Daring to be different
This article is from 2007.
Hollywood might be calling but EIFF patron Tilda Swinton hasn’t deserted the arthouse cause. James Mottram catches up with her
Even without her bright beacon of red hair, it would be difficult to miss Tilda Swinton at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival. Enjoying her inaugural year as patron, alongside the venerable Sir Sean Connery, you can take your pick when it comes to seeing her.
On stage, she will discuss her career – from Derek Jarman’s muse via David Mackenzie’s Young Adam and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers to Disney doyenne – in what is sure to be one of the Festival highlights. On screen she will appear in inky black-and-white, in Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr’s moody existential noir The Man From London, proof that she can still do hardcore arthouse with the best of them. And such is her commitment to the cause, don’t be surprised if she helps you book your tickets, sells you ice cream and ushers you to your seat as well.
From her 1986 debut as the prostitute Lena in Jarman’s Caravaggio to her breakthrough turn in Sally Potter’s Orlando and beyond, Swinton has defiantly remained a pin-up for the British independent film scene. ‘I’m constantly being told that I don’t have a career,’ she laughs. ‘But I do have a life and that’s what fascinates me.’ Inevitably Hollywood got wind and the A-list – Leonardo DiCaprio (The Beach), Tom Cruise (Vanilla Sky) and Keanu Reeves (Constantine) among them – came flocking. ‘Everyone wants to work with her,’ says Mike Mills, who directed 2005’s Thumbsucker, a project about Ritalin-addicted youngsters that Swinton lent her support to for years until it got financed.
Yet, in a twist that not even she could’ve predicted, at 46, Swinton has suddenly become bankable in Hollywood, after her turn as the White Witch in the Disney live-action version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe helped the film to a $738 million global haul.
‘I realised I did something very, very clever,’ she explains, looking every bit the movie star in designer shades. ‘Actually it wasn’t really clever but we’ll pretend I did it on purpose.’ Referring to a plot to turn ten-year-old Narnia fans into cinéastes, she cites a recent trip to Mexico City. ‘There were these big crowds of street children . . . I don’t know where they get to see Narnia but they’re totally crazy about it. We always joke they’re all hardcore Derek Jarman fans!’
After making seven films with Jarman, Swinton has done her upmost to ensure his work lives on. She is currently at work on a film about him, to coincide with a Tate Modern retrospective next year.
It’s no surprise that she’s lent her patronage to a festival that has always proved as determined to support films outside the mainstream as she is. ‘It’s always had this really big place in my heart,’ she says, going all the way back to her second film, Peter Wollen’s 1987 effort Friendship’s Death, which was unveiled at the EIF.
Yet her connections run much deeper than that, not least that she met her partner, playwright John Byrne, with whom she has nine-year-old twins, Xavier and Honor, during a spell at the Scottish capital’s Traverse Theatre in the mid-1980s.
The daughter of Sir John Swinton, a Scottish Major General, her ‘military childhood’ was a peripatetic one. She describes Edinburgh as ‘the closest thing I have to a home town’.
‘My family come from the country, underneath Edinburgh, and I used to go there to the dentist when I was a child, so to end up being patron of its Film Festival is kind of amazing.’ And let’s face it, who on earth is going to turn down the opportunity to be Sean Connery’s second-in-command? ‘I’m going to have a feathered head-dress and will hold the knives,’ she says, a cheeky grin crossing her lips.
While cynics might argue that the Festival’s decision to screen Swinton’s latest film The Man From London is all very quid pro quo, it’s also the perfect reminder of why nobody could ever accuse her of selling out. Based on the Georges Simenon novel, Swinton plays, in her words, ‘a Hungarian fishwife’ (though she spoke all of her lines in English, with the dialogue later dubbed). In the film, her morose husband (played by Czech actor Miroslav Krobot) is witness to a murder, but don’t expect a thrill-a-minute crime film. Full of Tarr’s trademark long takes, this is a gruelling watch (though compared to his 450-minute epic Sátántangó it’s a breeze). Tarr is just the sort of director Swinton is fascinated by.
‘As a performer I was delighted to work with him because his approach to performance is very close to my own,’ she says. ‘He’s not interested in acting and I am also not interested in acting. I’ve always felt very shy about referring to myself as an actress, because it feels pretentious and it doesn’t describe my real interests properly, and I always feel like I should say it first before anyone else says it. And with Béla Tarr I can completely indulge my fantasy. I’m not an actress but a model. So it was a really amazing dream. He just wants you to be. He wants something real.’
Consider The Maybe, her infamous collaboration with artist Cornelia Parker, when she slept inside a glass case at the Serpentine Gallery for eight hours a day, and it’s no surprise to hear Swinton talking in these terms. The notion of traditional performance just doesn’t interest her.
After graduating from Cambridge in 1983, where she read social and political sciences, Swinton joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and left after one season. She compared it to what she imagined working for industrial giant ICI would be like. ‘I’m not gregarious enough to enjoy working in the theatre,’ she says. ‘I’m not interested in “acting” or “actors”. It just doesn’t sustain me. I’m largely in films, because I love the way it’s all done with mirrors. I’m a scientist. That’s my interest.’
By way of example, she points to David Fincher’s forthcoming The Curious Case of Benjamon Button, the story of a man (played by Brad Pitt) who ages backwards. ‘That production, it’s like a lab,’ she says. ‘It’s so fascinating what they’re doing. The whole film is about ageing, so they’re inventing programmes that do extraordinary things with people.’
Playing Button’s first love in the film, Swinton seems to enjoy her flirtation with big-budget Hollywood. ‘I’m like an escapologist – I can go in for a bit, and then leave. I am genuinely interested in the tradition of the blockbuster, believe it or not. I’m not a very industrial animal, in the way I work, but I am interested.’
This autumn, Swinton can be seen opposite Hollywood’s other resident hunk, George Clooney, in legal thriller Michael Clayton. ‘We’re all bent lawyers in Manhattan and it’s fantastic,’ she enthuses. ‘I love it for completely geekish reasons. It reminds me of all those 70s films like The Parallax View and Bullitt, which I adore.’ But in another flip-flop, she’s just completed Eric Zonca’s Julia, in which she plays an alcoholic, her first full lead since 2001’s The Deep End, which saw her nominated for a Golden Globe. ‘Before, I couldn’t be away too long as I have small children,’ she says. ‘But they’re in school now . . . so what the hell!’ If only every actor was as full of bravura as she is.
The Man From London, Filmhouse, 623 8030, 16 Aug, 7pm; Cameo, 623 8030, 18 Aug, 5pm, both £7.95 (£5.50). Tilda Swinton: Skillset Scotland In Person, Cineworld, 623 8030, 17 Aug, 2pm, £10.50 (£7.35).