Tilda Swinton: The witch queen

The star of the new Narnia film is intelligent, independent, and indefinable

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

Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform