Tilda Swinton – Unorthodox and true to her self, she became a Hollywood star in spite of her past

July 1999 By Philip Berk

Tilda Swinton plays a ferociously protective mother in The Deep End.

In real life she is the mother of twins, which comes as a shock since she’s always been associated with androgyny and for many years she lived with the celebrated gay film maker Derek Jarman.

At the moment she’s the talk of Hollywood and the front runner to win the Oscar for her stunning performance in the film. Even those who know her only as Leonardo DiCaprio’s landlady in The Beach are cheering.

On screen she reminds you of a young Meryl Streep

In person, at a press conference in Beverly Hills, she looks more like Cate Blanchett.

Hollywood awards may be new to Tilda (short for Matilda) but not international prizes. She was honored twice by the Venice Film Festival as best actress two years in a row, the last in l992 for playing Orlando, a man who evolves into a woman.

The label “androgynous” does that bother her, I ask her.

“Why should it? I am androgynous. Most of us are, but I’m also trying my hardest  to become female. And I’m doing my best.”

Has it limited her as an actress?

“It was my choice. After Orlando, I did three other theatrical performances involving a woman dressed as a man. I played Mozart in Mozart and Salieri, I did a one woman show about a woman who disguised herself as a man. It’s a continuing interest of mine especially since at the end of Orlando, Orlando does become a mother so I’ve been slowly creeping my way towards motherhood at some level.”

Was she frustrated because, after Orlando, she went largely unnoticed?

“Everybody goes through that. People will ask what have you done? I have encouraged that by working with the same people over and over again, working with friends, devising projects for myself. And at the same time because I have a very low threshold of boredom, I can be very idle.”

Is that something she’d like to change?

“No, I’m quite proud of it because I think there’s a really good reason to be lazy.”

Playing a conventional American mother must have been a huge stretch for her.

“It was a big departure in that I was asked to give a more realistic and more calibrated performance than I’d done before. I knew I needed to look and feel like an authentic American mother of three;  so I had to go into heavy disguise.”

Did she think she could do it?

“I was very concerned because there’s a very dishonorable tradition of British actors who are brought to Hollywood, clumped into American stories, and not properly grafted. I was concerned that would happen to me so they worked very hard to disguise me. And they succeeded I think.”

If she weren’t a mother, could she have played this role?

“There’s no doubt if I hadn’t been a mother that I would have wanted to make the film. If they’d ask me four years ago, I would have done it. Would it have been harder? Because I am deeply lazy and I tend to be committed to laziness it does help if you are asked to draw on something  authentic; it makes the work less, and I’m a great believer in the less work the better.”

If she was placed in that situation — calling the police or sumbitting to blackmail — how would she handle it?

“Even though I understand and sympathize with the plight she’s in, I can’t see myself getting into that scrape, because I’m not interested in isolation. I would talk to my son. I would tell my husband that our son was gay. If she had done that, none of it would have happened. I don’t really believe that people can protect people. It’s understandable that mothers and fathers do that, but I don’t buy into that sort of protection.”

Does she consider the character an extraordinary woman?

“A lot men see her as extraordinary. I see her as a very ordinary woman in an extraordinary situation. She’s a very unexotic woman who finds herself in a film noir plot. But then again motherhood is like a film noir very often. You’re in an emergency situation constantly. You’re called to sort out emotions every five minutes. There’s nothing romantic about it.. From the moment Margaret sees the body” (of her son’s victim) “she has to move it,  she has to touch it; she thinks she can’t do it,  but then  she does because she’s a mother used to those daily emergencies. The brutal fact of motherhood  is that it’s very, very unexotic.”  

Just how brutal is motherhood?

“When I think of my life before I had children, I used to sleep so much. Why was I tired? What made me tired? Now because you’re woken up all the time, you’re just awake. You learn to brutally rely on your own resources and make mistakes all the time. And that’s the wonderful thing, to realize you are going to make mistakes. You have to go ‘Okay, next.’  and you try not to repeat the same mistakes. That’s the best you can hope for. And that’s brutal. It’s a molecular change. You change completely. I’m grateful to have had twins because it’s so overwhelming, you have to give up. And I’m all for that. Giving up, I think, is a good thing.”

Her companion Derek Jarman was an avant garde British film maker who died of AIDS in his early fifties. His homosexuality was central to all his films including Sebastiane, Caravaggio, and The Tempest.

She made seven with him including Edward 11.

What can she say about his influence on her?

“If I hadn’t met Derek Jarman I often wonder what would have happened to me as a performer. I doubt if I would be working in cinema at all because I’m not an industrial animal. And I don’t think I will ever be. I look at the options that might have been before me at the time, and I can see myself being so alienated I’d probably be working as a journalist now. What I found with Derek was this home, this way of working. He made filmmakers of all the people he worked with. We worked as a group. He would make a filmmaker of a costume designer. He would make a filmmaker of a cinematographer or the set designer or a musician or a performer. He developed in all of us a self sufficiency, and we worked in a sort of lab. The thing that was important to all of us was the dialogue. We would talk and we would dream a project  and we would talk more and we would dream up another project. We were very un-production based. We were more interested in the process. And I still am that way. The era is over in the sense that sadly Derek is no longer with us, but I continue to work that way and that’s the way I always will.”

When she went to college, she studied political science. What made her switch to drama?

“First of all let me set the record straight. I didn’t choose acting over my career. I was fortunate enough to go to Cambridge which had this great reputation of being a very rich university which allows you  to put on any old rubbish in theatres for the three years you are there. I suppose I had some consciousness of myself as a performer, but I didn’t want to go to drama school and I didn’t want to read drama there.”

Why political science?

“All my life I’ve been a political animal so I knew I wanted to study social and political sciences. I always thought of them as the same thing. They feel absolutely balanced for me.”

Isn’t she drawn to painters?

“I’ve always lived and worked with painters; even David Siegel (one of the two Deep End directors) is a painter. I’ve noticed it more and more that filmmakers I tend to work with are painters. I lived with a painter. I know more about painters’ lives than I know about actors’ lives. I don’t know many actors. In fact I don’t know any actors. What I’m drawn to naturally in the life of artists is their ability to express their sensibility in different ways. They have the need for dialogue that I have. Actors on the other hand deal with isolation. They don’t work in concert with people the way I do.”

Isn’t she an actor?

“I’m not sure I do act.”

Isn’t it something she was born to do?

“If what I do is acting, I’d say it feels natural enough. But it’s not something I remember ever making a decision about.”

How does she choose a project?

“I don’t choose projects. I choose people. That is my tip in life: I go for the dialogue, and after the dialogue comes the project.  I got into that habit with Derek Jarman and filmmakers like Sally Potter. Sally and I worked five years to get Orlando made. In the beginning it was her and me and the book. There was no script, no money, no producer. Five years later we made that film. Since l985 I’ve only worked with five film makers.”

But now Hollywood is beckoning. 

“Recently there’s been a change. People have been asking me to do things that I want to do. The only difference is I’m no longer working with people I’ve spent eight years around a kitchen table with. But wherever I am, even going on these strange little work days with Cameron Crowe or Spike Jones, I’m still working the same way. And with the directors of The Deep End it was absolutely business as usual. They felt so familiar to me. Even though they were from San Francisco, and I’d never met them before, they felt like fellow travelers from the second I met them.”

Did she have problems working with Leonardo di Caprio?

“When I’ve been hired to be an actress in a film, if somebody asks me if I’m an actress, I say yes, but recently I feel I’ve been pretending to be an actress. I mean I love working with actors. I love the actual thing. I don’t love the way some actors seem to be unrelated to the process.  I don’t know whether this is true in the theatre, but in films a lot of actors  remove themselves from the environment. They’ll go and sit in their trailer, or they’ll only talk to other actors. I don’t know why it is. It’s got something to do with alienation from the process. I’m just the opposite. I’m such a scientist. I’ve always been interested in the mechanics of how film is made. It’s all done with mirrors and I just love all that. There’s something so thrilling for those of us who’ve been on film sets.  All these people do all these different things, and then in one moment it all comes together. I’ve always loved that.”

She did a cameo for Cameron Crowe’s Tom Cruise movie Vanilla Sky, and she is one of many stars attached to Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. (The others are Nicolas Cage, Meryl Streep, and John Cusack.) 

What was it like working with Meryl Streep?

“I have a tiny, small moment in the film. Happily my half day was a scene with Meryl Streep. It was a delight, but I can’t say very much. She seems to be a very open person. I wasn’t disappointed.”

Is she into physical fitness, beauty care, and weight control?

“Non existent, non existent, non existent,” is her defiant response.

And fashion?

“I’m very interested in fashion. I think fashion is a fantastic game to play.”

Does she have a favorite designer? 

“Christian Dior, I have a very good relationship with him. Yoshi Yamamoto, Victor Androlf. Imitation of Christ,  Ossie Clark.”

Would she follow Glenda Jackson into the House of Commons?

“Somehow I don’t think about that. I’m a political animal in the sense that I believe the work is political, but I wouldn’t know how to be politically engaged. I didn’t like school enough to sit in the house of Commons.”

And Scottish independence?

“I’m very sympathetic. I live in Scotland, I am pro-independence; naturally, who wouldn’t be being Scottish and living in Scotland. It’s a lovely thing to be living in Scotland with our own parliament.”

Incidentally her favorite film makers are the Archers (Michael Powell and Emerich Pressberger), Stanley Donen, and Preston Sturges.

And she’s absolutely serious when she says a performance by a donkey in a Bresson film is “my favorite of all time because the donkey is not doing anything.”

Which is what Tilda is likely to do to win the Oscar.

And she’s right!

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