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The Showgirl in Wonderland

The Showgirl in Wonderland

Tilda Article

The indefatigable Tilda Swinton on joining the Marvel universe, trading books with Bowie, and why queerness was never about sexual orientation.

Photography by Solve Sundsbo. 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.


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 metier?

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.

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 PS1,000. "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.


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.


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 cliche 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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