Tilda Swinton’s Reign

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“Amazing!” With a gasp of approval, Tilda Swinton places her delicate hands on the Chanel gold feather neckpiece that will eventually adorn her perfectly proportioned, alabaster frame at the BlackBookcover shoot. “It’s very regal,” she proclaims. “I just love it.” Avant-garde goddess. An icon of indie cinema. To some, the most beautiful woman on the planet. And, on this morning in Paris, fashion model. Just in from Milan, where she’s currently shooting the romantic drama Io sono l’amore, Swinton is exhausted from a late night of filming, but quickly becomes energized by the array of colors, cuts and styles of the fashion choices before her.

Slowly examining racks of clothes that have been assembled for her 5’11” frame and her own exacting aesthetic by her longtime stylist Jerry Stafford, she focuses on metallics, such as a black pleated Alberta Ferretti gown with gold medallions affixed to its three-quarters cap sleeves. “It feels like a piece of nomadic tribal wear,” she offers, before stepping in front of the camera.

It’s a 10-hour day, far longer than most celebrity shoots. Swinton is dedicating her considerable creative energies to this project and wants to get it right. The photographer’s suggestion that she relax and play around with the back of her skirt causes a fleeting moment of friction. “This is relaxed for me,” she offers, posturing steady-on. “All the girly stuff is not relaxed for me. It’s hard work.” Seeing images of herself transmitting unruffled strength on the digital monitor, she comments, “That I can do. I can give you that. It’s all that girly stuff I can’t do.” Similarly, when the photographer says she looks a bit too much like a boy in one of the pictures, several hours into the shoot, she leans in and, as if letting him in on a secret, stage whispers: “That’s kind of who I am.”

The anecdote still tickles her the next morning when we meet for breakfast at the Hotel Lotti, a few minutes stroll away from the Louvre. Wearing a jersey by Martin Margiela and the same turquoise skirt by Yves Saint Larent that she had on the prior day (all the better to travel light), Swinton comes across as being at ease in her own skin and with her looks, an impression that she’s quick to clarify. “Comfortable is not the way I would put it. Resigned is probably the right word,” she says, pouring packet after packet of sugar into her coffee. “A minimal amount of experimentation went on in my teenage years. There was only so much I could do with the way I look. I was never big into wearing mascara or blue eyeliner. It’s very easy for me to look like a Goth, where very little goes a very long way. It feels more natural for me to wear a tux than a ball gown — that is a kind of transvestism for me. I never had an aspiration to look like a doll, which is fortunate.”

But she did design her own clothes as a teenager growing up in one of the most aristocratic families of Scotland, a heritage she’s seemed publicly ambivalent about. “I still have some of those dresses, actually. I wore a dress the other day that I made when I was 15 or 16,” a green silk dress with pleating across the front. “It was hanging in my old room in my parents’ house and I found it, so I put it on for a bit of a laugh, but I ended up enjoying wearing it, though I didn’t look in many mirrors,” she says, laughing. “It was hand done, because I had never learned how to operate an electric sewing machine. Maybe that’s the reason I like wearing hand-made clothes, because I really appreciate the work that goes into them.”

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It’s no surprise, then, that most of her favorite designers have an art world background. “They’re fine artists who’ve chosen to design,” she says, “rather than designers who are slightly arty.” Her first real foray into the world of fashion as an adult was with the design duo Viktor & Rolf, whose sculptural, multi-layered pieces became her mainstay. “There was something about those clothes at that time that was so refreshing. They felt really sculptural, playful and witty,” she recalls, excited by the memory of their collaborative collection in 2003, with its focus on layered pieces. “I love that collection. I have pretty much all of it and wear it all the time. I was constantly showing up to meet them wearing two or three shirts. They made a really personal and slightly untidy and vagrant attitude in me really beautiful in the clothes they created — and that’s really a dream.” Her latest fashion obsession, she says, is the sculptural style of the Rodarte sisters, Kate and Laura Mulleavy. “Their clothes have attitude. And the physical quality of their clothes is delicious,” she says, dipping her spoon into a bowl of fresh fruit and yogurt. “You can feel that hands made their clothes.”

Swinton’s chameleon-like looks in film after film (be it the all-white terror of the white witch in The Chronicles of Narnia or the dazzling androgyny of her early star turn in Sally Potter’s Orlando from 1992) have kept pace with her varied style statements in real life. For the BAFTAs this year, she cloaked herself in gold Dior. When she won her Oscar for Best Supporting Actress earlier this year for her role as the conflicted, morally bankrupt corporate lawyer Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton, Swinton was clad in a black washed silk gown by Alber Elbaz for Lanvin, which left one arm completely bare. When it comes to glamming up for such events, Swinton says, “‘Red carpet dressing’ sounds like something that would take you out of your own instincts, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I will wear what I want to wear.”

Discussion turns to her Oscar win. Swinton seems to have mixed feelings — not about her daring attire, but about the institution, which she breezily refers to as “the Motion Academy of doo da — what was it called? The prize is probably the most famous in the world. For months, at least, people can tell you who won the Oscars, but nobody really knows who wins the Pulitzer Prize or the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s shameful, but true. A lot of people really want one — really, really want one. And I’m embarrassed because I never did, and I feel a little ashamed that I was given one when I didn’t really want one.”

The night, as she recalls it, was a bit of a blur. “I feel as though something slightly obscene happened, as though there was some sort of orgy and I still have yet to see a photograph or an image.” Her friend Justin Bond, of the downtown New York cabaret duo Kiki and Herb, told her that the first words out of her mouth, which, she notes for emphasis, “the microphone picked up for three billion people to hear,” were: “Oh, no!”

That exclamation, she explains, was more of a comment on her public shyness, and having to speak in front of that massive audience — a giddy, clearly unrehearsed outpouring wherein she razzed her co-star George Clooney’s nippled costume in Batman & Robin — than any reluctance on her part to accept the award.

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Swinton made her name in the avant-garde British cinema scene in the 1980s, where she served as muse for the lightning-rod filmmaker Derek Jarman, whose searing films explored sexuality and politics and the specter of AIDS. The legacy of Jarman, who died of complications from AIDS in 1994, and the work Swinton did in that era, in progressive films like Caravaggio and Edward II, has clearly left its mark. Derek, a documentary film by Isaac Julien that Swinton executive produced and wrote, showed at Sundance this year. While most of the footage is of Jarman, Swinton appears as “a sort of spirit guide,” she says. “It is important to bring the film up to the present. As I say in it, things are worse now than we ever imagined they could be. But we’re getting used to being disillusioned, and that’s a good thing. Because then people can actually take some kind of action, once they get over the shock.”

“People are finding new ways, and different ways, and unimagined ways of being powerful,” she continues. “And that’s also a good thing.” She herself is living proof. That she’s transitioned into a force in Hollywood says something about a gradual perspective shift in Tinseltown. “It’s really interesting that someone with my political and cultural orientation could find a space in Hollywood, popping up occasionally, even to the extent of being given an Oscar. It’s kind of amazing.”

She’s not alone: looking down the list of talents acknowledged at this year’s Academy Awards ceremony, she name-checks the Coen Brothers, Julian Schnabel, P.T. Anderson, Javier Bardem and Marion Cotillard, as her fellows-in-arms. “It feels like there is a possibility for our generation, point being that one doesn’t necessarily have to give it all up. One can actually stand up and be counted. Just saying that makes me feel a little defeated because it feels so fanciful. But the evidence is there.”

Though she switch-hits between indie cinema and Hollywood films, Swinton’s personal politics play out at large in all of the projects she takes on. “It has been a blessed opportunity for me to make films within Hollywood… to disguise myself, and infiltrate in the way I’ve been able to,” she says. “Not by my own design, but because I was given opportunities to go there in the first place.”

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If one needs further proof of her infiltration, it was Brad Pitt who suggested her for the role opposite him in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, due out this December, reports the film’s director, David Fincher, still in thrall of Swinton’s fearlessness as an artist. “I’m glad she doesn’t do stunt movies. I could just hear her: ‘You need me to be on fire? Okay, I’ve never tried that, but let’s do it!’” he says, only half-kidding. “She’s so naturally beautiful, but not at all protective of that. On our first day of filming, she was playing herself as an 80 year old. We shot her coming out of the water, covered in pig lard. Rather than complaining, she was like, ‘Do we need more pig lard on me?’”

In this month’s Coen Brothers film, Burn After Reading, a comedy she accurately describes as a “monster movie — it’s about a bunch of completely monstrous individuals,” she’s re-matched with her Michael Clayton adversary, George Clooney. “We’re actually sort of lovers in this one — and we’re even worse to each other. We’re horrible. I’m unspeakable — this is really the last revenge on angry women. George said rather wistfully at the end of the shoot, ‘Maybe one day we’ll make a film together when we’re not foul to each other from start to finish.”’ In real life, the two have become friends. “We were staying with him recently at his beautiful house on Lake Como.”

But as far as how this film advances, or even feeds into her social or political bent, she says, “The performing is just dressing up and playing. The significant element is the choice of colleagues, and by virtue of that, the choice of project. Playing Katie Cox in Burn After Reading is just what I can do in that film. But I support that film, and that film is about a kind of randomness, which I think is a really interesting thing to make a film about. It’s about a kind of random chain of events. In a way, at the heart of it, I guess you could say it’s about the same sort of randomness at the heart of Michael Clayton. It’s about this kind of structurelessness, which I think, if we’re going to be fully, properly, responsibly disillusioned, we’ve got to kind of chow down.”

Cerebral, political and impassioned, Swinton also knows how to have a good time. When asking her about the origin of her nickname, Swilda, she immediately counters: “Did you find that on IMDB?” Yes. “The only person I ever met who called me Swilda, who gave me that name, is Matt Dillon,” she admits — which, by the way, is just how IMDB explained it. Why did he call her Swilda? “I don’t know. Maybe he was drunk.” Justin Bond, who has become so close with her that he spends each Christmas (or “Winter Solstice,” in Swinton’s words) with the actress and her family, confirms her healthy sense of fun. He describes Swinton as “a really good girlfriend — intellectually present and emotionally available.” For her part, Swinton says, being a “good girlfriend” means having the “ability to have a rocking laugh, no matter what’s going on in your life.”

And judging by the number of projects she’s got coming out in multiplexes as well as art houses, she’s got a lot going on. In addition to Burn After Reading, Benjamin Button and Derek, she also stars as an alcoholic American woman in Julia. After her current film in Milan wraps, she’s overdue for a vacation. “I’d like to be home for so long that I might even get to the point where I’d like to leave it again, but that will be a long time, two or three years.” As it is, she’s been only taking on films that allow her a few weeks on, a few weeks off — the one rule she does play by is to never be away from her children for more than three weeks.

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What’s going on in her home life has suddenly become a topic of gossip chatter for the British tabloids, who’ve picked up on the story of their art-house heroine-turned-mega-movie star’s personal life. Swinton shares parenting duties with artist and writer John Byrne, her long-term partner of 18 years and father of her 10-year-old twins, Xavier and Honor. And for the past four years, she’s also kept the company of a 29-year-old painter and actor, Sandro Kopp, whom she met when filming The Chronicles of Narnia in 2004. (He played a centaur in the film.)

Not that it’s made a speck of a difference in the family’s quality of life in their quiet town in the remote reaches of Scotland. “We don’t read that stuff and we don’t know anybody who does,” says Swinton. “Everybody who knows us is so relaxed about everything and, as far as I can make out, the scandalous idea about us is that we’re really happy — that’s the shock. If the people we live amongst do read it, they very sweetly lay it to one side when they’re around us. It really doesn’t affect us. It’s fairy stories, of the worst kind.”

“I do think it’s interesting that the most transgressive thing you can do in life, within that tabloid bracket, is be happy,” she says. “What people want to know about seems to be animosity and friction and things that break — and things that break people — and the truth is, there isn’t a story. There’s no drama. Growing up, my nanny used to say, to my brother in particular: ‘Stop creating!’ Don’t get yourself into a state, stop creating. As the Americans would say, ‘I could care less’ — in Britain we’d say, ‘I couldn’t care less.’”

In fact, she looked awfully happy with her young love at yesterday’s shoot. On a break for lunch, Swinton retired to a couch in the kitchen dining area. Wrapped in a white bathrobe, she was sprawled out on a couch, sleeping with her head cradled in Kopp’s lap, as his hands stroked her strawberry hair until he, too, fell fast asleep. “He’s a real sweetheart,” she says, her emerald eyes gleaming at the thought of him. “I’m very blessed.”

Kopp accompanies Swinton while she travels for her films and spends his free time painting while she’s at work. He also seems to have taken on the role of personal assistant, and at this he’s a bit of a task-master. It’s Kopp who comes to end our morning chat, telling us we’ve got five minutes left. She mock-pleads for another 15 minutes, as we’re getting deep into the politics of parenting and the disillusionment of the left. “Three minutes,” he shoots back. “I am German after all.”

“Half German,” she counters, adding slyly, “half New Zealander downstairs.”

[Also see our Tilda-themed giveaway for ‘Burn After Reading’, and check out our behind-the-scenes pics from this article’s photo shoot.]