SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Every mother has a birthing story, the play-by-play narrative that took her across the chasm from independence to attachment. Tilda Swinton is no exception. When the Scottish actress gave birth to her boy-and-girl twins 14 years ago, Swinton, who plays the mother to a troubled son in the new film “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” didn’t opt for the easy — or perhaps, even the safe — way out. Rather then choose medical intervention when the babies were late, she waited until they were ready to be born on their own. They finally arrived after 43 weeks of pregnancy, weighing in at 6 pounds, 7 ounces, and 8 pounds, 10 ounces.
“I was about to be sectioned under the Mental Health Act,” said Swinton, with a slight laugh. “There was an awful case two years before I had my babies of a woman who resisted having a cesarean and they sectioned her, chained her to a bed and forced her to have an epidural. I was a little nervous that was going to happen to me.”
The anecdote is pure Swinton: It showcases her daring, stubborn spirit. Her uncompromising nature is evident in both her singular fashion and acting choices and dates back to her early days as a muse to experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman. Over the last decade, though, with the exception of her Oscar-winning role in the 2007 legal drama “Michael Clayton” and her portrayal of the White Witch in “The Chronicles of Narnia” trilogy, Swinton’s work in such films as “The Deep End” and last year’s “I Am Love” has centered on the concept of motherhood and how it affects a woman’s sense of self.
“It’s interesting to me how one grows a new identity when one becomes a mother and how one is encouraged to believe that the part of oneself that existed before you had children has somehow magically died forever,” said Swinton, as she tapped her finger against her tea cup during an interview at the Casa del Mar hotel in Santa Monica.
In “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” directed and co-written by fellow Scot Lynne Ramsay, Swinton plays Eva Khatchadourian, a free spirit who reluctantly becomes a mother, bearing an emotionally manipulative child who commits a Columbine-style massacre at his high school. Swinton was nominated for a Golden Globe and a SAG Award for her performance in the film, adapted from Lionel Shriver’s novel.
“I would have been really into (this movie) even if I hadn’t had children,” Swinton said. “But having children gave it a little extra added piquancy into the schadenfreude of the whole thing. You go home every night thinking, thank the Lord that’s not my story.”
With Eva’s failings and Kevin’s disturbing behavior, the story often plays like a horror movie for parents. Yet Swinton found the idea of tackling the interior life of the troubled lead character compelling, and she was interested in helping Ramsay get her career back on track.
“Personally, I’m really proud to have done my bit to get her making films again,” Swinton said.
“Kevin” is the first film in almost 10 years from the acclaimed writer-director behind the well-received indie projects “Ratcatcher” and “Morvern Callar.” Ramsay had been set to adapt the bestselling novel “The Lovely Bones” before that film went to “Lord of the Rings” filmmaker Peter Jackson. After that project fell through, Ramsay and her husband and co-writer Rory Kinnear went to work adapting “Kevin,” which was originally told as a series of letters from Eva to her husband, played in the movie by John C. Reilly.
It took her roughly four years to get the film made: “I had never seen anything like it in film,” Ramsay said of what attracted her to “Kevin.” “‘Rosemary’s Baby’ goes to the primal fear, but it deals with the supernatural and therefore you can sleep at night still.”
Ramsay said she initially had reservations about casting Swinton — the striking androgynous actress with the alabaster skin isn’t the obvious choice to play an American woman of Armenian descent — but the director realized that her peculiarity might serve the film well, particularly in the scenes in which Eva is struggling to endure the weight of the scornful attacks from her suburban neighbors.
“My first thought was maybe Tilda’s too extraordinary,” Ramsay said. “But then I thought, ‘Well, if you look like Tilda and you’re stuck in this community, it’s going to be really hard to hide yourself.’”
In any case, Swinton said she was planning to adapt her look to that of her young costar, in this case, relative newcomer Ezra Miller, who plays Kevin as a teenager — the idea being that Eva and Kevin should be twinned in some way to underscore the connection between the characters.
“Whomever we were going to cast as Kevin, I was ready to morph myself into them,” she said. “If we had cast someone with curly red hair, I would have had curly red hair. As it was, I dressed up as closely to Ezra Miller in the film as I could because the idea is he is her.”
The film was shot in just 30 days in Connecticut and New York in spring 2010 for around $6 million; the strict schedule meant that there were never more than two takes done of any given scene.
In making what is essentially a meditation on whether truly bad behavior is learned or innate, Ramsay and Swinton sought objectivity, never really proffering an opinion on whether Kevin was born evil or his behavior the result of a mother who was never accepting of her new role.
“The nature/nurture argument has been going on since the beginning of time,” Ramsay said. “I think it would be crass of me to put some big stamp on it. That’s the whole provocation of the film.”
What might make “Kevin” even more resonant, though, is the way Eva is depicted before the tragedy as a relatable modern woman, a working professional who decides at a later age to settle down and have a child, then realizes just how difficult it is to adjust to her new life.
“When you’re in your 40s and you’ve been an incredibly successful businesswoman for 20 years and you earn a fair bit of money, you’re used to controlling your life and you only have things in your house that are nice, clean and orderly, you’ve got a lot to lose when that chaos comes in, which it inevitably does with a child,” Swinton said. “This film is not a social commentary, but I do think it touches on that issue.”
Swinton’s career has been on a high of late, but she’s grateful for an upcoming respite. In addition to “growing children,” the actress, and producer, who still lives in Scotland when she’s not working, has spent the last 12 years developing three films: “Kevin,” “I Am Love” and “Julia,” all of which have been released. (Indie distributor Oscilloscope booked “Kevin” into theaters for one week in December to qualify for various awards, and is now releasing the movie for its regular run.)
Apart from a small role in Wes Anderson’s upcoming film “Moonrise Kingdom,” Swinton’s plate is completely empty.
“I’m a farmer whose had a big old harvest recently,” Swinton said. “I’ve got a bit of a plowed field at the moment that I’m very happy about.”