November 5, 1960– Tilda Swinton. 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, & aesthetics. Every performance has been a marvel, even playing a corpse in my favorite film of 2014, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. I totally dig her.
She possesses a look & 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 & uncommon self-assurance, she looks to me to have stepped out of a formal 19 century portrait of a noblewoman or man.
Indeed, Swinton is the daughter of Lord Lieutenant Of Berwickshire, Major General Sir John Swinton & her famous family’s lineage can be traced back to the 9th Century. She lives in an actual castle with a views of the Moray Firth in the small city Nairn in the North Highlands of Scotland.
“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 & sea. Where my family live is a very beautiful sort of semi-wilderness that really suits us. It’s so green. Sometimes, when I’ve been in America & 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 & her family live in a castle, she actually renounces consumerism & doesn’t even own a TV.
‘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, & just the luck of the draw. I wear what I want to wear, & 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 Tilda managed to start an annual film festival, Ballerina Ballroom Cinema Of Dreams, using an old ballroom in Nairn to screen art-house & independent films. The festival brings films to the most remote parts of Scotland with a mobile cinema 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 & box-office hits.
Swinton won an Academy Award playing a buttoned-up, ruthless lawyer opposite George Clooney in Michael Clayton (2007). She is already a part of that fine tradition of especially talented, strong British female actors like Vanessa Redgrave, Dame Helen Mirren & Dame Maggie Smith who win awards & accolades working on stage & screen.
She has had a string of original & unusual performances in films: Vanilla Sky (2001), Adaptation (2002), Julia (2008), I Am Love (2009), The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008), We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011) & this summer’s Trainwreck (2015). She is noted for her strong performances as the White Witch in the Chronicles Of Narnia franchise (2005, 2008, 2010).
My own personal favorite Swinton performances include her Golden Globe nominated work in the overlooked, gay themed The Deep End (2001), plus Burn After Reading (2008), Moonrise Kingdom (2012), & her crazy turn in Snowpiercer (2013).
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, featuring 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 & benefits in a wide range of fashion ideas from Chanel to Bowie to Hepburn (Audrey & Katharine).
Her look is not just angular alien & androgynous, with her porcelain skin, short white-blonde hair, rangy 6 foot frame, but Swinton can also come across as old Hollywood glamourous. Avant-garde art is often the inspiration for fashions, but she can be as much Bacall & Bjork. We always are blown away by her presentation. Of course, the camera just adores Swinton’s unusual appearance.
“I’m not sure I know what people mean when they say I look different. Different from what? & if I do look different, so what? Vive la difference.”
Swinton says that she has been mistaken for a man on many occasions, especially at airport security.
“I think I should probably wear more lipstick.”
In spring 2013, Swinton slept in a box as part of an art exhibit called The Maybe at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC. She first performed this performance piece in 1995 at London’s Serpentine Gallery & in 1996 at Museo Barracco in Rome, always generating large crowds.
I also thought she could not 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 & it’s someone who calls themselves David Bowie & 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 that Swinton. They became a couple, & 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 & Swinton 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 their arrangement was unconventional.
“It’s all quite boring really. The father of my children & I are close friends & 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 & stop blaming yourself when things do get complicated.”
To prepare for today’s #BornThisDay post, I had wanted to watch Only Lovers Left Alive (2013) the vampire flick written by Jim Jarmusch & starring starring Swinton & yummy Tom Hiddleston. But, I couldn’t find it on any of the 700 channels offered by the Evil Comcast or Netflix. This film comes highly recommended from my many friends with discriminating tastes.
I’d like to imagine that for her birthday, Swinton will be dressed in Edwardian garb, sipping tea & eating cake, but she could just as easily be in a metallic space suit holding forth on another planet with David Bowie. Do you go for Tilda Swinton?