Tilda Swinton Has Made the ‘Ultimate Lockdown Film’

The actress discussed what she had learned during the coronavirus pandemic and how that had informed her new movie, “The Human Voice,” directed by Pedro Almodóvar.

By Eleanor Stanford

VENICE — Imagine being shut in at home, with only the dog to talk to, waiting for something to happen and getting closer and closer to breaking point.

That might sound like a familiar scenario after the last few months of lockdowns around the world, but it’s also the premise for Pedro Almodóvar’s new short film, “The Human Voice,” starring Tilda Swinton, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival last week.

Based — loosely — on a one-woman play by the French writer Jean Cocteau, the 30-minute film was shot over nine days in Madrid in July. In it, Swinton waits in her apartment for a call from her lover to negotiate the end of their relationship, popping pills and laying elegant outfits out on the bed. When he does finally call, she puts in Apple AirPods, rather than lifting a landline telephone as actresses usually do when performing Cocteau’s play.

The project had been planned before the coronavirus lockdowns hit in March, but shooting during the pandemic has given “The Human Voice” a special resonance: Swinton called it “the ultimate lockdown film.”

In a socially distanced interview at the Venice Film Festival, during which she received a lifetime achievement award, Swinton discussed the movie’s unusual shoot and explained why she is excited about the disruptive effects of streaming services on the film industry. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Watching “The Human Voice” was a very cathartic experience for me. A lot of tension builds up as your character waits around, and then there’s this eruption of violence. Did it feel cathartic to make it?

It was so cathartic to make a film with Pedro, because I’ve basically been dreaming of that my entire life. And it was really wonderful to make something in July. That was such a blessing. We were all so happy to work — and to prove to ourselves that we can do it.

We’re just going to have to evolve, and we just have to figure it out. We figured it out with this movie: We’re in a studio, we’re with a relatively small crew, it’s entirely controlled, we were constantly tested. And we just did it.

How did being on a film set again feel?

It was like having held your breath underwater for a long time.

I’m finding the most borderline traumatic things are the things that are similar: If everything was completely different, it might be easier to adapt, but when things are anything like what you recognize from before March, it is confusing, and confusion is very exhausting.

So after a millisecond of realizing there were going to be crew members I will never recognize without their masks, we just approached shooting a film the way we always would have shot it: A few things are going to change in this new world, and so much more is not going to change.

Did you learn anything unexpected during lockdown?

Nothing’s new under the sun. During lockdown — and this has been the first, but there may be more — there was an opportunity to reflect on all we have. My mantra at the moment is that we have what we need, we just need to look and see it.

And what did you miss most?

Everybody missed big screen cinema in a way that they missed very little else. That was — and still is — a thing that we have to rally around.

Just that sharpening of that appetite for the bigger screen. Feeling that it might be months before I’d get a chance to be in a theater again, that was really sore. Just the sharpening of that dependence.

It does almost sound like an addiction!

Well, for some of us, it is.

The thing that’s becoming clear is that it’s not about what’s on the screen, it’s the screen itself, and it’s being in that audience.

The Berlin Film Festival recently announced it was getting rid of gendered categories for its acting prizes — next year, there’ll be no more “Best Actor” and “Best Actress,” just “Best Lead Performance” and “Best Supporting.” What do you think about that?

Duh, is what I would say to that. I’ve been saying “duh” for 30 years now, but these things take time. We’re just slowly figuring it out.

I think it is about identity — that’s the nub of it. I’m an optimist, and I believe in intelligence, and I do believe people are starting to understand how commodified, compartmentalized identity works in society — like in the case of gender — and that it is to be resisted.

That kind of compartmentalization, it’s not our original state. It’s something that’s learned, and we can move beyond it, and that’s what a gesture like Berlin’s gesture, which I have no doubt will be adopted everywhere, starts to do. These little gestures here and there just make small adjustments.

I think it’s going to be like when they brought in compulsory seatbelts in the U.K., and there were so many people outraged about their civil liberties, and then the day after the law came into effect, everybody buckled up and got on with it, and it was fine.

When you accepted your lifetime achievement award here at Venice, you said you were just getting started. What’s next?

I’ve been working on an essay film about learning for a while now, but we’re back to the drawing board, because what was a relatively esoteric, niche inquiry about “What should a school be?” is now something everybody’s asking, now that people have to think about home-schooling, or just be deprived of school.

Through my experience of working with the school I co-founded [which is modeled on outdoor, student-led learning], I’ve realized we no longer need a school for information sharing. You can educate yourself via your phone, so then the question is, what did children miss about school during lockdown, what do they value school for? This is an opportunity to really shake it up, and I’m glad the film can be asking these questions.

Cate Blanchett, the Venice jury president, and Alberto Barbera, the festival’s artistic director, both used speeches here to caution that the rise of streaming services, especially during lockdown, is a threat to cinema. Do you share that worry?

I really don’t. I never have. It will just mean that we have to stay supple and limber: Cinema can do it. I’m all for necessity being the mother of invention. I’m actually, if anything, excited. Bring it on.

I’ve heard people be worried for a few years now, and then in the pandemic, a very interesting thing happens. On the one hand, those concerns become amplified, but, at the same time, look what happens: Everyone is longing to go to the cinema. I don’t think there’ll ever be a time when people don’t want to go and sit in a big space in the dark.

The issue, as with so much that’s coming to the fore now, is money and capitalism, and there is this whole question of financing films. People are just going to have to get lively, and roll up their sleeves, and figure it out.

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