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Tilda Swinton, Unclothed

Pam Grady | April 21, 2004

Young Adam
Photo: Neil Davidson - � 2004 Sony Pictures Entertainment, Inc.
For Scottish actress Tilda Swinton, Young Adam represents a radical departure. This is the woman, after all, who first came to filmgoers' attention in the queer cinema of the late Derek Jarman. She later played the gender-bending titular character in 1992's Orlando, and an ambitious lawyer whose erotic desires encompass both men and women in 1996's Female Perversions. More recently, she played a fiercely protective mother trying to shield her gay son from a murder charge in 2001's The Deep End, and a repressed scientist who creates three colorful, semen-dependent clones of herself in 2002's Teknolust.

In contrast, the first impression of Ella Gault, Swinton's character in Young Adam, is that she is rather drab, living a harsh and nomadic barge life on Glasgow's canals with her husband, Les (Peter Mullan), and Les' helper, Joe (Ewan McGregor), a young writer who is harboring a terrible secret. But that is before erotic heat threatens to burn the barge down, as Ella and Joe embark on a tempestuous affair. The sexual chemistry between Swinton and McGregor certainly made an impression on the Motion Picture Association of America, which has rated Young Adam NC-17, a rating normally reserved for pornography. But to hear the tall, elegant Swinton tell it, that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Q: Young Adam is rated NC-17. It is sexually frank, but not that frank. Is the rating because of the full-frontally nude Ewan McGregor?

TILDA SWINTON: No, that's not it. That's absolutely not the scene they wanted to cut. Would you like to guess? If you get it, I'll be impressed by your cynicism and knowledge of the system.

Q: It wouldn't be the scene where he's going down on you, is it?

TS: Yes! That's it. Fully clothed, shot in the dark. Ewan's a bit disappointed! He was rather hoping it might be his incredibly dangerous member!

Q: That is so odd, since that is one of the more discreet scenes in the movie.

TS: Let's face it, there's masses and masses of oral sex, like fellatio, in all sorts of quite openly rated films. It's just obviously a very dangerous issue.

Q: Does the NC-17 rating worry you? It is traditionally a kiss of death here in the States, since many newspapers won't even take advertisements for movies with that rating.

TS: I'm actually perfectly happy with the NC-17 rating. The only thing that's problematic is the stigma that it has. I hope that this is an opportunity to destigmatize NC-17 and somehow refigure people's idea of what an adult film is.

Q: What was it about this story in particular that attracted you?

TS: It's spun around a sort of Beat sensibility. And I think it's about loneliness, which seems to be the subject I'm most interested in these days...It is about the alienation of the artist, the alienation of the intellectual. I'm personally of the opinion that we're beginning to live in a new Beat time. We have a newly repressive society, and we have a society where it is hard for anyone with six brain cells to feel enthusiastic about being a 100 percent paid-up member. It's a very alienated time again, and the feeling of powerlessness is palpable.

Q: Ewan's character, Joe, is the intellectual, but what about your character, Ella? She's a real piece of work in both her attitude toward her husband and Joe. It is never clear if her actions are motivated by lust for Joe or something else.

TS: There's something that I realized is not in the film and is not even in the book. But I discovered when we were preparing the film that Ewan and I were working the barge one day, and it's really hard work with two, you really need three. And you know what? You couldn't do it alone. You certainly couldn't do it alone as a woman. She needs those men. She cannot do it without them.

Q: Your movie career started with Derek Jarman, and while you've appeared in a few mainstream films, notably The Beach and Vanilla Sky, you have mainly stuck to the independent realm. Is that a conscious decision on your part?

TS: Somebody asked me this morning what was the last Scottish film I made. Apart from a film I made in something like 1988 with John Berger, I've never made a Scottish film; this is the first. I very rarely work in the U.K. I love working with American independents, because it feels like home to me. It feels like what I started with, which is a kind of independence that is difficult to find in the U.K. now.

Q: This is a relatively straight part for you. There's none of the flamboyancy of Orlando or Female Perversions or even a relatively small film like Teknolust. Where does Young Adam fit in your pantheon?

TS: It occurred to me that one of the things that's beginning to crop up in most of my work is accidental death. It's funny, we were making The Deep End, and it had never occurred to me until one morning when we were actually shooting that the predicament of Margaret Hall in The Deep End is one of my earliest nightmares. I had this early nightmare, and it used to happen all the time - and I have to say I stopped having it - where I was found with a body, and I knew that I had not been responsible for its death, but I knew if I was spotted with it, I would be held responsible. It was all about getting rid of the body. I would roll it up in a carpet and someone would come in. I'd have a conversation with them and then I'd look over their shoulder and I'd see [the carpet] unrolling. It was just a big guilt dream. It occurred to me that these two films [The Deep End and Young Adam] are about that. They're about getting rid of a body that you didn't actually kill and then it resurfacing on you. The unconscious is a very strange thing.

Pam Grady is a San Francisco-based writer who contributes to FilmStew and Reel.com

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