The Dream Life of Tilda Swinton

By Hicklin, Aaron | Out, April 2008 | Go to article overview

The Dream Life of Tilda Swinton


Hicklin, Aaron, Out


Counting off the stops in the whirlwind week that just was, Tilda Swinton is experiencing her very own Groundhog Day. "This time last week I was here in this very hotel," she says, glancing around at the inoffensive decor of Raffles L'Ermitage Beverly Hills. "Then I went home to Nairn [Scotland] for, I think, three nights; then I went to Paris for two nights and shot with Mondino and Nan Goldin until half the Directors Guild Awards, and then tonight it's the SAG Awards, and tomorrow I go back to Nairn, before flying to Madrid on Sunday to shoot with Jim Jarmusch, and then to Paris for the inside of a day, and then to Berlin for the opening of an Erich Zonca film." She pauses, catches her breath, continues. "And then I go to London and then to Scotland again-you see, I do know it; this is like a little test-and then I go back to Berlin for the Derek film, and before all of this we were in Sundance, and before that..." She pulls up short, aware that this is quickly getting repetitive. "I'm not going to die of dullness, that's for sure," she laughs. Then, quickly scanning the menu, "What am I going to have? I just want mashed potatoes, anything I can eat with a teaspoon, basically. I'm not really up to a fork."

Mashed potato and spinach duly ordered ("It's the kind of fancy place where we should just be able to ask for what we want"), Swinton continues on her merry way. Given her Atlantic crisscrossing, she is astonishingly energetic and capable of great excursions into subjects both pertinent and tangential. The inscrutable, sphinxlike quality she brings to the screen-that "blankcanvas of a face," as Manohla Dargis described it in The New York Times (reviewing her Oscar-nominated turn in Michael Clayton)-is notably absent in person. That, of course, is what others would call acting but Swinton prefers to describe as performance. There is a difference. "I've never been comfortable calling myself an actress or an actor," she explains. "It sounds pretentious to say, but it's actually me trying not to be pretentious. I just don't know how to act, particularly. I think of myself more as an artist's model than anything."

Which might explain the pleasure she derives from working with photographers and fashion designers, or her decision to spend a week reposing in a glass case in London's Serpentine Gallery in 1995 (she drew 21,000 visitors in a week, the star attraction in a show that also included Queen Victoria's stockings and the pickled brain of 18th-century inventor Charles Babbage). She thinks that real actors have a sense of their craft beyond their movies, whereas she doesn't, perhaps because most of her early work was collaborative, grounded in the idea of art as opposed to entertainment. But that makes her sound too serious, which she is not. Her great mentor, the gay English director Derek Jarman, with whom she first worked, turned her into a kind of muse for his abstract meditations on decline and fall, but she has proved much more elastic than those early films suggested, shape-shifting with unflappable grace from the gender-switching hero (ine) of Orlando to a series of sperm-seeking computer clones in Teknolust to a harassed soccer mom out to save her gay son in TAe Deep End. She is a big-screen chameleon who likes to describe herself with a line from La Dolce Vita: "Too serious to be a dilettante, and too much of a dabbler to be a professional."

There are, however, exceptions to this laissez-faire approach. "I'm not going to walk around big houses looking great in a dress," she says, by way of explaining why we've never seen her in a Merchant-Ivory movie. "It's just predicated on stuff that I don't buy, you know?" She is allergic to the heritage industry, dismissive of the cheap sentimentality that class and privilege still evoke in Britain. Her twin children, Honor and Xavier, don't read Harry Potter because it romanticizes boarding school life, which she experienced firsthand. When she met Jarman at a casting call for Caravaggio, she immediately clocked a maverick talent who would release her from the "philistinism" of her background. …

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