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In the film Julia, Oscar-winner Tilda Swinton plays an alcoholic turned sloppy extortionist when she kidnaps a young boy and holds him for ransom. With her layered, spot-on performance, she transforms a train wreck of a woman into someone who's kind of sympathetic.
Ladies' Home Journal: There are scenes in this film where we're just watching Julia self-destruct. How do you prepare for a role like that?
Tilda Swinton: Well, it's a very practical business, really. Erick [Zonca, the director] was looking for something very precise, real, and documentary in feel, which means that nothing can feel stylized or fake. So knowing that, my main preparation was simply to look as if I had been living at large for 20 years...and once I had a few extra pounds, wearing clothes that were too tight, heels that were too high, and too much makeup, it was really very straightforward.
LHJ: You have to play drunk a lot during this film, which I've heard actors say is very difficult to do without going overboard.
TS: [Laughing] My direction was to go overboard. When it came time to do all the really drunk stuff, I was a little apprehensive because I'm not a good drunk myself. If I drink, I fall asleep or throw up. I'm not the kind of rolling, energetic drunk that Julia is. Then I suddenly realized that I've been pretending to be drunk all my life without actually having drunk anything. When I've been hanging out with my glorious drunk friends, I'm perfectly sober so that I can call the cops when the neighbors tell everybody to turn the music down. And I'm the designated driver.
LHJ: Were you able to sympathize with Julia? Was that necessary for you to play her?
TS: I think it's perfectly possible to play a really quite monstrous individual. But with Julia, I felt completely compassionate towards her. I think she's so obviously wrong-footed all the time, that however outrageous she is, however hell-bent she is, I think she's someone I find it very easy to feel compassion for.
LHJ: How does having children of your own affect playing a woman who is so out of touch with how to relate to a child?
TS: Well, it makes it very easy to work with an 8-year-old boy [Aidan Gould]. I knew how much he wanted to get thrown in the trunk, and what a kick he gets out of being bound up with tape. He loved it, like any self-professing 8-year-old boy would. I think maybe if one didn't have a child, they might not realize the great thing about children is that they know that all performing is, is dressing up and playing. It's nothing else. And in fact, they know it better, and more profoundly than a lot of older people do. So it's a grace to work with someone at that age.
LHJ: Do you think that the heaviness of the film was lost on him?
TS: I actually don't believe it was. You'd have to ask him, but he's a very, very bright person and on a very serious level, he seemed to understand what the film was about. There are scenes later on in the film where his responses were absolutely natural and unscripted and he had a protective instinct with Julia. It felt very true to the character that he was playing that this slightly freakish child, who doesn't really know what a mother is, with this extremely freakish woman who doesn't really know what a child is, should end up in this strange, equal pairing, but where in a way he's more adult than she is. I think that says a lot to Aiden's intelligence and sensitivity.
LHJ: You've taken on such varied projects in your career and I read that you're collaborating with Marilyn Manson on a film. Is that true?
TS: Yeah, we've been talking quite a while about making a film. I think we're still developing it, but I haven't actually heard from him for a while. He keeps going off and making records and then touring the world with them -- and all power to him. I like him very much. He's extremely smart and he has a very interesting project in mind about Charles Dodgson, who is Lewis Carroll, the guy who wrote Alice in Wonderland.
LHJ: How did you connect for this project?
TS: He just contacted me and said he wanted to talk to me. He rang me up at home. It was great.
LHJ: Were you familiar with his work prior to that?
TS: Yeah, I was a huge fan. I've always been a great Manson fan so I was thrilled.
LHJ: Beyond acting, do you have any other passion projects?
TS: I'm in the process of inaugurating a foundation with my colleague Mark Cousins, called Eight and a Half Foundation, for children to have access to great world cinema. We want to set up a Web site with a menu of films we've curated -- films from all over the world -- then a child can go to the Web site, choose the film they want, and we'll send it to them as a birthday present for their eight and a half birthday.
LHJ: Why eight and a half?
TS: In 2006, I was asked to deliver an address at the San Francisco Film Festival called the State of Cinema address. I really didn't know what to talk about and I was on the verge of saying I had nothing to say about the condition of the cinema industry at the moment. Then one night, my son asked me what people's dreams were like before the cinema was invented. He was 8 1/2 at the time and I realized that a child at 8 1/2 has the capacity to really use cinema for what it was invented to be, which is a source for our imagination and our dreamscape. So I wrote this piece as the state of cinema address, which was a letter to him, and it was quite widely published. Mark read it and wrote a public reply to it, to himself at 8 1/2, examining how cinema had saved his life in a way. He was brought up in Northern Ireland in a war-torn place. He was quite frightened and vulnerable and it was going to the cinema that really made him feel safe and secure in the world. So through these two letters we decided to make this foundation.
Julia, starring Tilda Swinton, is available now on DVD.
Originally published on LHJ.com, September 2009.