When a well-known actor takes a job for the cash, the final result generally comes off as little more than a paycheck for all involved. Actress Tilda Swinton is lucky, in that regard. Her work-for-hire performances have served the likes of David Fincher, Tony Gilroy, the Coen Brothers, and the perfectly fine adaptation of The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. Those pictures aren’t Swinton “selling out,” but taking on respectable gigs with people whose work she admires. What revs the actress up the most are the kind of projects that represent who she is.
“That’s just the way I roll,” says Swinton on her long history of staying in the trenches with the projects and filmmakers that she deeply connects with. She’s someone that stands by her director. If you recall, when Bong Joon-Ho’s director’s cut of Snowpiercer was in danger of being chopped up for its US release, Swinton quickly came to the his aid, saying, “Maybe an effect of the film is that when one has spent two hours in the claustrophobia of this train we can leave the cinema and feel the relief that we can make life wider, so maybe it’s a sort of aversion therapy to sit in the train for two hours. That’s two hours, not one hour and forty minutes.”
Clearly, Swinton is an actress you want by your side during all the trials and tribulations of filmmaking. She also went to bat for director Jim Jarmusch for this long-in-development Only Lovers Left Alive. She’s been attached to the project for years, making this her third collaboration with Jarmusch.
We discussed the film and more with Swinton during her time at SXSW. Here’s what she had to say about the film, sticking by your friends, and how the idea of acting school fries her mind:
Tilda Swinton: Film School Rejects. That’s so fantastic!
[Laughs] Thanks a lot.
We should all have those tattoos. I’m not actually a reject, but I wish I had been rejected. Although, I don’t know, actually. I don’t know. Did you go?
I couldn’t afford to.
I don’t know what they teach you, really. I don’t know what those things really teach you. I’m trying to think how many filmmakers I’ve worked with who went to film school. There aren’t that many. These days you can film with that [she points at my phone].
How about for acting?
God, I wouldn’t know. I mean what do they teach actors? How to act, probably, and I don’t want to know how to do that.
I’ve always wondered how acting school is for comedy. Can you teach someone to be funny?
My brain goes completely into fuzz at that point. I just can’t imagine what anybody learns. I suppose what people learn at those schools is how to… Well, filmmakers learn about cameras and things. And they practice, probably, which, let’s face it, now you can do anyway because you can practice with your phone. I suppose actors learn about the industry. They learn about how to go to auditions or they learn how to accept awards. I don’t know what they do!
[Laughs] Have you seen Only Lovers Left Alive with an audience yet?
I saw it at the New York Film Festival. That was the first American audience I saw it with.
Are you able to get lost in the movie or are you very analytical while watching yourself?
It always takes about eight screenings for me to really get lost. Although, it depends how long. This one might take a little longer. It depends how long it has been making it. The first film that I made which I was really involved with for a long time was Orlando. When I saw it, it was such a shame, because it was a huge success and I hated it. Because we had made it over five years, I had so many fantasies about what it would be. I kind of fantasized it was going to be 100 hours long with all these curly-Q’s that, of course, it didn’t have in 90 minutes.
Even though I was a part of the cutting process and everything, it was like the trailer for years. I didn’t like the film for 10 years. Then after 10 years, I saw it again and I went, “It’s actually okay. It’s sort of settled down.” So sometimes it takes a while. But this one, no. My elastic is coming back quite fast on this one. I’ve probably seen it about six times and I love it.
This is a project you have stuck with for a while, which was also the case with I Am Love and We Need to Talk About Kevin.
That’s what I’ve always done. My sort of way of working, generally speaking, is to work in development with filmmakers. Sometimes it takes 10 years and sometimes it takes five. That was true recently with Lynne Ramsay with We Need to Talk About Kevin, or with Erick Zonca with Julia, or with Luca [Guadagnino] with I Am Love, and with Jim with this. That’s just the way I roll.
The irony of my, what they call, “career” is that there are a couple of exceptions to that rule. And they are the most famous aspects to my work. They are not representative of me at all. One being that I was once in a Disney movie, which would have happened even if I was in it or not. The other that I once won a prize for, that’s more famous than any of the films than any of us are ever going to make, and certainly more famous than me. Those are the two things that are actually the least representative of my whole work. What I generally do is I sit with my powers and dream stuff up, like this one.
Those two movies that were more of work-for-hire jobs, were they less fulfilling experiences?
Let me think. [Pauses] I’ve done it so rarely, but when I have done it, I’ve done it with my…You know, to go and be in a Wes Anderson film for a couple of days is like going to a friend’s fancy dress party. It still feels very friendly. A couple of times I’ve kind of dropped into things for a brief moment, like David Fincher asked me to be in a very small section of a big film he made, the Benjamin Button film. Again, I really, really like him. I went and did it for that reason.
It’s tricky. It’s not that it’s not fun, it’s quite tricky because you don’t know necessarily what the whole tone of the thing is. You have to do this kind of surgical strike and you have to kind of put your fingers in your ears and go, “I don’t know if this is right, but I’m going to offer this.” And then you have to run out the door. Whereas, if you are in every frame of a film, you can kinda build it up and really make it your own. So, it’s not that it’s less fulfilling. In many ways it’s harder. But it’s always fun if the people are nice and you like being with them.
It’s disappointing that two of your friends, Lynne Ramsey and Jim Jarmusch, can’t make a movie every two years. Would you say financing has always been difficult for filmmakers like them?
It’s changing constantly, but pretty much, yeah. Pretty much that’s the way it goes. Honestly, with the perspective of hindsight, I never complain about the length of time that a project takes, because the truth is, when you are making a film, for example, when we made I Am Love and it took us 11 years to develop I Am Love, every year there was this temptation to feel like we were failures because we hadn’t managed to do it that year. And yet, looking back, I am so aware that we were blessed that it took that long, because there were certain elements that only came to us at the end. Have you seen that film?
Yes, I have.
We wrote that house, but we didn’t know that it existed and we thought that we might have to build it. The house that we shot in only became available the year before we shot. So if we’d made it five years before, we wouldn’t have had that extremely important, not just location, but character in the film.
It all just works out. If we had made this any earlier, we probably wouldn’t have had Tom Hiddleston. We are very blessed that we did. Films get themselves made. It’s like babies get themselves born when they are ready. You have to breathe through that one. But it is something I’ve learned in my long years of making independent films. And it’s something I can contribute to relatively inexperienced filmmakers: This is the way it goes. Keep breathing. It will get made at the right time. Use this as development. Use this as pre-production. Don’t curse it, because when we get to shoot, you are going to wish you used it better. And use this time now. You may think that it’s just you and me and the script. But let’s use that time to look at the script. Let’s use that time to find our band.
Right. You always hear filmmakers say they didn’t have enough time, not that they had “too much time.”
Always, always. It’s really true. They say the great sort of cliché about filmmaking is that it’s hurry up and wait. I’d re-coin that and say that what’s not often said about production is that it’s wait and then hurry up. The money comes and then you suddenly have run out of time. The last thing you want to do is regret picking your toenails when you could have been getting your mind right. When the money comes, you have to go with it, because you can’t say, “Hmm. I’m not ready. I need another six months.” You’ve got to go with it because someone else will get it if you don’t take it.
Is having all that preparation time beneficial as an actor?
It’s what I like. I don’t know how to answer a question like that. It sounds like such a proper answer. I don’t think of preparing as an actor. Maybe one of the reasons I don’t is because, generally speaking, I’m sitting at a kitchen table talking with my colleagues about a project, and that is what I do rather than what proper actors do, which is probably prepare. I don’t prepare. Somewhere deep inside I’m probably just working out what I’m going to do as a performer. It’s like a slow, slow burn then, because you are sort of just working it out. You are just getting to know it so well. And then you play.
When you are on set, how important is instinct?
I would say, generally speaking, the role of preparation is to release the instinct. So if you need to write charts, or novels, or have a nose job, or whatever it is people think they need to do, do it so that you will be free when you get to shoot. If you are going to do it in order to carry it into the shot, I think you should possibly think about that, because nobody really wants to see acting on the screen. I know some people think that’s what people want to see, but I would challenge that.
You don’t want to see the strings.
You really don’t want to see the strings. But if you need to kind of do a lot of displacement activity beforehand to get yourself relaxed so that when someone says “action” you can just play and be free, then I don’t see why…I mean anything, as long as it gets you into a position to play, is great. It is play.
Only Lovers Left Alive opens in theaters April 11th.