I first met the extraordinary Tilda Swinton a year ago at the Roger Ebert Film Festival ("Ebertfest") a year ago, right after she finished up a marathon Q&A about her criminally underseen 2008 film JULIA. I was helping out the event's videographers do backstage interviews for a couple of guests of the fest, which happen to take place just a couple of week's after its founders passing. Swinton had been to the festival just a couple years earlier for I AM LOVE, and the great mutual admiration shared between her and Ebert was no secret--they adored each other. We spoke for about 15-20 minutes about her appreciation of Ebert and the importance of the festival, and while it's always fun to check off the name of a person you've always wanted to meet off your list, it was especially moving to get to talk to her about a person who meant a great deal to both of us.
This past March at the SXSW Film Festival, Swinton had two films playing, both from esteemed auteurs: the still-in-theaters Wes Anderson work THE GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL and writer-director Jim Jarmusch's sharp and witty vampire tale ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, in which Swinton and Tom Hiddleston play centuries' old married vampires who don't live together but are brought together by unseemly circumstances and a need for a new blood supply. It's a great piece and, like most Jarmusch works, it's an approach to a familiar subject matter done in a way ever seen before.
Since her days doing experimental works with the late filmmaker Derek Jarman, Swinton has been that rare performer who feels equally comfortable playing the strangest collection of creatures ever assembled on film, as well as tackling more mainstream roles for well-regarded artists of the cinema. She's worked with the likes of Jarmusch and Anderson several times in the past, as has also been courted by directors such as David Fincher (THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON), Terry Gilliam (the upcoming THE ZERO THEOREM), Danny Boyle (THE BEACH), Cameron Crowe (VANILLA SKY), Spike Jonze (ADAPTATION.), the Coen Brothers (BURN AFTER READING), and Joon-ho Bong (the upcoming SNOWPIERCER). But also take a careful look at what she's putting into seemingly ordinary characters like those in THE DEEP END, MICHAEL CLAYTON, and WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN.
Of course most Americans got their first look at her in the ground-breaking, gender-bending work in ORLANDO and know her best at the White Queen in the CHRONICLES OF NARNIA films. As if her normal roster of work isn't challenging enough, she's next slated to be seen in the Judd Apatow-directed, Amy Schumer-written TRAINWRECK, scheduled for release in the summer of 2015 (because that summer is packed enough).
I know that even admirers of Swinton's work believe her to be a bit odd because of the roles she takes on, but the truth is she's about as articulate, intelligent and funny as anyone I've ever interviewed. She's genuinely curious about anyone that is fortunate enough to step into her field of vision, and is as eager to ask questions as she is to answer them. She's exceedingly aware of her abilities, the great fortune concerning the people she gets to collaborate with, and it's clear she has thought very deeply about each role that she's played. With that said, please enjoy my talk with the great and talented Tilda Swinton…
Capone: Hi, Tilda. Good to see you.
Tilda Swinton: Hi, Steve. Good to see you.
Capone: I wouldn't expect you to remember, but we met at Ebertfest last year. After your Q&A you got whisked away to a little camera set up.
TS: Around behind the curtain, yes of course I remember that. Oh, Steve. And I can’t make it this year. Are you going this year?
Capone: Yes, I’m going.
TS: Very sad to miss it this year.
Capone: Well, it's good to spread out the appearances, otherwise people start to take you for granted.
TS: [laughs] I’m up for anything for Ebertfest.
Capone: Vampires were my gateway drug into, not just loving horror films, but also loving movies in general. When I was a kid, it was just the thing that got me interested in watching movies. So often I have thought about what life they would really live, and I feel like this film captures it better than maybe I’ve ever seen it before. Tell me about uncovering the thought process of someone who has lived hundreds or thousands of years.
TS: You’re talking about what the work was, but also what the delight was, because I’m with you. That’s the question: How would they really practically live? And one of the things I love about this film is that we who’ve seen it, can never forget it now. We really feel like we’ve seen a documentary about vampires, and so they’re there. They do exist. We’re going to be looking for them everywhere now, and of course we know them. It is a documentary film about a lot of people we know, let’s face it [laughs].
I think it’sall about that perspective you would have if you lived, in Eve’s case, 3,000 years. For example, that moment when he’s depressed, and she says, “We’ve seen all this before, you know? Do you remember, you missed the Middle Ages.” He’s only 500 years old, he’s still young, but that feeling that we must learn not only how to, but that we can survive these things. We can survive depression, we can survive knowing about terrible things going on on the other side of the planet. If we can do nothing about it, or if we can, then we must do it, and then we must somehow survive it. That feeling of how to bear the weight of the rest of the world. If you’re 3,000 years old, you don’t sweat the small or even the medium-size, or even the large stuff. She doesn’t sweat any of it. She just has that long, long view.
Then of course, there’s this question of living in an immortal state. Although we meet them at a time when things are getting a little dicey--the [blood] supplies are running out, they’ve got to be more careful than they were--but they’ve lived for a long time without what I keep saying, they're not in the cul-de-sac that the rest of us are. We’re all in the cul-de-sac and we all know where we’re headed, but these guys don't. They’ve got a free pass to access all areas. Just try to imagine what that would be. We can all try to imagine that. What I came up with was this feeling of serenity and perspective, a perspective and an innate wonder at all the stuff that goes right, including a weed that grows between two concrete slabs in Detroit; it’s all pretty miraculous really, and there’s a lot to be very grateful for. So, I think it’s that feeling of perspective.
Capone: I love some of the practical things that you’ve introduced. The idea that you would get a supply of blood, because if you fed on humans all the time, you'd get caught by calling attention to yourself. Of course, you would live somewhere that was very isolated.
TS: Also, we’re humane. We’re very evolved. We don’t want to litter up the Thames with dead bodies.
Capone: But we’ve been taught that vampires get more out of blood fresh from the tap, as it were.
TS: Absolutely. There are all these myths.
Capone: Well, I’m glad you set the record straight.
TS: And also, there are all sorts of myths like garlic. I like the way that every vampire film adds to the lexicon about vampires. So we now added this thing with the gloves, so let’s see if there’s a new vampire film that’ll include the gloves.
Capone: That's a neat little thing--touching something and being able to tell how old it is is pretty cool. But really what this is is a love story. It’s about people that either don’t or can't live together for long stretches of time. Does something happen when they get together that makes things more dangerous, more volatile?
TS: In that sense, I think it is a film about humans. It is a film about a long relationship between humans. It could be, it doesn't have to be. As I say, they’re more enlightened. They know that because they haven't got the urgency of the four-score-years-and-ten thing hanging over them, they know they can take it slow, they know they’re always going to be there for each other. They can kick back for ten years, or a year. He can go off into one of his reveries, and she doesn’t feel like being around.
She wants to go and be around people and wants to go to Tangier, so there’s that sense that, as in human love relationships, enlightened ones, it’s not about oneness, it’s about keeping each other company while each one is truly themselves. So, you don’t have to be together all the time. You know that you’re there to support one another, and you know that you’re not going to mess with the other person. You’re not going to try and change anybody; you’re just going to try and go witness them and keep them good company while they act out what they need to act out.
That’s the human part of it, actually. I think that’s a quite recognizable human part of it, that relationship. We know many humans in the same boat, don’t we? That moment when Marlowe [played by John Hurt] says to Eve, “You don’t seem to be able to live together, but you can’t live without each other.” We all know couples about whom that’s been said.
Capone: That pretty much sums up the movie.
TS: But the other thing I think it’s really about, I think, in those human terms is that you don’t have to be like somebody to love them. Really great marriages--and I mean that in the non-sectarian term--were in a sense very often built of people who are not like each other at all. They are very complementary. They are different, but that’s why it works; that’s how it works.
The first spark for this film was this beautiful book by Mark Twain, “Eve's Diary,” which was published in 1906, which is really beautiful and worth a read. It’s very, very light hearted and fond, and it’s these diaries of this very grumpy Adam: “Wednesday: I’ve got so many animals to name.” And he notices this creature who really annoys him because it just wonders around going, “Ah, look at the stars. I want to knock them down and put them in my hair.” And slowly she makes herself known, because she’s been taken out of his side. And then you have her diaries, and she’s just this space cadet wondering at everything. And then slowly, slowly, slowly, they come together and really love each other. But their difference is the root of that book, and I think that was what Jim really was inspired by was this love story by these incredibly different people. It goes into the territory of those books, "Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus" or whatever, but says, “Yeah, and so what?
Capone: There’s such a great look to her too, a look she’s been cultivating for a couple hundred years, probably.
TS: A thousand I would say.
Capone: You almost just want to peel it away and figure out what’s going layer by layer.
TS: One of the things that we talked about a lot was if these are unsocialized beings, unsocialized humans, immortals, what are unsocialized humans? They are animals, basically. We talked a lot about wolves. There's a heartbeat that goes through the film and comes up in the soundtrack occasionally bigger than the other moments, and it’s actually a wolf's heartbeat. The hair, when we were trying to find solutions for the hair, we ended up going to wolf hair. The way they walk, we wanted to take, again, he urgency, which is tied up with being socialized somehow, out of the way they moved. They’re like the cat that walked by itself. The lone wolf, that whole thought. And then in terms of the look, in terms of the clothes, we wanted it to feel as if it could be really almost any moment in history. There are jokes in there about people's bathrobes being 300 years old, and Marlowe’s waistcoat being 300 years old. But also her look and Adam's, it could be medieval, or it could be the '50s, or it could be '70s, or it could actually be this season. [Both laugh] That feeling. That feeling that it’s everything and nothing. From the second we put in detail that felt that dated it, we took it away again.
Capone: Wow. The fact that Christopher Marlowe is a part of this story just blows my mind. But that would be a question for Jim, I think. "Why the Shakespeare conspiracy?"
TS: Huge conspiracy. You know this?
Capone: I’m well aware. I know John’s a huge believer in it too.
TS: Huge, huge.
Capone: Let me ask you one question about GRAND BUDAPEST HOTEL. I’ve seen it twice now, and I think it’s like the funniest thing I’ve seen this year. And actually just a week ago today, I did a Q&A with Wes Anderson.
TS: Fantastic. Here?
Capone: No, in Chicago. Seeing you in it, obviously you’re unrecognizable. It seemed like his mission was not just going to make you old; he’s going to make you the oldest human being on the planet.
TS: The oldest person ever. He tells everybody she’s 84, but she’s actually in her middle-90s, I reckon. Yeah, I played some very old ladies last year. It was just a complete hoot; it was really, really beautiful. And the fact that Wes would put on… God knows how much those prosthetics cost on me, rather than getting somebody really 90 in the film.
Capone: Didn’t I hear that Angela Lansbury had the part for awhile, and she had a scheduling conflict?
TS: Oh! Well, maybe. That actually makes a great bit of sense. I didn’t know that. But still, it’s an investment. Then, why didn’t he get another actor of that age? It seems typically Wes that he would do it that way.
Capone: It’s funnier that it’s you, though.
TS: I think the thing that’s funniest is, of course, is that we’re like a pair of nine year olds. It’s not actually an old lady. It’s an old lady played in such a, you know...
Capone: She’s a randy thing.
TS: What's he say? "She's dynamite in the sack."
Capone: There’s a thing that you do with your delivery, when you say “I love you.” You’re sitting in the car, and your head goes forward in the most cartoonish way; it will crack me up forever.
TS: It's the sincerity move [laughs]. Yeah, I love that film. It’s something else. And I believe it is worthy of all the [Ernst] Lubitsch references. It’s up there, because it’s got that shadow in it. It’s built on that shadow. And that’s why it’s so funny, and it’s so light, and it’s also got that very explicit statement in it about, maybe this time never even existed, which is important. It’s too simple to call it nostalgic. It’s fantastic, is what it is.
Capone: I think it’s a celebration of nostalgia. It’s not really nostalgic in the classic sense, but it’s celebrating a history that never existed.
TS: In my house, he sent me various props and things, and they’re around my house, and I’ve got a couple of those pink Mendel’s boxes. Every time I see them, you just go, “Oh, it all works.”
Capone: I’ve got a Mendel’s box in my house that actually had...
TS: …a little cake in it?
Capone: It wasn't a single cake. They were these small cookies. I can't think of what they're called.
TS: Like a madeline?
Capone: No, more like macaroons.
TS: Even better!
Capone: Talk to me about the importance in your career of never repeating yourself, because I think if there’s one thing we can say about you, you’ve never done the same thing twice as an actor.
TS: Even asking the question, and I think about formulating the answer, I feel like I should be able to declare some sort of modus operandi. I think I just have a really low boredom threshold, and I’m fortunate in constantly stumbling upon playmates who will help me to dream up things that will just re-tickle me and us. If I ran out of those playmates, I suppose I would have to try and tickle it up myself, and if I couldn't, then I would just fold up. I don't see a point really. It’s just very, very lucky that I have these opportunities to keep pushing it a little further.
Capone: I’ve also seen ZERO THEOREM recently…
TS: You haven’t seen SNOWPIERCER yet?
Capone: No, I haven't, but I’m not sure too many people have at this point.
TS: Fasten your seat belts. It’s coming.
Capone: The people that you call playmates, these are some of our greatest film artists--Gilliam, Jarmusch and Anderson, and going back to Fincher and Lynne Ramsay. Those are just the more recent examples. We could go all the way back to Derek Jarman; his films were where I discovered you.
TS: That's where I started.
Capone: I even saw BLUE. I sat in a theater and watched that movie as much as you can watch a blue screen for 90 minutes. These are artists, though. You seem drawn to people that are not just shooting a movie, but they are creating things that have never been seen.
TS: That's just the world I came from. That’s totally the world they came from. I started making films with Derek in 1985. The first film I ever made was CARAVAGGIO, and we made seven films together. And when he died, 20 years ago last month, by the way, amazing--I had been working for nine years in cinema, but I still had not worked industrially. So that’s the gum tree I’m up.
Fortunately, I’m finding if he’d been the only one who had gotten me up the gum tree, and nobody else was willing to play, then I would have ended there. But the miracle really is that there are other people who want to play and who have gone on and wanted to play in a similar way, and there are now, not just other filmmakers that I’ve worked with, but other families that I’m in. Wes Anderson--I’ve made three films with him; I’ve made three films with Jim; I’ve made several films with Lynn Hershman; I’m working constantly with Luca Guadagnino; I’m talking to Lynne Ramsay about a new film. They're repeat offenders.
Capone: Yeah, you’re part of their repertoire.
TS: Yeah, and the thing that holds them all together for me is this perspective on the work, which is that these are not projects to be achieved. They’re conversations to be had, and they take a long time to develop, and we’re constantly trying to put things up there that don’t exist, and sometimes they take as much as 15 years to make, but it’s worth having the conversation. And they’re my friends. That’s the quickest way of saying it. They’re my pals, and we all like each other, and there’s nothing better than working with your friends because you’re working--you're ticking that box--and you’re with your friends. You’re ticking that box.
Capone: You make it sound like the actual making the film is just the tail end of a much more interesting process.
TS: Those are they symptoms; that’s the trace. That’s what we leave behind.
Capone: Do you have to remind yourself that that’s the end goal?
TS: That’s the sweetie wrapper, and that gets shared obviously, and I’m not saying it’s not important. Look at this film, ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE, that took us, I mean, Jim first rang me up, I think, we have a slight barney about this, I think it was eight New Years ago. Something like seven or eight years ago, he rang me up and said, “Hey man, let’s make a film about vampires,” and we’ve been talking about it ever since, and we’ve now done it. I can’t believe it. Every New Year, I’ll write a list of things I have to pay attention to, and ONLY LOVERS, for once, is not going to be on the list. We’ve done it. And that’s what you do. You just chew it together and chew it together and chew it together until it happens, and it’s a long, long game.
Capone: It’s great that you got all these things coming out right at the same time.
TS: I know. They’re all just suddenly bursting out. They’re all a bit mad. You wait untill you see SNOWPIERCER.
Capone: I’m a huge fan of that director.
TS: And you know that we’re getting the...
Capone: …the original cut. Yeah, that’s what I heard. Beyond SNOWPIERCER and ZERO THEOREM, which I think just got a release date too, do you have anything else?
TS: No. Only because I’m done, and the things I’m talking about now, don’t hold your breath. I’m sort of back to the drawing board now.
Capone: That's probably pretty rare, actually.
TS: Well again, you choose these things and then they do come together, and you have to shoot them when the money’s there, and they all came together in a block, and now they’re all coming out. I always say, I’m like a farmer: I’ve had a big harvest and now I’m seeding again.
Capone: Right, letting the land sit for a year.
TS: Yeah, and living.
Capone: It was great to see you again. Thank you so much.
TS: Nice to see you, Steve. And have a good time at Ebertfest.