In “A Bigger Splash,” Tilda Swinton almost doesn’t speak at all. That might be a strong hook for a movie, but it’s downright cruel for those who like hearing the Oscar-winner blabber. In real life she’s a talker, quick to launch into epic, eloquent monologues filled with wordplay and curious, vivid expressions.
But this new film — her third feature with Italian director Luca Guadagnino, and their first after 2009’s “I Am Love” — robs her character of speech, the result of an operation she got thanks to her being a stadium-packing rock star. Swinton’s Marianne Lane isn’t completely mum. When she speaks, which she does as infrequently as she can, it’s in a husk. Even that can be bad on the vocal chords. Not that Swinton was ever worried.
“I’m so not a professional. I’m sure a professional would know how to do it without damaging their voice. But I didn’t think of it,” Swinton says. “I haven’t damaged my voice. So my rock career is safe.”
Rock stardom is something Tilda knows at least something about. She appeared alongside David Bowie in the 2013 video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight).” One would think she was channeling the late music god, when Marianne is about to play before a packed crowd in face makeup. But no.
“Funnily enough we didn’t think of Bowie,” Swinton explains. “But the truth is anybody who puts on a sequin jumpsuit for the rest of time is going to be reminiscent of Bowie.” Instead she thought of Chrissie Hynde, Patti Smith, Joan Jett, PJ Harvey. “She’s like all sorts of people I am lucky enough to know, with that much drama in their life.”
“A Bigger Splash” isn’t about her rocking out, though. It follows Marianne on an extended vacation on the arid but gorgeous Mediterranean island of Pantelleria, doing little but lounging about with her photographer boyfriend (Matthias Schoenaerts). Their peaceful idyll is upset by the arrival of Henry (Ralph Fiennes), a music producer and close friend (and, for her, a former lover) who, unlike them, is still perpetually very much on.
He’s trying to keep it going, keep the party going. And [Marianne] wants to go home and be peaceful and get some rest,” explains Swinton. “I think that moment comes for anybody of that age, whether they’re house husbands or coal miners. But being a rock star brings with it a particular need for retreat, if you’re living in that much spotlight.”
It’s something she knows well. “I know people who have public personae that are really quite extreme — who are pretty domesticated for a rock star. I know three people who are really great cooks,” explains Swinton. “That’s not true of all rock stars. Some rock stars go the whole way — [like] Lemmy [of Motorhead].”
Marianne wasn’t always going to be a rocker. In the original script she was an actress, and she had a normal amount of dialogue. At first Swinton wasn’t keen on taking on that baggage.
“I wasn’t going to not make a film that particular year. My mother had just died, and I didn’t want to do anything. I certainly didn’t want to play an actress who talked a lot,” Swinton recalls. Guadagnino was persistent, though, and she ultimately had to ask what it would take for her to come onboard. When she realized Marianne could have lost her voice it all clicked. It’s still a difficult exercise to play someone who can’t use words to express herself.
“It’s a very strange thing saying to yourself, ‘I can’t talk,’” she says. “Sometimes there are things that have to be said, and they just burst out of you. We set ourselves this challenge: ‘In every scene you won’t say anything, and just feel what needs to be said.’ I managed to get out of it without breaking my vows not to speak. But occasionally I had to say something.”