Articulating Emotions with Honor Swinton-Byrne

Articulating Emotions with Honor Swinton-Byrne

It crept up quietly on us, but the second part of the Souvenir story shines a spotlight on Honor Swinton-Byrne that can’t be ignored anymore. Wiser than a rising star and more elegant than a showy scene-stealer, there’s something mercurial and singular about Joanna Hogg’s bright light. Savina Petkova meets the actor to find out what makes her tick.

Joanna Hogg’s two-part narrative The Souvenir can be considered the love story epic of our time. In just four years and two films, Hogg has gifted us with a fragile young Julie (Honor Swinton Byrne), her enigmatic partner Anthony (Tom Burke), and the legacy of their flawed but intense togetherness. The sigh in front of Fragonard’s eponymous painting at London’s Wallace Collection, the cracks in that mirror wall in Julie’s apartment, the doubt and the dizziness of first loves, all of these remnants come alive as vivid memories in Part Two. However, the new film shines with a convalescent light that we almost couldn’t hope for, once left in the depth of despair at the end of Part One.

The Souvenir Part II is Julie’s film from beginning to end. We share her journey with all the uncertainties that come with reclaiming yourself, diving into the metacinematic whirlpool that is the whole film. And what better way to present it than to sit down with the luminous Honor, to discuss vulnerability, collaboration, sisterhood and the invisible strength of not having any answers.

The second film starts right where the first left off and obviously, that's been a huge gap in between. How did it feel like to inhabit again the skin of that particular Julie, so hurt and forlorn?

It felt very satisfying, because I was coming back to seek vengeance on the misery, as well as to reap the lessons learned. And I know that's such a terrible way to put it, but I mean that I was there to defend her and to take care of her. To see her rise like a phoenix from the ashes, to heal, in the second part. 

I was so ready for that as it had been two years, it was time now! [At the end of The Souvenir Part I] I left her really injured and vulnerable, so I really wanted to see her succeed and be triumphant. And I feel like that happened with the second part, which I'm really satisfied with. I hope we've got there.

The first five minutes or so of the film are heart-wrenching. Was it difficult to get back in that headspace? 

You know what, it actually wasn't. I really thought that it was going to be. For these two years, I didn't really think about it, and as the due date of shooting was approaching, I was like, “Well, I am going to find this really tricky,” but I actually didn't. I feel like we spoke about it the day before the shoot started, Joanna and I, and then we shot and it really was like seeing an old friend again. It was completely effortless. 

Joanna has mentioned that part of the decision to have the second film follow a more upwards trajectory had to do with the kind of tension between you as Honor and you as Julie. 

We do speak about a lot and Joanna really saw it in me. I was very open… I'm a very open person – no one will ever wonder where they stand with me, like, I'm just super duper duper open about my feelings. In the first film I struggled, but I really related to Julie. I empathised with her vulnerability and her passiveness, and the fact that she was apologetic and self-deprecating, and, overall she was in pain, while allowing this man to take control of her life. But I also found it really difficult to put myself back in that zone. Because I was at 19 when we shot the first one and I recently just got out of that habit. 

When I was a wee bit younger, like the year before, I was very similar to Julie, I was very young and naive, uncertain and didn't have a lot of self-esteem and was just smaller than I am now. At the time when we shot the first Souvenir so it was tricky to put myself there again. I thought “Oh, I worked so hard to get out of this hole and now I'm putting myself back into it!” So it was a tricky thing and I felt very defensive of Julie, I felt very protective of her. I was like, “Why is she… Why?” I kept saying to myself, “Why are you allowing this man to do this to you?”, you know, and I talked to Joanna about it. She told me to wait, that she was going to learn… And I was like, “I remember this, I remember what THIS feels like! I remember being in that situation where you really can't explain why you're allowing yourself to be taken advantage of.” But it is just the learning process. 

So the second Souvenir felt more collaborative than the first one?

It really was. When I came two years later, I already had some balls and had a backbone and more sure of myself, I was very confident in my humour and my openness. I think that really helped for the sort of upward trajectory for Julie and I think it ultimately ended where Julie, that the girl I see on screen is me and not really Julie anymore. It's like we became one at the end, in the last bit. 

Julie is having trouble processing grief from the very beginning, and then she tries different avenues to get through it. But it still doesn't feel like she understands what exactly has happened to her. Was it important for you, playing her, to be able to understand?

That's such a beautiful question! I feel like I didn't understand. And then the funny thing is, I'm not sure whether that had anything to do with the fact that – touch wood –  I haven't lost a boyfriend, I haven't suffered that grief. But I think it did have a lot to do with the fact that many people I know have suffered a really close grief to them and they fully understand what to do next, and how to heal and where to go next.

I think that the tricky thing is that Julie is really struggling, she's like, “Somebody tell me what to do!” And that’s why I found it really moving to see her go to a therapist, because that's such progress. It’s her initiative, like adult behaviour, seeking help. And that's big! It's a beautiful point in the film, where you really notice that she's taking action against this misery, and this kind of confusion. 

So that confusion helped you?

I think it helped me, exactly! I think maybe if I had understood more, it maybe wouldn't have been as convincing.

Did the inclusion of the therapist have anything to do with the fact that you're studying psychology right now?

It didn't! I wish it had though… But [Gail Ferguson] was amazing, she’s a real psychologist. She has this beautiful skill of intuition seeking, like feeling someone's energy. And she said very similar things about me that she said about Joanna. And when she said to Julie, “I think you miss having somebody and not….”, you know, that beautiful scene with her guidance and the fact that she's an older lady, taking care of her and offering her advice and exposing these things that she's in denial about.

I found it very moving when she admits it, “I think I just miss having somebody, I think I just want to go to bed next to someone and I miss somebody taking control” and all that. That's a big, big, big admission that many people still can't make in their adult life. I'm still learning how to do that myself!. So I think she makes progress throughout the second film. But I didn't really know back then that I wanted to study psychology. I think it was the time between the first and second film that I applied to study psychology. And when I got the news, actually, I was either shooting the second one or just afterwards… But it was something that came from Joanna.

One of the big rifts between Julie and the world is with her crew. So in the professional setting, they keep asking her for more precision, and she’s even accused of the lack thereof. Does any exactitude or perfectionism have a place in your creative practice at all?

Absolutely not. You know, I really love messiness. And I am not a perfectionist. I'm really not. I used to think I was, and then I think I became an adult. I used to think I was actually kind of [gestured exactitude with her hands]. And I think what I realised is that I was a little bit of a control freak instead. So it's not like I'm a perfectionist in my work, I actually prize imperfections. 

And I think I appreciate this. I appreciate the fact that the two Souvenirs show how messy and chaotic real relationships and people are. And I think that's moving! I feel like all I see are films that represent unrealistic, unhealthy, unattainable relationships, professions, and young women – I'm so sick of it. And I feel like I just want more films that show that comfort real people and make them feel not alone and judged. 

I'm sure you're going to be associating yourself with this kind of work.

I hope so. I really, really hope so. It's really important. I think, I know people say cinema is the place for fantasy, but not always. Not always.

There's cinema’s complicated relationship with reality and fantasy, but I guess we’re talking about a specific kind of realism that can make you feel seen.

Absolutely. Because it does have this mix of fantasy in it, obviously, with Julie's graduation film, and the memories that are unseen, all of this, they're there. They're very much married to reality and fantasy, but that's how life is really. So I feel like it is accurate in that way.

Speaking of “accurate”, there's one instance when Julie seeks precision herself. And that is when she talks to her mother about emotional details: “What did you feel when Anthony died?” This gorgeous scene where Julie insists on articulation. And I feel like this is maybe one of the few times in Joanna's films when you have actual people talking about feeling so straightforwardly…

That's a great point… I haven't even noticed that. 

I just wanted to ask you about articulating feelings, because you are very emotionally intelligent and eloquent. So how was it? How important was it for this project, in particular?

It's so important to me as a person! As I develop as an adult, it's like, it's always been super important to me to know where I stand with people and to communicate so freely, and to never, ever let anything boil under the surface. But I think that scene was such a relief for me, because I never got any certain answers. And Joanna still says that she doesn't know whether Anthony worked for the foreign office, she doesn't know a lot about him. I think making a film about a series of uncertainties is so hard, but so beautiful. 

And so while that scene was gorgeous, it was such a relief for me because I was like, “Okay, I'm going to get a certain answer. I'm going to get an answer of how the mother felt about the situation, not how she thought I felt, not how she thought Anthony might have thought.” And the real backbone of that second film, I feel, is [Julie’s mother] Rosalind. She is such a pillar of certainty in Julie's life. And I enjoyed the ending they reach with their relationship. It's really moving to see some of that equality at the end, the fact that Julie pays her back for the money she borrowed and, and tells her off for smoking a cigarette… and they sit on the sofa and the mother touches her hair and it's just beautiful and very relatable.

What about the graduation film? At times when Julie was in the process of making it, I felt like it was an impossible film. What did you like the most about shooting that magical sequence?

It's great art. You know what, it was something stupid… I liked something superficial in that way I really enjoyed having these massive dramatic hats! I think also I really enjoyed the structure of it, the fact that it felt like a student film. I mean, the fact that it was so … for lack of a better term, it was so nerdy. It was very similar to Joanna’s own student film Caprice and my mum’s obviously in it. It was moving to me to recreate my mother's steps and outfits and movements, I felt like… a nerd. And in the best way! I was like, “Okay, I'm gonna move like this, then move like that..” While it’s all being recreated, everyone's standing around going, “We love student films!”, like, “This is why we're making this film!” 

I think my favourite part was tied with the fact that my mother made Caprice when she was a little bit older than me than I was at the time, even though that’s how old I am now. But also, the fact that it's meant to represent the stages of grief. So from anger, and then denial, and then acceptance at the end when she turns back and goes through all the cabins again. The fact that it doesn't make any sense, but it makes sense to Julie is so cool. And it makes sense to me.

You had family and friends on set, but I was curious about how you work with Ariane Labed [Garance] who has a more prominent role in the Souvenir Part Two, and is an actress and a filmmaker herself. When Julie casts her as herself, what was it like for you to do a similar thing to what Joanna does with you? 

Oh, Ariane was one of the warmest female presences in terms of the actors. I mean, she was one of the only women in the film, it's like me, my mum, and Ariane, really, and the therapist too. But she was so patient with me throughout the first and second film. Obviously, in the first one she had to have such faith in where the story was going. And that in the second film, she would establish a sense of that weird, sort of a misunderstanding, but also protectiveness of Julie and I think the fact that she says “yes” to being in the student film is really moving because she's obviously a little bit older, super attractive, and confident, sexy and kind of like, super certain of her vision. 

And she even says to Harris Dickinson’s character behind the scenes, “I think [Julie]'s lazy. I think she's really naive. I think she doesn't really know what she's doing.” But she sticks by and tries to understand this relationship. And I think shooting like that, being in exactly the same position that Joanna was in, while trying to explain to me. So I was explaining to Ariane, “All I can tell you is what I understand. Which is what I was told by a woman who didn't fully understand the situation.” And it was really humbling. And it was so good for my empathy because she was asking all the questions that I asked. She had misunderstood all the bits that I did. She’d ask me, “What does that mean?”, and I was like, “I know I get it!” Like, I remember when I didn't get it, but now I kind of do. Kind of, but none of us really do.

I feel like this is an extended metaphor about women helping women in trying to understand…

Exactly, instead of fighting over men! 

Savina Petkova (@savinapetkova) is a film critic/PhD candidate based in London who lives from one film festival to another. She specialises in animal representations in contemporary film and writes for Electric Ghost Magazine and MUBI Notebook.

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