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Sunday 19 November 2017

We need to talk about Tilda

Tilda Swinton’s no ice queen finds James Mottram, as he talks to her about fashion, film roles and motherhood

James Mottram

When Tilda Swinton picked up her Oscar for Michael Clayton, she did it with a washed-satin, black Lanvin gown draped over her statuesque 5ft 11in frame. "I feel like I'm in my pyjamas," she told journalists backstage. And what did the fashion police make of it all? "It's very unique," stammered one hack. "That's such a great euphemism," Swinton fired back, faintly amused by the meltdown her idiosyncratic sartorial choice was causing. You could almost sense the shockwaves.

Could it be that the woman who once slept in a glass case at the Serpentine Gallery -- in the 1995 exhibit The Maybe -- had infiltrated Hollywood's top table? "The transition has been really a case of the mountain coming to Mohammed, because I haven't really moved anywhere," she tells me. In her eyes, it boils down to filmmakers such as Cameron Crowe or Spike Jonze wanting her as a "mascot" on films including Vanilla Sky and Adaptation.

Swinton may cause bewilderment among the A-list, but her presence brings immediate cachet. Still, one can only imagine the heart palpitations she must give her agents. At a time in her career that's seen her co-star with Keanu Reeves (Constantine), Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) and George Clooney (Burn After Reading), she's just as happy to engage with Hungarian filmmaker Béla Tarr for The Man From London.

"My agents know me very well," she confides. "They know not to turn away stuff. They know what I'm interested in. They know that a first-time filmmaker, or having no experience or being Marilyn Manson, isn't going to put me off." It's why, for example, she stood by Italian debut director Luca Guadagnino for 11 years as he developed and tried to raise the money for I am Love; the result was a critical triumph, decked with Oscar and Golden Globe nominations. Likewise, her latest film, Lynne Ramsay's We Need To Talk About Kevin, saw her stick with it as financing came and went.

When we meet, Swinton is dressed in a navy skirt and blouse, looking almost businesslike (perhaps symbolising that she is an executive producer on Kevin). Her crop of red hair is now blonde, presumably for her role in Wes Anderson's upcoming 60s love story Moonrise Kingdom. Her skin is pale and the eyes a show-stopping green. She may be 50, but there's something of Orlando about her, the ageless, androgynous character she played in Sally Potter's 1992 film.

Her reputation would have you believe she's aloof and icy -- and even her co-stars seem daunted. "She's quite an imperious figure from afar," says actor John C Reilly, who plays her husband in Kevin. "She has this regal bearing and she's such a formidable actress, with such intensity in her work. She reminds me of Meryl Streep -- an intimidating presence, because of her talent, but up close such a warm human being and someone who is so down to earth."

For once, this isn't phoney Hollywood chatter; Swinton may have been classmates with Princess Diana at the elite West Heath boarding school, but you won't find her a condescending figure.

As the title suggests, we do need to talk about Kevin. Based on Lionel Shriver's prize-winning novel, it deals with a mother's paralysing guilt after her teenage son commits a horrific act of mass murder at his high school. As Swinton points out, Kevin's final atrocity is not the point of the story. "It's got as much to do with actually rearing a mass murderer as Rosemary's Baby has with every single expectant mother's fear of giving birth to Satan's child. That's one of the reasons why it's such an extraordinary piece of work. Most people on some level can kind of go there -- whether they know it or not. Unconsciously, that's the deal."

As Kevin's mother, Eva, Swinton sublimely essays a woman in crisis. "It's about a woman who doesn't want to have a child who has a child and still doesn't want the child," Swinton adds. "And the child doesn't seem to want to have been born to her. I think it speaks to something really not that exotic. There are many, many women who find themselves in these situations -- and it's a terrible taboo that nobody talks about. There's this whole assumption that the whole maternal instinct is going to kick in and what if it doesn't? Sometimes it doesn't."

Fortunately for Swinton, she hasn't endured such hardships with her 13-year-old twins, Xavier and Honor. "They're not going to be stroppy teens," she says. "I'm looking forward to the next phase. And it's great -- I get more sleep these days." With their household not even containing a television, she calls her offspring "insanely pagan hippie children".

Swinton resides in Nairn, in the Scottish Highlands -- where she has twice helped pull a 33-tonne truck, its trailer loaded with a portable cinema screen, to bring arthouse movies to the locals. She lives with Sandro Kopp, a German-born artist 17 years her junior, a relationship that caused a furore when it was thought both were living in a ménage à trois with playwright John Byrne, Swinton's former partner and the father of her children. Swinton sighs at the memory. "There are some people who got a bit over excited and went up all sorts of gumtrees -- insanely hallucinogenic gumtrees -- and had to be educated."

Heaven knows what the Swintons must've thought. Her father is Major-General Sir John Swinton, the Scottish-born former head of the Queen's Household Division and Lord-Lieutenant of Berwickshire. Her mother is Judith Balfour, whose great-grandfather was botanist John Hutton Balfour. But then they're probably used to their daughter doing what's not expected of her. Like voluntary work in a South African township and -- shock, horror -- joining the Communist party.

Swinton had ambitions to be a poet when she was younger. "I went to university as a poet. I'm a complete fraud. I was accepted as a poet. And I got there and I stopped writing. I started performing very half-heartedly." Ditching the Royal Shakespeare Company after one season, Swinton enjoyed a spell at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh before she met Derek Jarman, the avant-garde filmmaker who would change her life. Cast as a prostitute in 1986's Caravaggio -- her first screen appearance -- they would go on to make a further six films.

If anything, these early years were Swinton's chance to experiment, with the world's media looking the other way. "I kept my head down when I was Keira Knightley's age," she says. "I kept under the radar, because I was so longing to be 40. Maybe it's good I kept my head down in my 20s, so people aren't sick of me quite yet. Maybe that's a clue. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. I was never any dolly-bird, was I?" No, she wasn't. Tilda Swinton's spent the past 25 years proving she's a lot more than that.

We Need To Talk About Kevin opens on October 21

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