiences].” As with previous projects, the director’s work with Swinton will be very collaborative.

Following are highlights from the interview with Swinton.

Paula Schwartz, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): It’s a little shocking to hear that you came up with the idea to make your character mute, because it seems like it would change the whole dynamic of the movie.

Tilda Swinton (TS): Shocking because actors tend to want more lines? Well, I’ve said many times: I’m not an actor [smiles]. It doesn’t take only lines to make a movie, and I personally think the fewer lines, the better in general. It just felt like a way of ramping up the volume on this story about communication and how incredibly difficult it is, and I just thought it would be an interesting thing because Harry is just so voraciously center-of-attention, grandstanding, never stops talking, annoying, and I thought it would be kind of wonderful [to interject this].

Ralph Fiennes as “Harry Hawkes” and Tilda Swinton as “Marianne Lane” in A BIGGER SPLASH. Photo courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures. © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Ralph Fiennes as Harry Hawkes and Tilda Swinton as Marianne Lane in A Bigger Splash

MM: Don’t you think Harry is endearing?

TS: You’re absolutely at liberty to think of him as endearing. I reserve the right. When you want to be quiet on an island and you want to leave him and everything that he represents behind… he pushes it onto her. But it was an interesting experiment, and I’m so grateful that Luca was up for it, and Dave [screenwriter David Kajganich], of course. When we represented this idea to him, he had to reconfigure it, but I personally am really pleased that we did. It makes it, for my money, a more interesting film.

MM: How long before production did you come up with the notion to have Marianne unable to speak?

TS: Well, we started shooting in July, and I think I came up with it at Easter. I went for a long walk at Easter and I came up with this plan.

It was a positive thought. It was a good one, and, yeah, as I said, Luca was up for it. But then I know him so well and it’s kind of the way we work together. We kind of tend to throw something in the mix at the very last minute. And we’ve been the beneficiaries in the past of things coming in at the last minute. We worked on I Am Love for 13 years and for 12 of those years we didn’t have the house. We’d written this and needed a part-palace, part-prison, part-museum house, but it didn’t exist. And then suddenly, at the last minute, the house we shot it in became available. It had been in private hands and suddenly it was released into the atmosphere because it was given to the Italian equivalent of the National Trust. So we know the luck in last-minute decisions.

MM: When you do make sounds in the film, it’s a kind of strangulated speech. How difficult was that?

TS: I had to kind of figure that out a bit because it had to be for real. A couple of my friends who are musicians have been through that operation, so I knew the lay of the land. They said, “No, no no, you can’t whisper.” Whispering puts a certain amount of strain as well. We wanted there to be this difference between her able to whisper, or allowing herself to whisper with Paul, and not wanting Harry to know that she could communicate. And then I set myself this task that in every scene, I would say, “You’re not gonna talk,” and then after a take or two, I would say to Luca, “She just has to say something in this scene.”

MM: What it was like shooting on that island?

TS: I have a particular predilection for islands. I live, in a way, between where we live in the Highlands and an island on the West Coast of Scotland, which is similar. It’s not as hot as Pantelleria, it’s not as brutal, and it certainly doesn’t have the brutal history. Nobody processed slaves on the island I live on. But there’s something about Pantelleria that I recognized as quite homely. It’s quite robust. The people who live there have to live a very robust life, and I’ve been brought up amongst people who live that kind of life, so it felt very familiar to me. But it’s a chunk of change living there. It’s even a chunk of change even spending two months there. The wind never stops. And you’re completely at the mercy of the weather, which you are on most islands but you really are, and if it blows too much then the boats aren’t going to come in, and you’re not going to get much food. You’re going to be stuck and you’re going to have capers with everything.

Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Matthias Schoenarts and Fiennes dine on Pantelleria in A Bigger Splash

Swinton, Dakota Johnson, Matthias Schoenaerts and Fiennes dine on Pantelleria in A Bigger Splash

MM: Could you see yourself being a rock star?

TS: I’m not a rock star. I’m not a musician. I’ve known many musicians in my life and I know that life secondhand. What I can imagine is that moment we show her, the beginning on the stage in front of 70,000 people—that ain’t CGI, by the way; those are all real Italians… The decision to step away from that drama, and that theater, I can absolutely relate to. I can imagine that very easily—not that I ever have to deal with that amount of drama or theater. Also there’s that authentic connection for me with her, in her relationship with her mother—my mother had recently died, which is the reason I wasn’t going to make the film in the first place. I was not shooting then.

Luca and I work together all the time, as you know, and this was not going to be a film we were going to make together for that reason. And then when it came to it, he asked me again, at the last minute, if I would do it… I went for this long walk. And Marianne was going to be an actress, and I didn’t want to play an actress and I certainly didn’t want to do all this talking. I wasn’t honestly all that interested in the way it was playing out: Harry arrives; they had all this talking, endless talking. I don’t want to see that film. But I really want to see a film in which these two lovers who used to have this very garrulous relationship are thrown together and one of them can’t talk. I’m just curious about that, so I wanted her to be a rock star. I wanted her to be mute. And then I figured out, “Well, if she’s a rock star, then that means a great deal losing your voice. It’s one thing, I suppose, losing your voice if you’re an actress, but if you lose your voice and you’re a singer, then that’s a whole different story.” And then he was always going to be a record producer, so it brought them closer together as well. They were colleagues as well as ex-lovers.

MM: Did you think of rockers like Chrissie Hynde?

TS: Everybody. Nobody in particular, but everybody. We wanted her to be somebody you could imagine existed. You know, “Marianne—oh, Marianne! What happened to her, haven’t heard about her in a while, what’s she been up to?”

My friend Jefferson Hack, who runs Dazed and Confused, has a beautiful magazine called AnOther Magazine. He put Marianne Lane on the cover and we had a big interview inside with Marianne Lane and rock journalist Glenn O’Brien. And I know people who’ve gone, “Oh man, Marianne fucking Lane, what happened?” I wanted the posters to be Marianne Lane rock concerts with “cancelled” across them. Like, cancelled due to medical necessity.

MM: How has your working relationship with Luca evolved?

TS: It just gets more and more delightful. It’s built on a close friendship and there’s nothing better, as you know, than working with your friends, ’cause you get to see them all the time and you get to figure stuff out and the figuring stuff out is just that much easier and more fun cause you’re with your pal. We’re very like-minded. Our kind of approach is similar and we dare each other in a very constructive way. Like that gauntlet I threw down about the muteness. I mean, he could easily have said, “You know what? I’m not sure it’s such a great idea.” But he didn’t. And then I would have said, “Then I can’t be there because that’s what I’m offering.” And he’d understand absolutely.

MM: Is your relationship similar to what you had with Derek Jarman at the start of your career?

TS: It’s such an amazing piece of luck for me that I had what I had with Jarman and I think, if I hadn’t met Derek Jarman, I really don’t see how I would have been working in cinema, because I didn’t have any way of working in a kind of industrial, professional way. Actors get hired and they do their stuff and they go home. And that, I don’t think I would be interested in. I’m not interested enough in acting to do that. It’s not my field. What I like is cooking it up around a kitchen table. The Germans have a word for it, mitarbeiter, and that’s what I am. And I love that.

Having had that with Derek, and having found a way of making cinema with him… when he died in 94, I thought, “OK, that was amazing for nine years, and now I’ll go off and be a whatever or just not work in cinema.” Certainly not work as a performer because it was only with him that we did these experimental films, which were largely silent, by the way—got started as a silent film performer, really—and then I met Luca, in fact, very soon after Derek died and so it rolled on. And the even more amazing thing is that I made other relationships with people. I’ve realized, by the way, it’s not that rare. People want to work this way. MM

A Bigger Splash opens in theaters May 4, 2016, courtesy of Fox Searchlight. All images courtesy of 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

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