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That kind of talk lands you artistically in bed with the likes of the very avant-garde Jarman, but call Swinton his muse at your peril. In fact, call her anything at your peril. She’s as sharp as a razor blade and invigoratingly argumentative, though one senses there’s not a lot of give in her point of view. She also resists, kindly but firmly, any labels that threaten to sum her up or confine her to an intellectual or aesthetic box unless it’s one of her own making. (Not for nothing did Swinton famously box herself into a very public glass case in London’s Serpentine Gallery and stay there for days with her eyes closed under the rapt gaze of thousands of visitors.) Being a gay man’s icon delights her, and she revels in her reputation for androgyny. “I’ve spent my life dressing up as boys — why not?” she says. “I also occasionally dress up as a woman. I’m a drag queen.” But to this day, Swinton remains leery of being called an actress. She thinks of herself as a performer, more broadly as an artist, and she bristles at the narrowness of the word “career.” “It really is a life that’s unfolding. If what you’re really into is having a life, and I don’t just mean having children but developing projects and being involved in the whole seeding process as a producer and also an artist, working in all sorts of different fields, then long term equals low key.”
Not so low these days. After she’s done promoting Michael Clayton, Swinton heads to New York to star opposite George Clooney again in the Coen brothers’ CIA caper Burn After Reading, and next year she’ll appear in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. And that’s just Hollywood. Aside from John Maybury’s upcoming Come Like Shadows, in which she’ll play (about time, too) Lady Macbeth, Swinton rarely works within the English film world anymore. She’s too disgusted by a new funding structure that ties the movie business to the national lottery and the tourist industry. But she has a bunch of projects on the go in Europe, including a meaty lead role as an extortionist in a new movie by The Dream Life of Angels director Erick Zonca. Swinton calls Zonca “the real deal,” but you never hear her talk about working for a director. She makes movies with them.
Outside of, maybe, Reese Witherspoon, what Hollywood actress speaks about her work with such confidence and sense of agency? We talk about the short shelf life of the actress in what Swinton rather quaintly calls “industrial cinema” (she approaches Hollywood, she says a bit snootily, as zoology), and I can’t decide whether it’s a pose or a consequence of living so far from the action that makes Swinton profess herself ignorant of the whole plastic surgery thing. She’s enjoyed playing the tortured wives in The Deep End, Young Adam and Stephanie Daley, and it’s true that her commercial roles have warmed her up and liberated her from the chilly iconography of her art films. But a future as a supporting actress holds little appeal for this exuberantly, unapologetically ambitious woman: “Being — what’s the industry term for it, headlining or some such nonsense — being in every frame of a movie, you are the eye, the virtual reality booth for every audience member, and they have to go into your head and look out of your eyes.” In her 20s, Swinton says, she was “gathering” and kept her head down artistically. “I’ve always known that I would not really start my work until my forties,” she says. “That may be a self-fulfilling prophecy, but you ain’t seen nothing yet. I’m just cranking up.”
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