The actor opens up about her queer years with Derek Jarman and her latest clutch of films, and reveals her plans for a career change. And all while taking her five spaniels for a walk
The Guardian- by Simon Hattenstone
Swinton at Kingsteps Beach, with her Springer Spaniels Snowbear, Dora and Rosy. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian
Tilda Swinton is waiting for me when I land at Inverness airport. She’s smiling, and says she’s got a surprise. We head off towards her car, Swinton marching ahead imperiously. In the car there are four springer spaniels in the back and a fifth, the eldest, Rosy, is in the front passenger seat.
Last time I interviewed Swinton at home in the Scottish Highlands it was 2008, Rosy was a puppy and she spent the whole time sitting on my knee. Swinton lifts her out of the front passenger seat of the Volvo to make way for me – then plonks her on my knee.
In the 14 years since, quite a lot has changed. Rosy has had puppies of her own and become an award-winning film star – at Cannes, she and her sister Dora and grandson Snowbear (both of them sitting in the back with two of Rosy’s puppis, Louie and Dot), won the Palm Dog for their appearances in The Souvenir Part II, the follow-up to Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age drama.
As for Swinton, at 61 she is freakishly unchanged – still gorgeous and unearthly; a doppelganger for David Bowie circa 1976. In The Souvenir films, she is the privileged mother of Julie, an aspiring film-maker (Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, giving a lovely guileless performance). In the first film, Julie falls in love with Anthony, a mysterious older man who proves to be a heroin addict and compulsive liar. In the sequel, Julie investigates her former relationship with Anthony while grieving for her lost love. Swinton’s supportive but emotionally repressed mother looks old enough to be Julie’s grandmother. In real life, she could pass as Honor’s rebellious older sister.
We’re here to talk about the films, but Swinton doesn’t like interviews and rarely does them. She’d rather chat with journalists than talk at them so she’s planned a road trip to Loch Ness (she lives on the other side of Inverness, in Nairn). It’s weird, she says, how people assume that you have something profound to say just because you’ve been in a few movies. “I don’t have anything to say. I don’t know anything. One thing I do know is I don’t want to even pretend I know anything. So let’s go for a walk with the dogs instead.”
Swinton is an extraordinary shape-shifter – smouldering in A Bigger Splash, drab in We Need to Talk About Kevin, ancient in The Grand Budapest Hotel, grotesque in Snowpiercer. As the eponymous Orlando, in Sally Potter’s film, she shifts between sexes and centuries. Perhaps most audacious of all is the distinguished elderly Dr Klemperer in Suspira. She occupies a unique place in cinema, sprinkling mainstream films with indie credibility, and indie films with mainstream viability. Swinton is the queen of indie-stream.
Her films tend to come in batches, often labours of love that take an eternity to realise. Next week Memoria is released, 15 years after it was first discussed by Swinton and the brilliant Thai film-maker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. An eerie meditation about a woman haunted by a sound that only she can hear, Memoria is at times so slow you think you’re looking at a photograph; the next minute you’re jumping out of your seat. It’s like nothing else – a neo-realist, time-travelling thriller that leaves you with a heightened sense of sound and a diminished sense of life’s certainties.
It’s 36 years since Swinton made her film debut in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio. She became Jarman’s muse, and he her mentor. Jarman’s work was experimental, collective and challenging – perfect for the young Swinton, who had no formal training, and felt technically disadvantaged for much of her career. Sometimes Jarman used her more as a model or presence than a conventional actor, which she loved.
Swinton certainly never wanted to be a star. “I only ever intended to do one film,” she says. Really? She nods. “I like seeing people for the first time in a film. It’s one of the reasons I love documentary. I love seeing people, I’m not interested in seeing actors at all. And the best way if you’re an actor to avoid that annoyance for the audience is just to do one film; then they’ve seen you, they’ve met you, you were interesting and new and they never have to see you again.”
She ended up making nine films with Jarman, and since then has won an Oscar for her dyspeptic lawyer in Michael Clayton and has worked regularly with the world’s most gifted directors – four films each with Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson (including the upcoming Asteroid City), on to her third with Joanna Hogg, and two each with Bong Joon-ho and the Coen brothers. She says it’s like having different families, and that working consistently with different people is a way of keeping herself fresh.
Last year, the great Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar made his first English-language film – a half-hour, one-woman adaptation of Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice, starring Swinton. She first met Almodóvar at a pre-Oscar party in 2008. They bonded, she says, because they were outsiders having the time of their lives. “He and I have this lovely long history of meeting at Hollywood events and being the two shy ones – both shy and tickled pink and pinching ourselves and looking forward to telling people at home, but not confident enough to step in and talk to, say, Angelina Jolie.”
We reach Loch Ness. Rosy and Dora hobble out of the car to stretch their legs. Neither are up for a full walk, so they get back in the car while Dot, Louie and Snowbear jump out. The air is fresh, the leaves are crunchy, the dogs ecstatic.
Katherine Matilda Swinton was born in London to an aristocratic Anglo-Scots military family that can trace its lineage to the middle ages. At 10, she was sent to boarding school; a year ahead of her peer group, she was bullied for her brains and barely talked for five years. She went to Cambridge University with the intention of becoming a poet, then never wrote another poem once she got there.
“This is the shame of my life,” she says. “I am a proper capital F failure.” I assume she’s joking, but she means it. “I was supposed to go for one thing and dropped the ball immediately. There is a real dark shame attached to it.” Did she really never write poems again? “Very, very sporadically and privately.”
After giving up poetry, she began to perform with fellow students who were more driven than her. It made her feel a fraud. “I was embarrassed about my lack of ambition. As a child, my ambition was always about having a house by the sea, a kitchen garden, children, some dogs and lots of friends. I wanted to make work with friends. It didn’t matter what, it could be a wool shop. Those were my ambitions and they still are, and I just want all of that to keep going.”
Why did she find that embarrassing? “Because it felt like such a dilettante thing to want. One of the reasons I say I find it difficult to describe myself as an actor is because at university the first people I met who wanted to be actors were very serious about it and some of them went on to do very well.” One of her peers was Simon Russell Beale. “They were focused and professional, very clear about taking part in a tradition and a profession. I was very aware I was not like that.”
For Swinton there is still a link between stopping writing poetry and starting to perform. “I’ve got a hunch that I’ve got to stop performing and then I’ll write again.” She pauses. “Let’s go and have some lunch.” Does she want to stop performing? “Yeah. Oh yeah. I’ve always wanted to stop.” I bet most people would rather have your career than be a poet, I say. “Well, possibly, which makes me even dumber in that I don’t know a good thing when I see it.”
We pass a man with three poodles. Swinton stops to chat. Dot starts barking at one of the dogs. “Dot! Don’t use that language!” she chides in disappointed-mother mode. “I’m so sorry,” she says to the poodle owner. This is why Dot is the only one of the five springers not to have a movie career so far, she says. “Dot is a free radical. She’s not inclined to do take after take of anything. She is above all this. She is much too evolved.”
As we stroll on, she looks around in awe – at the skyline, the loch, the trees. “This is why I live here.” She opens her arms wide. “Because of this. And to have a blether with a man with some poodles!”
She leads me to the Dores Inn on the edge of Loch Ness. Haggis, neeps and tatties for me, five-bean curry for Swinton. She tells me she’s entering a new stage of her life. The twins have now left home – Xavier is working in film props, Honor is in her third year at university in Edinburgh.
Over lunch, Swinton talks about how her first family of film will always be the Jarman gang with whom she made nine films in nine years. It was a fantastic time – she made so many friends, discovered so much about herself, lived in a squat in Chelsea’s World’s End, and went on demos every weekend, whether in support of the miners or against clause 28 and the Gulf war. But it also left terrible scars.
Like most of her friends back then, she identified as queer, but for Swinton it was more about her place in the universe than her sexuality. “I lived through my 20s in a whole queer environment and it was just at the point when queer was being reclaimed because it had always been a term of abuse. It just so happened I’d also been a queer kid – not in terms of my sexual life, just odd. People said I was queer, like she’s a queer fish.” She had never quite fitted in anywhere, and for the first time she felt she did.
But there was a traumatic postscript to the Jarman years. “Derek died in 1994 and that year I went to 43 funerals, all Aids-related deaths. The one person who really understood what I was going through was my grandmother, who lived through two world wars, and she said: ‘This is your generation’s war.’”
She mentions Russell T Davies’s It’s a Sin, about a group of young male friends caught in the Aids epidemic. In the series, the character Jill, who lives with the boys, visits them in hospital. She holds their hands as they are dying, a surrogate for absent parents who are ashamed of their children’s illness. “I was that girl,” Swinton says. “That was very much my experience. That was the atmosphere of my late 20s and early 30s. What was so tragic was the breakdown of the blood family support. Lots of people couldn’t go home so they stayed with us and we looked after everyone as best we could.”
By the end, London and its association with lost friends became too painful, and she left. “The collective way we lived broke down because of people getting ill and dying or going home or leaving the country. I came up here to the Highlands when my babies were born and never went back. I still find it difficult to go back to London. I can count on three hands the times I’ve spent longer than a night there.” At the same time as the Aids epidemic, British culture was being eviscerated by Thatcherism, she says – a topic that is addressed in The Souvenir Part II. “The way in which films were funded were changed. If you wanted to make a film you had to write five pages of forms saying this is how I can prove my film will make a profit.”
I lived through my 20s in a whole queer environment, just at the point when queer was being reclaimed
At times, the tabloids have depicted Swinton living a life of swinging decadence in the Highlands. The father of her 24-year-old twins is her former partner, the artist and writer John Byrne. Back in 2008, she was the subject of lubricious stories about a menage a trois with Byrne and her artist lover Sandro Kopp, who is 39 years younger than Byrne. The truth was more mundane, Swinton says – she and Byrne had separated but were happily co-parenting, while Kopp was her partner (and remains so today).
Over the past decade she has experienced another prolonged period of grief. In 2018, Swinton’s father died, seven years after her mother. “My experience of grief is a kind of emptying,” she says. “All the stories stop, there is no road in front of you. It all just goes black, and it takes a long time to get over it.”
Swinton says her brain has also emptied in another scary way. She is still recovering from long Covid. For three weeks in August, she couldn’t get out of bed. “I was coughing like an old gentleman who smoked a pipe for 70 years, and had nasty vertigo. I got off relatively lightly, but the worst thing is how it affected my brain.
“I did two films that I had to learn a lot of text for. One was the Wes Anderson and he likes you to speak like a speeding train. I’m normally quite quick at studying, and picking stuff up, but this was like chewing a really big piece of gum. I couldn’t remember my lines.” Is she coping now? “More or less, but I’m still forgetting things. I have to work my brain.”
But, she says, there has also been a positive emptying that has resulted from bringing all sorts of long-term projects to fruition, ranging from the all-consuming (seeing her children grow into “kind, connected and engaged” adults) to the mere 15 years she spent on Memoria. Swinton mentions another project that has been particularly important to her. “We had this campaign to buy Derek’s cottage in Dungeness and turn it into an artists’ retreat, which we managed to do in lockdown. Just before lockdown, a lot of us kids from Jarmania came together to raise funds for Prospect Cottage. All of us coming together was so wonderful.”
I ask if she’s planning to slow down. “No, if anything I feel like expanding into something different.” Is she serious about wanting to stop stopping acting? “Yes, I’m thinking of retraining as a palliative carer,” she says out of the blue. She talks about witnessing the loving support her parents received from professional carers at the end of their lives, and the impact it had on her.
The idea of Tilda Swinton as a palliative carer sounds so unlikely, but then so many of the things she has done have been. When the twins graduated from their Steiner school at 14, she co-founded a secondary school based on the same principles to complete their education. (Every one of the students who applied to further education was accepted without having taken exams.) When she thought the Highlands would benefit from a film festival, she created a travelling one with the film-maker Mark Cousins. It’s the kind of quixotic fantasy you might find in a Werner Herzog movie, but they made it a reality.
Has she looked into palliative care as a career option? “I have a bit, because during lockdown there were all sorts of people in our village who needed looking out for, not only in the care homes but the sheltered housing and those living by themselves. There’s a lady who hasn’t been over the door for two years. It’s not that she’s unable to move, it’s that she’s frightened and she’s become detached from the possibility.” Swinton is aware she couldn’t do something like this on a whim. “I’ve looked into retraining and I would need a good two to three years clear and I haven’t got that yet.”
It’s late afternoon and getting dark. The skyline has turned a magnificent silver-black.
Swinton points out the sights as she drives me back to the airport. “This is where they have the RockNess music festival,” she says. “Isn’t that a great name? Can you imagine RockNess in this field? I love festivals.” She tells me about a charity in Inverness called Spokes for Folks that provides bikes with double buggies for elderly and disabled people. “It’s like a rickshaw, and they go around to the care homes and give people a spin. I want to see if they’ll come to Nairn just to get some of the people over the door and out to the sea.” It would be great for the woman who hasn’t been out for two years, I say. “Exactly! That’s what I was thinking.”
She looks at Rosy. “I can tell she is very comfortable with you. She’s sunk into you like melted cheese.” I tell her I’d be happy with all five dogs on my knee. “When Sandro is not here, I sleep with all of them in bed. It is the most indulgent thing. Such hugs.”
I’m thinking about her plans for the bike rides for the elderly, films such as Memoria that wouldn’t get made without her tenacity, the school she built for her kids, the mobile film festival, and it strikes me that Swinton is one of life’s great hands-on doers. She laughs. “If we’re going to find a word for it, I have actually been producing always, and I love producing. I’ll always want to go on producing; not necessarily being in the film, but being at the side of the ring with a sponge and a bucket and a towel round my neck. I’ve done that from the beginning.”
It’s not just film I’m thinking of. She may well be producing in an entirely different arena in future. The one thing we can be sure of is that she will still have the sponge in her hand and the towel around her neck.
Memoria is released in the UK on 14 January, The Souvenir Part II on 4 February.