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The Showgirl in Wonderland

Tilda Article

Photography by Sølve Sundsbø. Styling by Grant Woolhead. Makeup: Isamaya French for Streeters. Hair: Peter Gray for Home Agency. Manicure: Marian Newman for Streeters. Photo Assistants: Simon McGuigan, Samuel Hendel, Peter Carter. Digital Assistant: Anna Hendry. Retouching: Digital Light, LTD. Market Editor: Michael Cook. Fashion Assistant: Jessie Culley.

I first met Tilda in a world that no longer exists. That constellation was called the Bowery Bar, and its primary astronaut was a man named Eric Conrad. In that pre-9/11 world—it was the June, July, or August before that momentous event, and love stuck to the Bowery Bar booths like bare knees—New York thought everything was possible, and so did Conrad.

At “Beige,” the party he’d hosted at the Bowery since 1994, Conrad facilitated the crowd’s shy and big energy by opening the space to the superficially divergent worlds of fashion, film, and journalism, and then standing back to watch what happened. Inevitably those various disciplines, and the artists behind them, found one another in the glow of Beige’s continual disco beat, but only if you listened. The throwaway theme on most of those Tuesday nights was that one was not alone in this world, certainly insofar as one’s aesthetics were concerned. Liquor might help you find the rest. 

It was with a combination of booze and nerve—or nerve made plucky by its pickling—that I said to her, approaching her booth, “Tilda Swinton! We’ve been looking for you!” (The “we” I was referring to included a close friend of mine; at the time we were making a series of documentary portraits of performers we admired. Tilda was on that list.) Fortunately for me, Tilda was sitting next to her close friend, Jerry Stafford; he knew my work, which made me, perhaps, at second glance, a more socially acceptable lunatic. “You’re the man who wrote about X,” Jerry said, naming a fashion editor we were both close to, and Tilda beamed and said, “Somebody invite Hilton to my screening,” and I sat down, and the conversation, thus begun, continued and continued for days and months and years, all the way into the now and beyond, in the world of our shared imagination. 

The year 2001 was a hallmark year for us and many others for a number of reasons. That was the year the New York in which Tilda and I met crashed and burned, and out of the heaved-up towers many ghosts emerged: America’s cold war alliance with the Afghan mujahideen, the Gulf War, the Iranian hostage crisis, stretching all the way back to our genocidal interest in difference while the outside world helped add new piles of death. In our post-9/11, synthetic atmosphere of nationalistic conservatism that gets events like Beige not only shut down but discouraged, Tilda learned to connect with me, and her audience, in a different way. By 2001 she was drawing something of a line between her past work—the work of an ingenue who began her onscreen life as a largely silent film star in Derek Jarman’s baroque contrivances, a beautiful girl with long red hair and long legs, and hands and a half-smile as interested in turning the mute on oversized or “theatrical” feelings as Lillian Gish had been when she lent her aura to D.W. Griffith’s beautiful pre-World War I world of silences—and the work she needed to do in a changed world.

The film she invited me to that first night at the Bowery Bar was The Deep End. In it she played a mother trying to learn how to breathe. In the opening sequences, one hears and sees Margaret Hall, the character Tilda was playing, drawing in and drawing out, a car whizzing past just as she is about to dash by; Margaret is living in a changed world. Her son is gay, but that’s not the issue; the issue is his blackmailing lover, who dies, and whom Margaret must revisit in his watery grave. More breathing. The suspense is in Margaret’s lungs—accordions filled with panic. The Deep End was a watershed role for Tilda, and it established a quartet—what I call her Motherless Mothering roles: Julia in 2008’s Julia, Emma Recchi in I Am Love, and, more recently, Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin. Each of these parts could have gone the wrong way; that is, they could have conformed to the world that 9/11 engendered and ended up as a series of portrayals leading to redemption, no matter how inherently craven or short-sighted the characters could at times be, and often were. 

But I don’t think Tilda’s interested in wholeness. She’s interested in the fractured female (when she plays females), which is to say those beings whose audience generally splits women between The Mother (Kevin) and The Whore (Julia) while sometimes being called both (Love). What’s a girl to do in such a regimented, non-forward-thinking world? If she’s half the man Tilda is, she sticks her mind and face in the cracks of such presumptions and says, as Tilda says, by way of her performances: Now look at it this way; now let’s turn it around and look at it another way. What does my face mean when it says this? What do my breasts mean when they’re handled thus? Who am I? More important, who are you? (A very interesting master’s thesis for some yet-to-be-born cineaste would be a study of the number of times Tilda stares down her interlocutor—the audience—in her films. Jarman had her do it; Sally Potter had her do it; Disney had her do it.) While each of the characters in the Motherless Mothering quartet has children, or wants them—Julia’s methods may be wrong, but her heart’s in the right place—one gets the sense that they themselves went largely unmothered; they long for a love that, by rights, should be a child’s—an unconditional love. They are spiritual omnivores, and they eat their way through prawns, booze, a child’s disdain, or blood, to get at the heart of something, anything, that will satisfy what cannot be satisfied, which is their early hurt, the mother who would not love them, or who practiced a cold disdain toward the child who lived with such high style from the first. 

She is a writer—a brilliant one—who uses her body to write, often, but as evidenced in this interview, the writing and thinking come first. Listen to what she has to say as images from her past performances run up to and meet her current incarnation: The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. Watching Katherine Matilda Swinton in these various roles—or mirrors that reflect her characters’ luck, or bad faith, and hope—one thinks of Roald Dahl’s 1988 novel, Matilda, the story of a little girl whose parents turned away from her, thereby sending her into a gentle world of books and art and dreaming, where adults could not change a thing about her imagination at all.

02 Tilda

HILTON ALS: You have always drawn a very interesting distinction—one largely unexplored by others—between performance and acting. For the most part you have identified as a performer and not an actress. Can you talk a bit about that?

TILDA SWINTON: In the first place, I never set out to be an actress in the way that so many people do, and I suppose I feel a little sheepish about that, since so many times it is how I am described. I feel it is a case of mistaken identity. I never had—and this still holds true today—anything invested in the notion of acting, of being “a good actor.” As it happens, what is considered “good acting” is very often, still, an anathema to me. I’m a bit of a philistine when it comes to not being interested in quivering lips and controlled articulacy and “searing” realism. I have a love of mess and awkwardness and the inexpressible nonsense of our inarticulacy. Dress-up and ambiguity and the vagaries of identity have always interested me the most.

I was always a writer and got into university on the grounds of my writing. I only started performing—in undergraduate productions—when my writing deserted me and I found myself drawn to the company of some like-minded people who were putting on plays—for the company, purely, and for the fun of the joint endeavor. I suppose, when I split this hair between terms, “performer” versus “actress,” there is the consideration of authorship which I never felt I relinquished, even while I was not writing for many years. I never feel like an interpreter of another’s text. My love of live music, of stand-up, of opera, of dance sustains my love of live performance in a way that the theater never has. 

But I suppose my taste in performance was always more naked, open, sometimes blanker, often wilder and more raucous than tasteful thespianism. The first live performances I ever saw were the great Scottish comics Stanley Baxter and Ronnie Corbett as the Ugly Sisters in pantomime at the King’s Theatre in Edinburgh. This experience, I have to confess, stole my heart and has been, clearly, profoundly influential. Meanwhile, my early devotion to the films of Robert Bresson and the performances of his “models” is still a benchmark. I always think that, were I to need to find a job description for my passport, as used to be the case, I would prefer “sometimes model, sometimes clown,” maybe most accurately “showgirl.” The seriousness of “actress” alienates me and makes me want to declare at the border that I carry no contraband earnest intent before I’m patted down. 

Related | We Need to Talk About Tilda (Photos)

HA: Let’s go back a bit and discuss the impulse to perform, what it might “mean,” at least to you.

TS: Something about showing that which may not otherwise be witnessed, something about the play between privacy and masquerade, between disguise and transparency.

There was this seminal experience for me on a train, returning to school as a child and realizing with a combination of shock and thrill that nobody in the shared carriage would have been able to guess at the depths of despair in my heart at that moment when my face was so inscrutably serene and inexpressive. I used to think of this as a performer’s epiphany: a realization of the capacity of us all to mask ourselves in order to tell our tales to each other—sometimes to deceive each other—for our own specific reasons. I now see it as an author’s revelation just as precisely: the ownership of the narrative above all else, the frisson of ambiguity and choice. There is something supremely cinematic about it… In any and every case, it was a turning point for me in that it indicated the possibility for my inner life to keep on turning whatever external conditions might feel imposed upon it.


HA: When you were a student studying English at Cambridge, you participated in a number of theatricals, too. What drew you to the stage, and how did you figure out that, ultimately, the stage wasn’t your métier?

TS: It was all about friends and comradeship, always. When I was at Cambridge there was no cinema department, so, even though I was an early film fan, it was into friendly undergraduate theater productions that I tipped myself. I fell in with a group of people who are still at the core of my life’s greatest friendships, and with them I learnt the joy of making work together that has sustained me ever since. We rocked those three years: I think I was in 22 productions over nine semesters. Everything from Shakespeare to Athol Fugard to Footlights to new plays by our pals. Crazy and crazy great. And when I left, I worked for a while in the professional theater—at the Royal Shakespeare Company—where I felt the light dim a bit in terms of fun and frolics. I found a somewhat circumscribed and solipsistic world with no meaningful connection to the world of art, or rock and roll, or cinema or contemporary politics, or any of the things I was into. When I met [director] Derek Jarman in 1985, I was on the brink of no longer thinking of myself as a performer since I discovered I wasn’t what I would describe as a proper actor. My eyes were bigger than my plate, as my nanny used to say.  

Related | The Chronicles of Tilda: Behind the Scenes (Watch)

HA: In a way, writing and performing are all about creating a fiction, right? Would it be fair to say, and perhaps more explicit to say, that you are a storyteller?

TS: I suppose in one way or another we are all storytellers. Not only artists, but all of us. Lawyers and double-glazing salesmen and teachers and medics. Stories rule. We need them to shape our everyday and our overall existence. I have come to believe that this is what grief is: a crashing of the story in which we had believed. The shock of that dissolution is—literally—unimaginably violent. Recovery from grief involves a gradual acceptance of the unwelcome narrative and the tentative respinning of a new web of story around it. Story and the ability to negotiate narrative are, maybe, a form of mental health. 


HA: Do you think that Jarman convinced you that performing might be something to try, or was it the medium of film in general that interested you?

TS: Film, even before I knew anything about its making, has always enchanted me. The capturing of light and life, and the opportunity it affords to put oneself, sitting in the dark, into the shoes of another—ultimately the director but also anyone appearing in the frame—always occurred to me to be the ultimately humane art form. Pure empathy: compassion in action. I’ve been a film fan since Powers of Ten and Bambi and Herbie Rides Again. I can’t put it plainer than that.

What Derek did was understand that I needed to find my own way of being an artist. Maybe, just as he had. When I met Derek I was clear that I had no ambitions to be an actor in any conventional sense. I did not want an actor’s life. He afforded me the space to find my own terms. Our early conversations did not even assume I would be a performer: That direction developed only after we had made a handful of films together, very much on a “suck it and see” basis. I was already clear that I did not want to be an “industrial” actress, either in the theater or the cinema, that I was wanting to play out things that I was following with my nose, working silent, shot in Super 8, without scripts, without “character,” improvising movement and gesture. 


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