The Accidental Actor

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Photo Source: Jaimie Painter Young
To those upset with Tilda Swinton for ruining your Oscar pool last year, the Scottish actor wants you to know that no one was more surprised than she when she won best supporting actress for her portrayal of tightly wound counselor Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton. "Even my own agent said, 'You know, it never even occurred to me for one second that you might win,' " Swinton says with a laugh. "I just thought we'd go along and have fun and then go home." When asked if she even bothered to write out a few thank-yous, Swinton looks appalled. "Of course I didn't prepare a speech! Did it sound like I did?"

Actually, sort of, but only because Swinton has a talent for making everything that springs out of her mouth sound witty and wonderful. Besides, aren't actors good at feigning surprise? "Well, I'm not really an actor, so I wouldn't know how to do that," Swinton replies. "I think I probably masqueraded for that moment as an Oscar-winning actor." She mulls over the reasons she doesn't feel comfortable referring to herself as an actor, then says, "I feel it's slightly fraudulent to real proper actors to hear me saying I'm an actor. I've heard actors talking about their lives, and I don't feel I live an actor's life. So I feel it's more proper to refer to me in another way."

In person, Swinton is as elegant and poised as she appears on film. Maybe it's the Scottish lilt that makes her casual conversation sound as if it were scripted by Oscar Wilde by way of Dorothy Parker. Or maybe it's her stunning appearance. Tall and willowy with alabaster skin, equally pale hair, and bright blue eyes, Swinton has an androgynous beauty that has been put to good use in a wide range of films, playing commanding and intimidating women. The most unintentionally funny moment in last year's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, in which she played a lover of the title character, is when she's referred to as "plain as paper."

Perhaps because roles came fairly easily to Swinton, she doesn't feel she has earned the right to call herself a "proper actor." Shortly after joining the Royal Shakespeare Company, she was handpicked without an audition by director Derek Jarman to make her film debut in his 1986 film Caravaggio. She would work closely with the filmmaker on six more movies before his passing in 1994. Most people first took notice of her as the young nobleman who one day awakens as a woman in Sally Potter's 1992 art-house hit Orlando. Since then, the actor has excelled in larger fare as well, such as the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and fallen angel Gabriel in Constantine.

Her latest film is a departure from the collected women she generally plays on screen. In Julia, from French director Erick Zonca, Swinton plays an alcoholic careening out of control who ends up bonding with the young boy she kidnaps for ransom. It's a gritty, raw performance in a small-budget film that marks a return of sorts to Swinton's earlier work.

Back Stage: You say you didn't set out to become an actor. When did you realize you had become interested in acting—or are you interested?

Tilda Swinton: I don't know that I'm that interested in acting, to be honest with you. I started performing in plays when I was at university. I was a writer, and I stopped writing and started performing; one took off when I stopped doing the other. I was never really interested in the theatre as such; I was always interested in film. I think performing in films is my way of being on a film set, which I love. It feels like a distraction to me. But I never set out to be a performer. I never intend to be in another film, and then someone asks me to be, or we dream up some idea together, and I say, "Okay, this will be the last one." And it seems to go on and on.

Back Stage: Have you ever had to
audition for a role?

Swinton: I'm trying to think. I did read a scene for the Coen brothers last year, which they were amazed I would do. I was amazed they were amazed because apparently there's a whole etiquette I'm not aware of that says if you've been in a couple of films, you don't read. Which I find very strange, because how are the filmmakers supposed to know whether you can do it or not? I was very happy to read.

Back Stage: Your first film was with Derek Jarman, who became your frequent collaborator. You didn't audition for that?

Swinton: I was very lucky. I met him and I made seven films with him over eight years. I was almost exclusively working with him for those first eight years of my filmmaking life. At the end of his life, I made Orlando with Sally Potter, which took five years to make. And when he died, I was a little bit out of sorts because that was an eight-year day job. But by then I had worked for so long that people who were interested in working with me got in touch with me, and I had a body of work. And people have been sending me invitations every since.

Back Stage: But you landed a performance agent early on. How did that happen?

Swinton: When I was at university, I performed in plays there, and a West End agent came to see a friend of mine and said to me afterwards, "If you want an agent when you leave, give us a call." And I didn't, because I had no intention of performing. But I eventually did give him a call, and he took me on. I worked in the theatre for a year and a half and was in the process of not enjoying it all when I met Derek. We had a lot of friends in common who kept saying we should meet. He was putting together Caravaggio, and I went to meet him, and I just loved him, and he asked me to be in his film, and that was it.

Back Stage: What do you like about film sets versus the theatre?

Swinton: I just find it fascinating. I love the technical business of making films; I love the feeling of being in a big group of people who are all working together towards one moment. And I love the mathematics of it. There's something about live performance that I really love, but I worked in kind of an industrial theatre in London—the Royal Shakespeare Company—for a year, which felt to me very far from the experience I was really looking for. Because I'd worked in an experimental way before in smaller groups, and that had the same spirit I love in a film set. In an industrial theatre, things tend to kind of get divided up a bit.

Back Stage: It sounds like this all came very easily to you and you were very lucky.

Swinton: It was, and at the same time my disclaimer is that I didn't really want it. So if it had been something I'd been working towards, it would look really lucky. But it was all quite random. At the beginning, if someone had offered me a job as a film critic, I probably would have taken it. If that ameliorates my luck. It just unfolded in an organic way, and it always had to do with the people I was involved with. From Derek to Sally Potter right up to today, it's all been the people who have made me go wherever I've gone.

Back Stage: Probably your best-known art project is The Maybe, an installation in which you were encased in a glass box, sleeping. Where did this idea come from?

Swinton: When Derek died in 1994, I was at a crossroads, not really knowing how to work without him. I wasn't sure if I was going to be working as a performer at all. I started working as a fine artist. I really had a question in my mind if I was a performer or not. I wanted to find a gesture that was a hybrid between what I love most about live performance, which is everybody in the same room together at the same time sharing a moment, and what I really love about screen performance, the capacity for an audience to really scrutinize somebody here. And I came up with this gesture of a sleeping figure. For a while I wasn't intending to be that sleeping figure myself, but I suppose I didn't have the nerve to ask anyone else to go through it, because it was an endurance. And I slept in a box—in London we did it for seven days, eight hours a day. In Rome we did it for eight days for slightly
different hours. I'd be there all day, then I'd go home and sleep—it was exhausting.

Part of my observation has been that there's a kind of attention that we give to people who are sleeping or ill or dying or dead that we don't give to people who are facing us with their eyes open, able to respond and defend ourselves. And I wanted people to feel that. There's a strange openness and sometimes a feeling of compassion, sometimes aggression, when they're given a prone body. When I did it in the Serpentine Gallery, which is in the middle of Kensington Gardens, directly outside the walls of my box, outside the walls of the gallery, there were people lying in the grass. And beyond that are people lying all over the streets of London who are homeless, being ignored. And there am I, in this box, being looked at over seven days by 22,000 people.

Back Stage: After making a name for yourself with art-house films, you've branched out into studio pictures in recent years. Was that a conscious decision or just dictated by the work?

Swinton: No, it has entirely to do with me being invited to do things by people. I've just been taking up invitations to other people's parties. Also, these little films take a lot of time, and I don't want to be away from my children for that long. I was just meeting with Jennifer Fox, who produced Michael Clayton, about a film with Lynne Ramsay that we're trying to get off the ground. It takes a lot of input and development and just hours and hours of legwork. There was a period of my life where I wasn't really available for that. I'm sort of back to developing my own projects again, and Julia is the first of that. It's a return, in a way, to a more familiar style of filmmaking for me.

Back Stage: How does developing the project change your approach to a role as an actor?

Swinton: I developed the character from scratch, so it's different from, say, the Coen brothers asking me to come in and play Katie Cox. That's "Tilda light." In either case, I try to make sure that the work that needs to be done is all done before we start shooting, so that then I can just play. I never really want to work once we're shooting. I like to get the subterfuge done first. Julia is a huge piece of disguise, and the whole rhythm of that portrait and the shape of her physically and the space she takes up is so different to the way that I'm wired naturally that it took a time to build that whole different person. But once it was built, we started shooting, and I just dressed up and played.

Back Stage: Do you have a preference between supporting roles and the pressure of carrying a film on your own, as you do with Julia?

Swinton: One of the reasons I love being in every frame of the film is that I'm relatively lazy, and I find it much easier to work frame by frame if you're in every frame of the film. You can lay down the detail. If you're coming in and out of a picture, you have to do these kind of surgical strikes and work with much more precision. You're not dictating the tenor of the piece. In [the Coens'] Burn After Reading, we were all revolving doors; we weren't in the same week as each other, and we weren't sure if we were in the same pitch. That's a juggling act, and you've only got six scenes to establish a character. It's like being a sprinter as opposed to a long-distance runner.

Back Stage: Was playing such a self-destructive alcoholic in Julia a difficult experience?

Swinton: I'm not aware of having a method as such, but in the past the stories and material that have attracted me have tended to require me to take some of my own DNA and microdot it and blow it up into some larger proportion, i.e., pull something from within myself. Julia is a material and a narrative and an atmosphere that I feel quite familiar with, but from an outsider's perspective. I have known and been around alcoholics for much of my life, like most people—whether they admit it or not. But I'm not wired that way myself. Where some actors would say, "There's a lot of Julia in me," I would say, "There's a little Tilda in Julia, but I didn't pull Julia from inside myself." She's like a massive fat suit that I zip myself into. I am disguised by her, rather than me disguising myself as her. That was a real departure for me. And my relationship with Erick Zonca was different. I was very dependent on him in quite a new way. His rhythm is much closer to Julia's than mine is. So I tied myself to his rhythm and I needed him.

Back Stage: Were there any scenes or moments that were particularly difficult to shoot or that were new to you?

Swinton: There's a syndrome we look at in Julia that I've never seen tackled before, which is the idea of the drunk the morning after. There's a cliché about people waking up with a sore head, sober, because it's the daytime. It's not actually true; if you've drunk that much, you're probably still drunk. So that overenunciated fakeness I've seen so many times, I've never seen it played, and it's tricky to play it, because it's fake. It's working out of sync with one's natural rhythm. And it's literally overacting. There you are, it's the morning, you're pretending to be sober, but you're not. That was really interesting. Erick was my eyes and ears very much with that. I was outside of my own capacity to see myself, which was great. It was a real adventure, and he was someone who's had a longstanding relationship with drink himself, so he was constantly pushing and so aware of how too much could not ever be too much.

Back Stage: When you show up on a set, what is it you're hoping to get from a director?

Swinton: To play. To be playful, to be welcoming your playfulness. To be ready to be amused and ready to be your witness. One of the things I try to make certain before working with anybody is whether you know you're going to be able to have a joyful experience. Especially if you're working on something quite heavy; you can't be heavy when the camera stops. Particularly on little films, because they're so hard to get made, it's
such hard work that once you're actually filming, it should be grace and you should just be
celebrating every day.