November 5, 1960– Tilda Swinton:
“I was going through the airport security and I was searched by a male security guard. I’m very often referred to as ‘Sir’ in elevators and such. I think it has to do with being this tall and not wearing much lipstick. I think people just can’t imagine I’d be a woman if I look like this.”
There are only a small handful of actors that compel me to watch a film just because they appear in it, but Katherine Mathilda Swinton Of Kimmerghame is certainly one of them. Swinton shifts effortlessly between ages, sexes, and aesthetics. Every performance has been a marvel, even playing a corpse in my favorite film of 2014, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel.
She possesses a look and disposition that are rather unworldly, or if she is from Earth it must be that she is from another century. With her aquiline face, ghostly light blue eyes, haughty manner and uncommon self-assurance, she looks to me to have stepped out of a formal 19th century portrait of a noblewoman… or man. Indeed, Swinton’s famous family’s lineage can be traced back to the 9th Century. Her great-grandmother was a beautiful society lady whose portrait was painted by John Singer Sargent. Her father is Major General Sir John Swinton, a WW II hero and former head of the Queen Elizabeth II’s household staff. She was in the same class as Princess Diana at boarding school and, according to her, was expected to marry some duke. Her life turned out a little differently.
She lives in an actual castle with views of the Moray Firth in the small city Nairn in the North Highlands of Scotland. Swinton:
“There’s something about being Scottish. You can’t find a Scottish person who won’t burst into tears when they hear the bagpipes. Even if they’re in Beverly Hills. I live in the far north of Scotland, which is so beautiful. We Scots love nature. I think we’re wired for the hills and sea. Where my family lives is a very beautiful sort of semi-wilderness that really suits us. It’s so green. Sometimes, when I’ve been in America and I go home, it’s so green that I have to literally rub my eyes as I look out of the aeroplane window.”
Swinton claims that although she and her family live in a castle, she actually renounces consumerism and doesn’t even own a television.
“I’m not much of one for looking in the mirror. If I look good, it’s to do with good genes, living in the Highlands of Scotland, not wearing make-up when I don’t have to, and just the luck of the draw. I wear what I want to wear, and I am lucky to have friends who are designers who make me beautiful clothes to wear in public. But I turn into a pumpkin when I go home.”
From that home in remote Highlands, Swinton managed to start an annual film festival, Ballerina Ballroom Cinema Of Dreams, using an old ballroom in Nairn to screen art-house and independent films. The festival also brings films to the most remote parts of Scotland with a mobile movie screen on a truck.
Swinton began her film career in gay filmmaker Derek Jarman’s gorgeous, demanding Caravaggio (1985). Since then, she has moved effortlessly between Indie films, arty fare and box-office hits.
Swinton won an Academy Award playing a buttoned-up, ruthless lawyer opposite George Clooney in Michael Clayton (2007). She is already one more of that fine tradition of especially talented, strong British female actors like Dame Judi Dench, Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Helen Mirren and Dame Maggie Smith who win awards and accolades working on stage and screen.
She has had a string of original and most unusual performances in films: Vanilla Sky (2001), Adaptation (2002), I Am Love (2009), The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008), We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) and the surprisingly delightful and moving Trainwreck (2015). She even has a franchise job giving strong performances as the White Witch in the Chronicles Of Narnia flicks (2005, 2008, 2010). My own personal favorite Swinton performances include her Golden Globe nominated work in the overlooked, gay themed The Deep End (2001), or possibly the Coen Brothers’ Burn After Reading (2008).
Her most arresting work might just be playing someone of both sexes in director Sally Potter’s Orlando (1992) based on Virginia Woolf’s novel, and featuring a delightful Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I.
But it is not just her screen acting that attracts attention. Swinton is also a big star on the Red Carpet with her unconventional looks. She appears at premiers and benefits wearing a wide range of fashion ideas from Chanel to Bowie to Hepburn (Audrey and Katharine).
Her look is not just about angular alien and androgyny, but with her porcelain skin, short white-blonde hair, and rangy 6 foot frame, Swinton can also come across as Golden Era Hollywood glamorous. Avant-garde art is often the inspiration for fashions, but she can be just as much Lauren Bacall and Bjork. I am always blown away by her presentation. Of course, the camera loves Swinton’s unusual appearance.
“I’m not sure I know what people mean when they say I look different. Different from what? And if I do look different, so what? Vive la difference.”
Swinton says that she has been mistaken for a man on many occasions:
“I think I should probably wear more lipstick.”
In spring 2013, Swinton slept inside a box as part of an art exhibit called The Maybe at the Museum Of Modern Art in NYC. She first did this performance piece in 1995 at London’s Serpentine Gallery and again in 1996 at Museo Barracco in Rome, always generating long lines and large crowds.
I thought she could not possibly have been cooler than when she appeared with her doppelgänger David Bowie in The Stars, a supporting video for his 2013 album The Next Day. Swinton has been candid about how Bowie gave her the strength to overcome her insecurities about looking different when she was a teenager.
“When I was 13-years-old, I bought a copy of Aladdin Sane, even though I didn’t even own a record player. I had it for a year before I even heard it because I hadn’t bought it for the music but because of the cover. It was the image I was attracted to. He looked so like me, he could have been my cousin. He looked like he came from the same planet as me. It was a great comfort to me, looking as I did. It gave me great comfort at the time that not only did someone else look like this, but felt proud enough to stick themselves on the front of an album with a lightning zig-zag across their face. So he’s always felt like a cousin even though I’d never met him. Then, the phone rings one day and it’s someone who calls themselves David Bowie and you can’t stop pinching yourself.”
In 1984, fresh out of Cambridge, Swinton became a member The Royal Shakespeare Company. It was there that she met playwright John Byrne, who is 20-years older than Swinton. They became a couple, and then the parents of twins. They remain very close, but they no longer live together.
In 2008, she met German artist Sandro Kopp, who is 18 years younger. For a few years Byrne, Kopp and Swinton all lived together in that castle in Nair, with Byrne staying at home with the kids when she traveled with Sandro for her career. Swinton insists she never thought this arrangement to be unconventional:
“It’s all quite boring really. The father of my children and I are close friends and I’m now in a very happy other relationship. We’re all really good friends. It’s a very happy situation. Life doesn’t have to be complicated. You just have to have compassion with yourself and stop blaming yourself when things do get complicated.”
To prepare for today’s post, I wanted to watch Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) the vampire flick written by Jim Jarmusch and starring Swinton and my boo, Tom Hiddleston. But, I couldn’t find it on any of the 700 channels offered by the Evil Comcast or on Netflix. This film comes highly recommended from my many friends with discriminating tastes. Have you seen this one?
You can find her in several other films on Netflix: Okja a fantasy film directed by her friend Bong Joon-ho who did the insane Snowpiercer (2013) with Swinton; as twin sister gossip columnists in the underrated comedy Hail, Caesar! (2016); Judd Apatow’s Trainwreck; plus The Grand Budapest Hotel and Moonrise Kingdom from Anderson. In fact, her next project is Isle Of Dogs, a stop-action animated movie from Anderson, along with Suspiria a horror film directed by Luca Guadagnino. Openly gay Guadagnino has used Swinton in four other projects. His latest, the gay-themed Call Me By Your Name opens November 24 in the USA.
A year ago, she appeared in Doctor Strange, one more of those Marvel Comics films. It opened to rave reviews and some strong controversy. In it, Swinton plays an Asian male character, The Ancient One. The Media Action Network For Asians, releasing a statement that said in part:
“While actresses deserve the kinds of bold roles usually reserved for men, white actresses are seen onscreen more than Asians of any gender. And Tilda Swinton can afford to turn down roles.”
I’d like to imagine that today for her birthday, Swinton will be dressed in Edwardian garb, sipping tea and eating cake at her castle, but she could just as easily be in a metallic space suit holding forth on another planet with David Bowie.