Two blocks east of the Institute for Plastic Surgery and Anti-Aging in Beverly Hills, lunching ladies put down their forks and stare. A very tall presence in geometric hair and dramatic bronze cape dress sweeps in and, unaware of the electrified air around her, plops down in Il Cielo’s swank back room and cheerfully orders a cuppa with hot milk and honey. There is ginger, there is sandy, there is auburn, but Tilda Swinton’s hair is a mesmerizing dark red; her eyes blue, green or gray depending on how the light catches them; her porcelain skin easily accommodating the laughter lines that go with turning 48. It’s easy to see why formalist filmmakers like Derek Jarman and Sally Potter love Swinton’s face: With her delicate features and pale eyelashes, she looks like an illuminated icon from some medieval manuscript. In person, though, she’s animated, voluble and impishly ready to play. Gazing quizzically at the flower petals heaped around our table, she tells a solicitous waiter, “You should throw these over your shoulder, or over our heads. Then we could sue you for injury by rose petal.”
I’ve been nervous about this interview. Though Swinton’s career has taken a decided turn for the commercial these days, I still think of her as the intimidating eminence rouge in the elliptically stylized Jarman films that launched her career, or the ornately costumed androgyne in Potter’s Orlando, or even the frigid witch in Andrew Adamson’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Swinton firmly bats away the ice queen label, and it’s true that since her breakthrough as a pathologically protective mother in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s melodrama The Deep End, she’s carved out a niche playing ratty-haired emotional wrecks, the most collapsible of whom is surely her latest. In Tony Gilroy’s Michael Clayton, Swinton plays Karen Crowder, a corporate lawyer in sweaty armpits and overhanging love handles (the willowy actress, “to my very great pleasure,” chugged back a whole lot of pie to fit the role) whose ambition propels her into appalling betrayals.
For Swinton, the role has a political dimension, though the word “Condoleezza” never actually passes her lips. “Like so many people we could mention,” she says archly, “she’s got it into her head that the only way to lead is to be doubtless.” But it’s Karen’s oedipal attachment to her ruthless boss (“She virtually refers to him as her husband”) that fascinates, and Swinton brings off this deeply insecure, comically inexpressive woman almost entirely at the physical level. “I think of her as a poor actress, badly cast,” she says. “I’m a great believer in body language giving it all away. She’s wriggling inside this body that won’t conform. The first image I had of her when I read the script was on the treadmill, and I realized that someone lean on a treadmill means only so much, but someone with a pot belly on a treadmill in the middle of the night with their notes around them tells a whole story. The idea of her striving masochistically toward this inhuman ideal I find very moving. And hilarious.”
If Karen Crowder is a pathological conformist, Swinton’s own life invites interpretation as a continuous act of mutiny. Patrician doesn’t begin to describe her Scottish family, which traces its lineage back to ninth-century nobles who swore fealty to Alfred the Great. Her father, Major-General Sir Robert Swinton OBE, formerly headed the Queen’s Household Division, and her three brothers are also military men. Swinton, full name Katherine Matilda Swinton, resists the word “rebel.” “You can’t try and be an artist — that’s not an act of rebellion. I think about the life I lead as being very close to the life of my soldier father, traveling around. It’s a similar rhythm, except that fewer people get killed.”
At a tender age, Swinton was packed off to a pricey girls’ boarding school (one of her classmates was a certain Lady Diana Spencer) and then to Cambridge, where she switched to English after majoring in political science and briefly worked in theater before meeting Jarman and switching to film and performance. If this was her decisive break with family tradition, in other ways Swinton is very much the apple that fell close to the tree. She maintains two homes in the wilds of Northern Scotland with her partner, writer and painter John Byrne. Their 9-year-old twins, classily named Honor and Xavier, attend one of the fancy, if unorthodox, Waldorf-Steiner schools. But acting certainly didn’t run in her family, and when I ask Swinton how her parents took her choice of profession, the conversation goes like this:
Q: How did that go over?
A: I’ve no idea, I’ve never asked them.
Q: And they never expressed an opinion?
A: Not really, no. They’re tolerating it, but nicely.
Q: But they must be proud?
A: Possibly, but they would never let me know that.
You have to have some working knowledge of the British aristocratic family’s fabled capacity for emotional detachment to swallow this. But it helps explain Swinton’s regal, analytical iconoclasm on the one hand, and her pursuit of the most passionately emotive of the arts on the other. As a child, she says, “I felt like I lived in a film, and when I started to see films, I knew I was going to make them.” Swinton had little affinity for the stage, and left the Royal Shakespeare Company within a year even though the company had begun to seethe with uppity women like Fiona Shaw and Juliet Stevenson. For such a socialist (“advanced capitalism” crops up a lot in her conversation), Swinton is a real maverick. “The second I found a camera, I stopped,” she says. “I was trying to find a gesture that was a hybrid between what I love most about live performance, which is everybody in the same room together and that kind of kinetic energy, and what I love most about film performance, which is the possibility of that scrutiny.”
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.”