Actress goes Italian for 'I Am Love'

A year before Derek Jarman died, Tilda Swinton received a fan letter from earnest young Italian director Luca Guadagnino, who proposed casting the actress in an adaptation of William S. Burroughs’ “Penny Peep Show Arcade.”

As the letter sat unanswered on her floor for months, Swinton couldn’t possibly have known that in Jarman’s absence, Guadagnino would become her next great artistic collaborator.

“It was at a time when I was overwhelmed by paper,” Swinton recalls. But the young director persisted, finding Swinton at an event and reminding her of his request. This time, she couldn’t help but hear him out.

“It was an incredibly clever piece of emotional blackmail,” she reflects. And so began the friendship that led to the actress’ ultimate part in “I Am Love” — playing a Russian-born woman who marries into an aristocratic Italian family, where passion remains dormant for decades, until a surprise love affair with a young chef upsets her carefully ordered existence.

That film, however, would take another 11 years to make, with Swinton and Guadagnino meeting off and on during that time to discuss the emotions and feeling they wanted to explore in a feature. One year, while Swinton was serving on the shorts jury in Cannes, the director came down and filmed a conversation with the actress, a portrait about her views on cinema, art and other subjects called “The Love Factory,” in which she floated the notion of love as a revolutionary concept, a potentially life-changing decision.

“That was the kernel out of which we spun the idea,” Swinton explains. “We had to place her in this milieu that is breakable. She has to be an alien of some kind, coming from a place she can never return to.”

The role would require Swinton to pass for an immigrant who has lived in Italy for 25 years, leaving no trace of her English accent.

“In fact, I have a Russian accent in the film, and I think I’ll have a Russian accent in my Italian for the rest of my life,” she says, laughing.

Swinton actually approached the role with silent film acting in mind, connecting with the character’s outsider status.

“I’m always amazed by people who say they’ve never felt alien. I’m aware that there’s a whole dance in my work when I dress up and pretend to be a quite assimilated person — an American or some sort of corporate attorney — but that’s a disguise. I’ve always been quite comfortable with my solitariness.”

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