The experience of being Tilda: Tilda Swinton has spent her career in the cutlish, shoestring end of theatre, less involved in acting than in art. If fame means giving up her own weird way of doing it, is she interested?
Sunday 07 March 1993
'Well, if I'd been born 15 or 20 years earlier, I might never have performed.'
'But . . . why?'
'Because I'd have been working with people like Peter Gidal (the avant-garde director). He's a wonderful film-maker, but he's interested in things like flashing lights. I don't know when he last put a person in front of his lens.'
Swinton looks down at her shoes, which are low-heeled, brown suede, and says: 'Twenty years ago no-one was interested in figurative art. I'd have been behind the camera, or somewhere else. Now, the human figure has become important to conceptual artists.'
SO TILDA SWINTON, born, luckily, in 1961, has made a career of appearing in films - most notably the films of Derek Jarman - not because she wants to act, but because she wants to be involved with art. Her films are not vehicles for attracting large audiences - they are underfunded, difficult, ambiguous, weird, laden with symbolism. Which means that Swinton is pretty well free to do what she wants in them. After all, she usually helps to raise the money in the first place. She even puts her own money into the projects, which is why she's currently in debt. 'But I'm really very wealthy,' she says. 'I mean, I've got everything I want.'
Swinton, the human brushstroke in all this cinematic art, played the prostitute in Caravaggio, holding up a sword in one hand and lilies in the other. She was an ugly old man in Man to Man, where she writhed around with a 10-inch prosthetic penis. She played Queen Isabella in Edward II, strutting frostily through the dank gloom of a medieval castle, in high heels and tight frocks. This month, two of her films are released - Derek Jarman's Wittgenstein and Sally Potter's Orlando.
Wittgenstein is a creative jumble of time-sequences, the story of how Ludwig Wittgenstein, a brilliant homosexual, feels like an outcast. Swinton plays Lady Ottoline Morrell, the mistress of Bertrand Russell, an alarmingly garish posh nutter who talks like Noel Coward and wears hats the size of dustbin-lids. In Orlando, based on Virginia Woolf's novel, she plays Orlando, who starts the film as a timid boy in the reign of Elizabeth I (done to gravel- voiced perfection by Quentin Crisp), falls in love with a Russian princess in 1610, is rejected, goes into a deep sleep until 1650, becomes an ambassador, wakes up one morning in 1750 as a woman, spends some time discussing intellectual matters with Pope, Swift, and a great Addison played by Ned Sherrin . . . and ends the film riding a motorbike through contemporary London. An art film, in other words. Really very art.
Swinton occupies an interesting position on the celebrity scale. For the moment, she is free to do what she wants. She can pose topless in the New Yorker, as she has done this week, photographed by Richard Avedon, without quite looking as if she's in need of publicity. She can stand, naked, looking at herself in a mirror in Orlando, and nobody will question the film's integrity. Many Hollywood actresses of Swinton's age would employ a body double, and make sure the press knew about it. But Swinton - for the moment - lives in a different world. Does she have personal rules about nudity and the exploitation of women? Naturally not: 'I have no constructed idea about that. One . . . does what one wants to do at the time. The first, and maybe the worst, exploitation for a performer is for the performer to give up his or her own agenda to that of others.' In other words, doing what the director tells you to do.
'Tell me about acting.'
'I have nothing to say about it at all.'
'I don't know anything about it, and frankly I don't care.'
'But . . .'
'I do know about performance. I might seem to be splitting a hair. But there is a difference. First of all, the work is sprung from
is literally an autobiographical experience, as in The Garden and The Last of England.'
'You mean - you're trying not to pretend to be other people?'
Swinton's publicist appears with news of a publicity shoot she is doing the next day. Swinton says: 'I'm not wearing someone else's clothes.'
'I'm putting my foot down. People can't get it into their heads - when you say you don't model, you mean that you don't model. Because everybody else does.'
SHE WAS born in East Lothian, Scotland, the daughter of Major-General George Swinton of the Scots Guards. While her father moved around, living in various parts of Germany and England, Tilda went to boarding school at West Heath in Kent. She 'half' enjoyed it, but hates the boarding-school system. She says: 'How does one ensure that one's male child is going to look after the wealth and continue to oppress people? The first thing you do is cut him off from his parents. Cut him off from his feelings - send him away to school.'
'At school,' she says, 'I was told that it would be much, much easier if you didn't have any feelings at all. . . . When I cried - you were just told to stop. Which is terrible. 'Better out than in,' as my nanny used to say.'
Swinton went to Cambridge to study Social and Political Sciences: 'Quite specifically because I wanted to perform. Somehow, the fact I could read SPS and perform using the capacious coffers of Cambridge University seemed much the most attractive option.' When she arrived, Swinton eagerly looked at the audition posters: 'It was Hedda Gabler, The Changeling . . . not that they aren't interesting plays, but . . . it all seemed so predictable. There was nothing radical at that point. And then I met Steve Unwin.'
Steve Unwin, now Artistic Director of Century Theatre, a touring company, says: 'This person came up to me, and said: 'I want to do plays,' and I thought, great. And then, that same evening, this person came up to me again and cried on my shoulder for an hour, saying how horrible Cambridge was - nobody was serious and they were all so glib, and I said, 'it's all right dear, it's better than that'. '
And it was - Unwin directed a production of Athol Fugard's Statements, starring Tilda Swinton as a white South African woman who has an affair with a black man. 'She had to be naked and she was brilliant,' he says. Then Swinton played Adriana in A Comedy Of Errors. Unwin says: 'She knows she can play someone who's ugly. She knows you don't have to save every point for feminism.'
'We were not the Footlights, which was all Stephen Fry and Emma Thompson and so on, brilliant as they were - we were doing our own thing, doing serious political theatre, trying to make that happen.'
Swinton left university in 1983, and joined the RSC, which she left after a few months.
'Because you didn't like it?'
'Yup. It wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to work with Shakespeare, but . . . I don't know what it was . . . I felt as if I'd joined ICI.'
In 1984, Swinton went to the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, and also joined the Communist Party. 'It's a moral rather than a political stance,' she says. 'I believe in the moral integrity of human beings, and that that is innate, is irreducible, and cannot be spoken about too much or too often. The irreducible dignity of human beings.' Now that the Communist party has renamed itself the Democratic Left, Swinton is a member of that.
Unwin says of her: 'When you're having problems, she's bloody brilliant at just being there and no crap, and I think that's pretty good for someone who's having retro
spectives at the ICA. (The Institute of Contemporary Arts, which has recently screened all of Tilda Swinton's films.)' Derek Jarman's diary Modern Nature bears this out: when he was in hospital, Swinton appears in the text as his most frequent visitor, bringing him flowers and giving him foot-massages.
She met Jarman in 1985, when she went up for the part of the prostitute in Caravaggio.
'What's he like to work with?'
'Ah. Mmm. God. Well . . . I think he's an instructor, actually, almost more than anything else. Interested in the process rather than the product, something we have in common. He's one of the few directors who will admit that it takes more than one person to make a film. He draws a group around him, and provides . . . just a sort of temporary forum for that group.'
'So you enjoy it as a social thing?'
'Yes, but . . . it's the making of the film. God, it's difficult to talk about it.'
'And where is this leading?'
'Well, the private intention is difficult to get hold of. The general intention is . . . to work with the people . . . I'm deeply interested in the whole field of film performance; what performance on film can do, and what can't be done elsewhere - to be specific about it, the capacity of film to record solitude, privacy, and, ultimately, thought.'
Steve Unwin says: 'She wants to be a great actress - that's Tilda's deepest aim. She was always thinking 'I am going to be a great actress'; she's been like that ever since the beginning . . . She's an experimental actress, and I hope she doesn't become an exile, moving into a very, very, rarefied art area.'
Swinton lives in the World's End, Chelsea: 'Well, my books live there.' But she's away most of the time - filming, promoting films, going to film festivals, talking to potential backers, scouting locations; the practical side of the arty life.
Who does she miss when she's away from home? 'Um, I don't know, I can't really answer that. Nobody I can think of. Obviously nobody, because I can't think. Well, when I go away, I go away to be with people . . .'
She pauses. 'I've been looking at my old stuff,' she says, 'and not cringing. But the idea of a retrospective - talk about bringing you completely down to earth and realising that you just haven't even started yet . . .'
And what will her new stuff be like? Can she ever move into the mainstream?
At the moment, she's in what Steve Unwin calls 'the top end of the European avant- garde'. You can't really imagine her among all those car chases, those product placements, those happy endings. You can't see her playing opposite Jeremy Irons in top-of-the-range porn, or next to Timothy Dalton screaming to make herself heard above the bullets and the helicopter's rotor-thud.
'Well,' she says, 'I would be totally un- averse to paying off my overdraft.'
And she thinks for a moment: 'This is very sticky territory for me . . . When I am described as an actor or an actress it always feels inaccurate and presumptuous. Because it's truly not what I'm interested in.' -
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