Tilda Swinton Lives by Night

The sui generis Scottish star of 'Only Lovers Left Alive' talks vampire love stories, Bowie and the art of being famous

Tilda Swinton Only Lovers Left Alive
Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
Tilda Swinton in 'Only Lovers Left Alive'
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Even in a generic corporate office, in the middle of an exhausting multi-city promotional tour, Tilda Swinton couldn't help but be cheeky. The statuesque Scottish Oscar-winner gave an impromptu tour of her home for the day — an antiseptic room at Sony Pictures Classics, distributor of her slow-burn vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive. (It opens Friday, April 11th.) She pointed out the framed, crookedly hung Sony logo on the wall ("That's a lovely piece of art," she said dryly, "Can you imagine?") and commented on a lonely bulbous vase guarding an empty desk ("Because that's going to do you good when making that deal"). Earlier that morning, she and her partner, painter Sandro Kopp, danced furiously in front of a wall of windows looking directly onto another office building. "We were trying to see if anybody in those offices ever look up," she said. "And they don't. We were rocking out and nobody looked up." 

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The office drones' loss, clearly. Three decades into her film career, Swinton remains one of the most fascinating, sui generis actors working today. After serving as an otherworldly muse to legendary queer filmmaker Derek Jarman and breaking through as a gender-bending shapeshifter in Sally Potter's Orlando (1992), the 53-year-old actress has remained both chameleonic and unmistakable. She's capable of playing everything from an icy corporate attorney in Michael Clayton (for which she won that Academy Award) to a sexually awoken Russian émigré in I Am Love and the White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia films. 

"Tony Gilroy once called me a Halloween actor, and he's absolutely right," she said of her Michael Clayton director. "I think I've spent a lot of time throwing out various shapes, which feel very foreign to me, simply for my own amusement." But as Lovers' Eve, the vampire with a formidable white mane and an immortal curiosity about the world, she claims the character was much closer to her offscreen self. "To roll out of bed and put on clothes that are not dissimilar to clothes I would wear anyway — that's a different thing," she said, dramatically swaddled in a long black trench coat. 

Eve begins the film in Tangier, where she lives separately from her morose musician husband of several centuries, Adam (Tom Hiddleston). When her spouse's demeanor darkens more than usual, Eve journeys to join him in his grim Detroit apartment, lightening his mood by dancing to old soul records and taking nighttime drives. Unlike many of Swinton's past characters, Eve is a font of positivity and warmth — a six-foot feline curled up on the couch. "There's such a trope about a love story being about oneness, about people coming together and then that's the end," Swinton says, noting that she appreciated that this was a story about a couple "prevailing and surviving and keeping each other company when they have down moments." Though in many ways opposites, the duo with the biblical names are nevertheless committed partners, calling to mind the unconventional couplings of Jarmusch's downtown brethren Lou Reed and Laurie Anderson, or Fred and Patti Smith. "You can be completely unalike somebody, and still really love them," Swinton says.

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Jarmusch developed the project with, and to some degree for, Swinton, after working with her in Broken Flowers (2005) and The Limits of Control (2009); the two met, of all places, backstage at a Darkness concert. "We outed each other," Swinton said about their mutual weakness for retro-glam maybe-parody. "So we had each other's backs from the very beginning." Jarmusch said that from the very first stirrings of Only Lovers Left Alive, Swinton was his Eve. "It grows out of things that are characteristics of Tilda herself," he said by phone. "Most prominently her sense of wonder and appreciation of her consciousness as a kind of gift." 

"Work for me is engagement," she says in reference to doing press, though "engagement" isn't limited to pressing the flesh. It also includes starting a mobile film festival in the Scottish Highlands with filmmaker Mark Cousins, sporadically sleeping in a glass box in a public space (a stunt she performed two decades prior at the Serpentine Gallery in London, and last year at the Museum of Modern Art) and appearing next to her celebrity doppelganger David Bowie in the video for "The Stars (Are Out Tonight)." ("We call each other cousins," she says, before archly invoking her vampiric self. "We're related by blood.") "About two months ago I was like ‘I wonder what Tilda's doing,'" Jarmusch said. "And I find out, ok, she's in Paris in a fashion show where she's not wearing the clothes but holding them up in front of her on a runway. And then the following day she's in Moscow marching for gay rights," he said, referring to the widely retweeted photo of her holding up a rainbow flag in Red Square. "She's unquantifiable." 

"If I've become famous [at all], I've become famous as myself," she said. "I've become a celebrity by doing what I like to do. I brought myself with me on the road." Where it's led continues to surprise even her. She went from being a teenager obsessed with Bowie's familial-looking image on her LP of Aladdin Sane (she didn't even own a record player at the time), and from being a co-ed geeking out over Jarmusch's Strangers In Paradise, to becoming a friend and collaborator to them both. "I'm constantly stepping into the frames of my favorite filmmakers and going what? There's room for me in a Bela Tarr film? Wes Anderson? How is that possible?" she said. "It's like cinema Zelig."  

"She's a real adventuress," Jarmusch said. "If you looked in a crystal ball and you said, ‘Oh Tilda, it says in the future you will never act in another film.' Tilda's response would never be negative. It would be ‘Really? What am I doing?'" Except for what's coming immediately down the pike — parts in two already finished films, Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer and Terry Gilliam's The Zero Theorem, for starters—it's virtually impossible to predict what Swinton will do next. But you get the sense that if anyone would know what to do with immortality, it's her.