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Tilda Swinton

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An elegant escape


As a child of the aristocracy, Tilda Swinton never really fitted in, or even wanted to. Now a favourite actor of maverick film-makers the world over, she'd like to break out and join the mainstream; but it's an addiction, she tells Suzie Mackenzie


Saturday September 20, 2003

The Guardian



Tilda Swinton
Tilda Swinton is not joking, or is only partly joking, when she says of her parents, "I think they realised fairly early on that I was not going to marry a duke." The point is that she could have done - everything in her background, her social position, equipped her for precisely this. She was born into what she calls "the owning class" in the lowlands of Scotland. Her father, Major-General Sir John Swinton - Lord Lieutenant of Berwickshire, former head of the Queen's Household Division, Order of the British Empire and all that - can trace his lineage back 35 generations, to the 9th century.
Her eldest recorded ancestor swore allegiance to Alfred the Great in 886. To put this in perspective, the oldest English ducal family, Norfolk, goes back only 18 generations. So when I say that I know she comes from an old family and she replies, "All families are old. It's just that mine have lived in the same place a long time and happened to write things down", the disavowal is interesting. She refuses to be put in that box. Those centuries of tradition, of establishment conformism, do not define who she is.

As if to make the point, eight years ago at the Serpentine gallery in London, she put herself in a literal box, in a conceptual art piece called The Maybe, and lay there, apparently asleep, for eight hours a day, not speaking, not playing a role. Just being. Being beautiful - but then beauty, as she would say, is itself a kind of conformity, in the eye of the beholder, not who you are. Being a portrait, immovably serene. To be a "lady" is to be a portrait, as Henry James reminded us - a display-case for wealth.

Impassive, giving the onlooker nothing to hang on to, reducing herself purely to an object to be looked at, she forced us back on our own preconceptions of who she may be. Of course, inside the case, apart, abstracted from our view, watching us watching her, was a sentient, feeling, thinking Tilda. Always thinking. "I think I came out thinking, questioning." It was her defence mechanism against playing the part scripted for her. Had she not been this thoughtful, she might have ended up marrying a duke. Not a joke. In her year at West Heath school was the young Diana Spencer.

How a sensibility comes into being is a delicate thing and she may be right in saying that she was born fully-formed, that resistance came instinctively. She was the third child and the only girl. The daughter. This set her apart. "I realised early that I was asking questions my brothers did not." Like? "Like why the children we played with on Saturday were sitting downstairs in the kirk when we were up in the loft."

As an observant child, she recognised, too, the adult embarrassment such questions engendered. And probably enjoyed the discomfort. At 10, she was sent off to board - her brothers were sent away aged seven. Boarding school was "brutal", she says, "a very efficient way of keeping you at a remove from life... If that's what you want." By this stage, I make her at two removes. Her own privileged life was at a remove, and she was now removed from that. There were bound to be attempts to pull her back into the fold - at West Heath she was made head girl in an effort, as she says, "to quell my hooligan traits".

From the beginning, she characterised herself by not playing the part. She went to a school for dunces and ended up taking four A-levels. "The only girl in my class" - not so much a boast as an indication of what she was up against. One of her formative memories is of going to her brothers' speech day and hearing the headmaster tell the boys, "You are the leaders of tomorrow." And then going back to her own school to be told, "You are the wives of the leaders of tomorrow." So there you have it, she says. The script was already written for her. Which may have made it easier to sidestep the part. At New Hall, Cambridge, she read social and political science - a not very well-concealed desire to anatomise society and her own position in it - before swapping to English.

Roughly 20 years ago, I first saw her in a bit part in Mother Courage at the RSC. Her role seemed little more than a seductive advertisement of her beauty. She stood on stage, imperiously washing her long red hair in a bucket. I remember thinking it was a shabby exercise on the part of the director to turn the actor into a glittering spectacle. To treat the actor as them - not us. "Yes, isn't it interesting," she says, "how people fetishise others' hair?"

Looking back, you think that, with more prescience on the director's part, she might have played Ma Courage, that tireless old protagonist, inseparable from history and social circumstance, dragging her cart across the battlefield. It must have been clear to her then that she was not formed to be a classical actress. Too tall, 5ft 11in, for one thing. And the voice, not weak exactly, but lacking utterly the capacity to inspire awe - nothing of the tragedian in Swinton. More to the point, something in her art suggested she was suspicious of the art itself, the reverence in which theatre is sometimes held. In Brecht's words, "This is not magic but work."

At this time, the early 1980s, the RSC was on a high. It was the place to work. There were in the company a number of extremely talented young actresses - Juliet Stevenson, Fiona Shaw, Harriet Walter - who spoke out vociferously against the regime mastered by Trevor Nunn and Terry Hands for being male dominated. I don't remember Swinton ever complaining. Simply that, within a year, she had gone, opted out. Taking with her her pilgrim soul.

She met Derek Jarman in 1986, the year he was diagnosed with HIV. They worked together - her first film, Caravaggio, was his first real success - making a total of seven films, until his death from Aids in 1994. I repeat to her my favourite Jarman quote, made soon after his diagnosis: "You come to realise that peeling spuds is good fun. Much better than being dead." That epitomises Derek's spirit, she says. "He was never defeated."

Working with him was "a conversation... and out of that conversation every year or so would come a film". In Jarman she discovered the perfect artistic representation of what her acting would become. Detachment, an exploration of ideas in the flesh - whether a critique of society's treatment of gay men (Caravaggio, Edward II) or, as in The Last Of England, an anti-Thatcher polemic on England as a lost ideal. "I have never understood England or the English," Swinton says. She became identified as his muse, something that still rankles.

"I can understand it in cinematic terms, because he used my face over and over again. But it's not a completely satisfying description. Because, by muse, I understand an object that is passive. It does Derek a disservice to imagine he would ever be interested in the passive."

But he must also have represented to her a kind of alternative patriarch. A gay man with an outsider's eye. A former painter with a pictorialist's sensibility. And his films, at odds with the establishment, merged with her own need to set herself apart from her origins. He must have felt familiar, too - "familiar" is a word she uses a great deal. Jarman's world was notoriously closed to the uninitiated and run with military precision. Like Swinton, he came from a military background.

Even his courage, as she describes it - "never defeated" - sounds somehow soldierly. The film critic David Thomson puts his finger on something when he says that for his vision Jarman needed "the conditions of confinement" - the bars have to be there, and the more clearly defined the better, in order to be broken. This is also true of Swinton.

Of her films of the late 1980s, early 1990s, Sally Potter's Orlando is easily her best. Based on Virginia Woolf's novel, it is about a boy who becomes a man who becomes a woman. Spanning 400 years, it is a filmed essay about escape. Escape from the immutability of gender but, more specifically, the immutability of history. For Swinton, it amounts virtually to an autobiography - a subversion of her ancestors' dream of England. Girls don't inherit, so when Orlando becomes a woman she is told she may as well be dead. To all presiding purposes, she does not exist. She goes through the film with an aspect of ironic bemusement, looking like an Old Master portrait.

"It's true I do look like a lot of people in paintings." "I am England and you are mine," Archduke Harry says to Orlando, who looks at him witheringly, then at the camera with a sly smile, before turning England down flat. That can be done in films. Life is more comprised - you make choices.

Thirteen years ago, "if we are counting" (she does not say this reproachfully, just doesn't like counting), she set up home with the writer, painter and socialist John Byrne. They have twins of five, Honor and Xavier, and live an hour north of Inverness, which is about as north as you get. Recently they bought a second home in Nairn, to be near the twins' Steiner school, and now split their time between "wilderness" and town. It's the classic compromise - having it both ways. Not unlike having twins, in fact.

Post-Jarman, Swinton's work has shifted focus. Her own choice. Broadly, since 1996, she has made more, and, frankly, more commercial, films - though she denies she has ever made one for money. "I wish I could say that I have. But I so enjoy my work, I want to feel connected to it, so that's my addiction."

In America, where there has been a shift against studio and towards independents, she has a reputation that makes her desired by both, particularly by those pitching themselves between the two. She lends credibility to both. So Spike Jonze could cast her as a cool studio exec in Adaptation (2002) - and keep her after Meryl Streep and Nicolas Cage made the project "mainstream". In The Beach (2000), she played an authoritarian matriarch of the supposedly alternative society, reproducing brilliantly the pathology of the society her character is supposed to be opposing. What she did in Vanilla Sky (2001), she says, she did for director Cameron Crowe. "For me, the connection is always with the film-maker. It's a habit I grew early, in relation to Derek. I knew then that's what I was in it for."

But it is in The Deep End (2001) that the contrast between interior and exterior self, between the actor and the role, became fleshed out into a more realised human being. She plays Margaret, a mother, middle-aged, middle-class, of whom certain things are expected and who goes through life fulfilling those expectations without relish, without even succumbing to resignation. She just is. We know these women. Then her gay son becomes involved in the death of his lover and an ensuing blackmail attempt. As we see Margaret first, we think her weak. But she is, under duress, steel. What was remarkable in Swinton's performance was her avoidance of climaxes of emotion. She insists on the ordinariness of her action, as she goes about, with a ceremonial informality, covering up for her child. All pathos is expunged, there are no heroic antics. Far from playing a glamour symbol, she is a real, imperfectly shaped, human being. What is seductive here is that it is the actor as us - not them.

She has a distrust of the big words - like love, loyalty. Romance, in particular, is a bete noire. No surprise there. Romance exemplifies the desire to lose the self in another, in the myth of a happy-ever-after. Whereas, as she says, "Loneliness is the deal. Loneliness is the last great taboo. If we don't accept loneliness, then capitalism wins hands down. Because capitalism is all about trying to convince people that you can distract yourself, that you can make it better. And it ain't true."

Her latest role is as Ella, in the adaptation of Glasgow "beat" writer Alexander Trocchi's first novel, Young Adam, opposite Ewan MacGregor as Joe. Ella is married, she has a child with her husband Les, she runs her late father's barge on the Glasgow canals. "She has made her choices, she has sunk down into the woods of her own life and she expects it to go on like this for ever." With Joe, with sex as the catalyst, "She becomes abandoned. This I love. And then she loses her nerve. She starts to talk about getting a little bungalow. She betrays the project - well, it is Joe's project, in fact. A completely unromantic story, no future. Just sex. Mutual erotic charge."

Joe is an anarchist, as was Trocchi. Young Adam is generally considered to be, at least in tone, autobiographical. Sometimes viewed as Glasgow's answer to William Burroughs, Trocchi in fact wrote very little. Most of what he did write was pornography to make his living.

Describing him, Swinton says, "With candour he is facing the great questions of mortality, existence. How is it possible to make connections with people, to own one's own loneliness." Trocchi's answer appears to be that it is not possible. He died, a heroin addict, from pneumonia as a result of complications following surgery for lung cancer. His son committed suicide. Not much charge in that. Yet for Swinton he is "an adventurer", one of life's examiners. She admires him because he never courted approval.

"He even made it his business to doubt the validity of literature. He was at war with his own desire to create." Incidentally, she compared Trocchi at one point with Francis Bacon - she appeared as Muriel Belcher in John Maybury's biopic of the artist drawn from a book by Daniel Farson. Unless I misunderstood her, she found him wanting. "Bacon had a desire to create order out of chaos. As an artist, I don't believe he was an anarchist. Deep down, he had a respect for the laws of art."

So where is Swinton in all of this? Is she, too, at war with her own desire to create, and does this explain the strange feeling she gives off as a screen presence - someone more concerned with detachment than with the common vocabulary of acting, the dramatisation of feeling. She has the power to create objective passion - for ideas, ideals, causes - but, unusually in an actor, something in her temperament seems to inhibit, even exclude, passion for herself. Even a simple conversation about personal happiness - "I don't believe in happiness as a goal. It's a bit like the right to choose vanilla: it is just a flavour" - turns immediately into a theoretical discussion about the iniquity of capitalism. "One of the terrible problems of advanced American capitalism is the clause in the constitution about the right to pursue happiness."

We were talking at one stage about the bourgeois life and I pointed out that two homes, two kids and a long-standing partner is a pretty conformist bourgeois position, about as far from Trocchi as a thinking person can get. Of course, she has placed herself and her family at an extreme geographical position, which she considers a social statement, too.

"Scotland is not a middle-class country and it could never be made to be. It will always be independent, its sense of itself is inspiring." But she is always hopping on planes to America and Europe, so even the remoteness of her life in Scotland seems moot. She likes the split: "The split is important. I lead at least a double life."

Apropos of being split, she describes the feeling she had being sent away to school. And how her mother never expressed emotion. "She didn't cry. She didn't compute it, I think she thought it would be upsetting. But upsetting people is never a reason for not doing something, is it? And it would have meant a lot to me if she had."

She had a similar experience recently, filming in Paris, when her daughter had to go back home. "Honor was very sad and I was, like my mum, trying to be cheerful. Telling her I was not going away, it was only a week, I was in her heart." But that isn't good enough for children, they like physical closeness, the feeling that they belong. Swinton says suddenly she could bear it no longer and started to cry.

"A look of bliss came into Honor's face. I realised I had done for her what my poor mum could never do for me, which was to show her how upset I was. And then it was fine."

There is feeling there all right. But the pattern of her life, and her work, has been to abstract herself from feeling. Out of this, she has developed a theory of escape. You have to admire the impulse and the effort it must have taken, while wondering simultaneously if it isn't time, at 43, to let the abstraction go.

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