An interview with Honor Swinton Byrne

Meeting someone from the screen is always a combination of excitement and astonishment. There’s this immortalised character that you feel like you know inside and out, and then there’s Honor Swinton Byrne.

The 23-year-old star of Joanna Hogg’s two-part drama ‘The Souvenir’ and a second-year psychology student at University of Edinburgh, who, contrary to what one might expect from watching her fragile persona on a big screen, has a slight addiction for ‘Love Island’ and cannot wait to go clubbing.

Honour says: “I feel like I should be saying ‘going to a botanical garden’ (or something along those lines). But seriously, I can’t wait to rub up against people that I don’t know!”

Honour shares that she is eyes-sparkling with excitement after being asked about her post-lockdown dream activities, “I can’t wait to be moved by the same rhythm and feel of the song with a bunch of random people.

“To have fun doing that – that’s so pure to me.

“This is the exact reason why I love cinema so much: we’re all strangers and we all go there for the same reason – to have fun as a collective.

“You could watch a film by your own house. But for some reason people pay to go watch it with strangers.”

Image credit: Honor Swinton Byrne

Going from bumping into sweaty students on a sticky dancefloor to sharing a great cinematic experience (in complete silence) on a silver screen almost in a single sentence is something that you might expect from Honor.

After all, she’s the daughter of one of the most sought-after actors living today, muse-like Tilda Swinton (“she’s such a little hippie”), 60, whose screen presence blessed the big screens for most of our lives; and John Patrick Byrne, 81 a celebrated Scottish playwright (“he’s so old”), who, just like every dad on the planet, requested his daughter’s assistance with setting up Zoom on the very same morning of our interview. How simply relatable yet endearing.

Being surrounded and nurtured by art her whole life – house in Nairn hung with the paintings of her beloved father and stepfather; films made by friends, books written by godparents – Honor can’t imagine a world without it.

“Art makes the world go round, without it, we would be like cave people, but even they had cave paintings!”

Comparing such a world with dystopian universe of no other than ‘Black Mirror’ series, smile re-emerges when a moment after she starts talking about (watercolour) painting, a hobby that’s shared between both of her parents.

“Art for me feels very emotional, it’s helped me to express myself verbally and emotionally,”

Honor explains, adding, “Through painting, acting, or dancing (but not only), I could feel the way I do and have done my whole life – free and unjudged.

“Which correlates with something that my mum established in me since I was little: learning how not to give a damn about what others think about you.”

Of course, there’s always that other side of having such world-class talented and prestigious parents. While most of us feel the weight of our parents’ mighty expectations, however mortal and achievable they might be; Honor, we imagine, should be an Olympic weightlifter in this dreaded category.

“For a little while it seemed like I should be good at this or be good at that, simply because my dad or my mum is.

I know it’s a bit different in my case, but it really isn’t – it’s the same as with anybody’s parents.

She explains, adding almost as if breaking character, “It’s so chill. I think that whatever path you choose in the end, as long as it’s not forced and feels right, it’s gonna be cool.”

Image Credit: Honor Swinton Byrne

Following this credo, then, is what guided Honor to two of her most life-changing events. Only difference: one of them left her with a critically acclaimed performance under her belt and a growing fanbase; another, a new-found appreciation of wi-fi and – ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes.

Or a lousy Souvenir, so to speak. “There was a guy who got bit by a black mamba hiding in his pillow and who’s now half-paralyzed.

“After the programme was reaching its final days, I was told by locals that I was sleeping in the same bed where that happened two years ago.

Honor recalls, eyes full of excitement, of an eight-month trip to Namibia, Africa where she taught local kids everything from English to drama, “I feel like I did a lot of growing-up in those 8 months.

“I left naive, self-aware about all the silly joys of easily accessible internet… but nothing can prepare anyone for that. I came back shell-shocked.”

While Honor doesn’t strike as a person who would volunteer to celebrate her 20th birthday eight thousand miles away from home, in the middle of nowhere, four hours away from any civilisation, all by herself – neither does her mum, Tilda, who just happened to do the same programme when she was around Honor’s age. But that’s what Swintons do.

Following in her mother’s steps further – steps that usually require you to leave your comfort zone, big time – it’s no surprise that Honor, who claims to be easily overwhelmed by most things, didn’t shy away from a once-in-a-lifetime offer to be a lead role in one of the most celebrated British filmmaker’s new project.

“I knew Joanna [Hogg] was making a new film with my mum in it,” Honor remembers, “but that’s about it.”

Little did she know, her mum, a long-time friend and colleague of Joanna, did some fate-making and suggested Honor as a possible leading role. At the time, she was working as a florist’s assistant and counting days until the life-changing trip to Namibia begins.

That she will be gazing at herself on the big screen in all the fancy film festival glamour or having a casual homemade dinner with the hottest film-director in town, Martin Scorsese, and her mum – was the farthest thing Honor could think of.

Image credit: Jack Davidson

Honour recalls, “Joanna visited us one day and sat me down to have a chat.”

Impressed by Honor’s impromptu answers about previous relationships and ex-boyfriends, the filmmaker offered her something she proposed to her then-unknown mum many award seasons ago – a chance to star in a film.

Honor, despite having no professional experience being in front of the camera, did not think twice.

“When someone was cutting my hair with the kitchen scissors two days later, only then I figured this was real.

“It was really strange [at first], felt sort of like a prank.

‘Cause you see all these people behind the cameras, all the giant lighting systems and dozens of crew members following your every movement; and you think, ‘God, that must be so stressful!’

Honor explains, her mouth forming perfect, little circles with each new ‘so’, “There is so much pressure!

“If you screw up, you waste everyone’s time, money and energy, Nobody wants that.”

The stakes are especially high when you’re 19, unexperienced and happen to be the child of one of the greatest actresses’ alive. No pressure at all.

But if she was willing to do an entire marathon and a weeklong (survival) training course, which sounds something straight out of Bear Grylls’ books, raising over £8500 all by herself in eight months just to be sent to the middle of nowhere, Africa, imagine what Honor was ready to do to make this part work. Better: go and watch The Souvenir, and see for yourself.

Honor shares, “I probably should not be saying this, but playing this character [twice], in a way, helped to define my own personality.

“To better understand how I function, what I really want and be more patient with myself.

But she’s done playing vulnerable, shy heroines (for now), “I wanna do some dark shit next,” is exactly how Honor responds to the following question, eyes beaming with excitement as soon as we start talking Stanley Kubrick and the most recent cinematic femme fatale Cruella.

While thinking about Honor as one of the loony characters in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange peaks our interest, what we, students, really want to know is: how does uni life change after you step down from the big screen?

“It’s very interesting ‘cause I have experience making friends [at school] and noticing the change in their behavior once they know who my parents are.

She explains, “So I grew up with this bullshit detector.” But no matter how secretive you are about your adventurous double life, à la Spider-Man’s Peter Parker, even The Souvenir’s own Anthony, something will eventually seem amiss.

In Honor’s case, however, it helped that this is Thatcher’s era, slow-burning period drama and not a TikTok that accidentally went viral. Still, after Honor the student missed a few lectures, her friends became suspicious.

“I was nominated for a couple awards, so I had to miss uni to go to these events. That’s when I figured I have to tell them.”

Which she did. Five minutes of gossipy interrogation later, her friends dropped it and it was back to regular studenty banter. Her psychology peers, though: “now they would have a different reaction.”

Not that long ago, Honor, although optimistic, didn’t know what she was doing with her future. Just like some people didn’t know her name, “A lot of times, when I used to go to parties with friends, someone would usually say, ‘Oh, you’re that Tilda Swinton’s kid!

Now, things have really changed, “I have my own flat [in a town I always dreamed of living], my interests, degree and acting career – my own thing going!”

While you are reading this, Honor is celebrating her “hopefully” passed exams and the first post-pandemic trip by visiting lemon-scented Cannes where her second film The Souvenir Part II is being premiered.

What else you need to know about Honor Swinton Byrne…

Honor’s soundtrack: LCD Soundsystem, Alt-J, Childish Gambino, Kendrick Lamar, Le Tigre, 90s classics 

Top 3 films: Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Dial M for Murder, Parasite (or All about Eve, Notting Hill or My Octopus Teacher) 

Favorite book: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl 

Interesting fact: believes in Loch Ness monster  

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