Tilda Swinton Interview

In her latest film, the unorthodox actress plays a soccer mom embroiled in covering up a crime

In her latest film, the unorthodox actress plays a soccer mom embroiled in covering up a crime

(Some questions in this interview may have come from another journalist present for the Q&A.)

Not many 40-year-old women could carry off the strategically torn and safety-pinned Sex Pistols T-shirt look in everyday life, but Tilda Swinton is one of them and the ripening punk style suits her well.

The actress - best known for her role in 1992's "Orlando" as a gender-swapping aristocrat who lived for 400 years - has the kind of non-conformist aura about her that makes such fashion choices seem perfectly sensible, even when she matches that top with a long, Japanese-print designer skirt made of fine silk. Of course, she is sporting this look in the vesture free-for-all city of San Francisco, where she's stopped for a day on a promotional tour for "The Deep End," the latest in a 15-year career of unconventional films.

Unorthodox from the beginning, Swinton fell in love with film acting while making a series of experimental silent movies for English director Derek Jarman in the 1980s. After "Orlando" turned her into a bankable commodity on the art film circuit, she continued to make unusual choices. Among her many eccentric roles, she starred as a sex-addicted lawyer in the psychologically conceptual "Female Perversions," and played a digitized and time-displaced version of mathematician Ada Byron King in the intricately cerebral semi-science fiction, semi-biography "Conceiving Ada."

But in "The Deep End" Swinton makes quite a departure, playing Margaret Hall, a soccer mom who discovers her teenage son's gay lover dead at their boat house and dumps the body in Lake Tahoe after jumping to the wrong conclusion. In over her head in a suburban paradise noir thriller, Margaret is soon unraveling under the strain of guilt and the threat of blackmail from a strangely sympathetic criminal ("E.R.'s" Goran Visnjic) who has an incriminating pornographic videotape of her son with the recently deceased Lothario.

The character is comparatively normal, but the film - freely adapted from Elizabeth Sanxay Holding's novel "The Blank Wall" by Bay Area directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel - definitely has that off-kilter, Tilda Swinton air of emotional and psychological intensity.

Swinton herself, on the other hand, is surprisingly chipper and gregarious, even while offering a thin-lipped smile of deliberate import ("Well, I am a punk, you know.") while having her picture taken on the deck of her hotel room. When we sit down to talk, she scoots her chair in so we're only a few feet apart, intent on having a conversation instead of just answering a string of questions. I pull out a couple odd promotional items for the film I wanted to ask her about - a pamphlet about her whole career (and not really about "The Deep End" at all), and a funny novelty pen, the kind that depicts a little scene and you tip it back and forth to make part of the scene move. This pen depicts Margaret Hall dumping the body, which sinks to the bottom of a lake.

Q: They're doing some interesting promotional items (for this movie). I was just given this pen, and I got this in the mail yesterday [pulling out the Tilda pamphlet].

A: I know! That's peculiar isn't it? Can I show you the most amazing thing? [She disappears into the bedroom of her suite and emerges with a spiral notebook with a cover made from a license plate that reads "6FT B LO."] Look at this!

Q: Wow! That's cool!

A: And it's a really nice notebook as well! [As she flips through the pages, it's obvious she's put hers to good use].

Q: That's the license plate...

A: ...on the back of the (dead lover's) Corvette. Right.

Q: I love it! Well, I just found this (pamphlet) particularly interesting because it's not about the film at all. It's about you!

A: Mmm! It's very strange. I feel like Avon is sending out a new face cream. It's very peculiar. You know what I think they're doing is going "this is someone that no one has ever heard of." Because of the level at which they're promoting this film, it's a different constituency than the constituency that knows who I am. So I think they're sort of going, "This is not this person's first movie!"

Q: I thought maybe "Orlando" would have made you something of a name star on the indie film circuit.

A: Well, I didn't do (a press tour) for "Orlando." I think that the household (name) thing happens when, um - well it depends on the houses, doesn't it? [Laughs.] One of the things I'm very amused by on this rock'n'roll tour of mine is how many times the word "mainstream" comes up. I so gleefully enjoy pointing out to people that there may be more than one mainstream, and what may be mainstream to one person may not be mainstream to another. Some people are really astonished by that. They never, ever thought that it was possible (that) somebody -- as I can say it myself -- has not seen "Titanic." It's just very difficult for some people to imagine.

Q: You're kind of drawn, it seems to me, to emotionally profound kind of women - strong women or women who become strong by having these harsh circumstances thrust upon them. I know this is a pretty typical question, but what draws you to those kind of roles?

A: Well, I have to ask you a question first of all. What, really, do you mean by strong?

Q: I mean, um, intense personality, characters that are very well defined and understand who they are, or are learning who they are and are coming to understand themselves better, like Orlando.

A: Right. OK. That's interesting. I'm genuinely always interested when people use the phrase "strong women" or "strong women" because - and I'm not being smart - it's a very curious phrase for me to hear. People mean different things. It's like a trick of the light. Some people use the term "strong woman" to denote something very pejorative and may not even know that's what they're doing. I mean, I'm very confused anyway about this notion of strength. What is strength? What some people would describe as weakness, I describe as strength. For example, somebody might describe Margaret Hall at the beginning of this film as stronger than at the end of the film. There is a way in which you can see that she starts the film as a very capable mother and she ends the film as a kind of blubbering child who is incapable of keeping her appointments and has to ask her teenage son to drive the car, needs to ask him for help. I understand why it is (they think this). But other people see that as strength. I see that she does emerge in some way.

Q: Well, she has to think and keep thinking.

A: [Excitedly] This is it! She has to think!

Q: Some of the decisions she makes throughout the story are bad decisions, but...

A: Yep, yep. She makes mistakes. But it all has to do with the thinking. I think it's all to do with the thinking. And as a cinemagoer it is such a rare thing to see women thinking in the cinema anymore. It wasn't once. It really wasn't. There was a time when it was a very prized cultural norm. But it was also lucrative to the studios. Then there was this moment when they just stopped making those films and it all became about women reacting to the world. I think there are reasons why it became more important with the emergence of the women's movement to show women who were more likely to be out in the world taking some kind of physical action, or maybe even, as Margaret does, doing everything in their power to maintain the status quo.

And now we've kind of come full circle, in the sense that the height of our cinematic female role models are Erin Brockovich and Lara Croft. That's OK, but I don't know how helpful it is generally to constantly make films about extraordinary women. It's probably more useful than constantly making films about extraordinary men - and all power to it. But I think there's something else we have to do to, and for my money Margaret Hall is an incredibly ordinary woman in an ordinary situation, who eventually finds herself a very ordinary woman in the plot of a film noir!

Q: And the thinking is what is stimulating to you as an actor?

A: Well, thinking is stimulating to me in life! I think it's the thinking, and at the same time, as part of the thinking, she's questioning. She's feeling, and she's not necessarily clear about what she's feeling at any one time.

Q: This is where you come in. In a novel you can do an interior monologue. In cinema it's all visual and it's harder to show that unless you have somebody with a face that can convey thought, which yours can do.

A: [Nodding and Hmmm-ing]

Q: Something you honed when you did a series of silent films with Derek Jarman?

A: Yeah, yeah. This is my training. Not just my training but it's why I'm interested in film performance in particular. Because of the close-up and because of the level of scrutiny you can achieve. And it's to do with that thing about the grace of the fantasy - because it is a fantasy - that you can scrutinize someone who is unwatched. That's what I'm in it for. That's the thing I really love. That's what I love when I'm watching films.

Q: You've often worked with the same filmmakers again and again (Derek Jarman, John Maybury, Lynn Hershman-Leeson). What brings you back together?

A: There is one similarity between everyone I've worked with - I've felt on some level we could have some kind of equal dialogue. For many years I only worked with people I'd known for many years. We'd be dreaming projects up around a kitchen table. That was just the way I worked, and really that is still the way I work and will continue to work in developing projects. But what has changed recently for me is that a few people whom I don't know have been asking me to do things, and I've been able agree with and say, "You might be right. I might be the right man for this job." I suppose one of the reasons they've started to ask me now is because I've been working long enough (that) people are - but in such a limited way - starting to get the hang of what I'm about. All these filmmakers - Scott McGehee, David Siegel, Cameron Crowe (in the upcoming "Vanilla Sky"), Spike Jonze (in the upcoming "Adaptation") - asked me to do things that were good ideas because they knew who I was and what I was about.

Q: They were familiar with your body of work and recognized you as a actor who would be good in a certain part.

A: Yes, but they've also all been the kind of people who want you to bring your sensibility in through the door, too. They know I'm not some "professional actor" and that I'm not going to bring any "skill" with me. They know I'm just something different.

Q: Not skill, just talent?

A: Oh, you're so kind!

Q: Well, I mean, come on. All these people making all these different movies with you - you've got to have something!

A: Well, I'm being disingenuous. I know I've got something, but it's not that kind of crafty, actory thing. It's not that sort of, I'll sit in my trailer, learn my lines, come out and do "acting." I know I'm good for something.

Q: You like to work more collaboratively?

A: Well, of course. But I'm sort of becoming quite tired of that word because it's one of those things - we started talking about collaboration in film in the '80s and now it's been completely appropriated, like the word "independent." Everybody has started to talk about "collaboration" and it's started to take on a sort of French-German,1942 sort of ring, you know?

Q: [Laugh out loud.]

A: [Smiles.] So I steer clear of that. I would say I like to have a dialogue with a filmmaker. I'm not interested in being given a task, being hired to do a particular task. Having the confidence or the interest in my ability to be self-sufficient in putting together some kind of crafty way of fulfilling the task, and then turning up and doing it.

Q: Was there anything complicated or complex about working with two directors? (McGehee and Siegel directed "The Deep End" together.)

A: Really, not. I have to say it was very much easier than working with one in the sense that they're not really two directors because they are one directorial voice, and they have written the script together so they have already forged that voice by the time it comes to directing the film, and certainly by the time they come to talk to me about being in it. So it's easier in the sense that, you know, three heads are better than two. Your odds of making, you know, really good decisions are slightly shortened. You can have maybe a little fuller discussion with three people than you can with two. But it's not really like working for two directors.

Q: I see we're out of time. Last question: What's your tattoo?

A: That's all completely temporary. I change it all the time. But this one I think is "happy." Because I'm here. It was "dream" at the beginning of the tour and it got worn away somewhere in Dallas. My "dream" faded in Dallas. The next place, I think I'm going to have "jet lag."


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