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Interview with Actress Tilda Swinton: “I am probably a woman”

by Vera von Kreutzbruck

Tilda Swinton is one of the most talented and captivating artists in current international cinema. She’s also in high demand. Tilda recently finished shooting a Jim Jarmusch film in Spain with Jim Murray and Gael García Bernal. She is also planning a collaboration with Marilyn Manson who wants to direct a film on the life of writer Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, and is working on the creation of a foundation dedicated to the introduction of cinema to children, which already has support from the World Cinema Foundation. In August of last year, she successfully organized a small film festival called “Ballerina Ballroom – Cinema of Dreams,” which took place in Nairn, Scotland. And at the end of this year, she will play a mother who does not identify with her maternal role in a film directed by Scottish filmmaker Lynne Ramsay.

Tall and slender, Tilda’s penetrating gaze and androgynous features make her look otherworldly. As this 48-year-old Scottish actress has consistently shown through her work, she devotes body and soul to every project she decides to get involved in. She has received numerous awards, among which the Oscar and BAFTA for her supporting role in Michael Clayton stand out.

Tilda’s film career began when English director Derek Jarman chose her for his film Caravaggio because of her amazing resemblance to the women portrayed in the Italian artist’s paintings. Jarman and Swinton continued working together for eight more fruitful years, making another seven films. In 1992 her acting career took an international turn after her performance in the movie Orlando by Sally Potter, a film based on the Virgina Woolf novel. Despite several appearances in Hollywood movies, such as Burn After Reading by the Coen brothers and The Chronicles of Narnia by Andrew Adamson, she has stayed faithful to independent cinema, choosing risky parts and helping to blur the gender boundaries imposed by society.

In February, Tilda presided over the jury of the 59th Berlin International Film Festival and made time in between film screenings for our interview. She arrived wrapped in a furious red coat, took her time to answer each question carefully, scratching her head to find the right words, and shared her passions, fears and projects in this 45-minute interview.

You have been a muse for many art-house directors. If we leave that word aside, how would you describe yourself?

I think of myself accurately as an artists’ model because that is how I started so it’s the art world I look to. In terms of performance, the most emblematic performance I look to always is the performance of the donkey in Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar. That’s my aim, that’s my holy grail. Trying to be as animal as this donkey.

What criteria do you have for choosing your roles?

I never choose roles, I always choose the people. This has to do with the habit that I formed very early in my career. It all begins with a conversation, the actual project comes out of it, and then we discuss what am I going to do in it. The role is always the least important.

You have had the privilege of working for the best directors. How did you manage to have such freedom of choice?

I’m in a very blessed position. I started to work in such a particular environment with Derek Jarman. I worked with him for 8 years and was in 7 of his films. It was like being in a kindergarten environment. I was able to develop a certain sensibility and way of working. When he very sadly died in 1994, I was without my major collaborator. Fortunately by then I had worked for long enough that people knew my work and started to come to me and that was my blessing.

And like Jarman, your work started to get international recognition.

Recently I’ve had this strange adventure in America in particular. It has been a strange journey because it’s means going away from home. I’m not talking in terms of geography but in terms of working in the studio system, which is very exotic, mysterious and interesting to me. But this adventure is coming to an end because now I have my work to do at home again. But the fact that the studio system is employing people like Andrew Adamson (Narnia) or Francis Lawrence (Constantine) or Spike Jonze (Adaptation) is a good sign.

Why did you decide to do the documentary Derek on Derek Jarman?

The idea came from a conversation I had with the two producers of the documentary, Collin McCabe and Isaac Julien. We decided to do it because we’d go around the world talking to film students and we realized that no one knew who Derek Jarman was and you also couldn’t get his films on DVDs. I had been suffering this for 10-15 years. Another reason is that it is really important to talk about him, not just to honor him, but to talk about that time.

What was special about Jarman’s time?

In those days we complained like mad about how difficult it was to make films, about the political climate, about how it was to be an artist in resistance against Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. But actually culturally we have to face that things were better for us then, there was a particular kind of funding films in the UK that there just isn’t anymore.

Before, one was given a little money by the British film industry for one film on the understanding that you would probably get the same amount of money for the next five, so you had the sense that you would be able to develop as an artist. Now everything is market-led, now there is an organ which is monitored by the income from the lottery which is all about making profit. They are much more interested in getting their money back than in culture. I think this has to do with the breakdown of television. There was a time in the UK when we had a proper and honorable television industry. People didn’t really talk about the film industry so the films that were produced could be culturally different.

How would you describe Derek Jarman’s legacy?

His impact is very particular. He was a filmmaker and a cultural activist and I don’t just mean in terms of his political activity, but also in terms of his struggle with AIDS and against repressive doctrines in the British government. He was an important figure in the cultural resistance, even internationally. And as a British artist he is very significant because he was part of a very long and honorable tradition in the art world. England, like all small countries, is very good at burying their greatest artists. Derek is a wonderful example of an international artist who managed to prevail and to have an impact at home as well.

Last year in Scotland, you directed the film festival “Ballerina Ballroom – Cinema of Dreams.”

It is more like a party that I hold. Last year I rented an old bingo hall in our little town Nairn wanting to make a cinema in it to show my DVD collection every Saturday, just to show any movies rather than the movies shown in the multiplex half an hour away. Shortly afterwards, my friend Mark Cousins (a film critic) and I decided to have this test festival. We gave no public announcement, there was a little Facebook reference and we got six times the amount of people we could fit. It became this kind of international event and it was really fascinating. We showed Fassbinder’s The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant and it was the best screening of that film I have ever seen in my life.


I’ve seen that film countless times in university, cinémathèque audiences where everyone is sitting there going: “Oh yes this film does this” and at the festival there were a bunch of old ladies and people who had never seen a Fassbinder film before, working so hard [to understand it] and nobody left and everybody came back the next day to see Miss Marple. It was fantastic.

We also showed The Singing Ringing Tree by Francesco Stefani, Singing in the rain, The Boot by Mohammad Ali-Talebi and 8 ½ by Fellini. One of the reasons why the Ballerina Ballroom worked so well was that it came completely as a surprise – nobody, including us, knew what we were doing. The ticket cost three pounds but if you brought a homemade cake or wore a particular piece of clothing related to the film you got in for free. As a result we have created this project called “Cinema of Dreams” which is now a roving film festival. The Scottish government has asked us to take this concept to Beijing to show Scottish movies. We are going to keep making these festivals but we don’t quite know how.

Sally Potter’s film Orlando, in which you were the protagonist, presented a very peculiar view of gender. How would you define gender?

I would say, as with any transformative possibility, we can also play with gender. My idea of identity is that I’m not sure it really exists. I’ve examined this idea laterally since Orlando and other pieces of work that I’ve made, when I’ve played with the idea of transformative gender. For example, when you become a mother, do you lose everything? Can you actually retain a multi-faceted identity? That whole idea of transformation is at the heart of what I’m interested in as a performer and not least through the idea of gender. It’s a very personal matter. I can categorically say that as Orlando does in the film: Yes, I’m probably a woman.


I don’t know if I could ever really say that I was a girl – I was kind of a boy for a long time. I don’t know, who knows? It changes.

There is a scene in Orlando where he encounters death for the first time and then he decides to become a woman to be able to give birth. What does this particular scene mean to you?

Orlando is really about spirit. Even though the film is about transformation, my main task throughout was to not change at all, just to remain absolutely the same. I saw the film again recently and I was particularly moved by that section of transformation – the scene of the battle – because I’m a soldier’s daughter, I’m a soldier’s sister. I think constantly about what it does to human spirits to have to make the decisions that soldiers have to make.

Sometimes the need for coherence can drive change, transformation?

Orlando has the luxury of being able to transform, [but] we don’t all feel that we have that luxury, maybe we do, I don’t know. But I think it’s about a feeling of consistency. At that point he just has the capacity to stick with his spirit and that means that he transforms into a woman.

More than once you have played male roles. Why?

It just feels to me a very natural game to play. I enjoy walking the tightrope of identity, of sexual identity, of gender identity. I’m happy to keep swinging it. I still haven’t grown enormous breasts and hips. I tried with Julia and then it went away. I’ve impersonated Julia. For me, Julia is a female impersonator.

Up to what point is this idea of transformation an experiment with yourself? Are there any limits?

Yes, there are. Obviously what I look for is something that I’m particularly curious about. For example, as I referred earlier I am a mother and I’m very interested in what happens to a person when she becomes a mother. Just twisting that screw is very interesting for me. Feeling about what bits of yourself you really lose and what bits you keep with you.

Apart from motherhood, what other type of physical transformation are you interested in?

In aging. For example, in David Fincher’s great film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button I play this woman who lives all her life in a state of regret. She had the opportunity to swim the [English] Channel when she was nineteen but she didn’t do it and she has regretted ever since. But when she is older she just reverses her life and does it. I found that really inspiring. As I get older I notice that we are bound by these concepts that you have to do certain things in a certain order and I just don’t think its true.

For example?

If you did not rock out in your teens, you can rock out in your forties or your sixties. People are constantly thinking, It’s too late. I should have. I didn’t go hard enough. Why not? At the moment, I’m testing this idea of chronology. My children are eleven and they have taken me back to that age. I suppose this always happens. I’m kind of thinking about what it is to be eleven at the moment.

Are you currently working on any new movies?

I’m working more in Europe now. I’ve worked with French filmmaker Erick Zonca, with Luca Guadagnino in Italy, with Béla Tarr in Hungary. The next film I’ll make is with Lynne Ramsay who is a Scottish filmmaker. It is an adaptation of a book called We Need to Talk about Kevin which was a controversial novel about a mother who has doubts about motherhood. It’s quite tough but Lynne is an extraordinary Scottish talent.

You sound very content when you talk about your work in Europe. Do you dislike working in Hollywood?

I haven’t entered the system and it hasn’t caused me any suffering. I’m a tourist there. It’s a very interesting place to visit but I’m from another planet.

Be sure to read Vera’s series of interviews from this year’s Berlinale – with director Sally Potter and actress Parker Posey. – Ed.

About the Author
Vera von Kreutzbruck was born in Argentina. She started her career in journalism at the English language newspaper, Buenos Aires Herald. After a fellowship in Germany three years ago, she decided to settle in Berlin. She currently works as a freelance journalist contributing to media in Europe and Latin America. Her articles focus on international news and culture in Germany and the European Union.

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