Tilda Swinton, rock star of the art house

The Oscar winner talks about her revelatory new film "I Am Love," and why she isn't really an actress

Published June 19, 2010 6:01PM (EDT)

Tilda Swinton in "I am Love"
Tilda Swinton in "I am Love"

Tilda Swinton sits down in front of a coffee at New York's Bowery hotel with her red hair curled into a demi-pompadour, somewhere between Elvis Presley and the cartoon character Tintin. There is something of the rock star about her, as well as something slightly unreal. She seems to exist in a world of her own making, one where it's possible for an actress to alternate between enormous Hollywood productions and art-film obscurities and seem equally at home in both. She's not a star, exactly; her volcanic performance as an alcoholic kidnapper in 2008's "Julia" would not have been so egregiously overlooked otherwise. But her striking looks and piercing voice command the screen like few actresses this side of Marlene Dietrich. In 2008, she won an Oscar for her role in "Michael Clayton." She has graced blockbusters like the Narnia series and films seen only by a few, like Béla Tarr's "The Man From London," in which her lines were dubbed into Hungarian, and she has served as creative catalyst and recurring muse for filmmakers ranging from the Coen brothers to her mentor and frequent collaborator Derek Jarman, whose revolutionary films laid the groundwork for the New Queer Cinema of the 1990s.

Swinton has made a practice of taking filmmakers under her not insubstantial wings, including Luca Guadagnino, with whom she spent 11 years nurturing the spark that became "I Am Love," which opens in limited release on June 18. Swinton plays Emma Recchi, the transplanted Russian matriarch of an Italian industrial family whose long-held traditions are beginning to crumble. In some ways the film is a deliberate throwback, evoking the superheated melodramas of Luchino Visconti and Douglas Sirk, but Guadagnino's style bears more resemblance to the mixed-media sagas of Arnaud Desplechin. With swelling, sometimes overwhelming music courtesy of John Adams and luxurious sequences devoted to cooking and al fresco sex, the film pushes sensuality into the red, almost forcing the viewer into ecstasy.

Like her character, Swinton is an outsider among the otherwise all-Italian cast, but there's little question that she is the reason "I Am Love," for which she received her first producing credit, exists at all. More than an actress, a description she resists, she sees herself as someone whose duty it is to bring films into the world through whatever means are at her disposal. It's a role she's been playing for decades, and a responsibility that carries on after the film is done. Next month, after years of prodding, Sony Classics will rerelease "Orlando," the 1992 Virginia Woolf adaptation that gave Swinton her first leading role, and her first major film after Jarman's death.

You've said that you and Luca Guadagnino have been working on "I Am Love" for 11 years. What does that mean in practical terms?

In my experience, most films take 11 years to make. It's not actually that exotic for a film like this to take a long time. Of course, we're not talking about an industrial amount of time. We're talking having an idea originally, kicking it around over a bottle of wine for about four years, and gradually getting up the courage to think it might be something you can do. We're not talking about something developed in an office by a team of people who are on a payroll. This kind of slow farming, as I think of it, with the seed in the ground for a very long time, is pretty much par for the course for me. The kinds of experiences I had when I started making films were those. The very first film I made, which was "Caravaggio" with Derek Jarman, I think he'd been developing it for 11 years when he finally got to shoot it. So my clock seems to be set at that sort of distance. Luca and I fantasize about the whole Kubrick experience of developing something for 20 years, but with some money coming into the bank at the same time. That we would like very much. We didn't have that this time.

What was the initial idea?

What we've been talking about for 11 years is a kind of cinema: I call it sense-ational, something that's cinematic in that you are taken out of your own experience, and not only with a 3-D pair of specs. I love the way in which 3-D can put you into a place, and this is sort of lo-fi 3-D -- that's the idea we've been talking about for 11 years.

The germ of the story started following a film that we made, "The Protagonists." After that, we started talking about making this rather grand adventure, which ended up being this film. Seven years ago, we made a short film called "The Love Factory," which is a close-up on my half of a conversation that Luca and I had, and the final theme of that conversation was love. At the end of that project, we looked at each other and said, “Let's make this film we've been talking about. Let's make it about the revolution of love.” So we just started piecing together this idea and the life of a woman I would play. Maybe we knew that we were going to take a while to make the film, because I was only in a way the right age to play it now. We knew in order for that love to be really revolutionary, we needed to place her in a milieu that was breakable in some way.

There are moments in the film where it's difficult to articulate why the camera does what it does -- why, for example, it breaks away from the guests arriving at a banquet to zoom in on the woman putting away their coats. It makes intuitive sense, but there's no explanation for it.

That's a really good sign. Inspiring inarticulacy is a very good thing, and very much up our street. I think that expresses very nicely what we were trying to do, actually. We were trying to place the audience in the camera, in the way in which our great masters do, in the way that you're somehow in the lens, and in the scene, so that you turn and you look at the coats being put away, and so the audience does. That feeling, as Hitchcock says, of the camera telling the story and the dialogue just providing atmosphere -- what we were into, really, was setting up an atmosphere, setting up a kind of attention to behavior. A sense of the personal in the camera is very important.

There's a sense in the movie of the characters wrestling with their past, of trying and often failing to escape it. You're dealing with a family who gave their factories over to the Fascists, and who are now trying to take the family brand global. Your character, a Russian woman who's become the matriarch of this Italian industrial family, claims not even to remember her own name.

It's a family and it's a milieu that's run on the benzene of iconography. It's completely codified, not only visually but structurally codified. Your range of gestures, your range of appreciations, is relatively limited. Witness the moment when the artist daughter brings to her grandfather her latest adventure, which is photography, and he basically puts the kibosh on it and says, “No, that does not compute. I want a painting or a drawing from you. That's what we think of art as being.” That's a very clear indication of the kind of prescription that goes on in that kind of milieu.

Going at least as far back as "Orlando," there's a protean quality to many of your characters, a sense that their identity is in flux. What attracts you to those kinds of characters?

I only know this because people in your situation have asked me these questions before, and so I've had to work out some sort of defense strategy [laughs] -- or not defense strategy, but some kind of concept of method. I suppose the reality of transformation really interests me. The idea that transformation is in any way optional I find completely bemusing. So to look at conservatism -- the effort within conservatism to withstand, or to deny, change -- I do find really kind of touching. It seems so much barking up the wrong tree. It feels so painful. It's such a painful thing to put oneself through, the fantasy that change is avoidable -- or is something to be avoided. For some reason it's always been very clear to me that change is pretty much all we've got, and the sooner you make friends with it, the better.

That seems to hold for you personally as well. Since "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," a lot of people ask you, "What's it like to be a movie star?" and your answer tends to be uniformly positive. There seems very little anxiety at the change on your part.

It's very interesting. A question like that, I very often feel very inadequate in front of, because I realize that the person asking the question has a concept that no one's ever let me in on. Obviously, I'm very badly educated in certain areas. Why certain things would be problematic has not been explained to me. But it's about other people's experience. I suppose one just has to get used to people assuming that one has the same experience.

You resist being described as an actor. You think of yourself as a filmmaker. What part do you play in a movie like "I Am Love"?

In this film, we are all filmmakers. This is a very pre-industrial product. This is something that was put together with paper and string by a group of people who made it happen in a very self-determining way. I suppose my main contribution to this film is as co-generator and producer. The fact that I'm in it feels like it's taken up much less of my time, and to a certain extent less of my attention. It describes much more my activity in relation to this film that I co-produced it.

What about on the set, as you're shooting? Are you thinking about your character in that moment, or are you thinking about where the scene falls in the film, how it works in relation to other scenes, and so on?

That's one of those questions that makes me feel inadequate. Because it's only very, very rarely when I'm wearing the clothes and disguised as a certain person other than myself in a film, that I think as that person. I don't work that way. It's much, much more smoke and mirrors than that for me. It's much more a question of what is the frame and how can I contribute to the frame. It's questions like that that make me want to declare once again that I am not a proper actor, because I don't think as the person. But then at the same time, the thinking as the person on a project like this, which I developed for so long, happened so long ago in the actual development of the scenario. That it makes it a very graceful thing, dressing up and playing, because all the thinking's done.

What was it like working with the Coen brothers on "Burn After Reading"? Javier Bardem, who gave an amazing performance in "No Country for Old Men," said he felt like he had no idea what he was going. He just had to go along with what they told him to do and trust they knew what they were asking for.

My experience of working with the Coens, which was so enjoyable from start to finish, was in many ways very different to a project like "I Am Love" or "Orlando" or "Julia" or this film I'm making with Lynne Ramsay ["We Need to Talk About Kevin"], which is completely generated from scratch. They came to me with a script that they had already written, a film that was going, and if I wasn't going to be in it, someone else was going to be playing the part. That's a very different rhythm for me. But at the same time, it was absolutely business as usual. It was as easy as if I had known them for 20 years. They communicated everything they needed to in that extraordinary script. It was just so easy to roll up and say the lines and go home. That's kind of the way I like it, and the way I tend to know it. But, as I say, the difference was that I was simply a performer and to a certain extent an interpreter in their world, and very, very happy to be so. It was a sort of holiday for me. I'd happily sit around with them for 11 years, and I'd like to, but I didn't have to.

I once saw Joe Orton's biographer, John Lahr, do a talk-back after a performance of "What the Butler Saw," and one of the actors told him that he found the experience of being in one of Orton's farces totally unsatisfying, because he wasn't experiencing any kind of emotional fulfillment onstage. Lahr told him, "You're thinking about it the wrong way. A farce is a gigantic machine, and you're just a part of it. You have to find satisfaction in making the machine function properly."

That's a really interesting thing to talk about, actually. I hadn't thought about it that way. But I think that explains something very clearly to me. I think that's what happens a lot of the time for actors. I'm trying to understand what an actor's life is, because I don't live it, but I do occasionally meet actors, and understanding their lives and the way in which they work and operate their lives I find very striking. It's very often a very tough deal. You have to locate your attachment to your work in yourself, because very often there's nothing else to attach yourself to. You are the moving part. You go from play to play, team to team, project to project, and you can't feel yourself to be in company with other people. You're very much a sort of solo artiste. That explains clearly the difference with my life. I've never worked that way. I worked once with Derek Jarman; we did this fantastic opera in Florence. I was running around the stage shouting in Italian, and we were working with these wonderful opera singers. I remember them explaining to me what an opera singer's life is like. You get on a plane, maybe, and you fly to New York and you'll be taken by car to the back door of the Met or wherever you are. You go in the door and you're playing Figaro, and you'll go onto the stage, and you'll literally shake hands with your co-singers and then you'll sing. There's that feeling of carrying your work with you and going with your work to different locations, which I think a lot of actors have to have, because they move around so much an they can't build up those strings of attachment. I'm only about strings of attachment.

Opera's a fascinating case, because a lot of times you're looking at a production where the sets were constructed and even the blocking was laid out 30 years ago.

Very often, a lot of theater feels the same way. I'm not a natural theater audience, I'm afraid. I find it difficult to be in a theater audience. But when I used to live in London, I used to go every year for my birthday to see "The Mousetrap," and that's the theater that I love. I think the "Mousetrap" productions change every five years or so, but certain things don't change, and haven't changed since the '40s. There are props that are on the stage that have been there ever since. There are certain pieces of clothing that look like they've been there for a while as well. And of course they're talking about rationing and things. I sometimes think it would be fantastic to be in a production of "The Mousetrap," or rather that production, the production in St. Martin's Lane. Because it is like a sort of kabuki performance. You're going for that kind of kabuki. I love the theater where television actors come through the door and everybody claps, and they come to the front of the stage and they bow and then they go back into the scene. That's the kind of theater that I love.

I have a great deal of respect for what I call real actors. I find it unimaginable for me, doing what they do, and to locate that creative engine only in yourself as they very often have to do. For me it's all about the conversation. It's all about the working-with. One of the things I love most about making films is the company. I don't tend to have that sense of being self-determining. If it weren't for those strings of attachment I wouldn't be doing any of this.

Was that something you learned from Derek Jarman? That seems very much in the spirit of his approach to making films.

It's, to me, unimaginable that I would be in films, certainly on the screen, without having met him and worked with him. He gave me the possibility of developing this completely ramshackle approach at a time when the only other approaches seemed to be impossible. The industrial model that we've described, talking of strings of attachment, that sort of frayless independence, I was never interested in. I'm just really not interested in being an actor at all -- never was and still am not. So he gave me the possibility -- and all of us, not just me: Sandy Powell, his costume designer; Simon Fisher Turner, his composer. He never said this, but the graphic novel version would have the Derek Jarman figure saying to all of us young kids: "You wanna find out if you want to perform in films, you wanna find out if you want to compose for films, you wanna find out if you want to design for films? OK. Find out with me the way you want to do it. Just find out. Just push it." It was like a kindergarten. I may have made seven films with him, but I think I only talk in three of them. Most of them are silent, autobiographical pieces of performance. No wonder I never describe myself as an actor. 'Cause it ain't acting.

What about an enormous Hollywood production like "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"? Does that even feel like the same job?

That just felt like an enormous Derek Jarman film to me. The form of it is everything. The form is the interesting bit. The idea of being in an enormous Disney film on the top of a mountain in New Zealand, it was as important as anything for me. It's going to lunch with 1,500 people every day. That is what the film is. It's as much to do with that as the story or what they call characters. 

Indulging in nostalgia for Jarman's movies would be precisely the wrong approach, but when you look back at a movie like "Edward II," which inserts the queer activist group Outrage into Christopher Marlowe's play, it's easy to wonder what's happened to that kind of politically engaged, formally adventurous cinema.

It's very interesting that Sony Classics is finally rereleasing "Orlando," and I'm going to be very curious to see how it does. They're doing it because I have spent 15 years walking down streets of cities with at least five people telling me that it's their favorite film, and me going back to Sony Classics and saying [whispers], "If you rerelease this, you're going to make some cash, because lots of people want to see it in a cinema." When you see it again, you will be so struck at how fresh it is. The reason I mention it in relation to Derek Jarman is it is like a message in a bottle from that time. And there are so many films from that time that if you look at them now, I would say almost every one is fresher than most of the things made now.

I think it's a really valuable exercise to look back, not for the stake of nostalgia, but for the sake of trying to figure out what happened. There's this what I call Saran Wrap that has come over the aesthetic. One of the things that one sees in "Orlando" or in all of Derek's work, in the early work of Terence Davies or Bill Douglas or early Peter Greenaway, there's this feeling of effort, this feeling of handmade-ness. There's a relationship to art, there's a relationship to an art world. You would have to go to Mathew Barney now, to look for that kind of thing, although Matthew Barney, there's something so much smoother in his aesthetic than there ever was with us. Someone like Ulrike Ottinger, there's a relationship with playfulness. It's as if things have become more refracted now.

One of the things that I'm constantly saying to students: The most important thing to remember about Derek Jarman is not only all his work, and him, but the fact that his work at that time was what they call crossover. If you made a film like "The Last of England," number one, you would never get it made to a 35mm print. You probably wouldn't get anyone to distribute it. But if they did, they'd distribute it very late at night at Film Forum. "The Last of England" had a big mainstream release at the Prince Charles Cinema on Leicester Square in London. It had all the main reviews that weekend, and Derek Jarman was a mainstream cultural figure. He was in a fantastic slanging match with Mary Whitehouse, who was a sort of arbiter of all taste issues in the U.K., which was fantastic, because it meant that he was a tabloid person. He was out there. The culture of that time meant that it was possible for that sensibility to be really visible. This is a much longer conversation, but I think something that's important to notice is the ways in which that sensibility has become remarginalized. If one does look at that time, and one looks at that work and sees how fresh it was, one also has to notice it was not only fresh, but it was also really visible. And so to ask oneself, "How is it possible to make that fresh work again, and how is it possible to be seen, really, as centrally as that work was?" That's not nostalgia. That's trying to learn how to regroup.

There was a very dark moment, a sort of quietness for about 10 years after that point, for very serious reasons. The plague of AIDS at that time really exhausted the people who were left. Sadly, we lost a lot of people to it, but even the people who were left were very, very tired and needed to lick wounds and the rest of it. But also politically, we went through a huge change at that point. In the U.K. we voted in -- we voted in -- we kind of flourished under Margaret Thatcher, and then the point came where we all voted for Tony Blair, and look what happened. We didn't have the great excuse you all had with Bush, which was that it was nothing to do with you. It was everything to do with us. But that feeling of quietness, I feel like we're all beginning to come out of that now, and I think it is time to just pick up the threads. It's not nostalgic. I think it's really useful So I hope that "Orlando's" rerelease, if it goes well, will encourage distributors to rerelease films from that time. How great would it be for someone to put out a kind of '90s season? I saw "Poison" again not so long ago. It's so fresh. Fresher, as I say, than so much that's made now. 

By Sam Adams

Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter at SamuelAAdams or at his blog, Breaking the Line.


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