Honor Swinton Byrne: girl on film | Dazed
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Photography Jack Davison

Honor Swinton Byrne: girl on film

The actress takes on her potent debut role in Joanna Hogg’s autobiographical drama The Souvenir – here, she shares her dreams of playing ‘a thousand different people’ on screen

Taken from the autumn 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here

Honor Swinton Byrne can do a lot with a ‘so’. She is so bad at maths (“like, worse than normal people”). The sausage roll she insists on sharing absolutely evenly with me throughout our conversation is SOOOO good. The clothes she wears in her debut role as an actress are “so smart, so beautifully thought-out, so meticulously planned, and so, so beautiful”. Sometimes, when she doubts herself, the ‘so’ becomes a ‘wait, no, no, no!’ Her mouth always a perfect little circle; it’s like she is constantly speaking in italics.

Brilliantly extroverted in person, on-screen, Honor has the magnetism of a silent film star. As Julie in Joanna Hogg’s The Souvenir, her debut role, she reveals so much with a single look. The camera rests on her still, quiet face with reverence: Julie concentrating as she taps on a typewriter; Julie shyly smiling at a crowded party; Julie looking into her lover’s eyes like she believes he is doing just fine, when really she just hopes he is. In the final scene, she gives a drawn-out look to camera as fame-making as Fleabag’s, as quietly devastating as Isabelle Huppert’s in the closing moments of The Lacemaker.

Set in the early 80s, The Souvenir is an alive-feeling autobiography charting Hogg’s years as a striving film student in London, and her romantic entanglement with a troubled older man. It also stars Hogg’s longtime friend and Honor’s mum, Tilda Swinton, as the mother of Julie, who is a stand-in for the young Joanna. In one scene, Julie films a school project starring a female friend in an extravagant outfit; Hogg’s real-life graduate project starred a then-unknown Swinton as a woman who magically transports into a fashion magazine. Emerging from this heavy web of interconnections is Honor herself, a 21-year old breakout actress winning acclaim for her first performance, and, today, about to do her first interview proper. She has a shaggy bob of bleached hair which has started to grow out, and wears double denim with wide flares. She’s down from the Highlands for the day, and has just met photographer Jack Davison’s dogs in his Hackney studio, which kind of makes her miss her own back-home. If she’s nervous, she doesn’t show it, greeting me with a kind of infectious enthusiasm that can’t help but catch on to anybody within a ten-metre radius.

It’s almost two years to the day, Honor explains, since she was cast in The Souvenir. How she got the role is kind of a funny story. “I could not have been more shocked,” she says of the moment she found out. “I was absolutely dumbstruck when (Joanna) sat me down at the kitchen table and told me.” As she reveals,the discussion between her mum and the director as to who would play Julie, and the seed of the idea that it could be Honor, had developed for some months, but she was only cast “like, two weeks before” filming. “There was just not one tiny part of me that thought I was going to be involved in any way because I never had been (in a film before), so it was completely natural to me to be totally outside it. Then Joanna, she came to stay – no, no, wait, this is usually the bit where my mum’s sitting next to me, and I can pass over to her, because she knows the ins and outs and she knows the facts… but there was sort of an agenda.”

As it turns out, Swinton had orchestrated a “chance happening” that was far from chance, arranging for Hogg and Honor to meet as they transferred from their respective trains at the same station (Honor back home northwards, and Hogg back to London from a visit with Swinton). They got to talking, but not about the film; instead, Hogg gently quizzed Honor on her romantic life, as you may expect to do with chatty daughters of family friends in their teens. “She started asking me about ex-boyfriends,” Honor explains. “And apparently – I had no idea what I said – but Joanna has (since) said that I (seemed) self-conscious, or said something very vulnerable or self-aware. Something about how some boyfriend had made me feel.”

“What she was saying chimed with my experience as a young woman at that age,” says Hogg, who, for the record, doesn’t “remember it so much as a conspiracy”. “She just started talking about herself, and what she was doing, and as she was talking I just looked at her in a different way”. At the time, Honor was 19, working as a florist’s assistant and preparing for an eight-month trip to Africa. She had done some acting in school, but hadn’t considered it as a career yet and was even toying with studying medicine. But when Hogg, who by this point had seen actresses, non-actresses and even some of Honor’s own friends read for the part, asked her if she would like to play Julie, Honor didn’t hesitate. “And she went, ‘No, no, would you like to portray Julie in the film, think about it, we’re shooting in a couple of weeks,” the actress recalls. “Just think about it, because it’s a big deal.’ And I went, ‘Yes, absolutely!’”

Things moved pretty quickly after that, with Hogg decreeing a dreaded haircut for her new leading actress. “It felt like I’d got to a point where I actually really liked my hair and it was nice and long and curly and I liked it,” says Honor, sounding endearingly her age. “And then Joanna was like, ‘Right, you’re going to have to dye it back to its original colour and cut it into this 80s mullet.’ It was like a metaphor for how much I was going to have to invest myself in this. And surrender to not knowing anything – to not reading a script, not learning lines, not having any idea what I was going to be doing that day.” When I offer that the physical change may have helped her feel like she could take on another persona more completely – when she was already battling against existing close ties, being so much ‘Honor’ with those around her on set – Honor nods emphatically. “Exactly, it made me feel much more self-conscious, which is what (Joanna) wanted. Which is Julie. Quite cruel, ha!” Along with the new ’do, Hogg gave Honor ephemera from her past life: old photos, and love-letters that punctuated the real-life relationship the film is based on. “She’s just so beautiful, Joanna. With me, I just look like Margaret Thatcher crossed with an 80s choirboy.”

This is far from true, and Hogg’s lens lovingly trains on Honor in the film: every flush, blush and spot is paid tribute to, adding to the feeling of intimacy. When we meet Julie, it’s 1980, and she is about to embark on a filmmaking degree; her dream is to make a film set in working-class Sunderland (the film’s opening, a kind of decoy for what’s to come, displays black-and-white photographs of that setting to the lilt of Robert Wyatt’s “Shipbuilding”). Julie has a flat in Knightsbridge, near Harrods, and casually does her food shop there. Her lodger hosts parties where the topic of privilege comes up – so far, so 2019 – while Julie’s own privilege is lightly skirted around much like she skirts her own parties, taking photos with her back to the wall. At one of these parties, she meets Anthony (Tom Burke), a mysterious older man who works at the Foreign Office and seemingly lives to challenge Julie’s assumptions about her creativity, her ambition, and how she plans to articulate her place in the world. (“I’m not sure sincerity is always enough,” he sneers at one point. “We can all be authentic but what’s it all for?”) He’s not always wrong; that’s what is so frustrating about the character. Can Julie ever really go beyond her boundaries? Can any of us?

“It was so hard to receive information from someone who was insulting me, or Anthony picking a fight with me, and bite down Honor’s reaction, which would be, ‘Fuck off, how dare you!’ Because I wanted to defend her” – Honor Swinton Byrne

Anthony is soon revealed as an addict, through various telltale signs; and, as not only the script but the plot was revealed only gradually to Honor along the way, it was a surprise to her too. “It was so real life; it was so like a documentary, almost. I love Julie so much, but I think I’m a little bit feistier and stand up for myself a bit more, which (made it) very difficult shooting, because it was improvised. The whole thing was improvised, so every single line is coming from me and my real emotion to the situation.”For Hogg, whose previous films – intimate windows on to human relationships including Archipelago (2010) and Exhibition (2013) – have always employed improvisation, the technique is “less about words and more about where that person is, how present they are. Whenever I’ve written dialogue and had the actors say those precise lines, it never feels like it’s alive enough for me,” the director explains.

“Every time I cry I’m really upset,” Honor explains. “Joanna said to cry as little as possible because Julie didn’t cry. I’m quite a choleric person: I’m either very angry or very happy; (I have) a lot of passion. It was so hard to receive information from someone who was insulting me, or Anthony picking a fight with me, and bite down Honor’s reaction, which would be, ‘Fuck off, how dare you!’ I had to literally crush that down and bring out a sort of, ‘Sorry, I’ll be better, I’m so sorry.’ Because I wanted to defend her.” One Richard Ayoade cameo (“I loved The IT Crowd. I am absolutely obsessed with him!”) serves as a means to reveal Anthony’s addiction to Julie in heart-wrenching fashion; the moment where Ayoade, in leopard-print fur coat, delivers the lines “Habitual heroin user, trainee rotarian…no offence” is practically Aristotelian in its tragic magnitude.

It’s tempting, with the knowledge that Honor wasn’t privy to what was to come in particular scenes, to read genuine shock into her pained, polite expressions. But, as Hogg points out, what we see isn’t necessarily the first take: “Honor was brilliant at repeating and showing that surprise again and again in a particular moment – for example, the scene where (Ayoade’s character) Patrick tells Julie that Anthony is a heroin addict. Despite never having acted in a film before, I found Honor to be very skilled as a performer.”

Most of the film takes place in Julie’s flat, or in the privileged spaces the couple frequent. I can’t recall a single scene of them simply walking down the street. This environment, lit via sunlight through double glazing or lamplights at dinner, is the architecture of claustrophobia: you feel you are trapped in this relationship, too. No way out. “Even the sound quality feels like you’re in the room with that person,” says Honor. “A little bit echoey, like you’re a fly on the wall watching a real relationship… the same conversations, the same answers. Feeling like you completely don’t know them sometimes.”

Outside those walls is London in the early 1980s: Bronski Beat, The Psychedelic Furs, but also the threat of terror from the IRA, with the Thatcher government heading into a second divisive term. Hogg, laser-focused on the toxic relationship that consumed her own 20s, deliberately doesn’t expand her vision. “I knew very little about the bombs,” says Honor. “I just knew what my mum had told me, ’cos she lived in that time, so I grew up hearing little snippets, usually about music, art, film and things like that. But Julie is so involved with her relationship. Joanna (said), ‘She’s very self-involved with what is happening at the moment so I think it’s good that you’re not very aware. When you hear that bang or when you hear it on the radio, that’s when you know.’”

One tangible detail that does parallel the timeline of Julie and Anthony is the clothing: together with costume designer Grace Snell, Hogg outfitted her protagonist in authentic era-specific clothes, many of which were taken from the director’s old wardrobe. (“I loved them!” Honor squeals of my own favourite look, a pair of Vivienne Westwood pirate boots. “They were WAY too big for me and I wore, like, five pairs of socks.”) Importantly, Julie wears big shirts and jeans in film school, prim cardigans and brooches for seeing her parents in the country, and, on a doomed trip to Venice at the pivotal point of her entrapment, a custom-made silver gown. “The dress is, like, ten feet long, the train is insane,” says Honor. “You never see the front, it’s so gorgeous. I had to wear a corset, and be sucked in. Even the way I had to stand, my mood… I didn’t feel comfortable.” Discomfort reflects the moment perfectly, Julie breaking down in her tailored travelling suit inside a gilded hotel room. “It was so clever of both Grace and Joanna, to find what I needed to feel like in the clothes that I was wearing, and how it would fit into the plot.”

“I like to understand people, but I also realise you can’t because you’re not inside that person and everyone is so individual. That is something acting allows you to do” – Honor Swinton Byrne

The way the characters wear their privilege – and, specifically for Julie, have it questioned – is a theme that brings The Souvenir into current conversations, as well as adding another layer of meta-theatrics to the way the film might be received. Honor, as the daughter of not only a famous person, but Britain’s most admired avant-garde actress, has taken on a first character whose creative crises speak directly to how an audience might receive her own newfound fame. But the way the core relationship speaks to power dynamics in romance is universal: you’ll find no more acutely observed coming-of-age, or exploration of gaslighting, in cinemas this year. “They were both enablers and so it was completely consensual,” says Honor of the pair’s relationship. “They were unhealthy for each other in many ways, because she basically funded his addiction, and he provided her (with) – well, I don’t know what – (but) it was very interesting finding that weird, twisted, strange, unhealthy balance.”

That ‘don’t know what’ will be felt by audience members, who will feel an antipathy towards Anthony while somehow understanding why Julie stays with him. The film is about power, and who has it; it’s about how often, and why, young women confuse the power allotted to them, such as being called upon to look after someone else, with empowerment. (“Only you have power over the beast,” writes Anthony in one love letter that one suspects must be adapted from a real one Hogg received, “he loves you so, and you are invested with great power.”)

It’s this phenomenon of human beings simply trying to understand one another that so fascinates Honor, who is hoping to study for a psychology degree in Edinburgh this September. But first, there’s The Souvenir: Part II to film, which will have finished production by the time this profile comes out. I ask the actress about her hopes for Julie in the second film, which will pick up just weeks after Part I’s events. “I hope she gets her independence back,” she muses. “Or finds it. I hope she finds it!” For Hogg, who had always conceived of this project as two films, it’s simply a continuation of the journey to self-actualisation Julie begins in Part I. “It starts where the first part left off, and she turns her grief into her creativity as a young filmmaker. It’s very much about Julie finding her voice as an artist.”

Part II will co-star Robert Pattinson, but, when I glance at Honor’s phone case, it’s clear she may have another ideal leading man in mind. “I just searched Jason Segel ’cos I wanted a pillowcase with him or something, but I ended up with this phone case,” she says, waving around an iPhone emblazoned with the actor’s image encircled by hearts. “I’m absolutely mad about him. He’s so sweet and so freckly! He’s my ultimate crush, him and Idris Elba and, like, G-Eazy.” She loves the Freaks and Geeks actor so much that, when I ask her who she thinks should play her in an adaptation of her life so far, she says Segel would be great (“I love him so much he could play anybody”). That, or Steve Buscemi. “Do they have to be an actor? I want to say an animal. Like an otter, or something.” I say this brings to mind a Souvenir-style film about an otter, striving to succeed. “In a little pink cardigan! It would be so cute with its big tail, coming up the flat stairs.”

In The Souvenir, everyone from Anthony to grey-haired film tutors tell Julie she should work with what she knows. But isn’t empathy what acting, and film, is all about? With The Souvenir, Hogg has rendered a deeply felt personal journey cinematic – but even though she draws on what she knows, and has known, the story pivots on the never-ending attempt of trying to understand others. “It really is my worst nightmare, not quite being able to understand someone,” says Honor. “Because I like to understand people, but I also realise you can’t because you’re not inside that person and everyone is so individual. That is something which acting allows you to do. I just love exploring other people and (putting myself) in someone’s shoes – what it’s like to lose your family, or fall in love with someone who is the complete opposite of you. (By) having these feelings that I wouldn’t necessarily feel myself, I can be a thousand different people.”

A film’s title can say a lot or it can say little, and The Souvenir does both. The title in microcosm is an early scene where Anthony takes Julie to see his favourite painting at London’s Wallace Collection: a teeny Fragonard, depicting a woman reading a letter from her lover by a tree. Julie says she looks sad; Anthony says she looks determined. By the end of the film, it’s like that girl in love has stepped out of the frame and, like the actress who plays her, become the protagonist of her own story.

The Souvenir is in UK cinemas from August 30