In Luca Guadagnino's new film A Bigger Splash, Tilda Swinton plays Marianne Lane, a rock star recovering from vocal-cord surgery on the remote Italian island Pantelleria with her younger filmmaker boyfriend, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts). The paradise is upended when her brash record-producer ex, Harry (Ralph Fiennes), shows up unannounced with his alluring daughter Penelope (Dakota Johnson), setting up a romantic entanglement that's playful, steamy, and sinister. It's a particularly interesting and impressive performance from Swinton, who carries the film in a largely silent role, bringing emotional heft to every glance and gesture. Chatting over coffee in a New York hotel, the actress talked about what she drew from to play such a tricky part.
1. Real-Life Rock Stars
One of the film's opening scenes shows Swinton, decked out in sequins and sparkling makeup, strutting on to the stage of a packed stadium. "It's based on nobody in particular. It's a milieu, an attitude, a way of being that being a big stadium-style legendary rock star affords, a license to that swagger," she says. "We wanted her to be plausible enough to remind us of everybody from Chrissie Hynde to Patti Smith to Bowie. The truth is, if you're going to wear a sequined jumpsuit in front of 70,000 people, you're going to remind viewers of those people."
2. Her Home Life
At one point, Penelope remarks that Marianne is "very domesticated for a rock star," in that she cooks and keeps a quiet household. Swinton completely relates. "I'm extremely domesticated and not a rock star at all, so the pendulum is right over that way. There are some rock stars, some artists who finesse this. Of course, Bowie was the past master, when he created Ziggy. You create a persona absolutely distinctly, behind which it's possible to live an authentic human life. There are others who don't put that out there, who live a more integrated, sort of singular existence, and I'm one of those. I live a very integrated life in a very unstellar but very beautiful part of the world. There's no oohs and aahs when I put on a pan of soup."
3. Personal Grief
After working with Guadagnino on 1999's The Protagonists and 2009's I Am Love, Swinton originally turned down A Bigger Splash. "My mother was very ill," she says. "I was looking after her and she eventually died. At moments like that, you don't want to talk very much. You fancy being quite quiet and you certainly don't feel like making a feature film, even with your friends." When Guadagnino again asked her to be in his film, Swinton accepted, provided she could play the part while remaining mostly silent. The script was rewritten to include the surgery story line so that Swinton's request could be accommodated. "I had to figure out a way of making it possible for me to do it," she says. "I don't want to overplay the personal. It just seemed that it was an insight that could make it messier between these characters. Originally, they were all talking a lot and I wanted to see if we could find more than that. People tend to talk quite a lot in movies so I'm always keen on switching it up a bit."
4. Her Own Laziness
"I was looking for something authentic in my own life where it'd be easy, and I could not do any acting," she says, laughing. "I've always been very interested in working silent. I'm extremely lazy and the idea of learning too many lines is always tricky. I'm not very talkative. Normally, I'm quite a quiet person."
5. Her Musician Friends
As tensions escalate with Harry, Marianne struggles to remain silent, which she must do in order to let her vocal cords heal. To understand the fear a musician might have about damaging their voice, Swinton turned to several musicians she knows. "A couple friends — I'd rather not say who — have had that very operation. They describe this kind of precipice, because it's a real question: 'Am I ever going to sing again? Am I going to sing as well? I might be able to sing again but I might not.' It's a real opportunity to step back and look at your life."
6. Ingrid Bergman and Derek Jarman
"Luca and I looked to Ingrid for an aesthetic," explains Swinton, "particularly in her Rossellini era." Swinton and Guadagnino — who are set to start filming a remake of Dario Argento's 1977 horror film, Suspiria, this summer — also mimicked English director Derek Jarman's on-set approach to filmmaking. "We were all in that beautiful place, very often in swimming costumes and in that swimming pool. No one was 'pretending' to enjoy being on Pantelleria and that's always useful — that's something I learned very much from Derek. He would sort of throw the party of the film and invite people to come and make the party with him. Luca and I threw open this environment, invited people into it and then shot what happened."