From cutting edge drama to mainstream glory, Tilda Swinton has achieved success where few would dare to tread. Miles Fielder explores the woman with the movie magic
It says an awful lot about the rise and rise of Tilda Swinton that, during the course of the teaser trailer to one of her forthcoming films (the Coen brothers crime comedy Burn After Reading) three legends are flashed up on the screen: ‘CLOONEY’, ‘PITT’, ‘SWINTON’. In addition to its highly bankable leading men, Burn After Reading also features the Oscar-winning wife of Joel Coen, Frances McDormand, the inimitable John Malkovich, and Richard Jenkins, the character actor widely tipped to be in the running for an Oscar in the new year for his terrific performance in The Visitor. Nevertheless, it’s Swinton who receives third billing in the trailer and it’s Swinton whose name is being used to sell the film.
How did that happen? Until relatively recently the London-born Scottish actress was best known for her work with the late avant-garde filmmaker Derek Jarman (about whom she wrote, narrated and produced the new documentary, Derek) and for a string of arthouse films such as Sally Potter’s Virginia Woolf adaptation Orlando. Swinton’s androgynous good looks combined with her exquisite poise made her a natural choice for Woolf’s detached, sex-shifting hero/heroine, and she put her uncommon screen presence to great use in other challenging arthouse pictures, including Female Perversions, Love is the Devil and The War Zone, in addition to the seven films she made with Jarman, starting with her debut in 1986’s Caravaggio and ending with the director’s penultimate film, 1993’s Blue.
Then, at the turn of the millennium and in her 40th year, Swinton’s career took a new turn when she was cast as the misguided matriarch Sal in the British-made, US studio-financed adaptation of Alex Garland’s bestseller, The Beach. Hollywood sat up and started to pay increasing attention to the actress who had for a long time in Europe been regarded as a self-evidently striking talent; roles in significant American films such as Cameron Crowe’s Vanilla Sky and Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation followed, and within five years Swinton was reprising her androgynous screen persona in the blockbuster comic book-based movie Constantine, in which she plays the evil angel Gabriel. In the meantime, she continued to make arthouse films, though now on both sides of the Atlantic, appearing in David Mackenzie’s adaptation of Scottish beat writer Alexander Trocchi’s novel Young Adam and Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers. Then, in early 2008, Swinton appeared in a film that combined her arthouse background with the celebrity-driven Hollywood world she had stepped into: Michael Clayton, the remarkable existential thriller in which she co-starred with ‘Gorgeous’ George Clooney and for which her performance as a ruthless though naïve corporate publicist furnished her with an Oscar (which she famously gave away to her American agent, half-joking that it wasn’t really that important to her and, anyway, it kind of looked like him).
Thereafter, everyone and their grandmother wanted to work with Swinton, despite – or just as likely because of – her cheeky Academy Award snub. A scan of her forthcoming films confirms this is the case. In addition to Burn After Reading, Swinton will be seen in French auteur Erick Zonca’s Julia, David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button alongside Cate Blanchett and The Limits of Control for Jarmusch in the company of Bill Murray and John Hurt. She’s also rumoured to be appearing in Roman Polanski’s latest, The Ghost, opposite Nicolas Cage and Pierce Brosnan, as Lady M to Sean Bean’s Macbeth in Come Like Shadows and in Goth rock star Marilyn Manson’s directing debut, Phantasmagoria: The Visions of Lewis Carroll (that last title sounding just so up Swinton’s street).
That, briefly, is how Swinton went from arthouse darling to Hollywood player. With all that’s going on in her life now, though, you wonder how Swinton finds the time for all the extracurricular activities she has going on in addition to her acting gigs. These include completing the Edinburgh International Film Festival’s triumvirate patronage (with Sean Connery and Robert Carlyle), launching her own film festival in her hometown of Nairn, helping independent filmmakers get their projects off the ground … oh, and raising her twin daughters with their father, the playwright John Byrne.
That last of Swinton’s film industry-based extracurricular activities is the one she’s least vocal about, despite considering it to be the most important aspect of her professional life. As far back as the 1980s, she was helping filmmakers get their films made.
Although she spent just a matter of weeks filming 1992’s Orlando, Swinton was actively engaged in drumming up support for Sally Potter’s feature debut for years beforehand. Given that she’s circumspect in regard to the films she’s helped get made (born from a mixture of modesty and professionalism, no doubt), it’s difficult to say exactly how many independent productions have benefited from her involvement (certainly many of them have not featured her in front of the camera). What can be said with some degree of certainty is by the time Swinton turned up in the Scottish capital for the premiere of the ensemble ‘Indiewood’ flick Thumbsucker in 2005, she had thoroughly integrated her behind-the-scenes altruism with her increasingly high-profile acting work.
And certainly, at the time, Swinton was more interested in the former than she was the latter. While she continues to take her acting seriously, talking to Swinton three years back it seemed the acting now served as a means to an end, the end being getting other, non-commercial films made. It may be that with 20 years of screen acting under her belt, Swinton was experienced enough not to take it all too seriously (something reflected in that Oscar giveaway?) and therefore not to have any great desire to talk about it ad nauseam. Or perhaps she was simply more interested and more excited about her increasing ability to facilitate others in the making of their art. Whatever the case, the way in which Swinton described how she worked was something along the lines of introducing the people with the ideas to the people with the purse-strings by getting out her little black address book of professional contacts. It’s a lovely – and extremely modest – way of saying that she is, in effect, an executive producer (though Swinton was adamant that she didn’t do enough to take a screen credit as such, despite half of Hollywood doing exactly that, and for a lot less effort).
Actually, Swinton does have three exec producer credits – on Thumbsucker, the abortion drama Stephanie Daley and Derek – but there are clearly many more films that have benefited from her involvement. If not for Swinton’s sterling efforts we might not have been treated to the conceptual comedy Teknolust or the Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr’s French language Georges Simenon adaptation The Man From London or, indeed, Julia, a film its star describes as schizophrenic and one in which she plays an alcoholic. These are difficult films that need clout in the industry to get them made.
So let’s leave the last word to the woman herself: ‘I heard about Julia in a rumourish sort of way,’ she says, ‘because I had met Zonca in Cannes in very frivolous circumstances and I really liked him. He is an extraordinary animal with a very rare instinct. What’s so refreshing about his film is it’s genuinely amoral. And I like the randomness of suddenly finding yourself in a completely different film: a thriller, a gangster movie, and a film noir. Formally, it’s risky, but in terms of atmosphere and territory, it’s really radical. It feels like the beginning of the work that I’ve been looking forward to doing all my life.’
Burn After Reading is on general release from Fri 17 Oct. Julia is out Fri 5 Dec.