Tilda Swinton – actress – Interview
STILL TESTING NEW WATERS AFTER ALL THESE YEARS
Call her Gloriana: Although it was Quentin Crisp who played the Virgin Queen to Tilda Swinton’s initially male courtier in Orlando (1992), Swinton–tall, pale, red-haired–is the most progressively Elizabethan actress of them all. The 40-year-old Scot has made a career of embracing the polarities of femininity and masculinity, often–as in the case of Orlando–within the same role.
Indeed, as the political impact of androgyny has gradually been marginalized again by a retrogressive pop-cultural climate, Swinton has remained one of the few performers who has continued to explore its meaning–even as she has tested herself in other kinds of roles. These include her yuppie businesswoman, who is conditioned to being sexistly objectified, in Female Perversions (1996), and her manipulative den mother in The Beach, the film’s ballsiest character.
Swinton has always leaned towards the avant-garde. Shortly after leaving Cambridge, she fell in with Derek Jarman, the late auteur whose visionary, usually gay-themed films were a thorn in the side of Thatcherite complacency through the ’80s and early ’90s. Her films with director John Maybury–including Man to Man (1992) and Love is the Devil (1998)–have been no less vital.
In this month’s The Deep End, made by the Suture team of Scott McGehee and David Siegel, Swinton plays Margaret Hall, a woman single-handedly bringing up her three kids on the edge of Lake Tahoe, her naval officer husband off at sea. In the opening scene, she warns the feckless nightclub owner Darby Reese (Josh Lucas) to keep away from her teenage son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), his lover. Shortly afterwards, she is implicated in Darby’s death and menaced by a blackmailer’s gofer, Spera (Goran Visnjic), who reignites a long-extinguished sexual spark within her. Ostensibly a suspenser, the film is also a character study of a cerebral woman suddenly prised open emotionally. And Swinton, of course, is sublime–if typically unsettling.
TILDA SWINTON: Didn’t we meet a long time ago?
GRAHAM FULLER: It was on the set of Friendship’s Death, 15 years ago.
TS: [laughs] So you’ve done your sums.
GF: I remember you played an alien and we did the interview standing up. And now you’re in the Scottish Highlands.
TS: Yes, we live in the wilderness on the east coast. It’s such a strange landscape, because it’s got a sort of golden mien of its own, and there’s a way of driving through it where you feel you’re in a river or something.
GF: That leads us nicely into The Deep End, which has a lot of water imagery. You’ve got quite a physical role in the film, but it’s also a role in which we see you thinking through a series of problems as you go along. What was the challenge for you?
TS: Exactly that. It’s the latest in a long, very honorable tradition of films with women thinking their way through domestic crises over 90 minutes, usually in close-up. [laughs] But I’d forgotten about the physical side. You’re talking about my lugging a dead body around?
GF: Yes, and picking his pocket at the bottom of Lake Tahoe.
TS: There’s an intrinsic shock in the idea that Margaret is alone in the frame so much of the time, often not saying anything, and that feels physical to me.
GF: Is the process of having to figure things out–choosing what move to make next on camera–as exacting as physical action?
TS: I don’t find it exacting, because mapping something like that through a performance is so much less than the sum of its parts. You only hit four or five of those beats a day, whereas, in the story, this woman goes through this incredible roller coaster over the course of three-and-a-half days. It’s just a feat of concentration to keep it clear and simple. Margaret is doing everything in her power not to feel anything at all. The whole drama unfolds because she makes the initial decision to go down to the Deep End [a gay nightclub] and confront her son Beau’s lover and tell him to stay away from him.
GF: Does Margaret know if she’s attracted to the blackmailer, Spera?
TS: Who knows if she knows? It’s difficult to know things, and particularly to know them as they happen. It’s sort of impossible, I’m discovering.
GF: There’s a tantalizing scene at the end of the film where they come close to kissing.
TS: The gaps left open are so often where eroticism really springs from, and that shot is certainly the pinnacle of that. You’re dealing with layers of repression there.
GF: Well, her husband has been at sea for so long, and here’s this handsome, dangerous guy.
TS: Something very delicate happens in the shift between her seeing him as a threat and seeing him as a friend, and then maybe recognizing him as something else.
GF: The scene in which Margaret watches the video of Beau having sex with Darby, his sleazy 30ish lover, is disturbing, mostly because of your reaction. Do you think it would have been so disturbing if it had been a daughter and an older man?
TS: In the book the film is based on [The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding], Darby’s character is :a girl, and a number of letters she wrote to the man are the source of the: blackmail. I think [the film’s writer/directors] Scott McGehee and David Siegel made the child a boy to update it. It isolates Margaret’s own sexuality. With the exception of her daughter, Paige, she’s entirely surrounded by men. And when she sees a tape of her son so joyously welcoming this man into his body I sense she, too, longs for that kind of erotic liberation.
GF: Do you have any concern that the film could be perceived as homophobic because Darby is so predatory?
TS: I hadn’t thought of that. Yes, Darby is older and a bit wild, and there’s a slightly promiscuous atmosphere at the club, but we’ve all been in erotic situations with stimulating people who are otherwise undesirable–that’s just growing up. I don’t see it as homophobic because on that videotape her son is not being preyed upon. It’s not as if he’s being raped. It’s more a film about a mother dealing with her own closets, which are shut much tighter than her son’s. That water imagery is so profound because it suggests Margaret is suspended, and has been for a long time, but this crisis brings her needs to the surface. When ‘she goes to meet Spera she wears a pair of high-heeled lizard shoes and a red coat, and he says to her, “I took you for a smoker.” And he’s right, but she keeps her cigarettes in a drawer. She’s a sort of femme fatale, but completely repressed.
GF: There’s a moment of agitation when you fish the cigarettes out of the drawer when you are trying to get your husband on the phone. You put a cigarette in your mouth, and then take it out immediately. It’s like you don’t want to be caught. Are those kinds of gestures unconscious or something you plan?
TS: All of the above. I think the devil’s in those details, particularly when you’re working with a character like this who is not a communicator. We don’t learn about Margaret by what she says, but by how she behaves. Something like that would have come about by playing it a few times and then finding a pattern. It’s like striking the riff that tells the story.
GF: Moving on, what does Orlando mean to you?
TS: Oh, it means a great deal to me. Making it was a Sisyphean task. At the beginning there was [writer/director] Sally Potter and me and Virginia Woolf’s novel, and five years down the line, we made this film. Of course, it was too long because you can have too many fantasies about the film you’re going to make. For a few years after the film was out in the world, it was difficult for me to see it, because in a way it will only ever be the trailer for the 20-hour film [laughs] I was hoping we were making.
GF: Was it that idea of a boy who becomes a woman who then moves, through the ages toward self-sufficiency that excited you?
TS: That’s what we were in it for. The film’s so much about identity, and about the way in which you struggle through what people throw at you, and how they define you, and’ how you have to keep going. I saw it again recently and was proud of it after all these years.
GF: People often mention “androgyny” and your name in the same breath.
TS: Well, they’re to be forgiven for that. [laughs] I’m a very lazy animal and have a low pain threshold, so I’ll work on what I’m interested in, and it may take me four pieces of work to morph into another curiosity. In Man to Man [both stage and film versions], I played a woman who disguises herself as her dead husband and lives as a: man throughout the Second World War. And I played Mozart in Mozart and Salleri. Androgyny’s still an abiding curiosity of mine–it probably has something to do with my having been brought up with three brothers.
GF: It’s as if you’re making a continuing inquiry into the notion of gender identity.
TS: Yeah, that’s for sure. Now I’m learning how to be a mother [of three-year-old twins, a boy and a girl, with her partner, writer John Byrne].
GF: It was a shock to see you in The Beach.
TS: Good! I call The Beach my experimental film because it was a delight for me to talk to the transport captain about him getting 500 people to work every day. It was a thrill after working with Derek Jarman and a Super 8 camera and holding my own light for eight years. [laughs]
GF: Can you tell me what Derek meant to you?
TS: I can try, I shan’t succeed. First of all, he was a true friend, and we lived alongside each other for eight years. And then he was a colleague and we made seven films together. It was through him that I started to make films. I had been working in the theater but the second I started to work with a camera [in Jarman’s Caravaggio, 1986], I realized that was what I was interested in. To find it with Derek was an extraordinary stroke of luck, because we made a kind of laboratory together. I sometimes wonder if I would have sustained my interest in film acting if I had only been allowed to exercise it in a more industrial environment. It would have alienated me, possibly. And so to have that apprenticeship with Derek was a miracle for me.
GF: I have this vivid memory of you screaming and clawing at your gown against an apocalyptic sky in [Jarman’s] The Last of England .
TS: What I’m doing in that scene is tearing myself out of my wedding dress. I remember after we showed the film in New York, someone came up to me and very precisely told me what he thought the film’s story was, and at the end he asked me if he was right. I said yes, but someone who was with me said, “You’ve just misled that guy.” But who am I to say–who are any of us to say–that what someone sees in a piece of art isn’t there? Because we just do the cooking, and “chaque a son gout,” as they say.
Graham Fuller is Interview’s Film Writer at Large.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Brant Publications, Inc.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group