Tilda Swinton on donkeys, identity, and the nature of screen acting
by David Schwartz  posted July 20, 2010
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This article is part of a series of interviews with leading filmmakers and craftspeople, made possible with special support by the Academy Foundation of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy series has so far featured Q&A's with director Noah Baumbach, production designer Rick Carter, composer Carter Burwell, cinematographer Harris Savides, documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, and actor Michael Caine.

The malleability of identity, the way that categories like gender and class confine us if we let them define us—these are among the subjects that Tilda Swinton has consistently explored in a varied body of work that encompasses the Super-8 experiments of British filmmaker Derek Jarman and such mainstream movies as Michael Clayton (2007), for which she won an Academy Award.

In Jarman's The Last of England (1987), a poetic assault on stultifying Thatcher-era England, Swinton improvised the film's climactic scene, as a frenzied bride who tears apart her gown and performs a whirling dance on a beach: a rite of transformation, an attempt to transcend fixed roles. In Sally Potter's Orlando (1992), which is being rereleased this week, Swinton plays an androgynous nobleman who changes sex and travels through time, trying to find his or her true self.

Fittingly, for someone who looks seriously at the roles we play, many of Swinton's best performances can be seen as meditations on the nature of acting. In a remarkable passage in Michael Clayton, we see Swinton's character, the high-powered corporate lawyer Karen Crowder, prepare for a video interview. As the film cuts between Crowder's nervous rehearsal in her hotel room and her polished performance in the interview, we see the disparity between the confident facade and the anxious actor. In one of the strongest performances of her career, in Erick Zonca's Julia (2008), she is an alcoholic whose life has become an outlandish performance motivated by her desperate need to connect with those around her. And in her latest film, the current arthouse hit I Am Love, she is Emma Recchi, a Russian native who has married into a wealthy Italian family. Emma's aristocratic veneer is a stylish performance; she maintains her social status only at the cost of repressing her true self, and sexuality. The contrast in style between Julia and Emma couldn't be greater; the former is a brash American whose psyche—and body—are in shambles. The latter is a refined, elegant woman who speaks fluent Italian with a Russian accent. Yet both characters are on a search for the same things: connection and authenticity.

Swinton herself has found connection in an intense series of cinematic collaborations; she seems drawn to directors whose films are labors of love (often with long gestation periods). And she has found authenticity in her astonishing performances, in work that is both physically and verbally articulate. In film after film, Swinton shows us that identity is more than a performance—it is a mystery.

Before we get into your own films, I wanted to ask about a comment you had made about a Robert Bresson film. I know you're a cinephile; you gave a great talk about the state of cinema, and you've started your own film festival. The comment was about Au hasard Balthazar, about how the donkey's performance was, for you, an ideal performance. Could you elaborate on what you meant?

It's absolutely true. It remains one of my favorite films, and certainly my favorite performance of all time, and is a sort of guiding light for me as a performer. The idea of retaining an eighth of that kind of quality of unwatched-ness, which of course, that donkey—who isn't one donkey at all but about eight donkeys—manages to provide. He is a portal for the audience, to project whatever they need to project onto him. And he is, of course, out of the way. I think that project, to keep oneself out of the way, while at the same time bringing oneself to bear on some very simplistic spiritual level is the project in screen acting that keeps me interested in it.

There is all this projecting because of course we can't know what the donkey is thinking. It makes me think of another thing you'd said, that you had an epiphany at a young age looking at people on a bus and realizing that you didn't really know what was going on inside them. You seem very interested in the disparity between the outside and the inside.

The knowledge that we can never know what anyone else is really thinking or feeling, or has gone through or is planning, is a constant source of fascination for me. It's hard enough knowing one's own thoughts, feelings, and history and future; but even beginning to imagine that one might have a fantasy that one might know somebody else—I've always found that very interesting that there is this fantasy, there is this myth that we can know each other. And I've never really believed it. At the same time, I'm a great believer in the attempt to at least negotiate with mutual unknown-ness. And I'm a great believer in the effort to communicate. But I kind of assume that inarticulacy is the norm and that all we can do is grunt at each other in the dark, really.

It's interesting that you started as a writer before you were in cinema. With cinema, you have a double element, because you have words, but the images can tell a different story, and there can be a disparity. I'm wondering what got you interested in cinema as your own form of expression. And how much Derek Jarman was a part of that.

Well, I was long devoted to the cinema before I met Derek Jarman as a practitioner. Really, I suppose, on the grounds of the company that cinema provides, it had always occurred to me, as a relatively isolated and maybe relatively alienated child, that the cinema was the most reliable place where one could find true company, in this sort of solitary space, but in the company with not only the audience around one—certainly, with the filmmaker, who is providing frames for you to look through; maybe even people who he or she frames. That was really what made me, and remains for me, my kind of attachment to cinema, the search and the finding of company.

I was a poet when I first went to university, and I stopped being a poet when I got there, and looked for cinema at that moment. Words were beyond me at a certain point in my life. But I was there looking for company, the company of the cinema, and couldn't find it because I was at a university, Cambridge University in England, which didn't have any undergraduate or even postgraduate cinema at the time, and I fell into performing in the theater, for company, very much sideways and very much halfheartedly. I've never really been interested in the theater as a form. And I was on the verge of realizing just how uninterested I was in the theater and how uninterested I was in being a performer when I met Derek Jarman. And what happened when I met Derek Jarman was not only that he was the first living, working artist that I'd ever met, who lived and worked in a world of art and with other artists, but he was also a filmmaker who provided me with this really unique opportunity—I can't imagine that there would've been another opportunity for me like this ever—to examine, in a sort of kindergarten atmosphere over nine years through seven different projects and many other experiments, how I could, if I could, retain some kind of connection and interest in being a performer in front of the camera. And it was absolutely nothing to do with being an actor or an actress; it was nothing to do with being an interpreter; it was nothing to do with text; it was nothing to do with the theater; and it was very little to do with industrial cinema. It was a very free playpen, in which I could, for the sort of first five of those seven films—I think they were almost all silent—I could negotiate my own relationship with the camera and sort of make shapes in front of it.

I love the dance at the end of The Last of England. That seems to be totally what you're talking about, a completely physical encounter with the medium. You're dancing in the scene, but also he's playing around with Super-8.

That was a film that was entirely shot on Super-8 and blown up to 35mm afterwards. And improvised, as well. That's a perfect example, that scene, of why I find it so difficult to hear myself described as an actress. Because that ain't acting [laughs]. That is nothing but performance, you could call it. But it's not acting. And it's not an actress who performs it, either. It was a moment that Derek and several of our friends set up to capture on Super-8. And I didn't even necessarily know what I was going to do. It was an improvised moment beside a bonfire and a swan.

You were exploring some themes there like the idea of transformation; the idea of a woman who won't accept her sham marriage and is looking for freedom. These seem to be themes that you would go on to explore again later.

To talk a little about the way that film was set up will explain better how amorphous any kind of prescription that might accrue to my work would be. This was a film that Derek collated, as you would an anthology of poetry. Sections and segments and scraps of Super-8 footage shot during the course of the many months during a publicity tour around the world with Caravaggio. And then at a certain point, he looked at these fragments, saw what they were, moved them around a bit, saw where some bits might be sort of glued together with some set pieces. And we then set out to do a sort of five- or six-day limited shoot. Again, all on Super-8. So we're not talking about going out, writing a script, raising any money; we're talking about getting a few friends, getting [costume designer] Sandy Powell to bring some bags of old clothes, and dressing people up as grieving mothers from the Falklands or, you know, people in Balaclavas with Kalashnikov rifles or whatever, or a wedding dress, and just played. And we set up the scene of the royal wedding, in a very ad hoc way. We knew at that time we wanted it to be a royal wedding, but we also knew that we wanted it to be in this disused power station. And as we were shooting it, I got this idea of the unwilling bride. We didn't know that she was going to be unwilling, but it just sort of happened. And somebody—I think it was Cerith Wyn Evans—had me in close-up for most of the sequence. It was on the back of that that we built on this unwilling bride idea and went out to the bonfire. And Derek gave me the scissors and it seemed to be the obvious thing to do, to cut myself out of a wedding dress.

Exactly [laughs]. Orlando is much bigger scale, and quite an ambitious film for both Sally Potter and for you. I read that you thought of the film as a vehicle for things that you wanted to explore. What were some of those things?

Well, Virginia Woolf's book originally, and Potter's invitation to make the film offered me a perfect Trojan horse opportunity to really examine this thing of not acting at all, and being in front of the camera in a variety of shapes and sizes, but with contact with the audience, through the prism of the lens. So this thing that I'd been developing with Derek for a while, this looking into the lens, which I did in the first film that we made together, Caravaggio—I remember I was negotiating my relationship with the camera, and I asked him if I could look into the lens, because I was having this strange relationship with this thing, of being watched. And so I needed somehow to watch back. Which I did. And I did in all the films, really, up until that point. But in Orlando, of course, we built it into the whole text of the film, that Orlando was in constant touch with the audience, that the audience was in constant touch with Orlando. However many centuries Orlando was passing through, however historical a figure he or she might feel, actually, he or she was absolutely right there in the present moment and very available and very modern and contemporary.

So that's where the technique of talking directly to the camera came from.

Yeah, it was something Sally Potter and I had been talking about. It took a long time to develop that. We developed that film together for five years, over many, many, many different drafts. And it was a slow drip, drip, drip of elimination. Where in the final film there is one look to camera, there may in a previous 16 drafts have been reams of speech.

Just eliminating, and trying to sort of eradicate anything that might stand in the way of the relationship between Orlando and the audience, was very important to us. It was this opportunity to write large this sort of non-performance, if you like, ending with that last close-up of looking straight out into the audience. At the same time, it was a very ambitious place to position this kind of experiment. We knew, because of the nature of the material, that it was going to be way more expensive than anything either of us had been involved in before. And we had no filmmaking reputation at the time, really, certainly not a filmmaking reputation that could raise that money easily. So it was very torturous, the whole business of getting it together. But finally, it was pieced together by the great Christopher Sheppard, who's an extraordinary producer. And yeah, we put that rather out-there experiment in the heart of a relatively in-there-looking film.

There's one thing that the passage of time maybe adds to the film, which is just being re-released. There's a playfulness that feels easier to see now.

Well, I'm very, very pleased to hear you say that, because I was always surprised that people didn't see that then. I don't know, maybe people were a bit pious about its—what a wonderful visiting American minister to our parish once called the historicity factor.

It came out during the height of the Merchant Ivory films too. Maybe now there's some distance from that.

Maybe it was muddled up a little bit, yeah. It was always meant to have an extremely playful élan. And I'm pleased you think you can see that more easily now.

Obviously, one of the things you're playing around with in your performance is gender, playing around with showing how men behave and move, versus women. You mentioned a scene where you read poetry. Could you talk about that scene?

For me, beyond the gender issue, the subject of Orlando that moves me the most is this idea of company and loneliness, and the feeling that this lonely child comes through this long life to find company with him/herself and with the audience. And that feeling of liberation, I think, is much wider than just the issue of the fact that halfway through the film he declares himself the same person, different sex. I mean, I've always been very interested in and moved by the tortuous labels that people put themselves through, to kind of attach themselves to, and then feel themselves having problems with their attachments to certain aspects of their identity. And I've never quite understood why identity should feel so breakable for people. That being male would mean that one would only do this, that, and the other; being female would mean that one would only be able to do this, that, and the other; being a mother would mean that one would necessarily have to jettison this, that, and the other; being a certain age would mean that one would necessarily have to cut off this, or that, or the other part of oneself. That's always, since I was a very young child, been a poignant thing I've noticed in society. And for some strange reason, I have had a bit of my brain missing where that's concerned. And so that's a recurring theme in stories that I've looked at and transformations that I've looked at people going through.

Which gets to an even broader idea, which is that all human behavior is a performance. To jump to Michael Clayton, and the great scene where we cut between you preparing for an interview and actually doing the interview—we're seeing you as an in-control executive, but then we see you rehearsing the scene. We see how hard it is for you, and that it's all a performance your character is putting on.

I remember being very struck that what Tony Gilroy noticed in that scene was that this woman—it never seems to occur to her that she might be able to tell the truth about her own life; that she has to rehearse her own life and is continually getting the lines wrong—of her own life, of her own identity. It's very moving just thinking of it again. The assumption that there's no truth that she could tell.

And I find that very interesting personally. I'm not a good liar, and I find the idea of being in the position, like the position Karen Crowder's in in that moment, really, really horrendous. Because if you shook her by the shoulders and said why don't you just go in there and tell the truth? You don't have to rehearse; you know the story of your attachment to this company and what you do for it. She would deny it. She would say no, no, no, I can't possibly tell the truth.

Right. And then you see that in the famous climactic scene with George Clooney, it's the same thing. You know she's caught.

Well, my line about Karen Crowder is that she's a mediocre actress, badly cast.

That makes me think of Julia, obviously a very different character, but also—

Julia is a brilliant actress.

You think so?

Brilliant. I mean, I've never played an actress before and she's a really good one.

How is she the best? She struck me as somebody who just doesn't understand how she's coming across to other people.

She's completely deluded herself.

Right. And I think in the entire time we spend with her, she tells the truth twice. She convinces everybody and herself and really enjoys lying, as well. It's a great pleasure to watch the opening section of the film. First of all, the audience is sort of saying, Is that really Tilda Swinton? You seem so transformed. But also just to see that character be so out of control, in a way. Could you talk about those opening scenes—the dance, playing an alcoholic like that?

The first scene at the bar, when we first meet her, is really the sort of best bit [both laugh]. It's the best bit of her life. It's Saturday night and she's got a green sequined dress on that was made for a drag queen.

So she has the attention she wants.

She has all the attention she wants, so she's got a man by the tie and every shot she's got a different drink, of a different size and shape and color. And she's going down. And then of course, we see what it costs her to keep this fantasy alive. But there's something that I love about that scene because obviously, this is the story of an alcoholic who is dangerously, suicidally alcoholic. But you very rarely see an alcoholic with the verve and courage and imagination and energy that I know so many alcoholics to have. We very often, you know, run the risk when we put alcoholics in films, of showing them to have this kind of loser energy about them, this feeling of a slightly morphine sense, which is not accurate, I don't think. I think there's a sense with alcohol addiction that it has a relationship to powerlessness. And I think that there's a sense in which real diehard alcoholics are very powerful people. To throw yourself willfully down the neck of a bottle like that every day takes a great deal of will. And when you see her in that first scene, throwing herself into her life, throwing herself into the fantasy of her life, I think it's very touching. And in many ways, inspiring.

Liberating, in a way?

That's her one liberating moment. Although I would say that the moments—for example, there's a scene when she is lying through her teeth to really, really dangerous kidnappers, when you can see her making it up as she goes along—you can see her synapses fire—when you can almost sense an excitement in her to be that creative, to be that inventive, and that resourceful. And yet she still lies about having less money than she really has. That feeling of brinksmanship, I think, is inspiring.

Was this a project that Erick Zonca had been developing for a long time? It sort of feels like you get involved in these films that people have been working on for a decade.

Yeah, I had a very strange relationship with that film, which was that I met Erick Zonca about five years before we shot the film. And I heard through the grapevine that he was developing a film for me. And when I finally saw the evidence of what it was he was putting together for me, I was absolutely amazed because I'd only met him once. I think he just thought that I was drunk when he met me. He was certainly drunk when he met me, so maybe he sort of was drunk enough for both of us. But he had it in his mind that I would play this. And I am so grateful to him because it was a strange instinct. It was a portrait that I'd been wanting to look at for a while, a woman with this kind of story. And so it was a very, very interesting serendipity that we came together.

Are you surprised sometimes at how some films are received? I think Julia's a great film that didn't get as much attention as it deserved. Michael Clayton gets great acclaim and you win an Academy Award. But you're not a different—

Well, I hate to say it—it's very often got everything to do with money. And Magnolia, bless them—they've done a fantastic job with I Am Love, and they put a certain amount of what we call welly behind the release of that film, but they were not in a position to really promote Julia and put it into very many cinemas. It is one of those really slow-burning films that has a devoted and developing audience, and I think that it will have its time. No film is ever going to be a big splashy opener unless people put big splashy money behind it. We were very grateful to Magnolia in the first place, but they weren't able to release it in the way that they've been able to release I Am Love.

So could you talk a bit about I Am Love? That's another film that was many years in the works, and seems to be a very close collaboration where again you're working out some ideas about transformation, about a woman who's trapped in a role. And I think there are some great sex scenes in the film; but the scene in the restaurant, where you're eating the prawns, is probably the most sensual moment.

We call it the prawnography scene. The gastro porn. Yes, this is a very dear project for me because once again, it's the trace element of a very precious relationship, my working relationship with Luca Guadagnino. We've known each other for 20 years, but we've been talking about this particular film for about 11 of those years. And as usual, it just takes time to grow this kind of home crop. It just takes time. Especially if you're a small holder with a very tiny farm, like we are. And it's an ambitious film—but unlike Orlando, which in many ways, is its precursor for me, because that's also a film that I developed with a filmmaker from scratch. But at the same time, that was from the scratch of Virginia Woolf's classic novel; it wasn't from the scratch of a concept. The concept that Luca and I started talking about was the concept of the revolution of love. And we had in many ways, I think, an easier time. In many ways, it's easier to actually spin something off from, really, its root, in that way. And adapting Orlando was a much more torturous business. But I Am Love was something that we sort of slowly spun up. And a number of writers worked on drafts in the intervening years. And we're very, very proud of it.

I'm somebody who eagerly awaits Lynne Ramsay's films—it's too many years in between each one. Could you talk about the film you're making with her [We Need to Talk About Kevin]?

Well, that's, again, been a fair bit in the coming. It's been moldering away in the fog—well, not moldering away, but growing; just getting its little shoot out from under the ground—for about five years now. And we're just completing the photography. We've done most of the principal photography, and we've got a little bit more to shoot, and we'll be cutting it over the winter. And I hope it'll be ready for Cannes maybe or at some point next year. But I can promise you a Lynne Ramsay film, which is a great thing to say because I, like you, have been waiting for the next one. And I hope that this will mark a sort of new dawn for her, in terms of speed of project.

With hindsight, it's possible for Luca and I to say, You know what? We didn't get the house until the 10th year of the development and, you know, the script wasn't really ready until the ninth year and so-and-so wasn't old enough to play the part until the 10th-and-a-half year or whatever. But the truth is, it's really a hard ride, getting these films made over that length of time. And it's certainly a hard ride when you haven't got any income. And so it would be really great to think that all these filmmakers—Luca, Sally, Erick Zonca, and Lynne—find it easier, on the backs of these films, to make films quicker, with a quicker turnaround. Or at least, even if it's as long as Kubrick, that it may be funded.

Could you say something about your character?

I play a woman called Eva Khatchadourian. The film is about a couple, really. It's about a woman looking back on her life as a mother and the upbringing of her son, who, quite early on in the film, it's revealed, is in a penitentiary for having perpetrated a high school massacre. And most of the film will be revealed in flashback from a present position of her living this prison-visiting life in pretty reduced circumstances, and thinking back over her life as a mother. And it's pretty hardcore. 


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Sony Pictures Classics
Tilda Swinton in Orlando, directed by Sally Potter
Photo Gallery: Transformer
Video: I Am Love
Video: Orlando
Video: Julia


David Schwartz is the Chief Curator at the Museum of the Moving Image. He is also a Visiting Assistant Professor in Cinema Studies at Purchase College.

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