While some may argue the audience will be only barely left alive after sitting through 2-1/2 hours of slow, dreamy, arty, self-indulgent vampire drama Only Lovers Left Alive, no one can accuse its star, Tilda Swinton, of being anything other than mesmerizing.
The actress has worked with writer/director Jim Jarmusch a number of times (my favorite of their collaborations is The Limits of Control), but this project seems to be extra special to her because it’s been in the pipeline for so long… an eternity, I guess you could say!
In the film Swinton plays Eve, an ancient, art-appreciating vampire who’s in love with a gifted but melancholy musician, Adam (Tom Hiddleston).
With Only Lovers Left Alive (review) arriving (finally!) in theaters on April 11th, she sat down with a group of us at a recent press day in Beverly Hills to talk “all about Eve.”
In addition, because it was so very interesting and we know a lot of our readers are completists when it comes to Jarmusch and/or vampire films, we have the full interview in audio form as well on Page 2.
Q: What was your favorite characteristic about Eve?
Tilda Swinton: That she has this perspective that she doesn’t sweat the small, the medium, or the big stuff. That she’s full of wonder and she is always looking up, which feels to me pretty much the prerogative of people who have lived that length of time. She knows what’s worth what.
Q: Is the title from a poem, or did Jim tell the origin of that?
TS: The title has kind of been floating around for years. Someone made a book [The Stone’s Option] and they were going to make a film. I remember when Jim first mentioned the project to me, the title was there. It was a flake that was already there. It just feels like it has always been there.
Q: This is your third time working with Jim, and I was wondering, for you, do you guys even have to talk anymore, or do you have psychic connection?
TS: As for Jim and myself, we talk all the time. Whether we talk about anything that is pertinent to the making of the film, I don’t know. We are friends now, and part of the reason I love to work with him means that I get to hang out with my pal for longer than if I wasn’t shooting with him. This one was another long gestation. It was seven or eight years since now, and when he first rang me up and said, ‘Hey, man, let’s make another vampire film,” and so that means a lot of meetings over many many breakfasts when I was flying through New York, and I was saying, ‘Where are we?’ and moments on the phone and conversations in dark corners about where we were going to go next over the years. When we came to shoot, the lovely thing about those long developments is that when you come to shoot, it’s just [gravy]. You’re so relieved to finally be putting it down and you’ve also had that length of time to talk about it and you don’t really need to talk about it that much.
Q: The physicality that you bring to this role is so incredible. It’s nuanced, it’s great. Just you walking down the street is pretty badass. How do you bring that to your role? Was there some kind of inspiration for how you move like a vampire?
TS: We talked a lot about what it would be if you were that unsocialized because they’ve been lifted out of human society, and very quickly we talked about them as lone wolves so we talked about them as animals. When we were putting together the look, we ended up filling those wigs with yak hair and wolf hair, and there’s a heartbeat that comes up and down in the soundtrack that is actually a wolf’s heart so I thought a lot about wolves when we were thinking about how Eve would walk about. If you’re not in the pack, if you are alone at night and you can take your time, you can pick your rhythm, and we knew that we wanted… I think this is always the case with Jim; not only is the music a very important life blood, but also the camera, the move, the feeling of movement is always very important to him, and this one particularly because of this passage through these two different wildernesses. We had the wonderful Yorick Le Saux, who is a great cinematographer who I have worked with a couple of times before with Luca Guadagnino in I Am Love and also in Julia with Erick Zonca, and he is such a great dance partner so walking alongside him was really kind of dreamy. So wolves I would say were mainly where we went to.
Q: What was the essence for you of the attraction, the sort of lasting relationship between your character and Tom’s? And what did he do, or what did you need to do, to create this sort of lived-in, really comfortable long-term bond that you guys clearly share on screen?
TS: One of the first bits of sand in the oyster for Jim, which he immediately told me about on that telephone call eight years ago, was this book by Mark Twain called The Diaries of Adam and Eve, which is so delightful and playful. It’s sort of fictional, or maybe not, diaries of Adam and Eve which spell out very clearly that this is an enormous love affair between two opposites. That was a foundational stone for us – that they would be in it for the long haul, but completely different. That I find really enticing, to show two people really loving each other, but not liking each other at all. SO we talked a lot about that and that was fun because it feels really human playing with that. We also, as you noticed, we wanted it to be about a marriage in which they talk as long relationships do. There’s a tradition of people coming together and then ‘The End’ and you never really see them living it out, the ups and the downs, the talking it through and chewing the cud, and we really spent a lot of time wanting to get that tone of two people who were family. It’s a long, long marriage. They are family, they are the same kind, and that’s why they still dig each other even though they are so different and he is so tricky to live with and she is such a space cadet. They have this communication thing going and they really like talking about stuff. We really wanted to show stuff. We felt it was something we hadn’t necessarily seen before.
Q: It’s very fun to watch these vampires because I haven’t seen vampires like this on screen before – so modern. And I have to admit, I kind of identify with Adam’s character. He is a bit more cynical. These vampires have lived around for years and years, and he’s kind of distasteful of the modern day whereas Eve is very much more celebrating every period in history and all of the arts. What was that like for you as a character to really thrive in the celebration of all of these different times where a vampire could also be very cynical?
TS: Well, he is very young. He has a lot to learn. He is only 500 years old. She’s 3,000 years old. She is a druid. She has seen it all and she knows that survival is possible if one keeps one’s eyes open and takes it all in. It’s not like she is recommending turning one’s face away. She talks about witnessing the Inquisitions, the Middle Ages. She has witnessed all the holocausts, and yet she has still seen humanity and spirit and nature survive those things so she knows that as long as one keeps looking up and as long as one keeps breathing and keeps one’s perspective, survival is possible. And when he gets down and she says to him that you’re immersion in your own despair is actually vanity and if you could just use your life to make the right sense of priorities, concentrate on nature, get your guidance from nature, which survives consistently, particularly in a place like Detroit… to go to Detroit and feel the way nature is taking over there is a really positive thing. And kindness and friendship and dancing. She has her priorities right.
Q: With [John Hurt’s] Marlowe, and obviously we see it also in Tom Hiddleston’s character, [Christopher] Marlowe is the real writer of Shakespeare’s works in this universe. I was wondering with your character if you thought of any interactions she may have had over the course of history that may have changed things that didn’t make it into the film.
TS: That’s great. I like that question. I’d like to leave that to your fantasy. I think it’s interesting that she’s, as we tell the story, not an artist. He’s an artist and she’s not.
She’s a ‘noticer,’ and in many ways she is a kind of conductor. She is a lightning conductor. She can feel the substance of history. She can tell how old this is. She can read every language under the sun through her fingertips. She’s a noticer. She knows every Latin name of every creature. She is the eyes and the ears and the fingertips, and he is the artist. I think it is interesting that they are put against each other. That sort of came out of the Mark Twain, her noticing. He’s the one who names everything in the garden, he’s the sort of authority, he’s putting it out there, and she’s the one who’s picking it up. We sort of just riffed on that. But I love the idea of anybody’s fantasies about anything that she might have had a hand in. You can feel her going through the centuries just spinning plates and then running away.
Q: The thing that got me about the characters is that there is a degree to which I don’t see the vampire part so much as the immortal part. They have been, at the start of the film, apart for a while, but for them maybe 100 years has been an hour and a half …
TS: It’s like a weekend, they have just a sort of mini break. I love the practical approach to immortality, or even let’s face it, long life. I don’t know if you have to be much older than 26 these days, maybe even young, to feel the pull of fatigue and over-saturation and losing one’s way and needing to reboost your interest in life, living, society, one’s fellow man. I think that’s a pretty unexotic thing, but I don’t know whether it’s necessarily looked at very often. It’s also a kind of taboo really, the idea that society seems to hold these days that you just aim for 21 and just stay there somehow by an act of will and you just stay on that pinpoint and you don’t look down and you don’t ever encompass the idea of getting any older because that would be the end. And I love the fact that what Jim’s looking at here is how one goes on living, how one goes on loving, how one goes on renewing and… rebooting one’s sense of wonder and engagement. It feels strangely radical and unfashionable, the very fact that they are trying not be young and they’re trying to survive youth.
Q: I was wondering if you could speak to the relationship you have with your sister in the film?
TS: Eve loves Ava [Mia Wasikowska], and who knows what their story is? She does say they are related by blood and one doesn’t necessarily know what that means, but she’s even younger than Adam, she’s really a baby, and one of the things we’re really looking at there is the older they get, even the gap between the age of Adam and Eve, the older they get, these creatures, with wisdom comes this extraction from human society. Ava is still super mixed up in it all. She’s mixed up, she’s still having a relationship with human beings, with the zombies. She’s not there yet, maybe she won’t even get there.
And then he, Adam, is in this situation where he is detached a bit, but detached in a kind of dark and truculent way where they just annoy the hell out of him and he can’t stop complaining about zombies. And then Eve has just made it to the other side of the looking glass and she is full of compassion, but she knows what not to sweat and human society can’t throw any curve balls for her. She has seen it all and she knows what is going to come out in the wash. But Ava is the youngest. She is still dangerously mixed up in human society and that is the problem. If she were more detached, then maybe things wouldn’t turn out the way they do.
Q: As you reflect on the film and the experience of making it, and Eve’s transition, the elegant grace with which she travels through time and immortality, what do you take away from the experience of making this film or learn about yourself in the process of doing it?
TS: Making any piece of work over a long period of time, something that I’ve had the privilege to do many times, I really love it because it means that the course of the piece of work tracks a huge course of my life. So I had done eight years of living during the course of working on this film with Jim and that’s always true when I make a film and it takes eleven years, that’s eleven years of my life. That’s a thing that I know how to negotiate and I like because it means that you’re actually cooking with real stuff in a way. On this one, I have to confess, there’s a particular aspect which is quite particular – my mother died during the course of the making of this film, which is strange because we were preparing for so long to make a film about immortality, and then we started shooting and she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and suddenly I was thrown into this very strange reflection, and for me, honestly, now a year later, this film is all about mortality, in the lightest way. It’s got a lot to do with people preparing how to die or how to survive death, which is what they do eventually. Even Marlowe, when he says, ‘I soon will be dead,’ you can see that he is kind of up for it. And that’s a heavy thing to lay on this room, but it is true. I was not preparing for that to throw a shadow on the film, and now a year later I see that it’s enriched my personal experience of the film even more because it’s about surviving not only life, but surviving death, and I’m very grateful to it. And also, by the by, it so happens that my parents celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary a month before my mother died and they were, for me, the archetypal Adam and Eve. They were this long, long wed partnership. It’s very personal, more personal than I intended it to be, this film. It’s been an interesting discourse to be a part of during that moment in my life.
Q: Did you consult with the designer on your costume?
TS: Yes, we always work together very closely. As far as I’m concerned, the lion’s share of my work is putting together the disguise, and I like to have it done so that once we start shooting, one can just play and stop working. We had so much fun putting all the looks together of all the portraits because what we needed to do was to have no distractions, we had to keep alive this idea that they were living in all centuries at once. So every element, the height of the heel, or the substance, the fabric of the pants, the cut of the jacket, needed to not indicate overwhelmingly any one period so that a jacket might be, ‘Oh that’s a bit 50s. Oh that’s a bit 1530’s, [and] that’s a little bit last season.” That feeling of fluidity and essential lastibility of every element was really a delight to do and [our designer] was really masterful at working that line. But Jim himself has such a clear eye and was very sort of a martinet on making sure that that agelessness was fluid. Even tiny details of makeup. There was a moment when we all thought it would be kind of fantastic to have an eyeline, and then we suddenly realized that would just fix it, and you can’t go into the 1530’s with an eyeline – little things like that were really a delight to play with!
Jim Jarmusch’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE tells the tale of two fragile and sensitive vampires, Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Tilda Swinton), who have been lovers for centuries. Both are cultured intellectuals with an all-embracing passion for music, literature, and science, who have evolved to a level where they no longer kill for sustenance but still retain their innate wildness.
Adam, a reclusive underground musician hiding out in the ruins of contemporary Detroit, despairs about human civilization’s decline and worries about future survival. Eve, who is perhaps 3,000 years old to Adam’s 500, takes a longer view of history and is more optimistic. She leaves her home in the ancient city of Tangier to come to his side.
As blood has been tainted by the zombies (humans), the formerly immortal Adam and Eve must secure uncontaminated blood from hospitals, or they will perish. Eve’s close friend, Elizabethan dramatist and unacknowledged author of Shakespeare’s plays—Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), is now an elder vampire who provides Eve with hospital blood. Adam gets his supply from Dr. Watson (Jeffrey Wright), a skittish hematologist who provides safe blood at a price.
Adam and Eve’s precarious footing is further threatened by the uninvited arrival of Eve’s carefree and uncontrollable little sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska). Unlike Adam and Eve, Ava hasn’t yet learned to tame her wilder instincts, and her recklessness concerns Adam.
Driven by sensual photography, trance-like music, and droll humor, Jim Jarmusch’s ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE is a meditation on art, science, memory, and the mysteries of everlasting love.
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