She might have two critically acclaimed and typically quirky films on release right now, but British actress and fashion icon Tilda Swinton always believes every movie she makes will be her last. Grazia's Jane Mulkerrins caught up with her at the recent SXSW film festival in Austin, Texas, to find out why.
Tilda Swinton at SXSW [Getty]
It’s early on a Saturday morning and in spite of only having blown in the night before from Scotland, Tilda Swinton is – as ever – impeccably turned out, in her signature crisp white shirt, with a calf-length black leather skirt and beige cowboy boots. ‘Well, I was given a cowboy skirt and a pair of cowboy boots for the festival so I thought I had better wear them,’ explains the 53 year-old actress.
She’s here at SXSW in Austin, Texas – her first visit the annual festival - to support her latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive, an art-house vampire flick directed by Jim Jarmusch (whom she first met, she says: ‘amusingly, backstage at a Darkness concert in LA’), which comes hot on the heels of the huge success of her other current release, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which – made up to look like an 83 year-old countess - she plays Madame D, one of Ralph Fiennes’ many older lovers.
Tilda Swinton in Only Lovers Left Alive
Swinton’s reputation – in both film and fashion – leans towards the risky and avant-garde; she began her career working with the late British director Derek Jarman, has been her own art installation at The Serpentine gallery in London, collaborated with Victor & Rolf, and been a muse for Alber Elbaz, Raf Simons and Phoebe Philo among others famous fashion names. And at five foot eleven, with her cropped white-blonde hair, she can be relied upon to cut an elegant, androgynous swathe on any red carpet.
In recent years, she has played the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia, Eva, the mother of a high school killer in We Need to Talk About Kevin, and an oddball social services representative in Moonrise Kingdom. Which, to her has been her strangest role to date? ‘I think playing a corporate lawyer in Michael Clayton,’ she answers without missing a beat. ‘Truly, that takes the cake for me.’ Odd though it may have felt, the role, alongside George Clooney, also won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
We've long loved Tilda's individual style [Getty]
Though she considers herself Scottish, Swinton was born in London and brought up, for a large part of her childhood in Germany, where her father, a major-general in the British army, was stationed. ‘Those camps were really interesting; everyone was swimming in the amniotic fluid of their particular nationality,’ she notes.
She is not, she says, one of those actresses who always burned with the desire to perform. ‘The first film I think I ever saw was Herbie Rides Again, and from that moment, I wanted to be in films,’ she laughs. ‘But that didn’t mean I wanted to be a movie star or anything, I just wanted to be in the back of Herbie. I used to think I might want to be a writer, either for film or about film.’
The Swintons were aristocratic, but not artistic. ‘My family was not a family in which people made art; it was a family in which people owned art. It didn’t get done, it got bought,’ she says. ‘But as a teenager, I was always in the art room at school – that was where I felt that the water were running clear.’
Tilda with Leonardo Dicaprio, Virginie Ledoyen and Guillaume Canet promoting 'The Beach' in 2000 [Getty]
The school in question was West Heath Girls’ School, the prestigious private school where she was, for a time, a classmate of the future Princess Diana, before going on to study Social and Political Sciences at Cambridge University – where she joined the Communist Party and ‘toyed with the idea of being an actor for a few years’. But, she says, she was almost on the verge of giving up that plan, when she met the experimental art-house director Derek Jarman, who cast her in her first film, Caravaggio.
Today, she is undeniably A-list, but Swinton still selects her film roles carefully. ‘Every film I make is always going to be the last one – truly,’ she says, with a wry smile. And she continues to surprise. Last year, at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, she reprised the piece of performance art she had debuted in 1995 at London’s Serpentine Gallery, The Maybe, in which she was on display to the public for a week, asleep, or seemingly so, in a glass case.
When Tilda became a work of art [Rex]
‘It was like a living history lesson. When I first made it, not only was there no Twitter, but there were no mobile telephones,’ she says. This time round, her unannounced ‘pop-up’ art piece, a comment on our obsession with celebrity, exploded on social media, with Buzzfeed even began live-tweeting from the exhibition. ‘It is an interesting fact of our life, for millions and millions of people to see something without actually being there,’ she notes.
She eschews the Hollywood lifestyle, living, instead, in Nairn, a small town in the Scottish highlands, with her 35 year-old ‘sweetheart’, the painter Sandro Kopp, and her 15 year-old twins, Honor and Xavier, by her former partner, the playwright John Byrne. The tiny town, she says, used to have two cinemas; now it has none. ‘There is a multiplex half an hour away, where you can see Harry Potter pretty much round the clock, it seems to me, but you can’t see that much else,’ she remarks, drily.
So, sick of being unable to see films on a large screen, six years ago, Swinton rented an old bingo hall in the town and threw her own film festival. ‘It was a sensation,’ she says, proudly. ‘Not only because lots of friends came from New York and Paris and London, but because the local people just ate it up.’ They were not showing big-budget blockbusters, but art-house classics such as those by the German filmmaker Fassbinder, and Scottish films.
‘This is a small town, with a lot of old ladies and fishermen and unmarried mothers – and they just loved it,’ she beams. The following year, they took the festival on tour, renting a bus, and pulling a 42-ton screen across Scotland.
Swinton screenings certainly sound an awful lot lot of fun. They encouraged fancy dress – those who arrive dressed according to the film got in for free – and for the audience to bring home baking. ‘We always dance before our films too,’ she says, perfectly seriously. ‘Dancing is really important.’
By Jane Mulkerrins