“I never, ever, ever intended to act,” Tilda Swinton says, laughing, as she sits down in a Beverly Hills hotel suite. “I still don’t intend to act. I mean, I’m thoroughly distracted from what I really want to do, which I’m never gonna really get to if I don’t stop doing this stuff.”
Well, it’s too late to stop now. Over a 30-plus-year career, what she dismissively refers to as “this stuff” has proven to be some of the most electrifying and resonant screen acting of recent memory. Swinton, who turns 58 next week, is often reduced to a handful of clichés: the fearless, artsy, eccentric, slightly alien-like shape-shifter who’ll happily don prosthetics or pull out an accent if the role requires it. And her turn in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, in which she plays the severe artistic director of Berlin’s acclaimed Markos Dance Academy, is likely to see those same descriptions trotted out once more. (It’s not her only part in the remake; we’ll get to that in a moment.)
But to go back through her dexterous résumé is to see a performer of passionate feeling from the very beginning. She’s always brought a crushing immediacy to her characters — they’re fully-realized but evolving individuals (literally, in some cases — see Orlando), bursting with life but in conflict with surroundings that force them to change. Thankfully, she was willing to play tour guide touching on everything from the early art-house experiments to her Oscar-winning performance in Michael Clayton, from monstrous villains to stressed-to-the-max mothers. Here, in her own words, is a look back at what’s kept her thoroughly distracted — and left audiences enthralled.
Edward II (1991)
Swinton frequently collaborated with Derek Jarman, who died in 1994 at the age of 52, starting with her first movie role in 1986′s Caravaggio. Not sure if she really wanted to keep acting after doing theater during her university years, Swinton then met the experimental, political filmmaker. His 1991 work Edward II, a modern retelling of the Christopher Marlowe play, typified their provocative pairings.
“What Derek opened up to me — with the kinds of work that he was involved in and also the environment of his work — it was just home …. I knew that I wasn’t interested in being an industrial actor; I knew I wasn’t interested in being an industrial theater-maker. I was always an experimentalist, and I couldn’t find it, really, in the theater.
“At that time in the U.K., cinema was the sort of Merchant-Ivory corsets type — what I call ‘nostalgia cinema,’ which I was definitely not interested in being a part of. There was a very well-respected television industry at the time, and there were big international filmmakers like David Lean and people like Alan Parker, and I just couldn’t imagine myself in any of those worlds. And then there was Derek. Derek was something else. He was from the art world, and I was from the art world. We just met and clicked. He made it possible for me to work. I was a part of the creation of [his films] — I wasn’t acting at all. We were making work as a sort of home-movie scenario, really. It was performance art. He made it possible for me to do my thing without being a professional actor.
“Conversations, particularly around a certain kind of political activism, gave rise to the films. There was a time in the late Eighties when there was a political situation where the Tory government were attempting to bring in all sorts of hideous restrictive laws. There was this thing called Clause 28, which was about restructuring the cultural life of gay people. We were very involved as political activists, and out of that conversation came, ‘What film could we make? Shall we make Edward II?’ Because Edward II is about a gay king. It was definitely a response to the times.”
Swinton teamed up with director Sally Potter to adapt the Virginia Woolf novel about a character who travels from lifetime to lifetime — and switches gender along the way.
“If you read two sentences on Orlando, you think it’s about difference — you think it’s about a change of gender and living through many different centuries. It didn’t take me long to figure out that, actually, what I wanted to do was to look at the similarity — look at something very simple and very unchanging — so that [the character] doesn’t actually change. Orlando is a persistent spirit: The changes of gender apparatus move around, but Orlando stays the same.
“And when we were discussing all of this, this is where Sally Potter and I started to develop this key thing, which was looking into the camera — this dialogue with the audience — so that the face, the gaze, that direct look stayed the same. Didn’t matter whether it was the 16th century or the 20th century — that was the same. A massive wig or a motorbike, that all changed, but this stayed the same. And once we hit on that, it was not only clear in terms of the practicalities of how to do it and how to play it, but also I found it really informative about what [Orlando] was about. It’s about spirit, actually.”
Michael Clayton (2007)
Swinton had never been nominated for an Academy Award before playing the high-strung attorney Karen in this character drama-cum-thriller. (Amazingly, she hasn’t been nominated since.) But when it’s mentioned that the film was part of her transition to studio films, Swinton will politely demur. And don’t bring up her Oscar win.
“The reason I don’t think of it as a studio picture is because it was in New York and because it felt fairly intimately made. Of course it was a studio picture, and it had a massive film star in it, but it didn’t really feel [like that]. I noticed a while ago that the studio pictures that I had made up until that time — in fact, it still goes on — they’re all experimental films. They’re all pretty out there. They’re all made by film geeks who are trying something new, whether it’s [Shrek director] Andrew Adamson making his first live-action film [The Chronicles of Narnia] when he’s only made animation, or David Fincher making Brad Pitt younger [in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button].
“What was different there was that the tenor — the caliber of the narrative and the kinds of performances that it asked for — [was] much finer, much more naturalistic, much less fantastic, much less expressive. That was a bit of a departure. It was really interesting to work with something really naturalistic. Women like [Karen] really do exist, and they really walk about and dress like that and talk like that. That was a bit of an adventure for me.
“[Michael Clayton filmmaker] Tony Gilroy is an unbelievable writer. He was not only looking at the way in which this woman was working with her façade, but then you had her alone. I was completely hooked, because that’s what I’m really interested in.
“[The Oscar speech] … I have no memory of it, and please don’t remind me of what I said. Funnily enough, at that time, I’d never seen the Oscars on the television. I knew that it was a big deal, but it didn’t have any real impact in my life. I remember being a little bit disappointed that it wasn’t more magnificent, [that] it wasn’t in a bigger room. And then I thought, ‘Why are you disappointed?’ I realized it was because my reference was The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston — that was the only time I’d ever seen the Oscars, and it was in a much pumped-up version. Nobody ran across the stage or got shot or anything!”
I Am Love (2009)
Swinton first worked with Suspiria’s Luca Guadagnino on his 1999 thriller The Protagonists, but the filmmaker’s breakthrough was this sensuous, tragic drama about a woman embarking on an affair. It took several years for this particular collaboration to go into production, although the delays never bothered her. In fact, she sorta likes them.
“I’ve worked a lot with first-time filmmakers, and I always feel I’m sort of put on this earth to say to them, ‘It’s okay that we’ve been pushed back another six months. You will be grateful for this time later on. You will never regret having another year to develop the script.’ I’m very lazy. I don’t mind waiting.
“It’s about figuring out really carefully what the character is going to look like, how they’re going to move, how they’re going to talk, what they’re going to say, the environment they’re going to be in, and what choices they’re going to make about what’s going to occupy their rooms. [Her character Emma] walked in the most uncomfortable Salvatore Ferragamo shoes — I shouldn’t really say that, but I’m afraid it’s true. And she was a little bit protective. [Swinton suddenly juts forward her shoulders, pushing her midsection back] She walked a little bit with her shoulders forward, protecting her heart, and quite carefully — as if she’s on eggshells.”
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Lynne Ramsay’s adaptation of the Lionel Shriver novel concerns a woman who discovers she’s not suited for motherhood. It’s a theme that connects several of Tilda’s films from that period, she says.
“It had something — not everything — to do with the fact that I had children myself. I was very interested in what it is to be a mother and all the different predicaments that one can find oneself in as a mother. The Deep End, We Need To Talk About Kevin, I Am Love, Julia: There was a sort of quartet at the time, which were very much about being a mother.
“I was really, really fortunate in my own life — it is a piece of luck that, for whatever reason, I lucked out with my kids. I was ready to be a mother. It’s all been great. But the interesting thing that I noticed when they were born — I had twins — when I first saw them, I remember this moment of feeling a real surge of love. The second thing I felt was relief that I felt the surge. I remember thinking, ‘Huh? Why are you relieved? You mean, it might have been different?’ It was like my psyche knew that it might’ve gone the other way. And I have known women for whom it has gone the other way — that was something I was really, really interested in exploring.”
Only Lovers Left Alive (2013)
Another frequent collaborator is Jim Jarmusch; Swinton plays the female half of a vampire couple going through your basic immortal-bloodsucker ennui. She says that her and the New York-based indie-film godhead have always just clicked.
“I love that film. I hadn’t seen it for a while — it’s so beautiful, and it’s just gonna burn forever, that film. [Jim] is a great artist. I had an early attachment to his cinema: Stranger Than Paradise was the first American independent film that I saw. And it was about America, but it was about being an alien. It was before I’d come here, so it really meant a lot to me. And I think he does that for the globe as an American — he’s there for the aliens.
“I really, really love being in that movie’s world. He’s a rock star. He’s an outsider artist, and he’s so central but retains his outsider status. I really value that as an artist who came from the outside and lives on the outside. He’s like my homeland, really. But he’s an American, and that’s significant for me, because he’s my sort of my American cousin.”
When approaching Minister Mason, the bizarre, twisted figurehead of Bong Joon-ho’s dystopic sci-fi/action movie aboard a non-stop train, Swinton thought of the 20th century’s greatest monsters. At the time, her Snowpiercer performance seemed outlandish, comical. But thinking about it now in the light of recent events, Swinton can only shake her head.
“It’s terrifying, isn’t it? We were dealing with satire, and we were dealing with something so extreme. We were drawing on Gaddafi and Thatcher and Mussolini … it’s sort of eye-watering, really. But, yeah, we pushed it, we pushed it and we pushed it. One of the things that I thought of from the very beginning was Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
“This is a joke that’s gone sour — I hope anyway — we take these despots and we make clowns out of them to make them somehow more palatable. We find them amusing. I think for a while that was the power of George W. Bush — people found him kind of hilarious, all those memes and all those jokes. He was worth it, somehow, for the amusement value. But there’s not much amusing going on now.”
Swinton is a commanding presence as Madame Blanc in her latest collaboration with Guadagnino. All anyone wants to talk to her about, however, is one Dr. Josef Klemperer, the movie’s wizened, grieving male therapist. For months, the star and director denied she played the role (it’s credited to “first-time actor” Lutz Ebersdorf). She finally admitted that yes, that is her beneath the prosthetics — which has left her with mixed feelings.
“Everyone has to be reminded that my original plan was never, ever to talk about anything other than playing Madame Blanc. But those old truth-hungry people have made us come clean. I’m happy to come clean, because the last thing I want is for anybody to think we’re going to lie or deal in fake news.
“Lutz Ebersdorf was a new face — it was very important that it wasn’t an actor, anybody recognizable at all. It was very important in terms of the grain of the performance that it should be not remotely showy, that it should be basically somebody sort of learning the lines and turning up. [It had to feel] — I can’t believe I’m saying this — ‘authentic’ and not grandstanding in any way and also rather mysterious.
“The thing about Klemperer is that he is inhabited by his [dead] wife. His grief means that he’s inhabited by a woman, and that meant something to us when we started to develop the idea.
“[The remake] … I always said from the beginning, ‘It’s a cover.’ The problem with the idea of ‘remake’ is that there’s an assumption that it is somehow dissing the original — or in some way trashing it because it wasn’t any good. We were so clear that we didn’t want to do that. And let’s face it: Nobody covers a song that they don’t love. Nobody says, ‘Oh, it’s a bit rope-y — let’s make it better.‘ If they do, it’s not gonna work. You need that innate love and respect. And we had that for Dario Argento’s film.”