“We must try and forget history and stay in the present moment,” says Academy Award-winning actress Tilda Swinton in reference to her overstuffed traveling schedule—Paris yesterday, Rome the day before. She’s drinking black tea with milk on a sofa at the Bowery Hotel and perusing the lunch menu. Next to her sits Sally Potter, the director of The Tango Lesson, Rage, and Orlando, a 1992 film Swinton stars in and which they are both here to promote. They order beet salads. Swinton is lithe, alabaster-skinned, and radiant in a cardinal red pantsuit by Phoebe Philo for Céline. Potter is a formidable beauty in a long gray skirt. She looks like she knows her way around an English garden. I can’t decide which is more intimidating. Certainly, they are both acrobatically intelligent and posses an Anglo knack for formulating articulate, earnest answers, and they are clearly excited to be in each other’s company as they discuss Orlando, which is being re-released in theaters in New York and Los Angeles this Friday. It’s a spellbinding film based on the century-hopping, gender-bending novel by Virginia Woolf. Except, Swinton doesn’t believe in gender. Here they are on lying, laziness, and the trouble with identity.
I know you screened Orlando at MoMA last night. How did it go? SP: It was wonderful. They turned a lot people away. We did a Q&A afterward. It was a good time had by all I think.
Why did Sony choose this moment to re-release the film? SP: You would have to ask them, I’d be curious to know exactly why. The truth is we’ve been lobbying them for eight years. Pretty much around the tenth anniversary we started to lobby them. But then for whatever reason they have decided now is the right time and we have been very grateful to them.
Did you have a sense last night that the audience reacted differently to the film than they did in the early 90’s? TS: No actually, very similarly. SP: Very welcoming, very responsive. There was something liberating about it. And of course it was made then, but many people are seeing it for the first time. So what’s the difference? I think it doesn’t matter technically when it is made, and re-releasing it just gives an opportunity for people to see it.
What drew you to the story of Orlando in the first place? SP: It is a brilliant book by a brilliant author written in an extraordinarily visual and cinematic way. It manages to be both epic and poetic, sort of condensed and yet huge, and so ambitious it makes you laugh. It’s as if all the world is in it, and yet you can’t narrow through that. In a way it is the opposite of the feeling of human limitation. It is saying no to that. It’s just wonderful.
So you’re a fan of Virginia Woolf. SP: You might say that. I actually love the things that aren’t so popular. Her essays, her diaries, her thoughts. She is such a serious and passionate thinker, and very honest in her diaries about her struggles, including, by the way, about writing Orlando. She talks about hating it, why did she have to spout so many words. So she shares her doubts, and it’s wonderful.
Did you have Tilda in mind when you set out to make the film? SP: I think Virginia Woolf had Tilda in mind (laughs). I started writing a treatment some years before, but I think the search for Orlando was so completely central to the idea of whether it could work or not.
What is it about Tilda that allows her to play Orlando? SP: You see, she is beyond actressing. It’s about being and doing and embodiment and presence—all the metaphysical, philosophical things about how you perceive and how you receive communication with another being. Feeling of complexity. It was never about pretending to be someone else, but rather arriving at being present for all eternity at the moment of the camera turning. And that great project of thought and being-ness on screen, I think Tilda and I completely shared. We were sort of shoulder to shoulder in that great project.
So many people have great difficulty playing the opposite gender… TS: I’m not sure what the opposite gender should be.
Opposite sex, I should say. TS: What opposite sex? I’m not really aware…I’m very lazy. I mean, generally, I’m a kind of an idle person, and that accrues to the idea of applying either feminine or masculine traits. SP: Could I allow myself to disagree with this laziness thing?
TS: But I am! SP: No, I think what you are, is you refuse false effort. TS: Okay, well I’m not a good liar. SP: Well that’s good, so you are not pretending. TS: No, no. I can’t pretend, and that is why it’s always so strange to hear myself referred to as an actress, because I am not a good actress. I even refuse to be. SP: All the best people who perform in a way refuse to act. They’re looking for the something. Directors refuse to direct. TS: I have always been touched and genuinely moved by the efforts of society to hang on to aspects of identity. ‘Oh, I’m a girl so I’ve got to be like this. Oh, I’m a boy so I’ve got to be like this. Oh, I’m a mother now so I have to be like that.’ That feeling is really just dealing with a series of prescriptions. It feels like such a waste of effort. There is given to us real genuine fluidity and multiplicity. I’m not even sure that I believe identity exists, to be honest. The labor that people go to be attached to elements of our identity I find very touching. SP: It is so interesting. I’ve worked with wonderful dancers and musicians and they refuse to push and eject artificial effort into things. It’s this sort of state of apparent ease. There is this incredible relaxation in the face, which is earned actually. I’m fascinated by it, expenditure of energy in relation to result.
Lots of people read Orlando as a feminist text, but the film seems more concerned with being humanitarian than feminist. SP: I don’t think ‘ist’ really belonged to it—or to anything else. I think Virginia Woolf explored all this stuff about womaness and femininity and masculinity with all the depth that one could muster. But it is more about complexity and essences and an enormous amount of metaphysical and literary preoccupations in the book.
I was reading a New York Times review that came out when Orlando was first released in 1992 and it said the film manages to be “dazzling without being anesthetizing.” I also thought this statement applied to I Am Love. How do you deal with class without making it the subject of the film itself? TS: This is the big question. Sally has not yet seen I Am Love. Both of the films are about rich people, but about liberation within rich people’s milieu. So the point of emotional contact is with humans, not with the objects that these human’s lives surround themselves with. That is a simple thing—you think it would be more common. But it is interesting that there is a sort of mesmeric quality. When you make a film about rich people it is kind of dangerous because it is possible for people to… Rich people get rich for a reason, because apparently it is really nice to live there in that world surrounded by Diptyque candles and such. There is a sort of feeling of vicarious, memorized passivity. Both of those films place an active human being in the heart of those stories who actually manage to liberate themselves. SP: Orlando is really about a human cutting a passage through the accident birth, in a certain way. But the other difference is, I try—we all try—to make it throw away, to put an enormous amount of detail in the background, an enormous amount of detail and care and then not concentrate on it particularly. I’m always looking at what is important to look at. The temptation as a director is you’ve got this incredible background so you take the camera and kind of look at everything like this [pans widely] and it’s just there and that gives you a different relationship to the setting.
How much does costume—both Orlando and I Am Love have spectacular wardrobe design—help you put yourself in a character? TS: Well, dressing up and playing is the really best way I can explain what I do in terms of being a performer. Disguising oneself appropriately is the meat and potatoes of my work, and of course it is also great fun. Especially working for enlightened and up-for-it people like Sandy Powell, who did the costumes for Orlando, and whom I’ve worked with for many years, all through the Jarman films. It’s almost impossible to imagine the film being made without her, actually, because she brought the same sort of anarchic spirit to the costumes. There is something so modern in everything she does, the texture, there is something subversive. What’s the difference between dressing up for film and real life? Well, not that much.
Do you have plans to work together again? Always! We are still working on Orlando.