With the movie “Julia,” director Erik Zonca and lead actress Tilda Swinton wanted to make a film about an alcoholic who’s interesting.
“Like the ones I know,” Swinton said after the 2008 movie was shown on Friday night at the 15th annual Roger Ebert’s Film Festival at the Virginia Theatre.
“All the alcoholics I know are fantastic people, literally full of fantasy, and for better or for worse, that fantasy drives them,” she said.
Driving her character in “Julia” is the fantasy of making a couple of million dollars by kidnapping the grandson of a wealthy man.
The frenetic thriller is set in southern California and Mexico in live locations, not movie sets.
“This is the beginning of Julia’s nightmare journey through a thorny thicket of people you do not want to meet,” Ebert wrote in his review. “If there’s one thing that’s consistent about her behavior, it’s how she lies to all of them.
“This is not one of those tough heroines you sort of like. You don’t like her. She makes not the slightest effort to be liked. She doesn’t give a damn. She cuts back on the drinking, however, perhaps because she is constantly fleeing — both away from, and toward.”
Festival emcee Chaz Ebert commented after the screening that she was surprised by the treatment in “Julia” of the 8-year-old kidnapping victim, played by Aidan Gould.
But Swinton said Aidan loved being thrown about, stuffed into a car trunk, being hog tied and having his mouth covered with masking tape.
“You know, 8-year-olds love that kind of stuff,” said Swinton, who has kids of her own.
The Scottish actress plays Julia as an American, with no trace of a Scottish accent. She and Zonca wanted to set the movie in the United States rather than Europe because the U.S. border with Mexico is more permeable, the actress said.
She also said Zonca had been inspired to make “Julia” by John Cassavetes’s 1980 crime thriller, “Gloria,” about a gangster’s girlfriend who goes on the run with a young boy hunted by the mob for information he might or might not have.
“We played with the energy of it,” Swinton said. “We wanted to make not just a movie about an alcoholic but an alcoholic film that puts viewers into a state of lack of control and a sort of vertigo.”
“I could smell the sweat pouring off of her,” Chaz Ebert remarked during the post-screening discussion.
Swinton said the movie was tightly scripted but at times she foundered with her lines, which was actually in keeping with her character, who often passed out after drinking.
Told she was brave to take on the role, Swinton said, “It didn’t feel brave to me. It felt really kamikaze. I felt very excited for a time. It was a different kind of energy, and I really enjoyed it.”
A versatile actress, Swinton won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her turn as Karen Crowder in “Michael Clayton” (2007).
She said she never took an acting class and doesn’t think of herself as an actress, though she feels ingenuous every time she says that.
“It’s just dressing up and playing, and it goes on like that." She said she often feels like an artist’s model or clown.
“You’re such a precise clown,” festival director Nate Kohn said to Swinton during the onstage discussion. “There’s not a wasted motion on your part. I’ve always admired you — you look exactly like you know what you’re doing.”
“Maybe I really am an actress,” Swinton quipped.
She’s also a performance artist, if there’s any difference. She recently reprised perhaps her best known piece — she called it “social sculpture” — “The Maybe,” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In “The Maybe,” she spent seven hours sleeping in a glass box at the museum. She joked that she has a “biological advantage,” bladder-wise, that allows her to carry out the long piece.
She described “The Maybe,” which she first did in 1995 at the Serpentine Gallery in London, as a “gesture of mourning” for friends she lost to AIDS, among them director Derek Jarman.
Earlier in her career Swinton collaborated for eight years with Jarman, an English film director, stage designer, diarist, artist, gardener and author. He died in 1994 of AIDS.
Swinton said when she first met Roger Ebert, in Chicago when she was promoting the 2001 movie “The Deep End,” the critic floored her by saying, “I think you’re a writer.”
Swinton said she actually had gone to university to study writing and then fell into plays, mainly for the company. After she left university she met Jarman and began working with him.
“If I hadn’t met him I don’t think I would have become a performer,” she said.
After he died, she didn’t know whether she would continue acting in movies. She didn’t necessarily want to but “kept sliding into relationships with filmmakers,” she said.
“It was really like the filmmakers came forward,” she said. “People came to me. I’m so grateful for that.”
Among directors she’s worked with recently is Wes Anderson. Their newest film, “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” Anderson’s follow to “Moonrise Kingdom,” is expected to open later this year or early next year.
She also will appear in “Snowpiercer,” the first English-language film by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho (“The Host,” “Mother”). The sci-fi movie set the future is set to be released this year.
And the tall, pale Swinton portrays a vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive,” with Tom Hiddleston co-starring as her vampire lover. It is expected to be released this year too.
Swinton said she has not been working recently because her mother died three months ago.
This was Swinton’s second trip to Ebertfest. She came in 2011 with “I Am Love.”
At that festival, Swinton described herself as more of a movie fan than movie actress. She has hosted film festivals in Scotland and elsewhere that feature lots of live music and dance.
When she first took the Virginia stage on Friday, she said:
“When I think of Roger and all the things that have been said, the first word that races to the top of my heart is enthusiast. Everybody here is cut from the same cloth. He’s here with us, as usual.”