Combustible Celluloid

Interview with Tilda Swinton

On 'The Deep End'

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

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A day before I was to meet with Tilda Swinton on her press tour for The Deep End in San Francisco, a strange brochure arrived in the mail. It was all about Swinton, complete with various luminous photos of her, a brief biography, and a discussion of some of her films.

Meeting the strangely beautiful actress in person proved very different than the neat little brochure projected. She sported a short, reddish hair-do and a circa-1977 Sex Pistols shirt full of vintage rips and safety pins. Seeing the brochure, she laughed. "It's very strange. I feel like Avon is sending out a new face cream. You know what I think they're doing is going 'this is someone that no one has ever heard of.' Because of the level at which they're promoting this film, it's a different constituency than the constituency that knows who I am. So I think they're sort of going, 'this is not this person's first movie!'"

Certainly not. I first became aware of the London-born, Scotland-raised Swinton in Sally Potter's jaw-dropping Orlando back in 1993. Her star turn in that ornate costume film required her to play both sexes over the course of several hundred years, and the role nearly made her a household name. ("Well, it depends on the houses, doesn't it?" Swinton laughs.) Lately, she's appeared in Lynn Hershman-Leeson's San Francisco-made film Conceiving Ada, as well as in Tim Roth's The War Zone and Danny Boyle's The Beach. But her real fans know her from her long run with cult filmmaker Derek Jarman, in films such as Caravaggio (1986), Edward II (1991), and Wittgenstein (1993).

"At first I only worked with people I'd known for many years," Swinton says. "We'd be dreaming projects up around a kitchen table. That was just the way I worked, and really that is still the way I still work and will continue to work in developing projects." Her newest film, directed by locals Scott McGehee and David Siegel, is a stylish film noir based on a 1947 novel. Swinton plays a housewife faced with a horrifying situation when she finds her son's older gay lover dead in their backyard and decides to dump the body in Lake Tahoe. In addition, Swinton has recently completed films for directors such as Cameron Crowe and Spike Jonze.

"What has changed recently for me is that a few people who I don't know have been asking me to do things," she says. "And the reasons they've been asking me to do them have been good reasons, reasons I've been able agree with and say, 'you might be right. I might be the right man for this job.' I suppose one of the reasons they've started to ask me now is because I've been working long enough that people are starting to get the hang of what I'm about. They know I'm not some 'professional actor' and that I'm not going to bring any 'skill' with me. It's not that sort of, I'll sit in my trailer, learn my lines, come out and do 'acting.' They know I'm just something different. So they're asking me to do things based on that."

"One of the things I'm very amused by on this rock 'n' roll tour of mine is how many times the word 'mainstream' comes up," she continues. "I so gleefully enjoy pointing out to people that there may be more than one mainstream, and what may be mainstream to one person may not be mainstream to another. Some people are really astonished by that. They never, ever thought that it was possible for somebody -- as I can say it myself -- has not seen Titanic. It's just very difficult for some people to imagine."

Swinton becomes slippery at the mention of the "strong female" characters she plays. "People mean different things. It's like a trick of the light. I mean, what is strength? What some people would describe as weakness, I describe as strength. For example, somebody might describe [my The Deep End character] Margaret Hall at the beginning of this film as stronger than at the end of the film. There is a way in which you can see that she starts the film as a very capable mother and she ends the film as a kind of blubbering child who is incapable of keeping her appointments and has to ask her teenage son to drive the car, needs to ask him for help. I understand why it is they think this. But other people see that as strength. I see that she does emerge in some way. She makes mistakes. But it all has to do with the thinking. As a cinemagoer it is such a rare thing to see women thinking in the cinema anymore."

It follows that such an unusual actress with such an unusual career would have an equally unusual role model. Swinton gushes that her favorite performance in any film comes from the donkey in Robert Bresson's Au hasard Balthazar (1966). "It gives, for my money, the absolute state-of-the-art film performance of all time because, by the very virtue of the fact that it's a donkey, that it doesn't throw anything out on the screen at you. It just is unwatched, because it is unaware of being watched. So as a viewer you just do to the Nth degree what cinema can make you do, which is just project onto the screen. It's like an open portal to all your projections. That's what I'm in it for. That's the thing I really love. That's what I love when I'm watching films."

So how close is Swinton to achieving that level of acting? "I'm aiming for that donkey. That donkey is my Holy Grail," she laughs.

August 8, 2001

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