When I arrive at Inverness Airport, Tilda Swinton will be waiting for me. She claims she has a surprise for you and smiles.
Swinton marches imperiously ahead of us as we go towards her vehicle. Four springer spaniels are in the rear of the vehicle, and a fifth, the oldest, Rosy, is in the front passenger seat.
Rosy was a puppy when I interviewed Swinton at his house in the Scottish Highlands in 2008, and she spent the whole time sitting on my knee. Swinton takes her from the Volvo’s front passenger seat to make room for me, then places her on my knee.
A lot has changed in the 14 years since then. Rosy has her own pups and has gone on to become an award-winning film actress, receiving the Palm Dog at Cannes for her roles in The Souvenir Part II, the sequel to Joanna Hogg’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age movie (both of them seated in the rear with two of Rosy’s puppis, Louie and Dot).
Swinton, meanwhile, is a doppelganger for David Bowie around 1976, still lovely and otherworldly at the age of 61. She is the affluent mother of Julie, an aspiring film-maker (Swinton’s daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, who gives a wonderful guileless portrayal) in The Souvenir films. Julie falls in love with Anthony, a mysterious older guy who turns out to be a heroin addict and a serial liar in the first film.
Julie analyzes her previous connection with Anthony while mourning for her lost love in the sequel. Swinton’s mother, who is sympathetic but emotionally restrained, seems to be Julie’s grandma. She might pass for Honor’s rebellious elder sister in real life.
We’ve come to chat about the movies, but Swinton despises interviews and only gives them on rare occasions. She prefers to converse with journalists rather than lecture them, so she’s organized a road trip to Loch Ness (she lives on the other side of Inverness, in Nairn).
People believe you have something significant to say simply because you’ve been in a few movies, she adds. “I’m at a loss for words.” I’m completely clueless.
One thing I’m certain of is that I don’t want to even pretend to be knowledgeable. Instead, let’s go for a stroll with the dogs.”
Swinton is a master shape-shifter, seeming sultry in A Bigger Splash, dull in We Need to Talk About Kevin, old in The Grand Budapest Hotel, and hideous in Snowpiercer.
In Sally Potter’s film, she plays the titular Orlando, who switches between sexes and eras. The famous senior Dr. Klemperer in Suspira is maybe the most brazen of them.
She enjoys a unique position in cinema, sprinkling mainstream and independent films with mainstream respectability and mainstream viability. Swinton is the indie-stream queen.
Her films are usually released in batches, and they are frequently labors of love that take a lifetime to complete. Memoria will be published next week, 15 years after Swinton and Thai film director Apichatpong Weerasethakul originally discussed it.
Memoria is a frightening meditation on a lady plagued by a sound that only she can hear, and it moves at such a slow pace that you could believe you’re seeing a snapshot one minute and leaping out of your seat the next. It’s unlike anything else — a neo-realist, time-traveling thriller that leaves you with an acute sense of sound and a decreased feeling of life’s certainty.
Swinton made her cinematic debut in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio 36 years ago. Jarman’s muse became her mentor, and she became his muse.
Jarman’s work was creative, collaborative, and hard, which was ideal for Swinton, who had no formal training and spent most of her career feeling technologically handicapped. Jarman sometimes utilized her as a model or presence rather than a traditional actress, which she appreciated.
Swinton has no desire to be a celebrity. She explains, “I only ever intended to do one film.” Really? She smiles and nods. “I like seeing individuals in films for the first time.
One of the reasons I like documentaries is because of this. I like seeing people, but I am not interested in watching actors.
And the greatest way to minimize that discomfort for the audience if you’re an actor is to make just one picture; then they’ve seen you, they’ve met you, you were exciting and fresh, and they won’t have to see you again.”
She went on to work with Jarman on nine films, winning an Oscar for her role as a dyspeptic lawyer in Michael Clayton, and has continued to work with some of the world’s most talented filmmakers, including four films with Jim Jarmusch and Wes Anderson (including the upcoming Asteroid City), three with Joanna Hogg, and two each with Bong Joon-ho and the Coen brothers. She compares it to having many families, and adds that dealing with various individuals on a regular basis keeps her fresh.
Last year, Pedro Almodóvar, the legendary Spanish filmmaker, released his first English-language film, a half-hour one-woman rendition of Jean Cocteau’s The Human Voice, starring Tilda Swinton. In 2008, she met Almodóvar at a pre-Oscar celebration.
They connected because they were outsiders having a good time, she said. “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 excited to tell people back home, but not confident enough to step in and talk to, say, Angelina Jolie.”
We arrive to Loch Ness. Rosy and Dora get out of the vehicle to get some fresh air.
They’re both too tired for a complete stroll, so Dot, Louie, and Snowbear get back in the vehicle while Dot, Louie, and Snowbear get out. The air is crisp, the leaves are crunchy, and the dogs are giddy with joy.
Katherine Matilda Swinton was born in London, England, to an elite Anglo-Scottish military family with a history dating back to the Middle Ages. She was sent to boarding school at the age of ten; a year ahead of her peers, she was ridiculed for her intelligence and scarcely spoke for the next five years.
She went to Cambridge University with the idea of becoming a poet, but after arriving, she never wrote another poem.
“This is the greatest humiliation of my life,” she adds. “I am a complete and total capital F failure.” I’m assuming she’s kidding, but she’s serious.
“I was supposed to go for one thing, but I completely forgot about it.” It’s tinged with a deep sense of humiliation.”
Is it true that she never wrote another poem after that? “Only on a sporadic and private basis.”
She started to perform with other students who were more motivated than she once she gave up poetry. It made her feel like a phony. “I felt ashamed of my lack of ambition.”
My childhood dream was to have a home by the sea, a kitchen garden, children, pets, and a large circle of friends. I wanted to collaborate with pals on a project.
Whatever it was, it may have been a wool store. Those were and still are my aspirations, and all I want is for everything to continue.”
What made her think that was humiliating? “Because it seemed like such a frivolous desire.”
One of the reasons I find it difficult to characterize myself as an actor is because the first individuals I encountered who wanted to be actors were extremely serious about it while I was at university, and some of them went on to do quite well.” Simon Russell Beale was one of her classmates.
“They were focused and professional, and they were very aware that they were participating in a tradition and a profession.” I was very conscious of the fact that I was not like that.”
Swinton believes there is still a connection between quitting to write poetry and beginning to perform. “I have a feeling I’ll have to stop performing and then start writing again.” She takes a breather. “Let’s go grab a bite to eat.”
Is she a performer who wants to stop? “Yeah. Oh, yes. I’ve always wanted to come to a halt.”
I’m sure most people would prefer your job to becoming a poet, I remark. “Perhaps, which makes me even more stupid because I don’t recognize a good thing when I see it.”
We come upon a guy walking three poodles. Swinton comes to a halt to speak. Dot begins to growl at one of the dogs.
“Dot! She chastises, “Don’t use that language!” in a disappointed motherly tone. “I’m so sorry,” she apologizes to the owner of the poodle.
This is why, according to Dot, she is the only one of the five springers who has yet to develop a film career. “Dot is a free radical,” says the narrator.
She isn’t a fan of doing take after take of anything. She is unaffected by any of this. She’s much too advanced.”
She looks about in astonishment as we go on, taking in the skyline, the lake, and the trees. “I live here because of this.”
Her arms are outstretched in front of her. “As a result of this.” And to have a conversation with a guy who owns poodles!”
She takes me to the Dores Inn, which is located on the outskirts of Loch Ness. Swinton had five-bean curry, while I had haggis, neeps, and tatties.
She informs me that she is about to embark on a new phase of her life. Xavier works in film props, while Honor is in her third year in study in Edinburgh.
Swinton discusses how her first film family will always remain the Jarman gang, with whom she did nine films in nine years, over lunch. She made a lot of friends, learned a lot about herself, lived in a squat in Chelsea’s World’s End, and attended to demonstrations every weekend, whether in support of the miners or against clause 28 and the Gulf War. It did, however, leave severe scars.
Swinton identified as queer, as did most of her friends at the time, but it was more about her position in the cosmos than her sexuality for her. “I spent my 20s in a completely queer environment, and it was right around the time when queer was being reclaimed as a term of abuse.”
It just so happened that I’d also been a queer child – not in the sense of sexuality, but in the sense of being different. People referred to me as queer, as if I were a queer fish.” She’d never fully fit in anyplace before, and now she did for the first time.
The Jarman years, however, had a terrible conclusion. “Derek died in 1994, and I attended 43 funerals that year, all of them were linked to Aids.
My grandmother, who lived through two world wars, was the only person who really knew what I was going through, and she told me, “This is your generation’s war.”
Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin, about a group of young male friends caught up in the Aids pandemic, is mentioned by her. Jill, who lives with the boys, pays them a visit in the hospital in the series.
She is a proxy for missing parents who are embarrassed of their children’s disease, holding their hands while they die. Swinton admits, “I was that girl.”
“I had a similar experience.” That was the vibe in my late twenties and early thirties. The disintegration of blood family solidarity was particularly devastating.
Many individuals were unable to return home, so they remained with us, and we took care of everyone as best we could.”
By the end, London and its ties to long-lost acquaintances had become too traumatic for her, and she had to go. “People getting sick and dying, or going home or leaving the country, caused the collective way we lived to break down.”
When my children were born, I moved up to the Highlands and never left. Returning to London is still tough for me.
I can count on three hands the number of times I’ve been there for more than a night.” She claims that, at the same time as the Aids pandemic, Thatcherism was annihilating British culture — a theme covered in The Souvenir Part II.
“The method that movies are financed has changed. If you wanted to create a movie, you had to fill out five pages of paperwork stating, “This is how I can prove my movie will make money.”
Swinton has been described in the media as leading a life of swinging indulgence in the Highlands. Her previous boyfriend, the artist and writer John Byrne, is the father of her 24-year-old twins.
She was the subject of sleazy allegations about a menage a trois with Byrne and her artist partner Sandro Kopp, who is 39 years younger than Byrne, back in 2008. Swinton claims the reality was more normal — she and Byrne had divorced but were happily co-parenting, and Kopp was her lover (and remains so today).
She has gone through another lengthy time of grieving in the last decade. Swinton’s father passed away in 2018, seven years after her mother. “Grief is a kind of emptying for me,” she explains.
“All the stories come to a halt; there is no road ahead of you.” All of a sudden, everything goes dark, and it takes a long time to recover.”
Swinton claims that her head has similarly emptied in a frightening manner. She’s still healing after a lengthy period of Covid.
She couldn’t get out of bed for three weeks in August. “I was coughing like a 70-year-old gentleman who smoked a pipe and had terrible vertigo.” I got off quite lightly, but the hardest part was how my head was impacted.
“I did two films for which I had to memorize a lot of text.” One was Wes Anderson, who prefers you to talk in a frantic manner.
I’m usually really good at learning and remembering things, but this was like chewing a huge piece of gum. “I couldn’t remember what I was supposed to say.” Is she doing okay now?
“More or less, but I’m still forgetful.” I need to use my intellect.”
However, she claims that completing a variety of long-term tasks has led in a good emptying, ranging from the all-consuming (watching her children grow into “kind, connected, and engaged” people) to the brief (15 years she worked on Memoria). Swinton cites another endeavor that has had a special place in her heart.
“We ran a campaign to buy Derek’s cottage in Dungeness and turn it into an artists’ retreat, which we were able to do during the lockdown.” Just before the lockdown, a group of Jarmanian students got together to collect money for Prospect Cottage. It was incredible to see all of us come together.”
I inquire as to whether she intends to slow down. “If anything, I feel like branching out into something new.” Is she sincere when she says she wants to quit acting?
“Yes, I’m considering retraining as a palliative care provider,” she replies unexpectedly. She tells about how seeing her parents’ loving support from professional caretakers at the end of their life had an influence on her.
Tilda Swinton as a palliative care provider may seem implausible, but then again, so many of her accomplishments have been. She co-founded a secondary school based on the same ideas when the twins graduated from their Steiner school at the age of 14 to finish their studies. (Without having taken any tests, every student who sought for higher study was approved.)
When she realized that the Highlands might benefit from a film festival, she collaborated with filmmaker Mark Cousins to establish a traveling version. It’s the type of wacky dream you’d see in a Werner Herzog film, yet they made it happen.
Has she considered a job in palliative care? “I have a little, because there were a lot of people in our village who needed to be watched out for during lockdown, not just in the care homes, but also in sheltered housing and those living alone.”
For the last two years, there’s been a woman who hasn’t come over the threshold. It’s not that she can’t move; it’s that she’s terrified and has separated herself from the possibilities.”
Swinton is well aware that she couldn’t do anything like this on the spur of the moment. “I looked into retraining, but I’d need at least two to three years off, which I don’t have.”
It’s growing dark in the late afternoon. The skyline has taken on a stunning silver-black hue.
Swinton takes me back to the airport, pointing me the sights. “This is where the RockNess music festival is held,” she explains. “Isn’t that a fantastic moniker?”
Can you see RockNess in this situation? “I enjoy going to festivals.” She tells me about Spokes for Folks, a nonprofit in Inverness that gives bikes with twin buggies for the elderly and crippled. “It’s like a rickshaw, and they take people around to the nursing homes and give them a ride.”
I’m hoping they’ll come to Nairn only to get some of the folks over the threshold and into the water.” I think that would be ideal for a lady who hasn’t gone out in two years. “Exactly! “I was thinking the same thing.”
She casts a glance at Rosy. “I get the impression she’s at ease with you.” “Like melted cheese, she’s sunk into you.” I told her that having all five dogs on my knee would make me happy.
“When Sandro isn’t here, I sleep in the same bed with all of them.” It’s the most self-indulgent thing I’ve ever done. Hugs like that.”
I’m thinking of her ideas for senior bike trips, films like Memoria that wouldn’t have been done without her perseverance, the school she established for her children, and the mobile film festival, and it seems to me that Swinton is one of life’s great doers. She chuckles. “If we’re going to find a word for it, I’ve been producing for as long as I can remember, and I love producing.”
I’ll always want to keep creating, even if it’s just standing by the side of the ring with a sponge, a bucket, and a towel slung over my neck. That’s something I’ve always done.”
It’s not simply movies that come to mind. She might be creating in a whole other genre in the future.
We can be certain that she will still be holding the sponge and wearing the towel over her neck.
Thanks to Simon Hattenstone at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.