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

Arts and Entertainment
Kate Bush: 'I'm going to miss everyone so much'
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Princess Olga in 'You Can't Get the Staff'
tvReview: The anachronistic aristocrats, it seemed, were just happy to have some attention
Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’


Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'


Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from


Arts and Entertainment
Team Tenacity pitch their fetching solar powered, mobile phone charging, heated, flashy jacket
tvReview: No one was safe as Lord Sugar shook things up
Owen said he finds films boring but Tom Hanks managed to hold his attention in Forrest Gump
Arts and Entertainment
Bono and Apple CEO Tim Cook announced U2's surprise new album at the iPhone 6 launch
Music Album is set to enter UK top 40 at lowest chart position in 30 years
Arts and Entertainment
The Michael McIntyre Chat Show airs its first episode on Monday 10 March 2014
Arts and Entertainment


These heroes in a half shell should have been left in hibernation
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North
books'The Narrow Road to the Deep North' sees the writer become the third Australian to win the accolade
Arts and Entertainment
New diva of drama: Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra
Arts and Entertainment
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.

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
    Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

    'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

    The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

    From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
    Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

    Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

    A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
    The 10 best smartphone accessories

    Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

    Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

    Liverpool v Real Madrid

    Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
    West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

    Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
    Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

    A new American serial killer?

    Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
    Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

    Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

    Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
    Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

    Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

    Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
    Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

    Wildlife Photographer of the Year

    Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
    Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

    Want to change the world? Just sign here

    The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?