Honor Swinton Byrne is rather hilariously tracing out her Irish connections.
“My dad is from Dublin but he grew up in Paisley so he doesn’t have the accent,” she says. “But I do I have an Irish boyfriend. Ben.”
She laughs: “He’s from Sligo. So he’s a wee bit rough, like. But I’m from the Highlands. So I’m a wee bit rough as well.”
Swinton Byrne is “missing lectures as we speak” in Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University as she sits down in London ahead of the British premiere of The Souvenir Part II, Joanna Hogg’s daringly conceptual sequel to her autobiographical 2019 drama. The actor enrolled in the psychology programme just after The Souvenir wrapped.
“I love psychology for the same reason I love acting,” she says. “It’s all about empathy and the practice of being in someone else’s shoes. I like thinking about the choices we make and how we treat others. You can go through all kinds of abuse, survive war zones, have your family murdered in front of you, and be a really wonderful person. Or you can have all the advantages in the world and be an absolute asshole.”
Aged 19, the daughter of Tilda Swinton and playwright John Byrne was working in a florist and saving up to travel to Namibia when Hogg, her godmother, asked her to take the leading role in the filmmaker’s fourth feature, The Souvenir.
“It was a massive surprise. I was really shocked. I remember she said, we’re looking for an actress and we’ve been looking at these girls, and they’re all too comfortable in front of the camera, and they’re all too pretty.”
She laughs. “And then my mum said the exact same thing.”
The Souvenir was inspired by a love affair writer-director Hogg had with a mysterious older man while she was a film student. Set during the 1980s, the heavily improvised drama concerns Julie (Swinton Byrne), a film student who falls for Anthony (Tom Burke), a charismatic man who claims to work for the foreign office. Swinton Byrne had all of a fortnight to prepare for the seven-week shoot.
“Joanna tends not to use the word improvise,” says the actor. “But I use it because I don’t know a better one. Joanne’s designs are complex, but there’s no written script. I didn’t know the story of the first film at all. She made it clear to me it was a journey we would go on together. In the second one, we definitely did have more collaboration. I was like: I’d quite like to know whether I’m going to be mugged in a scene? And Joanna was very generous with that information and really wanted to include me more.”
Swinton Byrne had no prior knowledge, during production, of the relationship that inspired The Souvenir films and did not base her performance on her godmother. At least, not consciously.
“I didn’t study her or think about her,” she says. “I was not taking notes. But – and this is very interesting – I was thinking about this the other day, and I did notice that I began to bite my nails, which is something Joanna does. I think of Julie and Joanna as different characters, with different names and different appearances. Julie’s obviously based on Joanna, but she really wanted to make a hybrid of herself. I feel like that’s what we did.”
The Souvenir Part II continues the story, as a confused and heartbroken Julie struggles to create her graduate film in the aftermath of Anthony’s fatal heroin overdose. That film within the film ultimately presents a second, impressionistic account of the events depicted in The Souvenir.
“From day one, there was a different energy and trajectory. It was a wild ride. Once I was told that Julie was making a film about her life, I had to process how meta that was. It’s like The Matrix. And then you never see the film that they actually shoot, you see a dream sequence. I love that that’s unexplained.”
That’s not even the most meta component of the project. Reprising her role from the original film, Tilda Swinton plays Rosalind, Julie’s twin set-wearing, bourgeois mum. The family spaniels – Rosy, Dora and Snowbear – play the family dogs. They are, says Honor, the only family members channelling themselves.
“It was more hilarious than anything else,” says Swinton Byrne. “My relationship with my mum could not be more different than the one that Julie and Rosalind have. It really helped that she differentiated herself with a grey wig on. It came very naturally to be performing together. And obviously, the dogs didn’t know we were acting. They were just following us around. And then they win the Palm Dog at Cannes.”
Swinton Byrne and her twin brother Xavier attended an independent Steiner school in the Scottish Highlands. This writer recalls their mother being asked if her children watched her films at a press conference in 2007. The answer: they were too busy climbing trees. (These days, Honor cites Julia, Snowpiercer, We Need To Talk About Kevin, Orlando and Trainwreck as her favourite maternal turns.) For more than a decade, Swinton Byrne has lived in Nairn, with her brother, mother and her mother’s partner Sandro Kopp, a German artist.
“I’ve never felt any pressure from my mum in my life. She’s always been very, very clear about the fact that as long as I loved what I did, and I tried really hard at it, and I didn’t hurt anyone’s feelings, then I could do whatever. She was so encouraging. But there was zero pressure.”
The Swinton Byrne twins travelled with their mother to various film shoots until the age of seven. Her first role was a cameo as a younger version of her mother in I Am Love (2009). One of her earliest set-bound memories dates from The Beach, Leonardo Di Caprio’s post-Titanic gambit.
“I like to think I had a very heightened awareness of my very different circumstances to the people I was pals with at school,” she says. “I feel like I gained that through listening to my mum. From quite early on, there were situations like paparazzi turning up at our house or people asking my mum for autographs. The Beach wasn’t a circus for us. It was normal. But I don’t want to insinuate that we take it for granted. Every film is a blessing.”
In that spirit, she recounts a recent visit to the cinema to watch the Candyman reboot.
“I really loved Candyman because I love Jordan Peele and psychological thrillers and political cinema. And my friend was sitting next to me, asking: why aren’t you scared? I actually was quite frightened. But I’ve literally been there when someone is standing in front of a green screen for CGI. My friend asked: does that not ruin it for you? No, it makes me appreciate it so much more because I see the amount of work that goes into making a film. It’s overwhelming. I see a scene that took four hours to light. And the scene is a minute long. I’m very lucky to realise that.”
The Souvenir Part II is on release