It’s 1988. Tilda Swinton is in a wedding dress, and her bridesmaids are all men. Big scruffy men with bouffant wigs and long flowing white gowns of their own. Glockenspiels and organs rub nightmarishly against industrial noise, but she looks radiant in the black-and-white glimpses the Super 8 camera snatches, even as the countryside burns around her—even as she takes pruning shears to the bridal fabric, tearing strips free and chewing them like gum. This is the final scene of Derek Jarman’s nightmarish film, The Last of England, and the young Swinton lends her beauty to a vision of the otherwise grotesque—firing squads in ski masks, refugees among the ruins, heroin addicts in underground lairs, and flames, always flames.
This experimental film was Swinton’s second with the boundary-pushing director, a collaboration that began with her screen debut, Caravaggio, and ended seven pictures later in 1993 with Wittgenstein, just a year before Jarman’s AIDS-related death. The association would indelibly mark the actress’ approach to filmmaking, whether carrying on a love affair with Brad Pitt’s title character in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, playing the White Witch in Disney’s $180 million adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe or, most recently, starring as a Russian immigrant in the much-lower budget Italian film I Am Love.
Her avant-garde beginnings made her a different kind of leading lady—one who cares less about the size of the project than the passion of those involved; one who’s chosen the remoteness of the Scottish Highlands over the tactical advantages of the Hollywood Hills; one who sees herself as a co-conspirator with eager young filmmakers; one who never really left the sway of her radical mentor.
“We used to be referred to as ‘the art house,’” Swinton narrates in the Jarman documentary Derek. “How it used to irk us then. How disparaging it sounded. How sickly and high-falutin’, how pious—and extracurricular. For ‘arthouse superstar,’ read ‘jumbo shrimp.’ Yet then as now, the myth prevailed that there was only one mainstream. We were only too happy to know that our audience existed and to hoe the row in peace. Nobody here [in Britain] paid that much attention to us then, that’s true. No one ever thought we would make them any money, I suppose. What grace that constituted—not to be identified as national product.”
Café Terigo is an oasis in the maelstrom that is Sundance. Sitting halfway up Park City’s Main Street, the two-story restaurant offers quiet Italian chamber music that might have served as the score of I Am Love, set in end-of-the-20th-Century Milan. She’s just finished introducing the movie’s second screening, her final official duty at the festival. Her normally flame-red hair is more simmering blonde today, cropped close on the sides. But the green eyes, pale complexion and sharp features that gave the Ice Queen her unquestionable authority are instantly recognizable to anyone who walks past. Draped in a purple shawl, she carries herself with the noble elegance of someone who can trace the family plot back to 9th-Century Scotland. She’s warm and engaging, but intimidating enough that I hesitate when attempting to repeat the word “milieu.”
She wasn’t cast in the role of Emma, the film’s quiet protagonist, because she was a perfect fit—she didn’t even speak Italian. Instead, the movie was created to fit her, to scratch her most recent itches. At age 49, the actress has never directed, but this is just the latest in a long line of films she’s helped create from inception—in this case, with director Luca Guadagnino.
Swinton’s acting career began with a season in the Royal Shakespeare Company “that most mainstream and traditional institution” but she was immediately attracted to the fringes, taking on gender-bending theatrical roles, like Mozart in Alexandr Pushkin’s Mozart and Salieri and as a woman impersonating her husband in Screenplay: Man to Man: Another Night of Rubbish on the Telly. By the time she met Jarman, acting had become just another item on a list of things she’d decided wasn’t for her. But working on Caravaggio, she learned that a performer could also be a filmmaker, that a director with a vision could invite collaboration and allow his cast and crew to flourish.
“I’ve always been behind a camera,” she explains. “That’s how I started. Everyone who worked with Jarman worked behind the camera. It was so clear there was nowhere else I could have gone to have that kind of experimental license to play. And so to a certain extent, I’ve never done anything else, although I have had the great blessing to have been ‘invited,’ as I describe it, to other people’s parties in Hollywood, for example, to go and learn other ways to make films. But what I do, what my real work is, is developing films with filmmakers from scratch.”
Just a year after Caravaggio, Swinton began one such project with director Sally Potter, an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, in which Swinton plays the titular ageless noble, who changes from man to woman over the course of 400 years. The film, which Swinton describes as “the first film I kind of developed from scratch with a filmmaker,” took five years to make, and Swinton has since made a habit of keeping a number of projects simmering until one bubbles up to the surface.
“I worked with David Mackenzie on Young Adam for five or six years,” she says, “and I’m constantly in conversation with a few filmmakers, like Lynn Hershman, who I’ve worked with now three times, and we have plans to continue to work together. The whole long-term, low-key relationship with filmmakers is really what I’m into. And kind of what I feel I’m good for.”
Swinton’s first foray into the world of big-studio filmmaking came in 2000 with a small part in Danny Boyle’s The Beach. Soon after, she received her first Golden Globe nomination for her leading performance in The Deep End. Since then, she’s worked with an amazing array of auteurs: Spike Jonze, Béla Tarr, Jim Jarmusch, Tony Gilroy, the Coen Brothers and David Fincher. But one role seemed as far removed from the world of Jarman as could be realized: the villain in Disney’s Chronicles of Narnia series.
“Any film geek would be only too lucky to work on a film like that, especially with somebody like Andrew Adamson,” she says of the experience. “The system of becoming involved is always the same with me. It’s always to do with the conversation with the filmmaker. Generally the filmmaker is someone I know very well, and we’re cooking something up over the kitchen table. But in the case of somebody like Andrew Adamson, who I didn’t know before, he contacted me in a quite orthodox way. I went to meet him. I liked him very much. He talked about the film he wanted to make. I would have very happily have made that film with him in a garage because I was very interested in the film he wanted to make. It was the sort of added nerdy thrill for me that it was a Disney picture. So I went very willingly along for the ride, and I learned so much about the world of studio filmmaking from that and other studio projects that I’ve been involved in. But the truth is, the studio films that I’ve made … all of those films are experimental films, I would suggest, because all of those films are using extraordinarily pioneering special effects, and they’re kind of run by film geeks. It feels very comfortable for me to be with a group of film geeks, whether there are only 15 of them, as in the case of working with Derek Jarman or Lynn Hershman, or if there are 1,500.”
Swinton’s partnership with Luca Guardagnino stemmed from a single conversation, one she hadn’t planned on having. The young man had seen Caravaggio in high school and was determined to have Swinton star in his short film, The Penny Arcade Peep Show. He sent the script to her agency, but never heard back. When he found out the actress would be in Rome for a cinematic presentation, he persisted.
“I approached her and I asked her why she didn’t reply to me,” he remembers. “And she said, ‘Well, I was extremely busy and I didn’t have time to read anything in the last month.’ And she asked me, ‘Did you do it?’ And I said, ‘No, I didn’t because you weren’t there.’ And I think this got her attention. The morning after we spoke in a bar in Rome, and from there, developed a very strong friendship.”
That friendship led to Guadagnino’s first feature film, The Protagonists, a guerilla documentary about a London murder. They followed that project with a documentary short, Tilda Swinton: The Love Factory, which was more of a conversation than a film. “The title is the perfect description of Tilda Swinton,” the director says. “It’s the idea of a place where discipline and passion co-exist.”