Actress Tilda Swinton
At the entrance to Marrakech’s storied La Mamounia hotel, handsome red-caped men usher guests through arched doors into the plush lobby, where the hotel’s custom scent hangs in the air. Water falls gently into small fountains. It’s hard to imagine a more fitting place to meet Tilda Swinton.
A publicist, French and not at all out of place in the elegant surrounds, leads me past the colonial-style Churchill Bar, outside through an orange grove and towards a secluded tower. On its roof, amid ornate lounges and hooded lanterns, a cluster of officious women are micromanaging an androgynous figure.
Unsurprisingly, for someone so striking in a place so aesthetically pleasing – “paintaceous” is how Winston Churchill, a former occupant of the hotel, described the view – Swinton is being photographed. “Hold on,” she tells the photographer as she throws a satin sash over her shoulder, “I’ve got to get this right.” She gives the camera a smile, one that, graciously, doesn’t leave her face as we’re introduced. And then we sit, on a small sofa, the billows of her clothes settling as she rests her gaze on my face, expectantly.
Swinton is in Marrakech as the head of its film festival jury, and it seems right that someone who exudes such unhurried assurance should have been brought here to make decisions. “I wanted to come to this festival for a while,” she says, her voice impossibly crisp. “It has a legend that has been pushed by my closest friends for years, and it just was one of those moments when I thought, ‘Well, actually, this is not a bad moment to do it.’ ”
It’s a decision that speaks to Swinton’s compulsion to keep busy, as does the slate of films she’s set to be in this year: Armando Iannucci’s The Personal History of David Copperfield; Memoria, directed by Thai icon Apichatpong Weerasethakul; and Wes Anderson’s The French Dispatch. “I find being on a festival jury very refreshing business. It’s like a film school for a week,” she says. “Having shot a lot [in 2019], I wanted to sit and watch. Also, I live in a village and we don’t have a big screen, so this is like an opportunity to see all the films I otherwise wouldn’t be able to see.”
The village she refers to is Nairn, in the Scottish Highlands, where for many years Swinton resided in relative solitude and raised her twins, including daughter Honor, beside whom she starred in Joanna Hogg’s stunning 2019 film The Souvenir. Nairn’s peace was broken, briefly, in the mid-2000s when the world’s tabloids learnt Swinton was living there in a relationship with both the painter and playwright John Byrne and the experimental photographer Sandro Kopp. But things have now quietened down. Byrne, who has since remarried, lives in Edinburgh, while Swinton and Kopp remain firmly based in the small Highlands town.
“Well, I’m Scottish, from the south,” Swinton explains. “And Scotland, being a very small country, these differences are huge. I was brought up in the south and when I had my babies I wanted to go to the Highlands. I always wanted to live in the Highlands.
“It’s home. I’m not from London, I’m not from New York. I’m not from anywhere else, I’m from Scotland. It’s the sky, we live by the sea,” she says. “It’s nourishing in every way. But I find the landscape really… Nourishing is a good word. It feeds me.”
It’s been 12 years since Swinton, now 59, won her only Oscar: Best Supporting Actress for playing a ruthless lawyer in the thriller Michael Clayton. The award propelled Swinton, who had built much of her career on experimental films and low-budget arthouse dramas, to a different kind of fame. But it was the sort of win that seems only a necessary stop in a fascinating filmography, rather than some defining moment.
Since then, Swinton has used her profile to embrace characters across genres: Hollywood comedy (Trainwreck), Italian arthouse (I Am Love), family drama (We Need to Talk About Kevin), Korean eco-parable (Okja) and zombie movie (The Dead Don’t Die). Even the Safdie brothers’ much-hyped Uncut Gems features Swinton, albeit only in a small voice performance as an auctioneer.
There is no underlying calculus here, no cool logic that knits together these disparate films; when it comes to making decisions about which projects to take, Swinton says there is only one factor she considers. “People. That’s it. I only know that familial, collective thing,” she says. “I know generally that very good actors will learn their lines and prepare alone and go to their trailer and turn up on set and shake everybody’s hands. I don’t know how to do that.”
She insists she is not a professional actor. Her early years were spent working with British arthouse directors, most notably Derek Jarman, a formative relationship that ended when he died in 1994. “He was a dedicated classicist,” she says. “We were just as likely to gossip about William Blake as Heraclitus, seriously. We lived life and occasionally we made a film that came out of that life. The majority of those films with Derek were silent and improvised, and it didn’t feel at any point that I was acting. It didn’t feel like they would equip me to work with anybody else.”
In 1992, she played the title role in Sally Potter’s film Orlando, based on the book by Virginia Woolf and an introduction for many into the world of queer cinema. At the outset, Orlando is a young nobleman who, on the command of Queen Elizabeth I, is charged with never growing old. After two centuries, Orlando experiences a crisis of masculinity and awakes as a woman. Finding her privileged life entirely transformed, she spends another two centuries fighting to keep what is hers.
“There is this idea that the book and the film [are] only about the bending of genders,” Swinton says, “and I’ve found it’s not about gender at all. It’s about limitlessness and revolution. Woolf is interested in the spirit. It’s not about change, it’s about consistency. Orlando is a spirit and is perpetual, and that’s what interests me: limitlessness and immortality.”
Since Orlando, Swinton has developed roles with directors that have seen her play with ideas of personality and humanity. Characters have been youthful, elderly; changed identities, become male, remained intersex; been part-angel and wholly cyborg. In the case of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, she played three different roles in one film. She thinks carefully when asked why she is drawn to these challenges, before nominating her low threshold for boredom.
“I’ve been asked a similar question for years and I’ve never really come up with a satisfactory answer,” she says. “I suppose I have a blind spot about these ‘definitive’ signifiers. If I’m drawn to a particular narrative, it is very often a narrative that deals with people at a precipice or a point of transformation. Sticking to that particular template is not working and they have to move, they have to grow. That’s what I’m really in it for as a performer. It feels completely realistic to me. We’re in an interesting moment today where people are beginning to understand that change isn’t an intrinsic threat to a person, or a spirit, or a movement, or a people. It’s part of the deal. The possibility of change is a no-brainer for me.”
One change that raised the ire of many occurred when Swinton took on the role of the Ancient One, a wise and spiritual figure in the Marvel films Doctor Strange and Avengers: Endgame. Originally written as Tibetan, the character was reworked by the film’s screenwriters into a Celtic woman before Swinton’s casting – a decision that was criticised as both contributing to the erasure of Asian actors in Hollywood films, and being a cynical move designed not to risk the lucrative Chinese box office.
In an interview with film academic B. Ruby Rich, Swinton spoke about the controversy, saying, “I’m not against dust-ups. People need to speak up. This Marvel universe belongs to people in a way that… those that make the films have to really attend to that. I think that’s something very interesting to deal with, that feeling of ownership. Maybe a little change is not necessarily a bad thing.”
When it comes to developing these characters, Swinton says decisions are mainly made in conversation with the directors. Many of her best-known performances have come from her work with her “very thin address book” of directors: Wes Anderson, Luca Guadagnino, Bong Joon Ho, Joanna Hogg and Jim Jarmusch are all directors to whom she’s returned.
“First, there’s a sort of a little huis clos with myself for figuring out what the guy ropes of a particular performance might be,” she says. “But for me, the whole joy is working in collaboration, working in conversation. Often, it takes 10 or 15, 20 years to get something actually shooting or even just in pre-production; I love all of that. I don’t know what normal actors do, but I love dreaming things up with my friends and I’ve always been lucky enough to work with people who are interested in this stuff and continue to find new people who are interested in this sort of shapeshifting.”
This year, Swinton will be spending some time in Australia. “I am happy to say that I’m going,” she says. Although it is the birthplace of her mother, Judith Balfour Killen, Swinton has spent hardly any time there. She seems keen to explore her little-known Australian identity, especially because the Swintons, by contrast, are one of only three families in Britain that can trace their unbroken land ownership and lineage back 35 generations to before the Norman Conquest in the 11th century.
Swinton’s father, Major-General Sir John Swinton of Kimmerghame, served as aide-de camp to the Australian governor-general Sir William Slim in the early 1950s and there met Killen, the daughter of a sheep grazier from Barellan, New South Wales. The couple married in Sydney in 1954 before moving to Scotland and living in Kimmerghame House, a mansion on the Scottish Borders, where their daughter was born.
“I am going to see if I can find out about these connections,” says Swinton. “My mother and her cousin did talk a lot about growing up in the outback in Australia. So, I’m looking forward to going and having a dig about.”
The real reason for Swinton’s visit, however, is to shoot the film Three Thousand Years of Longing with director George Miller. Production on the film starts next month, though even the broadest details, such as its genre, are still under wraps. Asking why she chose to work with a director with whom she’s never worked before causes her body to tense and her eyes to widen, and puts her at a rare loss for words.
“It’s George Miller! George Miller could ask me to make a film about” – she pauses, and her eyes fall to the flagstone floor – “a paving stone, and I’d be there. I have been an enormous admirer of his cinema from the very beginning. He’s a wonderful soul and someone who I can now say is a friend. When someone you really like, especially a great master, asks you to come and play with them, then that’s a blessed day.”
Swinton confesses that a director such as Miller presenting a character to her is a relative rarity. “I’ve often said I feel like a farmer,” she says. “I’ve got different plants in the ground at different stages of growth at any length of time. I have three films in post-production at the moment, and I’m just preparing to shoot two more. And then there are things being written and other things in pre-pre-production, and you don’t necessarily know what’s going to pop up first. But, again, you have to be ready. You have to have your knees bent.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 8, 2020 as "Acting clout". Subscribe here.