Tilda Swinton

[Interview by Fiona Duncan / Photography by Juergen Teller / Styling by Jerry Stafford]

Tilda Swinton’s language is as bewitching as her look. The ethereal Scot drops truisms like Jenny Holzer and evidences her claims in metaphors of nature, adventure, and lore. Life, as per Swinton, “is a wander through strange woods, whistling and following bread crumbs.” She plays. Not acts, plays. She’s played the widow of a high school shooter in We Need to Talk About Kevin, an adulterous Russian trophy wife in I Am Love, the White Witch of Narnia, David Bowie’s double, both man and woman in Orlando, and a too-dutiful general counsel in Michael Clayton. Most recently, she’s played an 84-year-old lover to Ralph Fiennes in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, a computerised therapist in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem, a dictator in Bong Joon-Ho’s sci-fi Snowpiercer, and 3000-year-old vampire, Eve, in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. The latter role is most of what Swinton and I discussed in this interview, which was conducted via e-mail; she writing from her home in Scotland, me from mine in Brooklyn. This distance set my hypermediated imagination in overdrive–Tilda, to me, is both star and constellation: a singular artist, a self, but also a composite of every role she’s played. I pictured her in a stone chateau in the country of my forefathers, wrapped in tapestries like Eve, “Moonage Daydream” playing in the background.

Fiona Duncan — Could you share with us one of your favorite dishes; how to make it, step by step?
Tilda Swinton — Rhubarb and ginger crumble:
Pick the rhubarb.
Wash the muck off it.
Top and tail each stalk.
Chop up into cigar stub length chunks.
Put in a pan of water with a squeeze of half a lemon and soften the fruit till it goes all loose.
Strain and set aside.
Save rhubarb water in the fridge to make juice with.
Put two handfuls equally of spelt flour, demarera sugar and some soft butter into a bowl, take off your rings, roll up your sleeves and rub them together until the consistency of couscous. Add in ground ginger to taste – nice and sharp is the way in this house.
Put the rhubarb in a dish with bluebells painted on it.
Cover with the crumble.
Bake until the top goes brownish and the rhubarb bubbles up a bit like tar on a hot road.
Serve with any combination of goats yoghurt, cream, ice cream, custard or preferably all the above.

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Only Lovers Left Alive is a fantasy film. But it is a fantasy that feels “true to life.” In terms of its representation of love, it was one of the truest felt films I’ve ever seen—showing what it’s like to love in duration, when you know your significant other as deeply as one can but still respect their being other. Adam and Eve’s is not a merging romance, not an Aristophanes love as oneness, it’s a coexisting love. Another recent film that felt this true to me with respect to love was Spike Jonze’s Her. Like Only Lovers Left Alive, Her is about love as it manifests across time and space; it’s also about ways of being together that allow for separateness; it’s also a fantasy. I’m wondering if maybe we need extended metaphors, like vampires in Only Lovers Left Alive or artificial intelligence in Her, to discuss the truisms of love. What do you think: Is there something about “fantasy” that lends itself to addressing “reality”? Is this a zeitgeist thing, like, do we need these fantastical/abstract forms to discuss love now because we discuss it so much already (mass media loves love stories but the language of most of it is so cliché)? What love stories feel truest to you?
— I would say that fantasy reliably addresses what we call reality: that that is precisely what it’s for. That everything from Parzival to Rapunzel and even fairy stories that don’t have a z in their name spin a net for our psyches to bounce on with the impunity of knowing ‘it’s not real’ and so our true enchantment can come out to play. The Mark Twain diaries of Adam and Eve that provided the grit in the oyster if this film are practical, ‘historical’, records of a real love between two people who (let’s dare…) never existed. And yet, they inspire precisely because of the human scale of their detail and the compassion of the attitude they swim in. I think – I know – that loving somebody needs no prescribed formula, that each love story is particular – and unknowable outside of the lovers that live it. And that anyone labouring under the impression that there are rules that must be observed has yet to feel the force.

— Eve is a relatively much older woman next to her man, Adam; she’s 3000 to his 500. Her worldly wisdom, compared to his angsty withdrawal, stuck me as not just a wisdom of age, though, but one of femininity. Even if Adam and Eve had been turned at the same time, if there wasn’t a 2500 year age gap written into the script, I would have identified with their man-child/worldly-woman dynamic. Would you agree that there’s a difference something like age or experience; maturity between men and women?
We need a neurologist, maybe an endocrinologist, to talk to us here about hormones and gender specificity… But from where I’m sitting, not having that high spec gen, I would say I can think of just as many men providing the perspective on a relationship with someone – male or female – whose eyes are more inward, who are more concentrated on the wood than the trees. I would suggest that beyond any other aspect of difference between them, the most significant thing that distinguishes the contrast between Adam and Eve’s perception of life is that he is an artist and she is not. Maybe too much perspective is a distracting thing if you’re slipping your music to Schubert one minute and following your nose into drone, the next..

­­— One of the things that most excited me in Only Lovers Left Alive were the historically-minded vampire’s speculations on the future of humanity. Adam commenting on global warming, for e.g. Snowpiercer is even more wholly a speculative fiction. Do you speculate much on the future? If so, what do you think about? What concerns and/or excites you about where humanity is heading?
— My personal observation in life so far is that randomness is key, in all it’s glory. And I have no doubt that people have been leaning on their scythes or menhirs for all time speculating about where humanity is heading, as they will in teleportation corridors and endless chatrooms way up ahead..

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— Eve is a reader. Her book collection was so exciting. I can’t wait to watch the film on my own so that I can pause and study her shelves. Who curated her book collection?
— Jim [Jarmusch] and me.

— Are you a reader like Eve?
— If you mean can I read every known language at speed through my fingertips, sadly no.

— Are there book(s) or author(s) you revisit regularly? Could you tell me about one and how your relationship to it has changed over time?
Great Expectations is a book I read about once every five years and every time I read it it is a different tale. It’s like a chemistry experiment: you drop adolescence on it and it’s about being young and approaching the great mysterious exciting wood of life with all fantasy and idealism intact. Somehow, the darkness doesn’t register.. You read it in the atmosphere of growing experience as a young adult and it is about learning to pick your battles and understanding that some things go wrong and stay wrong: it’s a book about mistakes. You read it under the influence of being a parent, or losing a parent, or sensing your finite mortal capacities, and it changes again, like an octopus, like quicksilver – and becomes a book about death and redemption that opens in a graveyard, that ends with the afterlife.. Its a magical mirror of a book. I will read it until I can’t any more.

— Celebrity creates this aura that can blind us to the intricacy of the celebrated person, their work. I feel that way about you—that the incredible idea of Tilda Swinton turns you into this sign that I accept like I accept Oreos, as good and whole, as a thing I’ve decided I love but as a thing. Another way of saying that might be that fame turns the individual into a shorthand of herself. As a consumer of media, and that’s a lot of spectacular media (film, TV, pop), I find myself doing this: forgetting why and how I love, say, Kanye West’s work or David Foster Wallace’s work or your work; my mind holds onto, rather, the idea of Kanye, the idea of Wallace, the idea of Tilda. But when I do actually engage with the work, when I reread Infinite Jest or rewatch Female Perversions, I’m reminded at how much there is to engage with—the infinite why’s and how’s I love. Engaging like that—that’s where the pleasure of media is for me—but I feel like so much media coverage refuses to go there; the fame game turns us off that. I’m wondering how, as an artist, you negotiate working within this celebrity system that produces stars so bright, viewers have to work to see the work itself?
— I suppose it’s a question of separating the signal from the noise. The bare facts are that I live my life, make my work, alone and with my colleagues, look after my family, cherish my friendships. I don’t have anything to do with any other shadow puppets anybody else throws on me or anybody else, to the point that I would not know any exist were it not for people in your position letting me know that i make any shape against the curtain at all. Imagine what it feels like to read the phrase “the incredible idea of Tilda Swinton”. In my skin, Tilda Swinton is the name of the person I am, day in day out, super (apparently hieroglyphic) longhand, not remotely an idea and all too credible, and that’s the name I put on the form that authorises my children’s school trip, that’s the name on my plumber’s invoice. Having said that, what I make in the world is shapes, atmospheres, stories. If what any artist makes inspires others to create, then that’s what I call a good, good thing. Joining the dots of one’s own work – in ones own mind – is a mega slippery eel: the idea that others might be engaged in trying to perceive patterns themselves feels like company. But, at the end of it all, there is just a person making work: the work is the message in a bottle across the high seas, the person throws it knowing he or she cannot follow. Whoever picks it up on the other side must make of it what they will. But it’s the message that bonds the thrower and the finder, nothing else: keeping the other nonsense at bay is probably worth making an effort for.

— I’ve heard you say in several interviews that you never intend to make another film, that you’re, “not a big believer in people being in more than one film.” But here you are now with four films coming out around the same time. I would love to know if this is still something you believe, and why.
— What you describe is my personal preference as an audience: the thrill of a real, fresh, human face in one story, not detached from it by the burden of ‘interpreting’, or God forbid, acting – or providing the distraction of being recognisable from some other film’s atmosphere. Of course, I have let myself down in this respect. Damn those friends who have tempted me to play… Now, as long as I accept these temptations, I am somehow committed to attempting the tricky task of working my way back to throwing shapes new to me, providing – at least – a semi-convincing part of each film’s furniture. It’s a trick of the light..

— Could you list an example of an actor who’s only played one role? I’ve been trying to think of one and can’t…
— Actors tend not to. That’s the general trouble. But people do, in the world of documentary. And the donkey(s) who play Balthazar in Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar give hands down my favourite performance of all time. Happy that they never gave later interpretations of wildfowl or met the challenge of ‘giving’ their marsupials.

 

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— I meant to ask: where are you writing from? Could you set the scene?
— My little book room in our house in Scotland. It’s a chill day so there’s a fire in the grate. Three dogs draped about ahead of me, a fourth behind me like a cushion, his preferred position.

— Could you list three things on your bedside table?
— A hand-knitted horse. James Salter short stories. Grape hyacinths.

— In Only Lovers the themes that jump out at me are love certainly – what it is to be an old couple – existentialism, and thirdly capitalism – to feel excluded from a world transformed by consumption (so well represented by Mia Wasikowska’s character and a dying Detroit). The film also feels very personal, your co-star (Tom Hiddleston) plays a musician who can’t adapt to new technologies… Do you identify with Jarmusch’s code of values and this picture of the artist life?
— There is no doubt, this is a very personal film, for both Jim and me and many of our friends. The whole question of how to stay on the bucking bronco of modern consumerist society is something that I think both of us clearly steered clear of from the outset, and this particularity is something of a bond between those of us wired this way. But it is important to remember that this idea of feeling excluded is not inevitable: this is exactly what Eve brings to Adam, the perspective that they are excluded from nothing, that the necessity of their outsider status is a privilege and a great gift, not a deprivation. That however outnumbered the refusnik may feel by the mass of warm bodies all moving in the same – different – direction, there will always be company, fellow travellers, with whom to feel like kin – maybe not even warm or bodied any more, but living in books, in music, in art, in our memories. The community of cultural outsiders – even outsiders who find themselves capable of being effective in the world at the same time as sideways to it – is a never-ending companionship, the great and immortal, power of art in the face of nature’s transformations – and the dance-partner of human limitation.