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Getting to Know: Tilda Swinton

All mentioned films in article
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There are two Tildas for the price of one in Joanna Hogg's The Eternal Daughter, which is currently in UK theatres. As Cinema Paradiso discovers, however, there have been numerous variations on Tilda Swinton since she made her screen debut in 1986.

A still from Adaptation. (2002)
A still from Adaptation. (2002)

Could Tilda Swinton become the first person in screen history to be nominated for a major award like a BAFTA or an Oscar in the Best Actress and Best Supporting categories for separate performances in the same film? Going back to the silent era, there are dozens of precedents for stars playing against themselves in dual roles. Indeed, Lee Marvin won the Academy Award for Best Actor for playing drunken gunfighter Kid Shelleen and tin-nosed villain Tim Strawn in Elliot Silverstein's Cat Ballou (1965), while Nicolas Cage was nominated in the same category for essaying screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and his freeloading brother Donald in Spike Jonze's Adaptation (2002). Peter Sellers went one better in being cited as a triple threat in Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), which saw him add Group Captain Lionel Mandrake and American president Merkin Muffley to the eponymous German nuclear expert who had previously gone by the name of Merkwürdigliebe.

Barry Fitzgerald, of course, holds a unique place in Oscar history, as he was nominated for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor for the same role, Father Fitzgibbon, in Leo McCarey's Going My Way (1944). But Swinton gives two different performances in Joanna Hogg's The Eternal Daughter (2022), as film director Julie Hart takes her elderly mother, Rosalind, to a remote hotel in Wales to celebrate her birthday - and each is worthy of a nomination in its own right.

First and Foremost

Katherine Matilda Swinton was born in London on 5 November 1960 into an ancient Anglo-Scots family that can trace its lineage back to the royal House of Bamburgh that had ruled over the Kingdom of Northumbria. Indeed, she would be a prime candidate for the BBC ancestry programme, Who Do You Think You Are?, as she can also claim descent from Robert the Bruce, who was portrayed by Angus Macfadyen in both Mel Gibson's Oscar winner, Braveheart (1995), and Richard Grey's Robert the Bruce (2019).

The clan name derives from the Barony of Swinton, which was granted to Eadulf Ros by Malcolm III around 1060 for clearing the wild boar that roamed the Borders. Hence, the boar tethered to a tree on the Swinton crest, while the family motto is the stirring 'J'èspère, je pense (I hope, I think). ' Swinton's paternal great-grandfather was the Scottish politician, George Swinton, while her maternal great-great-grandfather was the Scottish botanist John Hutton Balfour. Great-great-uncle Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton was a scientist who is claimed by some to have invented the cathode-ray tube, which was a key component of television sets until the mid-2000s.

Mother Judith Balfour was born and raised in New South Wales, while father Sir John Swinton was a major-general in the Household Division. As his duties took him to Germany, Sandhurst, and London, Swinton and her three brothers, Alexander, William, and James, had a peripatetic childhood. However, the family made its home at Kimmerghame House near Duns in Berwickshire after her father inherited the title of laird in 1972 and Swinton considers herself to be 'first and foremost' a Scot.

While her siblings took up country pursuits, the young Tilda felt marginalised and misunderstood, as she was drawn to books, poetry, and music. As she told one interviewer, 'most of the things I was interested in were anathema to my family. They are singularly philistine when it comes to art.' At the age of 10, however, she made an important discovery while on the train to the West Heath boarding school in Kent. Realising that no one else in the compartment could know how miserable she felt, Swinton consoled herself with the knowledge that she had what it took to give a performance.

Bullied at school for being bright, Swinton has since spoken out about the 'very lonely and isolating environment' at West Heath, even though she forged a lifelong friendship with film director Joanna Hogg. Another classmate was Lady Diana Spencer. but Swinton rebelled against the notion that she was being groomed to become a good wife and mother. Consequently, after further spells at Queen's Gate School in London and Fettes College in Edinburgh, she spent time as a volunteer in South Africa and Kenya before reading Social and Political Sciences at New Hall, Cambridge, where she joined the Communist Party.

Swinton had wanted to become a poet, but stopped writing soon after arriving in the Fens and began performing because friends like Simon Russell Beale belonged to theatre groups. 'I was embarrassed about my lack of ambition,' she recalled. '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. 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.'

'As a child,' she continued, '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.' On graduating in 1983, she would find the communal existence she craved, albeit in an unexpected place.

The Jarman Years

Feeling the need to perform, Swinton joined the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1983, appearing in Julius Caesar, Measure For Measure, and Henry VIII, as well as productions of The Devils, Mother Courage and Her Children, and Waste. She also had spells with the Almeida Theatre in London and the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, notably featuring in avant-garde productions of Bertold Brecht's Die Massnahme and Manfred Karge's Mann ist Mann. Swinton also played Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in a 1989 adaptation of Aleksandr Pushkin's Mozart and Salieri, which travelled to Vienna and Berlin.

In 1986, using the name Matilda Swinton, she headlined Caprice, Joanna Hogg's graduation film from the National Film and Television School, a critique of the way fashion publications make women feel about their bodies and themselves, in which Swinton played Lucky, who is transported into the pages of her favourite glossy magazine. She also joined Udo Kier in boyfriend Christoph Schlingensief's Egomania: Island Without Hope, a brooding romance about the threat posed by a loving couple to a tyrannical Baltic Island baron.

A still from Caravaggio (1986)
A still from Caravaggio (1986)

Remaining in Gothic mode, Swinton made her television debut in David G. Hopkins's four-part Channel 4 adaptation of Percy Bysshe Shelley's novella, Zastrozzi: A Romance (1986), in which the villainous Zastrozzi (Geff Francis) seeks to ruin the relationship between his brother, Verezzi (Mark McGann) and Julia (Swinton). More significantly, she made the first of her nine films with Derek Jarman. The production designer-turned-director had first seen Swinton when she was still a student and had confided in an assistant after making a short Super8 study of her, 'Oh, my God. I've found her.' He cast her as Lena in Caravaggio, who comes between the artist (Nigel Terry) and his friend, Ranuccio (Sean Bean), by sleeping with both and consorting with the wealthy Scipione Borghese (Robbie Coltrane).

Jarman hired Swinton again for the flashbacks experienced by opera singer Amy Johnson as she sings an extract from Gustave Charpentier's Louise in the 'Depuis le jour' segment of the musical anthology, Aria (1987). A few months later, the pair reunited for The Last of England, which saw Swinton perform a manic dance of grief and despair as the widowed bride of an executed husband tearing at her wedding dress before departing by boat in a tableau inspired by the Ford Madox Brown painting from which this denunciation of Thatcherism took its title.

In one of the finest performances of this phase of her career, Swinton beguiled as an alien who comes to warn humanity of its follies in Peter Wollen's Friendship's Death (1987), which co-stars Bill Patterson as a booze-addled journalist covering the shifting situation in the Middle East from a hotel room in Jordan. This has recently been rediscovered, but much of Swinton's output from this period had slipped between the cracks, including such features as Imogen Kimmel's Das andere Ende der Welt (1988), Timothy Neat's Play Me Something (1989), and Cynthia Beatt's The Party: Nature Morte (1991) and 1988 shorts like Beatt's Cycling the Frame, Cerith Wyn Evans's Degrees of Blindness, and evev Jarman's L'Ispirazione. Also out of reach is Joan Jonas's Volcano Saga, a filmed record of a 1989 performance art piece, in which Swinton played a woman who can dream the future.

Although she was busy, Swinton was often hard up and lived in a squat in Chelsea's World's End. One way of making money was betting on racing, as her grandfather's gardener, Bert Matheson, had taught her how to pick winners. One horse, named Devilry, came in at such good odds that it kept her for nearly a year. When not working, Swinton went on demonstrations and, feeling for once like she fitted in, she also explored her place in the grander scheme. 'I lived through my 20s in a whole queer environment,' she later revealed, '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.'

In 1989, Swinton had the distinction of being Laurence Olivier's last screen co-star, as her nurse pushes his old soldier's wheelchair in Jarman's take on Benjamin Britten's War Requiem (1989). She also played a Madonna being harassed by the paparazzi in The Garden (1990), a reworking of the Passion story that examined the Section 28 scandal and the AIDS crisis. Production designer Christopher Hobbs remembered the inspirational bond between actor and director. 'For the first time, Derek found in front of his camera a natural film star, someone the camera absolutely adored. She was very poised; she came from a rather grand background, so she knew how. She was bored with being a deb and so did all these parts where she dressed with a moustache and rags.'

She drew on her royal heritage to play Queen Isabella in Jarman's Edward II (1991), a variation on the Christopher Marlowe play that sees the French consort ally with Mortimer (Nigel Terry) in order to prise her husband (Steven Waddington) away from his despised favourite, Piers Gaveston (Andrew Tiernan). Swinton won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival and was equally feted for her gender-shifting turn in Sally Potter's Oscar-nominated adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando (1992). As the Elizabethan nobleman who transforms into a woman and spends four centuries fighting to regain control over her estate in a patriarchal society, Swinton merited frontline award recognition. But all that came was a Best Actress nomination at the European Film Awards and she reunited with Jarman for his final two projects, Blue and Wittgenstein (both 1993). Swinton helped narrate the former over a blue screen that represented the only colour that Jarman could see as his sight failed prior to his death from AIDS at the age of 52. The latter biopic of the German philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein (Karl Johnson), saw Swinton play Lady Ottoline Morrell, who had been part of the Bloomsbury Group with Virginia Woolf.

Swinton went to 43 funerals in the year that Jarman died and recently compared herself to Jill (Lydia West) in Russell T. Davies's It's a Sin (2021). At the time, she took solace from her grandmother's assertion that the AIDS epidemic was her generation's world war. Her mentor left her a lasting legacy, however. 'The world of Derek's work,' she told one interviewer, 'the practical magic of the collective, the sensibility of the experimental, and the effortless, harmonious positioning of that work within the milieus of both fine art and the cinema is the universe I've made my home in ever since.'

In tribute to Jarman and her many lost friends, Swinton conceived 'The Maybe', an installation that she realised at The Serpentine Gallery in London with Cornelia Parker and which involved her lying motionless in a glass case for eight hours a day for a week in September 1995. Having appeared in the music video for Orbital's 'The Box', she repeated the performance at the Museo Barracco in Rome and at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2013, as a tribute to her late mother.

A still from Your Cheatin' Heart (1990)
A still from Your Cheatin' Heart (1990)

Ready to leave London, Swinton moved to Scotland with her new partner, artist and playwright John Byrne, who had cast her as Glaswegian waitress Cissie Crouch in the six-part BBC serial, Your Cheatin' Heart (1990), a Country-and-Western variation on Tutti Frutti (1987) that also starred John Gordon Sinclair as a journalist who plays in a band. In 1997, the couple welcomed twins, Honor and Xavier Swinton Byrne, and settled into a B-listed Scottish Arts and Crafts home in Nairn, overlooking the Moray Firth. Swinton still delights in telling journalists who come to profile her that Charlie Chaplin used to holiday in Nairn, while Margaret Rutherford had stayed in a seafront hotel while nursing a broken heart. However, she misremembered the Basil Rathbone connection with the local railway station, as it was Robert Stephens who ventured from 221B Baker Street to Loch Ness in Billy Wilder's The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970).

The press got hold of the wrong end of the stick and started beating about the bush with it when rumours spread in 2004 that Swinton and Byrne had entered into a ménage with twentysomething German artist Sandro Kopp. However, she and Byrne had already amicably decoupled and remained devoted parents, friends, and neighbours until his death at the age of 83 on St Andrew's Day 2023.

Onwards and Upwards

With Jarman gone, Swinton had to forge new working relationships, as she sought to replicate the family film-making feel that she finds so inspiring. She teamed with John Maybury on Remembrance of Things Fast: True Stories Visual Lies (1994), an avant-garde mash-up that co-starred Rupert Everett in an acerbic commentary on the media's depiction of LGBTQIA+ issues. The director would also cast her as nightclub owner and model Muriel Belcher in Love Is the Devil: Study For a Portrait of Francis Bacon (1998), which paired Derek Jacobi and Daniel Craig as the provocative painter and his crook lover, George Dyer. Swinton had played another historical figure, mathematician Ada Augusta Byron King, Countess of Lovelace, in Lynn Hershman Leeson's Conceiving Ada (1997), which had followed on from Susan Streitfield's Female Perversions (1996), which sees high-powered lawyer Eve Stephens being troubled by erotic nightmares as she is selected to become a judge.

A feature debut led to Swinton forming a long-lasting attachment to Italian director Luca Guadagnino, who starred her as an actress in The Protagonists (1999), which chronicles the making of a documentary about the 1994 murder of an Egyptian chef by two Oxford teenagers. The same year saw Swinton impress in another directorial debut, Tim Roth's The War Zone, in which she plays a pregnant woman who is too preoccupied to realise what husband Ray Winstone is doing to their teenage children, Lara Belmont and Freddie Cunliffe.

Garlanded with indie film awards, this potent domestic drama couldn't be more different in style from Danny Boyle's The Beach, an opulent adaptation of an Alex Garland novel that took Richard (Leonardo DiCaprio) to the Thai island where Sal (Swinton) leads an island community living in harmony with the local farmers. Based on a John Mighton play, Robert Lepage's Possible Worlds (both 2000) also has a beach setting, as mathematician George Barber (Tom McManus) keeps encountering Joyce (Swinton) at a bar while having increasingly strange dreams.

Neither film was a commercial success, but they reinforced Swinton's burgeoning reputation as an indie icon. But she received more mainstream attention after being nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance as Margaret Hall, the California mother trying to protect her teenage son, Beau (Jonathan Tucker), from his older club-owning lover, Darby Reese (Josh Lucas) in David Siegel and Scott McGehee's The Deep End (2001), an adaptation of the Elizabeth Sanxay Holding novel, The Blank Wall, which had been filmed as The Reckless Moment (1949) by Max Ophüls, with Joan Bennett and James Mason.

Now very much in demand in Hollywood, Swinton was paired with Tom Cruise and Penélope Cruz in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky (2001), a remake of Alejandro Amenábar's Open Your Eyes (1997) that sees Rebecca Dearborn (Swinton) explain to the psychologically troubled publisher David Aames (Cruise) the cryonic suspension technique used by the Life Extension company. Another headscratcher (albeit more amusing than disconcerting) followed in the form of Spike Jonze's Adaptation (2002), as studio executive Valerie Thomas (Swinton) hires Charlie Kaufman (Nicolas Cage) to adapt for the screen Susan Orlean's non-fiction tome, The Orchid Thief.

A still from The Statement (2003)
A still from The Statement (2003)

While she was confined to supporting roles in these high-profile outings, Swinton continued to land leads in more esoteric projects like Lynn Hershman Leeson's Teknolust (2002), in which Swinton not only played scientist Rosetta Stone, but also Marinne, Olive, and Ruby, the Self Replicating Automatons into which she has injected her DNA. This was little seen and is not currently available on disc. But Cinema Paradiso users can see Swinton as Investigating Judge Annemarie Livi in Norman Jewison's fact-based thriller, The Statement (2003), as she joins Colonel Roux (Jeremy Northam) in tracking down wartime collaborator, Pierre Brossard (Michael Caine).

She was also more to the fore in David Mackenzie's Young Adam (2003), an adaptation of an Alexander Trocchi novel set in 1950s Scotland that follows the dangerous liaison between Ella, the wife of bargee Les Gault (Peter Mullan), and Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor), a drifter with a dark secret. After a year away from the screen during which she won the British Academy Scotland Award for Best Actress, Swinton found a new kindred spirit in Jim Jarmusch, who had introduced himself backstage at a concert by The Darkness and offered her the role of Penny the biker in Broken Flowers (2005), which joins Don Johnston (Bill Murray) in a journey to discover which of his past lovers has sent an anonymous letter informing him that he had fathered a son. Jessica Lange, Sharon Stone, and Frances Conroy co-star.

Moving into the realm of the comic-book blockbuster, Swinton affirmed her reputation for chameleonic reinvention as the half-breed angel, Gabriel, whose attempts to create Hell on Earth by unleashing Mammon are thwarted by John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) in Francis Lawrence's DC spin-off, Constantine (2005).

Reeves also featured in Mike Mills's Thumbsucker, which Swinton co-executive produced while starring as Audrey, the dysfunctional nurse mother of teenager Justin Cobb (Lou Taylor Pucci), who cheats on husband Mike (Vincent D'Onofrio) after becoming obsessed with film star, Matt Schramm (Benjamin Bratt). Swinton, however, was the one casting the irresistible spell as Jadis the White Witch in Adam Adamson's adaptation of the C.S. Lewis allegory, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005). She would reprise the role in cameos in Adamson's Prince Caspian (2008) and Michael Apted's The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2009). But Swinton's star was still rising.

On a Roll

With her distinctive voice, Swinton was frequently invited to narrate actualities and docudramas. In addition to Carl Hindmarch's The Battle of the Somme (2005), she can also be heard on Jerry Rothwell and Louise Ormond's Donald Crowthorpe profile, Deep Water; Paul D. Stewart's Galapagos: The Island That Changed the World (both 2006); and Isaac Julien's Derek (2008), a tribute to Derek Jarman that Swinton also co-wrote.

Swinton returned to Indieland to play forensic psychologist Lydie Crane in Hilary Brougher's Stephanie Daley (both 2006), which co-starred Amber Tamblyn as the 16 year-old accused of killing her premature baby during a school skiing holiday. She next found herself in Hungarian auteur Béla Tarr's atmospheric take on Georges Simenon's The Man From London (2007), as Camélia, the highly strung wife of a railway worker who keeps a suitcase full of British banknotes after witnessing a dockside murder.

She was also cast in a character role in Tony Gilroy's legal thriller, Michael Clayton, as the focus falls on George Clooney as a fixer for a New York law firm who discovers that colleague Tom Wilkinson is involved in a cover-up involving an agro-chemical firm. But Swinton was so devastating as U-North counsel general Karen Crowder (particularly during the washroom panic attack scene) that she emerged with the BAFTA and the Academy Award, while both Clooney and Wilkinson left empty handed.

Somewhat to her own surprise, Swinton found her new fame 'kind of great, to be honest. I'm happy to be a movie star. The downside of being an arthouse freak is that it's a kind of elitist sport. I really like people waving at me in airports.' But her creative temperament craved non-mainstream nourishment and she returned to the fold of Lynn Hershman Leeson for Strange Culture (2007), a docudrama in which she played Hope, the wife of artist Steve Kurtz (Thomas Jay Ryan), who is accused of bioterrorism after she dies in mysterious circumstances. French director Erick Zonca was also keen to collaborate with her on Julia (2008), a reworking of the John Cassavetes classic, Gloria (1980) that pitches a Californian alcholic into a plot to kidnap the son of a fellow AA member from the home of his rich grandfather.

A still from Burn After Reading (2008) With Tilda Swinton
A still from Burn After Reading (2008) With Tilda Swinton

Breaking new ground, Swinton earned a Best Actress nomination at the César Awards to round off a year that also contained two contrasting Hollywood pictures. In Joel and Ethan Coen's Burn After Reading, Swinton enjoyed herself as Katie Cox, the wife of John Malkovich's CIA analyst, who begins an affair with US Marshal George Clooney after her bibulous spouse's missing memoirs are found by clueless gym workers Frances McDormand and Brad Pitt. The latter also took the more sombre lead in David Fincher's adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (both 2008), in which Swinton essayed Elizabeth Abbott, the wife of the chief of the British trade delegation to wartime Murmansk, who breaks Button's heart when their affair ends.

After a decade of discussion and development, Swinton and Luca Guadagnino completed I Am Love, which charted the romantic entanglements of Emma Recchi, the Russian-born wife of an Italian industrialist (Pippo Delbono) who tumbles into a fling with dashing chef Antonio Biscaglia (Edoardo Gabbriellini). A treat for foodies, as well as Swinton fans, the drama was nominated for both a BAFTA and a Golden Globe in the Foreign Film category. Her next catch-up with Jim Jarmusch, however, consigned her to a single scene. Sporting a long wig and a white cowboy hat, she made the most of Blonde's encounter with Lone Man (Isaach de Bankolé) in The Limits of Control (both 2009) to deliver the choice rumination on the magic of cinema: 'The best films are like dreams you're never sure you've really had.'

Rather than just musing about movies, however, Swinton has twice teamed with director Mark Cousins to share their passion with the people of Scotland. In July 2008, they curated the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams in Nairn, while, the following year, they took a large portable cinema truck through the Highlands on an odyssey that was recorded by Teal Greyhavens in Cinema Is Everywhere (2011), which also examined film culture in India and Tunisia. A coda to these expeditions can be found in Cousin's documentary, The Storms of Jeremy Thomas (2021), in which Swinton recalls taking the Cinema of Dreams to the China Film Archives in Beijing.

An Iconoclastic Icon

Having narrated Lucy Gray's short, Genevieve Goes Boating, Swinton took on the daunting role of Eva Khatchadourian in Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Lionel Shriver's bestseller, We Need to Talk About Kevin (both 2011). Doubling as executive producer during the six-year development period, Swinton earned BAFTA, Golden Globe, and Screen Actors Guild nominations for her performance as the travel writer-turned-reluctant mother who struggles to cope with her antagonistic and ultimately psychotic son, Kevin (Ezra Miller). Tweenagers Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward) are difficult in a more delightful way in Moonrise Kingdom (2012), Swinton's first outing for new soulmate Wes Anderson that saw her play a 1960s social service worker threatening to send Sam to an orphanage.

Following this adventure, Swinton renewed ties with Jim Jarmusch on Only Lovers Left Alive (2012), a chic vampire saga that paired Adam (Tom Hiddleston) and Eve (Swinton) in a long-distance marriage that is jeopardised by the recklessness of her younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska). With John Hurt's undead Christopher Marlowe holing up in Tangier with Eve, this visually striking affair combined dark wit with existential poignancy and Swinton followed it by guesting with partner Sandro Kopp in an episode of the BBC sitcom, Getting On (2009-12), and by confirming her status as the Thin White Duchess by playing David Bowie's wife in Floria Sigismondi's video for the 2013 single, 'The Stars (Are Out Tonight) '.

A still from Snowpiercer (2013)
A still from Snowpiercer (2013)

Despite being one of the screen's most recognisable performers, Swinton enjoys losing herself in disguises. None was more ghoulish than the one she adopted as Mason in Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer (2013), the ruthless second-in-command aboard a train that circles the globe in the aftermath of a climatic calamity. In the original French graphic novel, the minister had been male and Swinton found herself in hot water after she took on the similarly tweaked role of the shaven-headed Ancient One in the Marvel Cinematic Universe duo of Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange (2016) and Anthony and Joe Russo's Avengers: Endgame (2019). As the original character had hailed from the Himalayas, there was unease that Swinton played the Sorcerer Supreme as an androgynous Celt. In seeking clarification from American comedian and actress Margaret Cho (who she had never met) about why her casting might have caused offence, Swinton was dismayed to be accused of exhibiting white privilege, despite her insistence, 'diversity is pretty much my comfort zone'. Swinton also admitted that 'the idea of being caught on the wrong side of this debate is a bit of a nightmare to me'. Yet she told Variety after this 'hot, sticky, gnarly moment' that she had 'zero regrets'.

Before the storm, Swinton had narrated Louise Hooper's affecting study of music and nature, When Björk Met Attenborough. She had also popped up as Dr Shrink-Rom in Terry Gilliam's sci-fi satire, The Zero Theorem (both 2013) in order to pronounce on the mental health of Qohen Leth (Christoph Waltz), a computer programmer who has been tasked with coming up with a mathematical formula for the meaning of life. She then submitted to the daily ministrations of 17 make-up artists to transform her into Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, the lusty octogenarian dowager with designs on concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes) in Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).

A still from A Bigger Splash (2015) With Tilda Swinton
A still from A Bigger Splash (2015) With Tilda Swinton

Preferring to call herself a 'Mitarbeiter' or 'colleague' than an actor or star, Swinton returned to her Guadagnino coterie to play Marianne Lane, the rock singer who can only communicate via signs and whispers after having had surgery on her throat in A Bigger Splash (2016), a reworking of Jacques Deray's 1969 classic, La Piscine. Matthias Schoenaerts co-starred as her film-maker lover, Paul De Smedt, while Ralph Fiennes stole scenes as record producer Harry Hawkes, who comes to visit the pair at their villa with his previously unknown daughter, Penelope Lanier (Dakota Johnson).

Swinton eased back into support mode in Judd Apatow's Trainwreck (2015), as Dianna, the perma-tanned and disdainfully chilly men's magazine editor who dispatches Amy Schumer to profile sports doctor Bill Hader. She had more fun in the make-up chair in becoming twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker in Joel and Ethan Coen's lampoon of Golden Age Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! (2016), which starred Josh Brolin as Capitol Pictures fixer Eddie Mannix, who was named after a suit who performed the same service for MGM in the 1930s.

A change of tack saw Swinton share directing duties with Bartek Dziadosz, Colin MacCabe, and Christopher Roth on The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger (2016), a five-year project to celebrate the thinker and theorist behind the landmark 1972 BBC series, Ways of Seeing, which really should be available on disc. The final segment, 'Harvest', sees Swinton and her twins visit Berger at his home in the Haute-Savoie. Further exec producing duties followed on Sabine Krayenbühl and Zeva Oelbaum's compelling documentary, Letters From Baghdad (2016), in which Swinton read from the correspondence of travel writer (and much more), Gertrude Bell.

Curiouser and Curiouser

Bong Joon-ho came calling again to cast co-producer Swinton as twins Lucy and Nancy Mirando, the heads of a corporation sponsoring a super pig breeding system. However, young Korean country girl Mija (Ahn Seo-hyun) decides to protect the eponymous porker in Okja (2017) and use his plight to expose the iniquities of the meat trade. Swinton continued to address animal welfare by voicing Oracle, the pug who joins fellow sage, Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham), in sending Chief (Bryan Cranston) and his fellows strays to Trash Island in their search for the missing Spots in Wes Anderson's animation, Isle of Dogs (2018).

In between these ventures, Swinton played a German politician who opposes the tactics in Afghanistan of General Glen McMahon (Brad Pitt) in David Michôd's combat satire, War Machine (2017). But she followed this cameo with a raft of roles in Suspiria (2018), Luca Guadagnino's horror re-imagining of Dario Argento's giallo gem, Suspiria (1977), which launched the Three Mothers trilogy that was completed by Inferno (1980) and The Mother of Tears (2007). In addition to playing Madame Blanc, the choreographer at the Markos Dance Academy in West Berlin, Swinton also took on Mother Helena Markos, the leader of a coven of ancient witches. Eventually, she also confessed that there was no such actor as Lutz Ebersdorf and that she had been made up as 82 year-old psychoanalyst Dr Josef Klemperer.

The casting divided audiences and critics, as the film disappointed at the box office. But Swinton pressed on unbowed and threw herself into a ridiculously busy 2019. For Jim Jarmusch, she played Zelda Winston, the owner of the funeral home who proves a dab hand with a sword in taking on the zombies roaming Centerville in The Dead Don't Die (which concludes with the most jaw-dropping exit in Swinton's career). She then essayed Great-Aunt Betsey Trotwood in Armando Iannucci's adaptation of Charles Dickens's The Personal History of David Copperfield. A vocal cameo followed, as Anne the auction manager in Joshua and Benjamin Safdie's thriller, Uncut Gems, while she also guested in an episode of Jermaine Clement's cult vampire series, What We Do in the Shadows (2019-), which was spun off from the 2014 mockumentary of the same name, which Clement had co-directed with Taika Waititi.

A still from The Eternal Daughter (2022)
A still from The Eternal Daughter (2022)

Most significantly, however, Swinton hooked up with an old school chum. Somewhat puzzlingly, Joanna Hogg had not cast Swinton in her first features, Unrelated (2007), Archipelago (2008), and Exhibition (2013). But, having chosen Honor Swinton Byrne as Julie Hart, the aspiring film-maker based on her younger self, in The Souvenir (2019), Hogg decided to make it a family affair by asking Swinton to play Julie's mother, Rosalind. She reprised the role in The Souvenir Part Two (2021) and then assumed both roles in The Eternal Daughter (2022), a beautifully observed and gently disconcerting ghost story set during a birthday celebration in a remote Welsh hotel.

Swinton's started 2020 by joining the famous female narrators of Mark Cousins's Women Make Film and by narrating First and Last Men, a lament for humanity that proved to be Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson's sole directorial outing before his tragically early death. She then turned in a powerhouse one-woman performance in Pedro Almodóvar's first English-language picture, The Human Voice, a 30-minute take on a play by Jean Cocteau. The Scot and the Spaniard had met at a party on the night Swinton received her Oscar and had bonded as amused outsiders. 'He and I have this lovely long history of meeting at Hollywood events,' she told a reporter, '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.'

Wes Anderson wrote the part of J.K.L. Berensen in 'The Concrete Masterpiece' segment of The French Dispatch with Swinton in mind. As a writer for the Ennui-sur-Blasé office of the Liberty Kansas Evening Sun, she gives a lecture recalling her encounter with imprisoned artist, Moses Rosenthaler (Benicio Del Toro). Swinton was also first choice for Apichatpong Weerasethakul's English-language debut, Memoria, after the pair had become pen pals after Swinton had made a positive reference in an essay to the Thai director's 2004 feature, Tropical Malady. Indeed, they had co-curated the Film on the Rocks Yao Noi film festival in 2012 before Swinton accepted the role of Jessica Holland, the Scottish expat orchid farmer who is alone in hearing a disconcerting sound in the Colombian jungle.

The receipt of the Jury Prize at Cannes coincided with Swinton's Springer Spaniel, Rosy sharing the Palm Dog with her sister Dora and grandson Snowbear for their snuffling displays in The Souvenir Part II. Indeed, it was a period laden with accolades, as the Richard Harris Award at the British Independent Film Awards was followed by a lifetime achievement Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and a British Film Institute Fellowship for her 'daringly eclectic and striking talents as a performer and filmmaker and recognises her great contribution to film culture, independent film exhibition and philanthropy'.

She was also invited to participate in Sight and Sound's decennial poll of the best films of all time and chose Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Jacques Tati's Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953), Roberto Rossellini's Journey to Italy (1954), Robert Bresson's Pickpocket (1959), Federico Fellini's La dolce vita (1960), Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout (1971), Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai Du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975), and Hayao Miyazaki's My Neighbour Totoro (1988). In another BFI selection, Swinton included Fritz Lang's M (1931), Yasujiro Ozu's 'I Was Born, But...' (1932) and Tokyo Story (1953), Jean Cocteau's La Belle et la bête (1946), Pier Paolo Pasolini's Medea (1970), Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), and Alain Guiraudie's Stranger By the Lake (2013), as well as the Bill Douglas trilogy that is comprised of My Childhood (1973), My Ain Folk (1974), and My Way Home (1979). Cinema Paradiso fans should get clicking for their own private TildaFest.

A still from Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)
A still from Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)

Travelling to the land of her mother's birth, Swinton played Dr Alithea Binnie in George Miller's Three Thousand Years of Longing, an adaptation of A.S. Byatt's The Djinn in the Nightingale's Eyes that was delayed by Covid. Idris Elba plays the djinn unleashed from a bottle bought in Istanbul, who proceeds to tell the narratology expert a series of beguiling stories. Staying with fantasy, Swinton voiced both the Wood Sprite who brings the puppet carved by Gepetto to life and her sister, Death, in Guillermo Del Toro and Mark Gustafson's stop-motion musical retelling of Pinocchio (both 2022).

Frustratingly, neither Julio Torres's Problemista nor David Fincher's The Killer is currently available on disc. The former gives Swinton another chance to dress up to arresting effect as Elizabeth, a ghastly art critic who runs into an aspiring El Salvadorian toymaker in New York. In the latter, she's restricted to a telling climactic cameo, as Michael Fassbender's assassin goes in search of those out to eliminate him after a botched hit in Paris. However, Cinema Paradiso users can watch Swinton's turn as astronomer Dr Hickenlooper in the play within the 1950s TV show featured in Wes Anderson's typically impish Asteroid City (all 2023).

A still from Asteroid City (2023)
A still from Asteroid City (2023)

Art and wealth will also be key ingredients in Swinton's next project, Joshua Oppenheimer's The End, a musical about the richest family in the world living in a bunker in Middle America as a global crisis looms. By all accounts, she is also working on a writing project that prompted Joanna Hogg to comment, 'Tilda's writing at school was so beautiful, I thought she'd be a poet, and in many ways that is what she has become.' Yet Swinton has confided, '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.'

She sees herself as 'a cine-nerd' who is 'really, really, really devoted to the cinema'. But she prefers to collaborate rather than initiate. 'I love cooking things up with people, and the way one dares oneself with people you really trust. What I love most about it, and the most important element, is the ongoing conversation. The films themselves are leaves that fall off the tree - but the tree is the conversation.'

She almost seems to find being an actor an accident or an inconvenience. 'I'm sorry,' she once said, 'I apologise for my good fortune. I didn't want it...Sometimes you get someone else's good fortune and you have to recycle it for your own purposes.' She even admits, 'I only ever intended to do one film. 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.'

In another interview, Swinton claimed: 'I love actresses like Falconetti, who was only ever in one movie [Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, 1928]. Every film I make is a personal disappointment: I want it to be the last. Talk about distractions - it's been a ridiculous detour for 25 years, and now I just want to let it lie and feel the next bit.' Judging by her recent prolificity, it doesn't appear that Swinton is ready to walk away from the limelight just yet. Whatever the future holds, she has already created an indelible legacy.

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