In 2017, shortly after she graduated from high school, Honor Swinton Byrne was chatting with her godmother about ex-boyfriends. At the end of their phone call, her godmother—the British director and screenwriter Joanna Hogg—asked Byrne if she would want to star in her new film, which started shooting in two weeks and still had no lead.
Byrne was working as a florist’s assistant in Inverness, Scotland, at the time. She had never acted before. Though she was 19, and technically of the “selfie era,” she didn’t even like posting photos of herself online. But she said yes.
“It felt right,” she tells me. “And that’s the only way I can describe it.”
So Byrne scrapped her plans to travel to Namibia for a few months and instead moved to Norfolk, in eastern England, to shoot The Souvenir. (The Souvenir: Part II—not quite a sequel but a second installment of the film, which Hogg intended to make while planning the first—premieres this weekend.)
Luckily, Byrne already had a castmate to live with. Long before Hogg cast Byrne as Julie, The Souvenir’s protagonist, she filled the role of Julie’s mom with Tilda Swinton, Honor’s actual mother and Hogg’s best friend since the two were teenagers.
The film re-creates a torturous love story from Hogg’s early 20s. Julie, an artistically adrift film student, falls in love with Anthony (Tom Burke), an elusive older man. Only later does it become clear he’s also addicted to heroin. For part one, Hogg lifted lines from letters the real Anthony sent four decades ago, and rebuilt the Knightsbridge apartment she lived in during film school. For part two, she tracked down the therapist she saw in the 1980s and pulled her out of retirement to act in the film.
Although she has a movie-star mother, Byrne did not grow up around the industry. She and her twin brother, Xavier, whom Tilda Swinton shares with the Scottish playwright John Byrne, were raised “in the middle of nowhere”— the Scottish Highlands. “I’m a proper country mouse!” she says.
Byrne, who recently turned 24, is calling from Edinburgh, where she is in her third year of a psychology program at Heriot-Watt University. She enrolled after production on part two of The Souvenir wrapped, and is currently squeezing in press for the film between attending classes, writing papers, and working as a waitress at a gastropub in town.
This is exactly why Hogg picked Byrne: because she wasn’t, and didn’t want to be, an actress. Hogg felt Julie, a shy, naïve twentysomething, had to be played by a non-actor, someone shy and naïve in front of a camera, Byrne tells me.
So, for Byrne, “there was not a massive amount of prep.” Hogg doesn’t work with scripts. For The Souvenir, she wrote 30 pages of prose, which she had Burke, but not Byrne, read. She shot the film in chronological order, briefing Byrne before each scene but never telling her the story arc. “I didn’t know he was going to be an addict,” Byrne says. Her only direction for the scene during which she first finds track marks on her boyfriend’s skin was to lie in bed and “look on the inside of his arm.”
Part two was shot like part one: without a script, heavily improvised, without Byrne knowing exact plot points. But the second film was “much more of a collaboration.”
Byrne shot part two in the summer of 2019—two years after she shot part one, and just after it premiered. Between filming, she finally did move to Namibia for a year. She lived alone, dated people, broke up with people, went without Wi-Fi, moved back to the U.K., dated other people. “I did a lot of growing up between the [movies],” Byrne explains. “I came in with a lot more power and a lot more understanding for who Julie was and who she was becoming.”
Byrne says that working alongside her mother was not the least bit awkward. For one, they play a very different duo on-screen. Julie and her mother, Rosalind, are demure ladies who sit on opposite ends of a couch while discussing Anthony’s heroin habit. Byrne and Swinton, meanwhile, are “complete soulmates,” Byrne says—“physically, verbally, very, very affectionate with one another.” As soon as Hogg called a scene, they “would hug.”
“It was really funny to play very, very different characters to our own,” she says.
While filming part two, Byrne’s initial shrug at acting became an ambition. She’s recording self-tapes in her college apartment, but, for now, “psychology is my No. 1 and everything else comes after that,” she says. She wants to act, but she’s also planning to write a thesis about “the dark sides” of psychology—“like necrophilia and pedophilia.”
The Souvenir: Part II is in theaters now
Jensen Davis is an Associate Editor for Air Mail