Tilda Swinton: The witch queen
The star of the new Narnia film is intelligent, independent, and indefinable
Friday 14 October 2005
While she may have played Leonardo DiCaprio's colleague in The Beach, one only has to look at Swinton's vanity-free past performances to know that she is the very antithesis to the blonde, bland starlets that decorate studio fare. How many would have dared play her gender-bending role in Sally Potter's Orlando, or followed it with the repugnant Colony Club bartender Muriel Belcher in the Francis Bacon tale Love is the Devil and the hairy-legged barge-owner in Young Adam?
In this month's Jim Jarmusch movie Broken Flowers, she is almost unrecognisable as a raven-haired biker chick - a former flame to Bill Murray's middle-aged man-in-crisis, and looking like the love-child of Joan Jett and Ozzy Osbourne. It should be perfect training for her forthcoming role as the Velvet Underground collaborator and heroin addict Nico, for which Swinton - who turns 45 soon - will age from 22 to 50. As Bill Murray notes, "If you spent a week with Tilda Swinton, you'd have so much information. She is alive and is not wasting a moment."
Cambridge-educated - she read social and political sciences - her interest is more in the world around her than the self-absorbed universe occupied by many of her peers. After graduating in 1983, Swinton joined the Royal Shakespeare Company but left it after one season. She compared it to what she imagined working for the 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. I'm largely in films because I love the way it's all done with mirrors. I'm a scientist. That's my interest."
The latest love of her life, cinematically speaking, is Mike Mills, whose varied work includes designing album covers for Sonic Youth and shooting promos for Air. Mills is well aware that he owes a great deal to Swinton for her commitment to the project while he tried to secure financing. "As soon as Tilda was on board, it made it safe for other people," he says. Based on the novel by Walter Kirn, Thumbsucker sees Swinton play Audrey Cobb, the wife of D'Onofrio's failed pro-sports star Mike. Together they are parents of Justin (Lou Taylor Pucci), a traumatised teen who still sucks his thumb for comfort. Audrey seeks relief by obsessing over a hunky soap-star (played by Benjamin Bratt).
"There's something radical about a coming-of-age story that's about everyone trying to come of age at the same time," says Swinton. "It's not so much about growing up as growing on. There's something compassionate about parents not knowing what they're doing."
The partner of the playwright John Byrne, and the mother of their seven year-old twins Xavier and Honor, Swinton - who received a Golden Globe nomination for her previous mother-figure, in 2001's The Deep End - admits that making the film helped her to think about her own family. "It made it really clear to me that not only is it impossible to communicate with one's family beyond any kind of grunt, but also highlighted the way in which, in families, one finds oneself very often saying about somebody else what one wants to say about oneself. So Justin says about Audrey, 'She's not happy' - just as we've seen him being unhappy. One projects so clearly onto other members of one's family. Everybody looks like a mirror-image of oneself. Certainly that's my experience - everybody looks like me in my family anyway, so it doesn't help.
"The whole idea that one is alone in the world is really hard to take. I see my seven-year-olds coping with it, and they're twins, so they have an extra situation to deal with. And it's moving. It's really, profoundly humbling to be around; it's a serious situation for them. But at least they're honest enough to scream all the way home, in the car. It's what we'd all like to do sometimes - or stick our thumb in our mouths." So how does she cope with such existential angst? "I scream all the way home in the car - or make films," she replies. "But I do know that it's all right to be lonely, and everybody's lonely."
Being the daughter of a Scottish major-general and an alumna of Princess Diana's boarding school, West Heath, has given an almost military precision to Swinton's vowel sounds. She travelled extensively as a child when her father, a former commander of the Household Division, was posted across the globe. After university, in Edinburgh in the mid-1980s, she met Derek Jarman when he cast her as the prostitute Lena in his 1986 film Caravaggio. They would go on to collaborate on another six films before he died.
"It was eight years of a very important friendship, and the beginning of me making films. It has stars on it by the calendar! I can't ever stop being grateful for the luck of meeting him, and working with him. It's possible that if I hadn't met him, I wouldn't be able to be working in films. What I was able to learn from him, in a safe enclosure, was the science of making films."
Based now in Easter Ross in the Highlands, Swinton has no intention of packing her bags for Hollywood. "To go home to Scotland is such a privilege," she says. "I'm too lazy to be very controlling. I believe in laziness. But I really like making films, and I feel very peaceful in front of a camera."
'Broken Flowers' opens on 21 October. 'Thumbsucker' is released on 28 October and 'The Chronicles of Narnia' on 8 December
GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride
FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head
Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treattv
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 I was raped by another man. And now the Government wants to take away the one thing that saved my life
- 2 Wikipedia edits from inside Parliament removing scandals from MPs' pages, investigation finds
- 3 Preston fan who appeared to snatch Jermaine Beckford's shirt from eight-year-old boy identified and says: 'the truth will come out'
- 4 Johnny Depp facing 10 years in jail for illegally bringing dogs to Australia
- 5 Iran launches anti-Isis cartoon competition 'to expose true nature of Islamic State'
Stolen Instagram photo sells for $90,000
Glastonbury lineup 2015: The Women's Institute to make debut appearance at Somerset festival
12 UK stores that sound like the hottest rappers of 2015
Suicide Squad: leaked footage gives us first look at Batmobile chasing Joker through city streets
Never Mind the Buzzcocks axed after 18 years
As a white man, I'm surprised more women aren't tweeting the hashtag #KillAllWhiteMen
EU referendum: David Cameron's rules are a 'democratic disgrace', says French-born Scottish politician set to be denied a vote
The day that Britain resigned as a global power
SNP fury as HS2 finds 'no business case' for taking fast train service to Scotland
A nation of inequality: How the UK is failing to feed its most vulnerable people
EU referendum: David Cameron to deny EU migrants and under-18s the chance to vote