Dec 1 – 5 2008
RAISE A GLASS
For years an arthouse stalwart, Tilda Swinton is now an Oscar-winner. Just don’t, she tells Leigh Singer, think of her an actress.
Tilda Swinton simply shouldn’t be having the career she is now, and she knows it. It’s not that she doesn’t deserve it. For twenty-plus years she’s been perhaps the single most intriguing British actress out there; her pale, willowy, androgynous look perfect for her preferred experimental arthouse projects, like the films of her late mentor Derek Jarman or the gender=switching title role in Sally Potter’s Orlando. Basically, Swinton was a cult figure for cineastes. Even now, she confides of Orlando, “Everywhere I go, every other bookshop attendant says ‘that’s my favourite film.’”
Nowadays, though, it’s the newspapers and entertainment magazines in those bookstores that are fixed on her. Even before winning an Academy Award this spring opposite George Clooney in corporate thriller Michael Clayton, Swinton had gone mainstream; or rather, the mainstream had gone to her, with Hollywood royalty like Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt and Clooney were queuing up to work with her. What’s more she’s done it at an age, 47, when most actresses lambaste the dearth of roles available to them. And seemingly without the slightest element of compromise.
So how does an actress achieve this? For Swinton, the answer’s quite simple, if a little disconcerting to hear. “I’m not even an actress,” she says politely, but very firmly, “and I never set out to be an actress.”
Believe it or not, this isn’t Swinton being difficult in the standard star-takes-umbrage-at-journalist’s-constrictive-pigeonholing way. It’s simply how she sees her role, whether appearing opposite Clooney or Pitt (or both in the Coen Brothers recent Burn After Reading) or a brief role in Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr’s latest obscure epic, The Man From London.
“The thing that I think I am,” she says earnestly, “really truly, is an artist’s model. I came originally from an art world background making films with a fine artist, Derek Jarman. In fact the very first film I made, Caravaggio, I actually played an artist’s model and I feel that most readily describes what I am.”
Lest you think this is default self-deprecation, Swinton is quick to add her proviso. “Don’t for one second think that that’s an easy job. I’m not there on my own, I’m there in conversation or collaboration with the artist or artists and we will work out together what we will do.”
Contradiction and a dismissal of convention run throughout Swinton’s work and life. Raised in a strict, traditional military family, a former schoolmate of Princess Diana, her early career under Jarman was on the fringes of British cinema. She won her Oscar and promptly gave it to her agent. Tabloids lapped up the fact that she lives with both her younger lover and the father of her twins. She’ll court charges of pretension by installing herself in a glass case for a week in a 1995 Serpentine Gallery exhibition but is also playful enough to set up a film festival in her home Scottish village this year where audiences attended in pyjamas and those bringing home-baked snacks gained free entry.
Little wonder, then, that Americans, although fascinated by her… “…don’t know what the hell I am?!” laughs Swinton good-naturedly. “I don’t know, I don’t know what they think they’re doing with me.” With a glint in her eye, she references her scary White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia series, adopting a gravelly movie trailer-like voice: “Just when you thought it was safe to go into a Disney movie!”
Of course it’s not what they’re doing with Swinton, it’s what she’s doing with them. Famous for declaring she chooses filmmakers, not parts, her recently Oscared US agent has to simply wait while she goes off to pursue her own interests – like Julia, the reason for Swinton’s attendance today.
Part-character study part-gangster thriller that’s also a riff on the lauded John Cassavetes / Gena Rowlands ‘woman’s picture’ Gloria, Julia features Swinton in practically every scene as a reckless middle-aged party girl on the slide, an alcoholic who gets mixed up in the kidnapping of a young boy. Compared to her serene, in-control on-and-off screen persona, actress or not, it’s a radical departure.
“I had to wire myself in a totally different way to which I normally work,” she agrees. “Julia is really outside my own personal experience, I’m not a drinker myself but I have been around it and wondered about it a lot, So I literally had to build her from the outside and wrap her around me, Making that body, smoking that many cigarettes and falling over that many times, it was a very physical, painful experience,”
Swinton is rightly proud of the film but what’s also refreshing about her is that the more masochistic tendencies in which some actors love to revel are never more important than the giddy sense of play such work allows.
“I get to dress up and play different games,” she relates enthusiastically. “The Coen Brothers game or being in a Bela Tarr film or a Disney movie, they’re all different games and they’re all different languages. They’re all fully apprised of how elastic cinema is and they just want to stretch it a bit, all of them, every single one.”
Even on the blockbusters? “It’s quite interesting working on these big budgets with these people and feeling the atmosphere being very similar to working on a Smiths video with Derek all those years ago,” she assesses. “People running onto the set with some new programme they’ve just developed and saying, ‘let’s try it.’”
There it is, the essence of Swinton’s singular rise: let’s try it. And doing so under the radar for so many years means that, when the spotlight finally falls on you, it illuminates, rather than dazzles you into submission.
“It’s a rare combination,” Swinton agrees. “I mean, I’m the new kid on the block, but I’ve got 23 years to show for it and it’s a good feeling because I’m really proud of those 23 years and, you know, I’m prepared to say it. I can hold my head up.”
Julia is out December 5th 2008