NPR Story
1:00 pm
Tue January 10, 2012

Tilda Swinton Faces A Parent's Nightmare In 'Kevin'

Originally published on Tue June 4, 2013 3:19 pm

In the film We Need To Talk About Kevin, Oscar-winning actor Tilda Swinton plays the tortured mother of a disturbed, disruptive and manipulative son.

As he gets older, Kevin — played as a child by Rocky Duer, and by Ezra Miller as a teen — systematically undermines his mother and his parents' marriage, and then goes on a horrific, Columbine-reminiscent killing spree.

The film, based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, follows Swinton's character, Eva Khatchadourian, as she attempts to grapple with her son's shocking crime.

Swinton talks with NPR's Neal Conan about We Need To Talk About Kevin and the challenge of playing such a sober role.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

NEAL CONAN, HOST:

In a new movie, Tilda Swinton and John C. Reilly play the parents of a disturbed, disruptive, manipulative son, who systematically undermines his mother and his parents' marriage. At one point, we see them in their living room discussing a breakup.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN")

JOHN C. REILLY: (As Franklin) At least custody is a no-brainer.

TILDA SWINTON: (As Eva) Is it? You've decided?

REILLY: (As Franklin) Eva, there's nothing left to decide. It already happened.

CONAN: At that moment, they notice their teenage son Kevin watching from the balcony above.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN")

EZRA MILLER: (As Kevin) Need a drink of water.

REILLY: (As Franklin) Hey, Kev. Listen, buddy. It's easy to misunderstand something when you hear it out of context.

MILLER: (As Kevin) Why would I not know the context? I am the context.

CONAN: "We Need to Talk About Kevin" is based on the novel by Lionel Shriver about a mother coping with the aftermath of her son's Columbine-like killing spree. Tilda Swinton stars as Eva Khatchadourian.

If you'd like to talk with her about this or her other films, give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton joins us now from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today on TALK OF THE NATION.

SWINTON: Hello, Neal. Happy New Year.

CONAN: And happy New Year to you. Can you tell us, what attracted you to this part?

SWINTON: Well, what attracted me to the film was Lynne Ramsay, the director, who's an extremely talented filmmaker who has made way too few films, in my opinion, and I was waiting for another film from her. We became friends during the time in between her last feature, which is about nine years ago now. She made two features, one called "Ratcatcher," and the other called "Morvern Callar." And "Morvern Callar," I think, was about nine years ago. And we became friends. And I - when I heard that she was adapting this book, which I knew quite well, I was really intrigued because anybody who knows this book, it's quite a chunk of change, and Lynne Ramsay herself is no slouch. So the idea or the combination was really compelling.

CONAN: The book is a series of letters...

SWINTON: Yeah.

CONAN: ...a woman sitting, writing letter after letter, intelligent, smart, acidly funny, in some respects. The film is entirely different.

SWINTON: Well, the grace and the torture of adapting good books is that you got to throw them away if you're going to make a possible film. This book has a lot of words in it, as books tend to, but it has really rather more well-chosen words than a lot, and it is, as you say, all written letters.

And it's about somebody - it's written - my character, Eva, is writing these letters to her husband Franklin, who you - throughout. You can see that they're separated, and she's trying not only to describe, but also to explain and understand the story of their life together and the upbringing of their child, who becomes such a problem, to say the least. And so the whole premise of the book is about, you know, trying to be articulate.

And we realized in making the film and developing the screenplay that that was going to be the very opposite of our project. Our project was going to be about not being able to - it's about being - things being unspeakable, literally, about having nobody to talk to. I mean, unless you are going to film over somebody's shoulder while they write screeds and screeds of letters, we knew we were going to have to, you know, throw that element out and make a great departure. So I would say that the film is inspired by the book in a way that it's not really an adaptation because its premise is so different.

CONAN: As you mentioned, she is very articulate in the book. In the film, the character you play is almost shattered.

SWINTON: Yeah. I mean, I call her dumb, but I mean that she's numb and dumbed. She has nobody to talk to, and she's really unraveled at the point which we meet her. We quite quickly - there's no spoiler alert needed for the fact that, you know, very early on in the book and very early on in the film we get to know that this boy has perpetrated, you know, a high school killing. And so, that's not a, as it were, a big deal narratively to let that away. So we know that she's having to deal with that.

We see her very early on being thumped in the face by a stranger for smiling and having her car and her house painted with red paint by passersby. We can see as some kind of martyr. And she has nobody to talk to about this at all. And I love this element, I have to say, not just in a quite masochistic way...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SWINTON: ...but I find there's something very beautiful when a character is so alienated that their only company is the audience. And so, we, as the audience, become, you know, we have to follow it through because nobody else is following it through for her. And so her only company is us, as we watch this film.

CONAN: We, as the audience, sometimes ask the character, though, we see you scrubbing the red paint off the car, off the house, that hobble that she lives in. How about a can of paint? Why doesn't she just move to the next town over?

SWINTON: But, that would - that's a healthy person, Neal, who suggests that.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SWINTON: She's got red stuff to clean off her hands. That's her deal, you know. She - when she's thumped in the face by the passerby, one of the first things she says is, it's my fault. It's not something that she can paint over. It's something that she has to try and scrape away because it belongs to her. One of the things that's very kind of important in the telling of the story of the upbringing of this child is he - I mean, he's pretty monstrous, let's face it. It's kind of a mother's nightmare. It's - I call it the feel-good film of the year because...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SWINTON: ...those who have children come waltzing out of the cinema, going oh, my kid, we thought he was a problem, but he's nothing compared to that one.

CONAN: (Unintelligible).

SWINTON: And those who don't have children, you know, just, you know, all too happy to go home and sleep across the bed. There's this feeling that all his misanthropy and all his violence and all his alienation is that bit worse for her because it's not actually exotic to her. It's absolutely familiar. It's hers. So this red paint is hers. She feels she deserves it. She really feels that she is to blame. And by the way, who can blame her? Because all of us, we don't have to have monstrous children to think that we are responsible for their every action.

CONAN: More on, I guarantee you, sales of archery sets will plummet. But the question, as you raise, we debate nature-nurture. The mother is on the edge of both of those horns.

SWINTON: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Well, but that's a - I mean, yes, I've said it's a nightmare and it is. It's not a social commentary, this film. It's, you know, it's a fictional story about people who don't actually exist and were dreamed up by a writer and now envisaged by a filmmaker. But it is about, you know, the grain in the bottom of the oyster that makes the pearl of it is something that we can all encounter. Not even - we don't have to be parents to do it. I mean, we're all children of parents, so we all know how our parents feel responsible for us. It's - really doesn't take much imagination to imagine ourselves there.

CONAN: Let's get a caller involved in the conversation. Of course we're hearing Tilda Swinton on the line from our bureau in New York. Her most recent picture is "We Need to Talk About Kevin," which is just opening now. Tracy is on the line, calling us from Grand Rapids.

TRACY: Hi. Thank you, Tilda. You are an inspiration and a fantastic actress. And very...

SWINTON: Thank you.

TRACY: I'm excited to...

SWINTON: Thank you.

TRACY: ...talk with you. I was - I first saw "Orlando" about six years ago and was taken away by a female gender-bender role. And I was most moved, and that's why I want to ask you about, is "Julia," the part where you kidnapped the young boy and hold him for ransom, and it's like you fall in love with him in a motherly kind of way. And (unintelligible)

SWINTON: Thank you for mentioning that film. I love that film "Julia," and too few people have seen it. It's wonderful that you love that film.

TRACY: Oh, yeah. Thank you very much. And please keep doing what you're doing and - all of your roles that are taking away all of these roles that women seem to keep themselves in.

SWINTON: Thank you, Tracy.

TRACY: And thank you.

SWINTON: I'm trying my very hardest. Thank you. Happy new year.

CONAN: And Tracy pointed out, too - you said too few people have seen the film "Julia." As you looked at this film, I know it's not what you do in the process of making the film, but did you sit back and wonder, I wonder why anybody is going to pay 12 bucks to see this?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SWINTON: You know, I'm laughing because that is the very thing my sweetheart said when he put down the first draft.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SWINTON: He's not listening to this because he's back in the hotel, but I'm going to tell him you said that. It's so funny.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SWINTON: He put it down. He said, yeah, it's brilliant. But who on earth is going to want to see this? Well, you know what, miracles happen, and a lot of people seeing this film and wanting to see it, and I'm not best placed to say why. I mean, it has a lot to do with the fact that it's made by an extremely inspired filmmaker. But I think there's something about the subject. As I say, I mean, I was being semi-flippant when I called it the feel-good film of the year. I think there is something that it gets right that the Greeks got right about catharsis.

There's something about it putting up there our worst fears and there's something about the position the woman is in which is so beyond any kind of nightmare you can imagine that's kind of good to look at. I think there's something really great about looking at the worst-case scenario played out. The other I would say, though, is - and again, I don't want this to sound flippant, 'cause I mean it most sincerely. The film is a love story. Truly, it's about love. The subject of the film is love. Really, I mean, apart from the fact that it's a story about boy getting mom, it's also about the nature of loving, the practice of loving.

Eva has this terrible predicament, which is that she gives birth - she's pregnant and then she gives birth and this miracle drug called maternal instinct doesn't start to kick in. And I'm, you know, fortunately, a mother for whom the drug did kick in. I'm happy to say it because the work of having children - and I speak of someone who had twins, so I kind of know the deal - the work of having children, particularly in those first months and early years is so intense, as we all know, that if you - can you imagine doing it without that drug?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SWINTON: I mean, that's what the drug is for. It's for...

CONAN: Well, we hear your character say, mommy was happy and then little Kevin came along.

SWINTON: Yeah. She says it. She actually - because she's got no, you know, brake pads on her brakes. She's like screeching to a halt all the time. She has nothing to get her through. She does not love this child. The child does not love her, and she's hating being a mother. And I have to say, Neal, I mean, I've known women in this predicament. I think that - I'm happy to say that I'm not one of them, but I've known and still know women in that predicament. I know children who are the children of mothers who've been in that situation and it is almost never spoken about which, of course, by the way, is another answer to first question, what drew me to this subject?

I was aware when I read the book that Lionel Shriver, who wrote this book, is looking at this subject, this taboo subject, which is the assumption that maternal instinct is inevitable is just not true. It is possible to go through that door into parenthood and, you know, the drug to not kick in. And we all know how prevalent it is and yet nobody really seems to talk about it.

CONAN: Tilda Swinton, the best of luck with "We Need to Talk About Kevin." Thank you so much for coming in.

SWINTON: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Tilda Swinton joined us from our bureau in New York. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.