Re-educating Tilda

Tilda Swinton in power suits and lipstick? Yes, but it's not what it seems. 'Female Perversions' explores women's need to adopt false identities to survive. And, says the performance artist, the role taught her a lot. By Liese Spencer
Watching Tilda Swinton teetering around in high heels and lacy camisole in her Hollywood debut is a disturbing experience. The icon of avant-garde cinema, who masqueraded as an ugly old geezer in Man to Man and who changed sexes and lived for 400 years in the Brechtian period romp Orlando, looks like she's plundered a dressing-up box and emerged a gawky, transvestite.

Luckily, she's supposed to. Made in the town that gave us plastic surgery and Showgirls, Swinton's new movie is all aboutthe false identities women adopt to survive in modern society. Directed by Susan Streifeld and based on the psycho-analytic essays by feminist theorist Louise J Kaplan, Female Perversions describes everything from eating disorders and kleptomania to self-mutilation. Thelma and Louise it's not.

As Eve, a powerful Los Angeles attorney, Swinton is caught between wild fantasies and the contradictions of Western womanhood. She sends herself flowers, cancels meetings by mobile and applies lipstick with growing ferocity until her obsessive perfectionism leads to a breakdown. What was it like for the androgynous muse of eight Derek Jarman films to don the glamorous clobber of a 20th-century career woman? "It was fun," says Swinton, "an interesting exploration of the way women feel the need to dress in stereotypes, to fill some kind of gap, the idea that somehow you're not enough as you are."

In wide trousers and a loose jacket, and her long red hair pulled back from bony Pre-Raphaelite features, Swinton seems devoid of insecurities. Although she admits that the film sometimes paralleled her own experiences, such as the scene where Eve turns coquette to avoid a parking ticket. "You know," she muses, "there's a way of behaving with policemen that I learnt by studying my mother when she was stopped for speeding. A subservient thing. Doing that scene, I remembered that when I'd been in trouble I'd used it. I knew it could get me off. I'd learnt that. We all do throughout childhood."

If the feminist sensibility of the film was "a re-education" for Swinton, then shooting in Los Angeles provided the actress with a giant playground. "We made billboards for the film," she says, "but art couldn't possibly improve on life. We'd be driving to work and there'd be a poster of a woman in a bra lying in a field of long grass, saying something like 'when the temperature rises, things burn'. Once you notice those things, it's impossible not to go around with a smile on your face."

While Swinton has met men "who've thought it could easily be called Male Perversions", she knows for many it will be "like another language". She describes how, at a screening in San Francisco, "one man got so angry that he said out loud 'I don't believe this, this isn't true' and stormed out. That must be such a rare experience for him," she gasps. "I mean women have to take everything with such a large pinch of salt. We're always having these stereotypes sold to us on screen, encouraged to believe that this is reality, which means we leave the cinema thinking, 'Ahh, some mistake here. I must be wrong about the way I'm living my life. I'm obviously not normal!' "

You might think that a career spent on the fringe of experimental cinema was defined by Swinton's wish to avoid playing such unreal feminine roles. Not a bit of it. "As far as I'm concerned, my work is dead mainstream," she insists. (This from a woman who has travelled Europe making films with hard-core experimentalists such as Cynthia Beatt and Christoph Schlingensief, who won Best Actress prize at the Venice Film Festival for Queen Isabella in Jarman's Edward II, a role in which she bit out a man's throat.) "When I choose my roles, I'm not trying to be contrary. It's all a matter of projection. If people think my career is perverse, they must have an agenda about the kind of work I should be doing."

Last seen asleep in a glass box at the Serpentine Gallery in her performance- art piece The Maybe, Tilda Swinton is certainly wide awake today - largely to the danger of misrepresentation. After listening intently to a question, she'll turn it inside out, redefine it, offer various qualifications, then reply in a way that doesn't so much tie up the loose ends, as hammer them down with stakes. After her stern deconstruction of normality, she relents enough to add, "maybe I'm just dull. I find a few things very interesting and I've been lucky enough to indulge those curiosities." Typical of such interests is the left-field project she's working on with her friend John Maybury, a film about the late artist Francis Bacon called Love Is the Devil. She has never, she says, taken work just to pay the rent, "I haven't got the stomach for it."

Swinton's equally touchy about acting, which she prefers to call performance. "I'm honestly not very interested in talking about it or hearing people talk about it. So I've never bothered to construct very articulate thoughts about it." Having established that much, Tilda thaws again, admitting that for her the best kind of acting is a kind of expressionless performance art, "presenting a blank face or 'spirit' for audiences to project their fantasies on to. Cinema's not the place for acting," she continues, warming to her theme. "In this country, there's a problem with theatre being the progenitor of cinema. I don't see any reason why somebody should be able to perform on stage and in front of a camera. They're completely different jobs. Why should you be able to build shelves and plumb a kitchen?"

The child of a Major-General, Swinton was born into the Scottish "owning class", sent to West Heath boarding school, and studied English and Political Science at Cambridge before embarking on an acting career at the RSC, an unhappy experience she has likened to "joining ICI". From that time on, Swinton has been staunchly counter-culture. A member of what used to be the Communist Party (now The Democratic Left), she's often seen as the Patty Hearst of avant-garde film-making. Listening to her posh, cultured voice describing Female Perversions as artistic terrorism it's easy to see why.

"It was great to go to Los Angeles, of all places, and find these fellow travellers," she enthuses. "I'm relatively used to that guerrilla spirit, having worked with it for the past 12 years, but to do it in an industrial environment was unique for me, a dream mixture. To shoot like that in 24 days, dealing with that level of naturalism on location - we're not talking about being in a studio with some drapes and some boys in gold, we're talking about actual cars and desert and things like that."

For a low-budget veteran like Swinton, who made her screen debut in Jarman's Caravaggio (all drapes and gold boys), one of the best things about Female Perversions is that "it looks like a real film. It's political, but for once it's not black-and-white Super 8. There were a lot of people working on it who are actually industrial beings," she marvels, "and they made it in the way they'd have made any other old tosh." Behind her horn-rimmed glasses, her navy eyes are unblinking.

"It must be much harder working on those big Hollywood films," muses Swinton. "Why do people get paid the amount of money they do? To do the films? No, no. To do all that work around it. Appearing on the front of Flicks magazine, or whatever. That must be a whole different ball game." While the otherworldy Tilda "still doesn't quite believe that Hollywood exists", she's pleased to have "stolen one from the industry". To have made a glossy movie that will confound expectations. "Female Perversions is such a great title," she says gleefully, "because for so many people perversion means 'kinky' sex and rubber and bondage or whatever. I met one woman who admitted that it was only three quarters of the way through the film that she realised none of that kind of stuff was going to happen"n

John Lyttle reviews 'Female Perversions' on page 8