Tilda Swinton Androgyny – and talent – personified
AN ANDROGYNOUS BEAUTY WITH A STARTLINGLY DIVERSE FILM CAREER, THIS SCOTTISH ACTRESS INHABITS AN OTHERWORLDLY REALM
‘iHer automated response reads: ‘Hello, I am away until 01/01/2070 and am unable to read your message’
would find it strange for anybody to say that they didn’t feel like an alien,’ Tilda Swinton once said. As far as interviews go, hers can be unorthodox.In one, Swinton, 53, stares into the video camera with a Mona Lisa smile playing on her lips. With cropped white-blonde hair, angular cheekbones and out-of-this-world porcelain skin, she’s a sight to behold, a plain-faced yet ethereal beauty. And so the ‘interview’ continues. No words are spoken and still she stares – for a whole minute and 12 seconds.The scene fades and then her clipped British voice rises with the simple words, ‘Best interview ever.’
This is typical Swinton fare. It seems that the unordinary is where she feels most comfortable. After all, this is the woman who spent days (six and a half hours at a time) sleeping in a glass box in London’s Serpentine Gallery for an art piece called ‘The Maybe’. That was 1995, and this voyeuristic project was repeated in New York’s MoMA last year. There’s no timetable for her appearances and no explanation for the piece. ‘Those who find it chance upon it for themselves, live and in real – shared – time,’ says a simple statement.
Naturally, ‘The Maybe’ became a trending topic on Twitter. Not that Swinton would know; she’s not on Twitter. She’s not big on e-mails. Her automated response reads: ‘Hello, I am away until 01/01/2070 and am unable to read your message.’ A parody account, @NotTildaSwinton, in her name has 62 000 followers. Tweets play on her tendency for out-there, mind-twisting statements. ‘Stand nude infront of a window,’ reads one. ‘When a neighbour glances up at you, simply press the palm of your hand against the glass and silently roar. ’Swinton has admitted she thinks it’s‘ hilarious’.
This is not your usual movie star. She’s never auditioned for a part, doesn’t have a publicist – she’s puzzled about why she’d need one – and though directors like the Cohen brothers ( Burn After Reading),
Spike Jonze ( Adaptation) and Wes Anderson ( The Grand Budapest Hotel) all seek her out, is reluctant to call herself an actress.‘I don’t know what it would take to make me feel like one,’ she told Variety earlier this year.‘I feel like I’m up another tree.’
Swinton has nevertheless played some intriguing roles, from the Archangel Gabriel (she plays an ‘androgynous half-breed angel’) in Constantine to the mother of a son who commits a violent high-school atrocity in the disturbing We Need To Talk About Kevin. But the strangest role she’s ever accepted? ‘Playing a corporate lawyer,’ she told the SXSW film festival. ‘It truly takes the cake.’
A darling of the arthouse-cinema scene (learning her craft under anti-establishment director Derek Jarman), she’s achieved something not many of her purist kind have – she’s made it in Hollywood. It was the role of strung-out, morally destitute lawyer in legal thriller Michael Clayton (2007) that threw her into the world’s spotlight and onto the Oscar stage in 2008. That night, her dress – a black one-sleeved design by Lanvin – and her negligible make-up got the press abuzz. And that was before she opened her mouth. In her startled acceptance speech she compared the Oscar’s buttocks to those of her agent and promised him that he could keep the statuette. ‘I don’t have a TV. I’m not sure the Oscars are even shown in the UK, are they?’ she asked a reporter from The Daily Beast, six years later.
‘She’s oblivious to a film’s commercial potential,’says Jim Jarmusch, who directed her in her latest movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, an indie vampire love story.‘Acting is not her main interest. She’s interested in having … experiences.’ In 2003 she worked with Viktor & Rolf on their ‘One Woman Show’ in Paris. She appeared, followed by an army of Swinton-cloned models, to the soundtrack of her voice reading her poem, with the line, ‘There is only one you. Only one.’ But her most ambitious fashion performance was ‘ The Impossible Wardrobe’, a collaboration with Musée Galliera museum director Olivier Saillard in 2012. Swinton carried, danced or twirled down the runway with extremely valuable fashion pieces, usually kept under lock and key or displayed in glass cabinets – from Napoleon’s jacket and Salvador Dali’s pink trousers to Victorian gowns and vintage YSL pantsuits. The hard-to-please Paris Fashion Week crowd gave her a standing ovation.
Being a famous name inevitably involves prying eyes. After her British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) win for Michael Clayton, the media pounced on the story of this norm-defying creature. Who was the dark, handsome man, 18 years younger, who accompanied her to the ceremony? Amid the swirling rumours a scandalous story took shape: she was living as part of a ‘thruple’ in the remote Scottish town of Nairn, with John Byrne (the father of her twin children, Xavier and Honor) and her new lover Sandro Kopp, an
‘I opted out of any sexuality and found that a really safe, really strong place to be’
actor she met on set of The Chronicles of Narnia – he was playing the part of a centaur to her White Witch. ‘It’s a fabulous fantasy,’ she told The Scotsman. ‘We’re not all sleeping together I’m sorry to tell you. It’s much more boring than that.’
Boring, no. Unconventional, definitely. The reality was that Swinton and Kopp had been ‘sweethearts’ for several years, attending functions together; the media simply hadn’t noticed. John Byrne, a playwright, had also found a new ‘sweetheart’. ‘We are the best of pals and adore being parents,’ Swinton told the Los Angeles Times in 2008. ‘We ostensibly live in the same house but I travel the world with a delightful painter.The arrangement is just so sane. ’As for the hinted-at threesomes: ‘The truth is I tend to share my bed with two children and a dog here – it’s rather crowded and very, very cuddly.’
These are Swinton’s two worlds: the fast-paced celebrity lane, a whirlwind of filming and mixing with designers and directors, and then her Scottish home, with a field and a kitchen garden, and chickens. ‘People think she’s a chic fashion victim,’ Lagerfeld said of Swinton, who was the face for Chanel’s Paris/Edinburgh collection 2013, but ‘she’s the most down-to-earth person you will ever meet.’
She has referred to her twins as her ‘insanely pagan hippie children,’ joking that perhaps they’ll rebel one day and become ‘Nazi accountants’. They attended a school where education involves learning how to grow vegetables and raise animals. In 2011, a journalist for The Telegraph enquired why Swinton didn’t want to cut her 13-year-old son’s hair – it reached down to his waist. ‘Hair holds energy and history… People being mistaken for a different gender is very common in my house,’ she said.
The pull of androgyny has always played a role in her identity. She was born in London into an Anglo-Scottish military family that can trace its heritage back to the ninth century. Her father is Major-General Sir John Swinton, former head of the Queen’s Household Division. Her mother Judith was Australian. ‘From childhood, I remember more about his black patent, gold livery, scarlet-striped legs and medal ribbons than I do of my mother’s evening dresses,’ she told W. ‘I would rather be handsome, as he is, for an hour than pretty for a week.’
The only girl, with three brothers, she never ‘really felt girly’. At the age of 10 she was sent to Westheath, a boarding school where Diana Spencer (later Princess Diana) was a contemporary. She knew she ‘wasn’t pretty’ and was okay with that, telling The Scotsman, ‘I opted out of any sexuality and found that a really safe, really strong place to be.’ She earned a place at Cambridge University, where she wanted to read poetry but changed to social and political science. After graduation, she won a place with the esteemed Royal Shakespeare Company, which she later described as ‘boring’.
It was then that she met Jarman, and spent the next 10 years appearing in his arthouse movies. The first film that got her noticed was Orlando, based on Virginia Woolf’s novel, where an androgynous man lives through different centuries (waking up in one era to discover he’s a woman). The part was a natural fit.‘She’s always been interested in ambiguity, transformation, transgender,’ says her friend Jerry Stafford. ‘Clothes are an extension of this. It’s Nancy Mitford meets David Bowie.’ At school she remembers buying Bowie’s album Aladdin Sane because she recognised a kindred spirit.‘The fact that he not only looked physically like me but was also of indeterminate gender was really striking,’ she told The Scotsman. ‘And it felt like good company.’ She’s referred to him as her ‘alien cousin’ and others agree on the similarities: there’s a popular Tumblr account called Tilda Stardust that suggests that they are in fact the same person.
She might be 53, but you wonder if Swinton will really ever age.‘I don’t know about you, but I already feel like I’ve lived for several centuries,’ she said recently. ‘Life’s long. And it’s a pretty fascinating ride.’ When asked what her next project entails, she replied:‘I’ll have to think of a new challenge,’ pausing to think of something really out of this world. Her face lights up.‘Maybe a bank manager?’
Clockwise from top Tilda Swinton with beau Sandro Kopp in the Maldives, 2010; former love John Byrne in Scotland, 2011; attending the BAFTAs in London, 2012; her son Xavier Byrne (left, right and below); at The Beach premiere, Los Angeles, 2000; attending a reception for Teknolust in Toronto, 2002; stylish in New York, 2011; at Cannes, 2012; part of ‘The Maybe’ at London’s Serpentine Gallery, 1995.
Clockwise from above
Receiving the Douglas Sirk prize at the Hamburg Festival, 2013; winning the Oscar for best supporting actress, Los Angeles, 2008; with director Jim Jarmusch, New York, 2014; with Oscar winners Daniel Day-Lewis, Marion Cotillard and Javier Bardem, Los Angeles, 2008; sharing her birthday cake with David Bowie, New York, 2013.