The Showgirl in Wonderland

Tilda Article

HA: Can you describe those pre-AIDS days when you and Derek and all your friends were working together? What was London like then? Did you feel as if you’d found your family when you met Derek and his collaborators?

TS: Derek was the first practicing artist I had ever met. Actually, no, to be precise, not the very first: I had known a boy called Johnny when I was at school. He was an artist—he and I were art room kids, art fanboys together, very moony-eyed and passionate about Joseph Beuys and the Dadaists. Long before that, my mother had once commissioned a portrait of my father in regimental dress when I was a child: I remember the frisson of excitement waiting for this exotic creature—a painter!—to arrive. My parents knew no artists, and I caught a whiff of something apprehensive in them, like they knew he was likely to be more educated, or glamorous, or worldly than them, a pot-boiler stereotype of the wild and woolly anti-social element. I never saw him ultimately. I think he was perfectly well-behaved and urbane, possibly to their disappointment. But I never forgot peeking round the corner down the corridor, seeing the light through the door of the room where the sitting took place, longing for it. Like it was a land I wanted to live in.

When I met Derek, I crossed that border and met that land. It’s where I’ve lived ever since. Derek lived in a flat on Charing Cross Road, a drop-in haven for a few of us at a time, and our days were spent together, sliding about Soho, having long cheap lunches in the Presto, dreaming up ideas for projects. This year I took my children to Camden Lock Market, where I went with Derek every Sunday, skulking about looking through tat, searching for treasure. I remembered in a flash the day that Derek found a bolt of exquisite cream damask that he bought for £1,000. “I’m going to make a film out of it,” he said. It became Jesus’s robe in The Garden, which sprang into pre-production at that instant.

More of my lifelong friendships were hatched in this nest: Simon Fisher Turner, John Maybury, Spencer Leigh, Sandy Powell, Keith Collins. We are family in a very particular way that we can’t fully explain to anybody else. Derek was always very clear about the terms of our relationship to one another: We were bound by affection, the fellowship of exiles together, and the loyalties of comrades in a cause. Yes, the cause of art, of course, but later as something more precisely identified. When many of our friends became, often mortally, ill, and then the reactionary right wing started their ominously oppressive campaign of violence on the culture, well-being, and civil rights of the LGBT community and the wider diverse life of the entire country, we joined the vanguard of a resistance movement that needed to be highly active. This is an extremely defined time in my memory. In 1994 alone, the year Derek died, I attended 43 funerals. The Thatcherite Clause 28, which sought to prosecute and suppress queer culture—against which we campaigned in outrage—was an attack on the civil liberties of us all. My grandmother, born in 1900, who lost two brothers and most of the boys she had grown up with between 1914 and ’18, counted the funerals and listened to the rhetoric from Parliament and said, “But, my darling, you are at war.” That’s what it felt like. She got it.

 

HA: You are a wonderful writer. Did you keep a diary during your Jarman time? Or have friends let you see letters you wrote then to remind you of your shared experiences?

TS: No diary. I didn’t write at all for years. 

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HA: Aside from Derek, which directors and scenarists have you felt close to in a familial way?

TS: One great blessing in my life has undeniably been that not only did I meet Derek in the first place, with all that he brought to me in terms of a sense of a home in my work and a capacity to be a part of the world of art as a practitioner, but that after he left, knowing only that familial way of working, that sense of cooking things up in collaboration, that collective way of living, I should have found other “families” with whom I continue to make work. With Jim Jarmusch, for example, whom I met backstage at a Darkness concert, with whom I would—and probably will—travel the earth; with Bong Joon Ho, who is a dance partner, whose world I could only have dreamed of being a part of, and which has been some of the greatest fun of my life; with Cynthia Beatt and Lynne Ramsay; with Lynn Hershman; with Wes Anderson—some of the most inventive filmmakers working today, all of whom are up for the familial vibe. And, of course, with Luca [Guadagnino, director of I Am Love], who is practically a childhood friend, a playmate and a brother in arms, with whom I have a stream of never-ending projections that reminds me of that stream I had with Derek. Lighting struck twice for me in the playmate department, surely. Way more than twice: seven, eight times at least.

 

HA: I recall first seeing your post-Jarman work at the Berlin Film Festival. You were on a boat in the Hebrides. Tell me about that film, and also The Party, which Darryl Pinckney adapted for the screen. These are masterpieces, I think—films that should be revived.

TS: Ah, Play Me Something was the Hebridean one—made in 1988, and the thing that brought me together with my beloved John Berger, about whom we have just made a series of portraits into an essay film, The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, which recently had a run at the Film Forum, I believe. The Party is by my friend Cynthia Beatt, which we made in Berlin in 1991. I think you are right, they should both be revived, but then I think so many films from that era could do with revisiting. There is a verve and a rough touch to them that would feel refreshing to contemporary audiences.

 

HA: Was it Orlando that introduced American audiences to your work? What was it like to become more widely known?

TS: Orlando is an indescribably special thing for me, for many more reasons than how loved it is around the world. My partnership with Sally Potter on the journey to make that film is something uniquely tender: We leapt into the dark together from a great height, with no safety net, and we still pinch ourselves when we are together. As for its impact, there was the great moment not long after its release when my friend Henry Rosenthal heard me described as an underground superstar and reminded me that that was not unlike being likened to a jumbo shrimp. I’m always happy with the seafood option.

 

HA: Your career gets richer and richer because it defies Hollywood’s expectations of what a woman can and will do. Do you think that, in part, filmmakers you work with and love look to you to bring this spirit of “independent cinema” to their projects? 

TS: I've had an ongoing conversation with my friend Toby Ashraf, a highly perceptive cultural critic and film theorist from Berlin, about the nature of queerness and the degree to which queerness of sensibility has nothing to do with sexual orientation. I find this an extremely liberating and insightful perspective.

My father always called me “contrary.” Whatever that meant to him, I take that to signify a general attitude of openness to new things. The most wonderful luxury is being contrary in the company of other contrarians. I have lived for my entire adult life closely integrated into a queer aesthetic, occasionally in situations where I may have been—for months at a time —either the only cis woman present or the only person in a heterosexual relationship, without particularly questioning why it might be strange for me to be included. The issue of sexuality is a secondary one to the issue of spirit. My analysis is, as my grandmother would say, “Horses for courses,” meaning, each to their own. Queerness is an attitude that, when acknowledged as shared, can bring more people together than could ever be divided by it being used as a term of rejection. I think this attitude is what I carry above my head, without any effort or influence. I think it is a form of semaphore that my colleagues recognize as a homing beacon—and I am proud to say I think it was probably blinking away even in my cradle. 

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HA: I think your performance in Jim Jarmusch’s vampire movie, Only Lovers Left Alive, was the most “like” you I’ve ever seen, particularly when she’s talking to her lover about all the great people she knows and loves. Then there’s that incredible moment in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button when you are worried about Brad Pitt’s comfort as you drink champagne. When you see yourself during these moments, do you recognize yourself, or “her,” a character?

TS: There are a handful of performances that I have made that were “built” specifically on something very close to home for me. Orlando, Eve in Only Lovers Left Alive, and, actually, The Ancient One in Doctor Strange are very closely related, not only to me, but also to each other. They could be the same spirit played out in different lives. What I notice in these performances is familiar traits, like looking through a massive family album. They are cousins—to each other and also of mine.

 

HA: You were brilliant in Amy Schumer’s movie Trainwreck—Tina Brown all the way. What’s it like working with someone like Schumer—a woman who is honest, driven, and in love with you?

TS: What a complete thrill to have that heavenly bird in my life. Just beautiful. I love her bones.

 

HA: I read recently that you want to play Auntie Mame and you contacted some writers to see if they were interested. You’ve spoken about this project for a while. Is this something you’re working on with Luca?

TS: This is something Luca and I have been talking about for a long time. We love Mame. For a while now, we have been in a very enjoyable dialogue with Annie Mumolo, who is the one and only writer we approached about writing a script. We couldn’t be happier that she accepted our invitation. We are having a ball with it, all of us.

 

HA: You are an avid reader. Tell me something about the writers you go back to again and again for sustenance. I know you love Graham Greene. Similarly, what is the music that feeds you? David Bowie, your great, great friend, was such a source of inspiration in terms of, well, everything. He was a great reader, too. Did you ever discuss literature with him?

TS: We talked about literature a lot, actually, and used to send each other recent finds and old passions. One of the things I am happiest about in my life is introducing him to the essays of Montaigne, which I’ve loved since I was a teenager. And he sent me Bruges-la-Morte by Rodenbach, for which I am forever grateful. Beyond all the myriad things to miss, I miss our conversation most badly. Prattling, mainly. The odd weak joke that made us roll about, but wouldn’t anybody else. Music: Currently, I can’t get enough of Lady Leshurr. Check her out instantly. And see her live, if possible. She’s a wit-filled, va-va-voom-inducing, glorious, bountiful girl.

 

HA: I am a bad reader of the Internet, which is to say I don’t read it much. I’m told there was some controversy around the fact that you were cast as The Ancient One instead of an Asian actor. My feeling is that an artist can play anyone because that’s the job—to imagine other people and creatures and do one’s best. Obviously I know you are sensitive to these situations, especially in an industry that hasn’t been the greatest in terms of who is cast, and why. 

TS: There is little for me to add except to say that anyone speaking up for a greater accuracy in the representation of the diversity of the world we live in has me right beside them. As someone who has worked from the beginning as an artist within a queer aesthetic, the urgency of that voice is always going to be welcome. At the same time, the film Marvel has made—in which they created a part for which I was not bad casting, in actual fact—is a departure from the source material in more ways than one. Ironically, their casting is positively diverse in this case: The Ancient One in this film was never written as the bearded old Tibetan man portrayed in the comics. Baron Mordo, a Caucasian Transylvanian in the graphic novels, is here played by Chiwetel Ejiofor. Benedict Wong plays a newly expanded and significant role as Wong, who in the comics is a mini-minor character. I believe in Marvel’s wholehearted commitment to creating a diverse and vibrant universe, avoiding stereotype and cliché wherever possible in a determination to keep things fresh and lively. There may be some people who do not like these changes, but I am hopeful that when they see the film itself they may understand why these particular balances were struck. Meanwhile, whether they do or not, and this film aside, all strength to the lobby for a greater variety in cinema and in life. We are also still looking forward to our first gay Marvel superhero, naturally. Let’s hope that’s only a matter of time.

 

HA: Inevitably, the “what’s next” question. Can you mention any projects?

TS: Amazing horizons. My tiny children’s last year at school. My father’s 92nd birthday. Possibly puppies in the summer. The inaugural year for our school’s complete 12-year education—an exhilarating sentence to write. It’s been a seven-year project to establish our school, Drumduan, in the Highlands of Scotland. Based on a Waldorf curriculum, we offer state-test-free education from kindergarten to 19 years old. My co-founder, Ian McCook, and I started with four children between us in need of a happy completion to their great Waldorf start in school and founded an independent upper school for them to graduate to, which has, in the last few months, amalgamated with the junior school to complete the circle. It’s the best. And probably the thing I’m most proud of, having been a part of building in all my born days. 

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