Sitting alone with Tilda Swinton in a room is like sitting alone in a wing of an art museum. You know you're in the presence of greatness, rich with history, but you're also certain that you don't quite understand what's happening. When the 53-year-old actress speaks, it's as if she's reciting from a novel you haven't read; every page she begins is a new revelation. Her eyes focus on yours as she talks about recklessness and her own fears of insincerity. She's human after all. It's just that all of her roles, and an unauthorized viral Twitter account, paint her as this otherworldly being and it's hard to shake that feeling from your head.
Her latest film, Jim Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, doesn't help bring her down to earth for the viewer. She plays Eve, a centuries-old vampire. Based in Tangier, Eve travels across the globe to reunite with her lover, Adam (Tom Hiddleston), only to have their reunion complicated by Eve's uncontrollable younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska). It's an affecting (and darkly comic) portrait of true love (and taste), with a soundtrack that's as engrossing as every shot of the film.
Swinton is pure magic in the movie, and the feeling radiates off screen. But you have to remind yourself that Eve is a character, and, Swinton, the person sitting in front of you, is not.
Interview by Tara Aquino (@t_akino)
What was your first thought when Jim Jarmusch called you up to make a vampire film?
It felt completely right.
How would you describe the love between Adam and Eve?
Adam and Eve are kind of a radical proposition. They're really different. One of the most beautiful things that the film can offer is this portrait of two people who are really in it for the long haul, and who are really distinct from one another but dig each other all the same. Even though they drive each other crazy in different ways, they stay with one another and don't try to change each other or edit themselves. They just live alongside one another.
There is a sort of romantic myth about oneness in so many movie relationships. By the end credits, they come together in a mesh of identities, as one, and that is the end of the story. This isn’t about oneness. It's about partnership, which means twoness, and I love that.
It's based on a book by Mark Twain called The Diaries of Adam and Eve, which is really the root of the characterization of these two. He's super grumpy and she's sort of a space cadet who's really positive and doesn’t see the downside, ever. It's really beautiful to see how they operate together.
When Eve's sister comes in and nearly destroys Adam and Eve's happily ever after, what does she represent?
I am all for myths. I am all for myths. Long live myths.
My feeling about her is that she is just younger and is less evolved. Eve is 3,000 years old. She has such a perspective and doesn’t sweat the small, the medium, or the big stuff. It feels as if Ava is much more connected and integrated into human society and, in that sense, she is more dangerous to them because she brings with her that local energy. She is greedy and to be too greedy is dangerous. It makes her take risks that might jeopardize the family. She's reckless.
In your live discussion at SXSW, you said that the weirdest role you've ever played was a corporate lawyer. What attracts you to bizarre and unconventional characters?
It is not the characters that draw me, it is the environment of the piece. If the environment of the piece means that those people are in it, then those are the people that I will be dressing up as. I really love these distinct worlds and I love working with filmmakers on these projects that occupy these distinct worlds, whether it be Wes Anderson or Bong Joon-ho or Jim, or even something like We Need to Talk About Kevin, which is relatively naturalistic but is still a fantasy and is still a horror film and occupies this slightly heightened world. There is something very distinct about every portrait in that film.
As a film fan, I am really interested in fantasy so what ever the film is, I need it to have some transporting aspect to it. I went to Seth Meyers' talk at SXSW and someone asked him, “What does a dream taste like?” And he said, “Reality with whipped cream.” I loved that and I am not so interested in reality without whipped cream.
What gets you out of bed everyday?
I am really a communicative person and I really love being in a riff with someone. I like being in a conversation or a situation where someone else will surprise or amuse me. In general, I would say that I enjoy partnership in my work and in life, which doesn’t mean to say that I don’t like to be alone also, but I really get a kick out of other people.
When you meet new people what runs through your mind?
New people? Maybe I am fooling myself, but I am a really bad liar and I am not a good dissembler and I am personally not good at insincerity. I feel that I can pick it up quite quickly and don’t always know what to do with it. It always is a bit scary when someone is not really being open with you. But that is growing up. You have to live with that sometimes.
Would you say insincerity scares you?
And unkindness, yeah, I would say that. Willful cruelty, what is not to be scared of?
But Hollywood has this image of being fake. How do you navigate that?
I don’t live there, I don’t exist there; I live in Scotland. And the films that I make don’t engage with Hollywood either. No, that is not my world so I don’t know.I know as much about it as you do. Fortunately, I am not even asked to live in a fake environment, so no, it is not required of me.
What do you think of social media like Twitter?
It is just a shop that I have never gone into and I’ve never had the inclination or frankly the time to really engage with it. I know that lots of people get off on it. I’ve got so many relationships in my life that there ain't no room for Twitter, frankly. I am happy for everybody who loves it, but it just hasn’t entered my world.
Have you heard of the Not Tilda Swinton Twitter account?
I have, indeed.
Have you read it?
I have, indeed.
What do you think about it?
I am all for myths. I am all for myths. Long live myths.
What are some things you would do if you could live forever?
If I could live forever? Well, I kind of say it in the film. There is this moment when Eve is trying to re-route Adam's attention when he's so vain and self-obsessed. She makes these suggestions that are the suggestions that I would make now: to concentrate on friendship and nature and kindness and dancing and keep looking up. To put one's attention on something that is reliable, not the things that are going down anyway. People becoming attached to things that are in a state of flux and changing—that is always going to cause heartbreak.
If you put your attention on nature, you are always going to be rewarded. It is really in control and it will help you will find yourself. And when you get down, you dance—it is easy.
What was your earliest memory of wanting to be an actress?
I never wanted to be an actress and I still don’t want to be an actress. I was a writer, always.
I am not so interested in reality without whipped cream.
Originally, I was a poet. I haven’t written poetry in a long time but I went to university as a poet. But I had a very early memory, which was, in hindsight, a performer's fantasy or even a writer's fantasy. I was on a train when I was 10 and I was going back to school and I was really miserable. I was on this little carriage and I suddenly became aware that nobody on this carriage would be able to know how miserable I was. That it was possible to feel something and not show on your face, that was really mind-blowing. I suppose this is in relation to the scariness of insincerity or the ability to never quite know what someone else is thinking. People fool each other all the time.
What are you writing these days?
I am actually writing a script with my friend Luca Guadagnino, whom I worked with on I Am Love. But that film took us 11 years so don’t hold your breath. I like that slowness, apart from the fact that it comes naturally to me to be slow. I am a slow individual. I think it is a great thing to have that length of time to develop something. When you come to shoot, you know your territory because you have been talking about it for a decade.
That comes through in your work. There is something about your characters that feel very lived-in.
It is a good thing to have that time and you never regret it, though it is frustrating, often. I was talking to a friend of mine the other day who is a mid-wife and she said, "There is always this point that comes from most women giving birth when, however mild-mannered they are, they start to be really abusive. That is a point when the mid-wives know something chemical is happening.”
It is like that making films. You have to keep breathing through it and then there is this point that comes just before you get green-lit when the filmmaker generally loses it and thinks that this is never going to happen. They think they can’t bear it any longer but somehow the planets collide and make it happen.
So what's next?
We're taking this film to L.A. and then to New York and then I am going home.
Taking a break after that?
Taking a break from what? Life? Life goes on.