The 'Okja' Interview: Tilda Swinton on Learning from Her Children, Four-Legged Wisdom and Cinematic Friendships

07/03/2017 07:39 am ET
Tilda Swinton and Ahn Seo-hyun in ‘Okja’
Photo courtesy of Netflix
Tilda Swinton and Ahn Seo-hyun in ‘Okja’

When meeting Tilda Swinton in person, she proves to be an undeniable force of nature. Tall, slim, incandescently blonde and with translucent, flawless skin like a Jean-Étienne Liotard pastel, Swinton is a sight to behold. But beyond her undeniable beauty — which stems from a self assuredness that makes even the best of us feel self-conscious a bit — her wondrous wit and her talent for public speaking, lies her talent. Her perfect, spontaneous, impeccable talent for acting, which is what brings us, her audience, back time and time again to watch anything she is involved in. Heck, I’ll admit it, I’d even pay to hear her read the NYC phonebook.

In Bong Joon Ho’s ‘Okja’, a Netflix Original film currently streaming worldwide, Swinton wears two hats, playing the part of Lucy Mirando on screen and as co-producer of the film off screen. ‘Okja’ is the perfect fable for today’s world, one that blends equal parts entertainment with cautionary tale, to create a visionary masterpiece. Are we really aware of how everything we do affects the environment or are we sleepwalking through most of our decisions, too busy staring at our mobile phones and spewing personal anecdotes on social media to notice how we are impacting this earth of ours? I think you know my answer but you’ll have to watch Bong’s film to draw your own conclusions.

In ‘Okja’ Swinton plays Lucy as only she could. Wearing clothes fit for a CEO, sporting Chanel jackets from the maison’s latest resort collection and one dress inspired by the traditional Korean “hanbok” which Karl Lagerfeld re-interpreted just for the “Mirando look” (pictured above), Lucy becomes the visual, focal point of the film. It’s as if this irreverent nod to Monsanto, only operating in the meat field instead of the seed market, could almost grow to be comprehensible, shall we dare say acceptable, thanks to Swinton’s smooth performance.

I sat down with Swinton at this year’s Festival de Cannes, where ‘Okja’ world premiered in Competition, and while I’d always admired her from afar, she was so very close to me this time I felt like a very lucky, invited guest at her personal party of wisdom.

Is it true that the character of Okja is inspired by one of your dogs?

Tilda Swinton: Well, Okja was inspired in director Bong’s mind but one of the practical muses is one of my dogs. Her name is Rosie, there are four of these dogs… I don’t even think of them as pets, we are a family, largely non-human and all my life I’ve lived with animals.

So what have your dogs taught you?

Swinton: Do you want a list? Patience, perspective, joy, loyalty, the simplicity and presence of their joy. That’s a really great daily reminder, bad stuff happens, difficult stuff happens and you take them out onto the beach and you go “OK, now I see”. You tell them the current political situation in the world and they go “should we go for a walk?” And you go, right, that’s the correct answer.

Watching the film I had the feeling that we are living in a really wrong way. What do you think?

Swinton: I think it’s possible to live in a “wrong way” as you put it, but that is one of the things that the film is about, it’s about growing up, and it suggests that it’s not inevitable that you give everything up when you grow up. Mija, the character that Ahn [Seo-hyun] plays in the film, goes through a really painful encounter with society, and there is this possibility that she’s going to give up everything — the relationship with Okja but also the belief in human beings, the belief in honestly — and she doesn’t. But it’s a close call, she is properly challenged, and she does have to compromise eventually. She has to make a deal with society and is affected by it. The film reminds us that it’s all about making decisions, we just have to be on ourselves, make those decisions, be conscious. Be conscious about how we deal with each other, how we deal with animals, what we put in our bodies. Just to be awake in the world, I think.

Have you tried to teach your children the right way? Can you do that in today’s world?

Swinton: They are teaching me, what can I say. They know much more about the right way. I think that, and maybe this is also true for ourselves, keeping out of the way of that part of yourself, and in your children, that really knows a sense of moral integrity, but knows a sense of honesty, try to clear the weeds away from it — that’s the thing. They are pretty clear, my children, I’m pretty proud of that, but that’s them. They have a strong sense of perspective.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

When you look for filmmakers to work with, what kind of qualities do you look for?

Swinton: That’s a great question. As I say, because I started in this rather unorthodox and certainly very unprofessional way, I started working with one filmmaker with whom I worked for nine years, Derek Jarman, and it was a very familiar atmosphere and entirely built on friendship — friendship between us and friendship with the group that we worked with — and that came to end sadly when he died in 1994 but by then my habit was set. It was possible then that I might never have worked again, because if I hadn’t found anybody else who wanted to work in that way, I don’t think I’d have worked outside of that kind of friendship… Good news for me, there were other people who wanted to work in that way. So I would say the friendship tends to come first but occasionally there are people with whom I haven’t worked before who come out of the blue… Bong was one of them. They need to be interested in the conversation and having as much fun as possible while working. And I mean the many years it might take to make a project happen as well as in the shoot… Just a sort of attitude of collective respect.

Did ‘Orlando’ shape you to be the kind of actress you are today?

Swinton: ‘Orlando’ is a film that I made with Sally Potter, around the time I was working with Jarman. Both of those filmmakers, I had with, I still have even with Derek who is no longer with us, this really alive conversation. We were and are so interested in the fun of making the work, that we’re not looking at the product. It was a very interesting training with Derek as an artist, because were making these films in the late 80s, 1985 was the first film I made with him and we worked together till 1994, and our films were received sometimes with outrage and we did not care! We were absolutely not a part of any profit-making incentive, we were working, making the work and moving on, making the work and moving on. That rhythm I think, was set in me at that time. The feeling that the process is the only important thing, the relationship, the feeling of joy, really to work with your friends. It wasn’t about the product. Of course we hoped our audience would find the work but we didn’t go out and find an audience.

Did Lucy have any redeeming features when you were preparing for her?

Swinton: Pooooor Lucy. She is so misguided, she’s a fool, she’s just a fool. First of all, she’s an heir, which is a terrible thing. The film is very much about inheritance, I think. What must it be like to be the heir of one of these hideous fortunes? And how does it impact in your life? Even if you try to rebrand and you try to be this sort of acceptable face, if you have made that deep deal with capital, it’s going to come and bite you. It doesn’t matter how jazzy you are in front of the camera, it’s going to come and bite you. I feel incredible compassion for Lucy, she’s just wrong.

Are you personally a vegetarian?

Swinton: I don’t really eat meat. But I will say that I live in a place where it’s very easy to find wild meat and meat that you know where it came from, how it was killed. So if I eat meat I know it’s wild, but I’m privileged to live where I do and it’s very very difficult to do if you live in cities. And more so if you are dealing with a tight budget. As Nancy [Lucy Mirando’s sister] says in the film, “if it’s cheap, they’ll eat it.” And we are up against that.

Does it upset you, as a co-producer on the project, that ‘Okja’ won’t be seen in all its grandeur on the big screen?

Swinton: It will be seen on the big screen, in all sorts of countries, it has a big theatrical release in Korea… And also I would suggest that we watch this space in the way in which these cineastic studios, like Amazon and Netflix, the way in which they deal with the real request that these films are shown on big screens. I think we’re going to find a way in which everything can happen.

So is Netflix the game changer, in a positive way?

Swinton: We have to believe it’s going to be for the better. What’s the alternative? We must be scrupulous for asking for what we want. When you see a film like ‘Okja’ and how cineastic it is and you know how director Bong took ‘Okja’ to all the major studios in the world and all of them said “no” and the only one that said “yes” was Netflix… And they not only said yes but “whatever you want!” Now you see the result and you think Ted Sarandos and his team at Netflix are working with modern masters. We must recognize that.

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