“I live on another planet, fortunately, and we do things differently there,” Tilda Swinton says over tea and a slight case of the sniffles at the Bowery Hotel in the East Village. Somehow this does not seem a revelatory confession coming from this singular and singular-looking actress. She naturally radiates a certain otherworldliness, as of a creature who has just been zapped to Earth from a distant galaxy and has not yet discovered how to manipulate the tools of ordinary human discourse.
The effect derives from her androgynous beauty, of course: the luminous, almost translucent skin, the sleek planes of her face, the architectural sweep of David Bowie-blond hair and the twiglike frame. For when Ms. Swinton speaks, she becomes unmistakably human: funny, friendly, thoughtful, intelligent but unpretentious.
The planet she refers to is not an actual one, needless to say, or even the busy world of Hollywood, but the place she literally lives. “I live in a part of Scotland where people are more likely to talk about problems with greenfly” than news of the film world, she says, referring to an insect more commonly known in planet America as the aphid. Despite her increasingly high profile as an actress with one of those coveted gold statuettes to her name — she took home a supporting actress Oscar for “Michael Clayton” in 2008 — Ms. Swinton insists she inhabits the world of mainstream film only as an alien visitor. In Scotland she lives with her twin children and her partner, the painter Sandro Kopp. (Sensational rumors from a few years ago that Ms. Swinton, Mr. Kopp and Ms. Swinton’s former partner, John Byrne, were all cohabitating, were false.)
“Aside from the odd skirmish, such as going to Cannes, Scotland is where I live year round. I have no other home,” she says. “When I visit Hollywood, I come in and out like a tourist, and I am really happy to be a tourist.”
She is in the middle of one such skirmish, in New York to promote her latest movie, “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” an elliptical psychodrama about a mother whose son commits an atrocity that leaves her feeling alienated and complicit. Directed by Lynne Ramsay (“Ratcatcher,” “Morvern Callar”), the movie exerts an unsettling, hallucinatory pull, in part because it relies more on imagery than language to draw us inside the spiraling thoughts of the central character. (Contra the title, which comes from the 2003 Lionel Shriver novel that “inspired” the film, as Ms. Swinton prefers to say, nobody does much talking about Kevin.)
Odd though it may seem for a woman who speaks with such lucidity and fluidity, it was precisely the general absence of conventional dialogue that drew her to the role.
“For me that is grace,” she says of her character’s dumbstruck confusion in the face of her irrevocably altered life. “I am really interested in silence. In inarticulacy also, which isn’t the same as silence. As a performer I like looking at the gaps between what people want to communicate and what they can communicate,” she adds. “I love good filmmaking that isn’t just about really proficient writers of dialogue, who think that everybody’s really articulate and everybody can hear each other really well. That doesn’t feel true to me, actually. I mean, that’s a fantastical universe.”
The idea certainly resonates in “Kevin,” through which Ms. Swinton’s character often wanders like a mute ghost, replaying a troubled past through the prism of an anguished mind. It also applies to Ms. Swinton’s quietly charged performance in “I Am Love” (2009), in which she plays a Milanese wife whose insular world is shattered by the discovery of erotic love. Her character in that movie, a Russian in the alien world of Italian high society, is similarly withdrawn, living inside her head until a sensual awakening changes the pattern of her life. Ms. Swinton, 51, says she is drawn to characters confronting these moments of crisis, when the trajectory of a life is radically altered.
“I’m constantly reading about actors who call themselves storytellers. I’m more of a micro-dotter,” she says. “I like to isolate the spirit of a moment, in particular the moment when the ‘me’ that I was is forced to change.”
Robert Salerno, a producer of “Kevin,” points to Ms. Swinton’s ability to illuminate her character’s interior life without a lot of dialogue as central to the film’s power. “A lot of her performance comes from her eyes and her facial expressions, and as an actress that can be even more complicated than working with dialogue,” Mr. Salerno says. “Tilda makes the audience feel the pain and torment this character goes through almost wordlessly.”
Mr. Salerno was also impressed by how completely Ms. Swinton was engaged in the film’s progress from its inception to its completion. “She was very involved, even before I came aboard, and was always wanting to know what she could do to help the process along,” he says. “Lynne is a filmmaker with a particular approach, and in this case she needed to feel a little of the chaos that the characters in the film are going through, and Tilda completely embraced what Lynne needed.”
Although she has forged a career that marries two ideals that rarely intersect — the respect accorded actors who venture deep into the thickets of art house cinema, and the headier remuneration and broader exposure that are the fruits of the realm she refers to repeatedly as “industrial filmmaking” — Ms. Swinton makes it clear that there has been little or no design in the pattern of her life. This may be why she finds such richness in roles requiring her characters to diverge from the “menu” of life choices they’ve been given, as she puts it.
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Myles Aronowitz/Warner Brothers, via Photofest
Tilda Swinton as a high-powered corporate lawyer in “Michael Clayton” (2007), for which she won a supporting actress Oscar.
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“I’ve been making it up as I go along,” she confides. “In fact I never set out to be an actor. Still am not, really. I slid into performing at the point at which I stopped writing.”
Ms. Swinton, who comes from established Scottish stock (her father was a highly decorated major in the British Army), studied literature at Cambridge, where she wrote poetry. “I slid sideways into the theater, basically because of the company I was keeping,” she says, “and a feeling of experimenting with friends who were really into theater. I was totally undriven.”
Early stage ventures, including a short stint with the Royal Shakespeare Company, convinced her that theater “wasn’t the right trousers,” as she idiomatically puts it. She slid on a new pair when she met the experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman, with whom she formed an artistic collaboration that only ended with his death in 1994 from complications from AIDS. They made films together — larger and smaller, scrappy and polished — although it was Ms. Swinton’s role as the swashbuckling, gender-changing title character in Sally Potter’s “Orlando” (1992), based on the Virginia Woolf novel, that brought her to international attention.
“The way I worked with Derek and Sally during those first nine years was really spoiling, really specific,” she remembers. “And, I now realize, really rare. It put me up a gum tree. It didn’t get me any closer to being a proper actor or involved with industrial cinema. It was where I learned to work collectively and it’s where I learned what producing is and it’s where I learned at one remove the job of filmmaking. Those directors expected their team to all be filmmakers. That’s not an orthodox actor’s training. When Derek died and when ‘Orlando’ was done, I was no closer to having what you call a career.”
Her entry into industrial filmmaking — the phrase is catchy, and appropriate — came as haphazardly as her sideways tilt into an acting career. After her acclaimed performance in the independent movie “The Deep End” (2001), as the mother of a gay son she suspects has committed a murder, offers from filmmakers from outside her family of collaborators started to come. But Ms. Swinton finds that there is a natural continuity between the two kinds of work.
“The truth is, in 25 years I’ve only made about five or six true studio films, and to me all of them have been with experimental filmmakers,” she says. “It may be that David Fincher has $200 million or whatever to make a movie, but like the other directors I’ve worked with he is always messing with the form and still working in a way that felt familiar to me. Or when I was working on ‘Constantine,’ and there was all this tech geek stuff going on, it felt a lot like back when I was doing a Pet Shop Boys video with Derek Jarman, shooting it against a blue screen.”
Ms. Swinton seems content to allow the flow of career to unfold without conscious direction, caring primarily for the filmmaking company she keeps. “My habit, which I cannot imagine breaking, is the dependence on the relationship with the filmmaker,” she says, noting that friendships with both Luca Guadagnino, the director of “I Am Love,” and Ms. Ramsay, the Scottish director, preceded her collaborations with both. “That’s what I’m in it for.”
She and Mr. Guadagnino have hatched a plan to film a remake of “Auntie Mame,” with Ms. Swinton in the title role. It is hard to picture Ms. Swinton, whose characters on screen often seem to be reverberating with repression, as the flamboyant celebrator of life in Patrick Dennis’s novel. Although she does reveal a mischievous streak in person, as well as an unexpected taste for lowbrow popular culture. (When told that the humor in “The Book of Mormon” is predominantly juvenile, she lights up with glee.) Her disaffection for theater has kept her away from the stage for decades, and yet she doesn’t disdain it entirely. “I love live performance,” she says. “But the theater I prefer is the theater of the music hall, or the Saturday matinee when some TV star comes on, and everybody claps.”
But Ms. Swinton circles repeatedly back to the idea of all human behavior as a kind of performance, an idea that the self-dramatizing Mame might well espouse. What attracts her to acting, a profession in which she still seems to feel she is an apprentice practitioner, Oscar and critical acclaim notwithstanding, is the mystery of what resides behind the masks people wear.
“Starting to imagine or to notice how inscrutable we all are to one another, that’s where my interest in wanting to be a performer came from,” she says. Referring to the central incident in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” and perhaps to many another contemporary horror, she continues: “People perpetrate atrocities and other people say, ‘We didn’t see it coming.’ The idea that people actually wear themselves on their faces seems to me to be less real than what life actually is, which is a series of concealments and containments.
“These surfaces and veils exist,” she continues, warming to her theme. “We take off one for one person, and several for another. But there is always a difference between what you show to others and what you show to yourself in the mirror.”
The actor’s challenge, and it is one that Ms. Swinton meets with a rare clarity and precision, is to explore this process of concealment and revelation. Meanwhile we in the audience, gazing into the mirror of art, can perhaps come a little closer to seeing ourselves.