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.”
It was also where the idea for I Am Love began to take shape. Part of the discussion is about the revolution of love—the idea that love isn’t really about coming together as a unit, but two lonely souls keeping each other company.
“There’s a romantic notion that you can deny your solitariness when you come together and you’re one,” says Swinton. “You stop doing the things that you used to do before you got together and you’re just one—you do everything together, and you’re never going to be lonely again. Which I think is a great waste of human existence. I think being lonely and solitary is a great resource and to be enjoyed. And if anything, love is going to push you further into that.
“Out of that we decided to make a film about someone for whom the revolution of love really does break everything. We knew that we wanted to make a story around a character I would play. So we knew she would be a woman. Slowly we worked out that we wanted her to be an alien of some sort. So given that I’m not Italian and that I would be an alien anyway, we decided to place it in an Italian high capitalistic situation where denial is really the rule of law and place her in the center of that milieu, so that when love strikes, the honesty of it explodes the situation that she’s been in.”
It didn’t matter to Swinton or Guardagnino that she didn’t speak Italian, or that she would be called upon to do so with a Russian accent. They wanted to redeem the idea of melodrama, wondering why it had fallen so out of vogue. They went to Russian novels for inspiration, and to the masters of cinema: Alfred Hitchcock, Douglas Sirk, Luchino Visconti. And they went to Milan.
“We started thinking about this bourgeouis situation, this grid, this very circumscribed world,” Swinton says. “It’s not the feudal aristocracy of Visconti; it’s something much more modern, much less humanistic. It’s got a lot to be extremely discreet about. These people made their enormous wealth during the fascistic era. And if you’re going to make a film about that milieu in Italy, you know you have to make it in Milan. You walk down what you think is a perfectly normal business street, and if go through a courtyard, you come to a nearly-palazzo, hidden, very discreetly hidden. It’s a very particular place and people live in a very particular way there. So you think of someone who comes from a very circumscribed situation. The film is set 10 years ago, so if you backdate it, she comes from Soviet Russia—from that situation into an even more circumscribed situation. She’s like an avatar. She has to learn a new language, a new way of walking, a new way of talking, a whole set of behaviors.”
Swinton knew two women who had indeed come from Soviet Russia to Italy, one who had settled in Milan and married into a similar situation as her character Emma. She learned from them about alienation, about “the imperative to acquire, the imperative to wear your existence on your person, the codification of your Salvatore Ferragamo shoes and your Damiani jewelry and your Diptyque candles and no way of actually accessing your personal taste or your personal spirit in any way.”
As a person out of her language, out of her culture, and naturally quiet, Emma became the perfect vehicle for Swinton to explore the ideas that have most interested her lately: loneliness and the inability to communicate. “I think there’s an idea that people are as articulate as lazy writers would like to make them,” she says. “They all sound like playwrights, and they all express themselves absolutely clearly to each other, and they all hear each other very clearly and are able to speak back with a very similar voice. What I’m very interested in as a film fan is a kind of cinema that actually looks at people finding it difficult to express themselves and finding themselves in a state of inarticulacy and a kind of state of silence, where they can’t necessarily rely on words.
“I think the cinema can do that better than any other art form, can actually take you into someone else’s inarticulacy. And it’s such a compassionate and humanistic thing to do, to show you that nobody else necessarily knows what they’re doing. And that, no matter how close up you go to someone, you can never really understand what they’re thinking. And that it’s all right—your failure to ever really be able to articulate your thoughts or your failure to really understand anybody else is really fine.”
Swinton discovered her own appreciation for solitude as a child. The daughter of a Scottish Major-General father and an Australian mother, Matilda was the lone girl among three brothers. When the youngest brother came along, she had wanted a girl so badly that she asked her mom to take him back. “I loved that moment when I was alone and I felt myself becoming lonely,” she said. “It’s like when you’re out in the cold and you begin to get a bit chilly. You just feel yourself begin to value company again, having been sitting alone in a haystack for two hours. You suddenly go, ‘Oh, I wonder what my brothers are doing.’”
She attended boarding schools in England and Scotland before graduating from Cambridge University in 1983. Two years later, she met playwright and painter John Byrne, who moved to London in 1990 to be with her. After Swinton gave birth to twin sons Xavier and Honor in 1998, the couple moved to Nairn, Scotland, just north of Inverness. But while Byrne remains her companion at home, she’s begun traveling with another love, her boyfriend-artist Sandro Kopp, whom she met on the set of Narnia, where he played a centaur. The 32-year-old has been on her arm at most of her public appearances, and he’s quietly at her side here at our lunch. The unusual situation has the apparent blessing of Byrne, and Kopp has even spent time with the family back home in the Highlands.
“The whole concept of romantic love,” she says, talking about the film, but also, you sense, explaining her non-traditional lifestyle, “that whole concept that there is one person who will complete you, who you are not complete without. And then this person arrives—and then again, there is only one. Ever. And they complete you, and therefore you are never complete without them. And at the same time you are somehow finished with them. There’s some kind of Saran Wrap around you as a unit. It feels so unhealthy, the pressure. And when you think of people really being, I would go so far as saying ‘indoctrinated’ in the feeling that that’s the only way to conduct their lives, they will not be able to be viable human beings unless they find this person to complete them. And then they have to stick to it. That’s it—that sort of hanging on for dear life. What do they do when they do feel lonely on a Wednesday morning?”
Instead, she professes love for two men, for her 12-year-old boys and for the many filmmakers who call her muse. Like Scottish auteur Lynne Ramsay, with whom she says she’s been developing an adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel, We Need To Talk About Kevin. She’ll play the mother of a teenage boy who has murdered his classmates: “another alien.” She may have entered the world of acting half-heartedly, but she’s found her vocation since that first conversation with Jarman, searching, as she says of her mentor in Derek, for “that loose corner where we might prize up the carpet and uncover the rich slate of something we might recognize as spirit underneath, something raw and dusty and inarticulate, for heavens sake.”