Tilda Swinton has spent more than three decades on the big screen—a feat she insists is entirely accidental. She sits down with BAZAAR to talk about her lost poetry her spiritual home and her eternal gathering of a creative tribe.
Photographed by SØLVE SUNDSBØ. Styled by JERRY STAFFORD. Words by GRACE O’NEILL.
Tilda Swinton wears Chanel Autumn/Winter 2022 haute couture collection throughout, all prices on application.
Her happy place
By the time you’re reading this, Tilda Swinton may have already touched down in Australia. But today we’re in London. It’s a classic September morning–the weather tiptoeing between blue-eyed clarity and the looming threat of rain–and Swinton is being overwhelmed by a firework of fems. Her face, as distinctive and recognisable as any in the annals of Hollywood history, is set in a serene, studied stare, but when the camera stops clicking, she breaks, turning to photographer Sølve Sundsbø and her long-time stylist, Jerry Stafford. “Is this getting a bit too bracken-y?” she asks. They study the monitor, consider that the shot may indeed be too bracken-y, and adjust accordingly.
This is Tilda Swinton’s happy place. Where some actors find the rigmarole of photoshoots a tedious but necessary part of their day job, Swinton views it as another creative playground–a place to have a caper with her favourite collaborators. “I mean, these are my friends,” she says once we’ve wrapped shooting, sipping on a freshly brewed cup of tea. “Maybe this reveals something about how unwired I am in terms of not thinking too much about acting, but for me, photoshoots are not dissimilar to making films. It’s that idea of making the frame; it’s very much a narrative.”
Her creative collaborations
“Collaboration” is the word that comes up most often in our conversations. The Oscar-winner, whose remarkable career has encompassed everything from British art house to the Marvel cinematic universe, is powered almost entirely by the charge of collaborative energy. Rather than chase clout, paychecks or awards, Swinton seeks kindred creative spirits, and when she finds them, she works with them again and again. It’s a fact that jumps out immediately when you look at the directors who appear m her filrnography: she has done four films apiece with Jim Jarmusch, Luca Guadagnino and Wes Anderson, with another one for the latter currently in post-production.
This has been true of Swinton from the very beginning of her career. Her first on-screen role was in 1986 alongside Sean Bean in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, a critically acclaimed biopic of the Italian Renaissance artist’s life. “The world of Derek’s work, 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,” Swinton says. She and Jarman became fast friends, and they went on to work together on eight films in seven years–profound, era-defining films, such as Wittgenstein and Blue–up until Jarman’s tragic death from an AIDS-related illness in 1994.
“The closeness of that working relationship has set my course ever since. I have been extraordinarily lucky several times over, not only the once in finding that filmmaking family with Derek but also in finding my many other families.” That includes blood family, too. In 2019, Swinton starred in her childhood friend and frequent collaborator Joanna Hogg’s Sundance-winning film à c!ef: The Souvenir, playing the mother of her real-life daughter, Honor Swinton Byrne. It was Swinton Byrne’s first major on-screen role (she also had a part in her mother’s film I Am Love, directed by Guadagnino in 2009). Her powerful performances in The Souvenir and its 2022 sequel, The Souvenir Part II, have set the 25-year-old up for a remarkable career in her own right.
”Poetry has always been a distinctly private affair, and my shyness managed to get the better of me.”
Her love for poetry
But Tilda Swinton probably won’t be spending much time talking to her daughter about how to “make it” in Hollywood. Swinton, who tops many Best Actor lists (in 2020, she placed number 13 on the New York Times’ “The 25 Greatest Actors of me 21st Century (So Far)”) doesn’t really consider herself an actor. In fact, she “still intends every film I perform in to be my last”.
Swinton only took to acting–first on stage with the Royal Shakespeare Company, then on film–because she couldn’t pursue her first love: poetry. “I went to university as a writer and stopped writing almost immediately,” she reveals. “For me, poetry has always been a distinctly private affair, and my shyness managed to get the better of me. I still live in hope that, sooner or later, I’ll get back on track and finally attend to my writing.” While studying social and political sciences at the University of Cambridge, Swinton distracted herself from writer’s block by joining the creative hub of student directors, performers and playwrights. “I think it was a way of sustaining my writing as a kind of submerged, secret. authorship,” she muses.
Acting has always felt to be more of a distraction from her true calling than the be-all and end-all of her life. This is perhaps how she became incapable of falling prey to the pitfalls of mindless ambition. Despite her reputation as a Hollywood heavyweight, when Swinton isn’t filming or gracing the red carpets of Venice and Cannes, she’s living a quiet life in the Scottish Highlands with her long-term partner, the artist Sandro Kopp, and her five spaniel dogs. Her twins, Honor and Xavier, whose father is the Scottish artist John Byrne, are at university not far away.
“I have never been invested in the concept of career. My interest has always been, and continues to be in, in the leading of a life.”
Her relationship with Chanel
Scotland is her home, both physically and spiritually: the Swintons, an ancient Anglo-Scot clan, can be traced back to the Middle Ages. A quiet life there has always been Swinton’s idyll.
Last year, she told The Guardian her childhood ambition “was about having a house by the sea, a kitchen garden, children, some dogs and lots of friends.” The idea of a “career”’, the kind that is meticulously stage-managed and public relations-ed, is anathema to her. “I have never been invested in the concept of a career,” she says. “My interest has always been, and continues to be in, in the leading of a life.” She jokingly quotes from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita: “I’m too serious to be a dilettante and too much of a dabbler to be a professional.” What she means is, she could have just as likely opened a wool shop or a collective farm as be an actor.
Swinton’s drive to live a life filled with meaningful collaboration extends to the fashion world, too. Her relationship with Chanel dates back to 1992, when Karl Lagerfeld photographed Swinton for a shoot promoting Orlando, Sally Porter’s adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s iconic novel. Two decades later, in 2013, Swinton returned the favour by appearing in Chanel’s Paris-Edinburgh campaign. “I’ve been proud to fly the house flag ever since,” she says with a smile. She is particularly passionate about the brand’s commitment to supporting the creative arts, including the Chanel Next Prize, which provides emerging artists with funding, mentorship and networking opportunities. “I am fully admiring of Chanel for taking their role as patron of the arts as seriously as they do,” she says, noting that Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was embedded in the experimental art scene of her era.
Her connection to Australia
This year, Swinton will join the prize’s jury, a commitment that brings her to Australia in November. Here, she will join Chanel in hosting a dinner celebrating the local film industry. She’ll also partake in a forum for Australian film students. “We’re hoping to foster creative community and new generations of fellowship,” she explains.
Swinton has a personal connection to Australia. Her mother, Judith, was born and raised in New South Wales, and last year, she spent months in Sydney with Idris Elba filming George Miller’s fantasy drama Three Thousand Years of Longing. “I would have followed George up any garden path,” she says. “It was an immense and profound pleasure to work with hirn. Since I figured out that the same filmmaker was behind The Witches of Eastwick, Babe and Mad Max, I was always a devoted seeker of his.” She calls Miller “one of the most cherished friends of my life”, likening his talent to that of Alfred Hitchcock’s. Returning to Australia means returning to the local creative fold she fell in love with. She puts it simply: “I just can’t wait to see my friends again!”
Her fashion influences
If Swinton is a reluctant film star, she’s a less reluctant fashion icon.
Her red carpet repertoire is as eclectic as her film career, spanning the structured androgyny of Haider Ackermann and the soft femininity of designers such as the late Alber Elbaz, who designed the asymmetric black silk gown she wore to accept her 2008 Oscar for Michael Clayton. When we speak, Swinton has begun exploring a recently inherited collection of her late father’s clothing, and she cites him as her earliest style influence. “My father was a soldier, and he had these really rocking uniforms all his life,” she says. “I remember my parents going out in the evenings, and my mother would wear a very nice silk dress, but my father was wearing something phenomenal in gold brocade with scarlet stripes down his leg and very polished shoes. I think that early resonance of uniform cane before any particular interest in clothes, especially not women’s clothes.”
That interest has developed over time, a fact that is easily discernable when Swinton discusses the clothing for this shoot. Taken from Chanel’s Autumn/Winter ’22 couture collection, the pieces are particularly mesmerising. Take, for example, the oversized tweed-blend coat that opens up the side to reveal a panel of gauze that the artisans at 19M, Chanel’s Metiers d’Art headquarters, delicately hand-embellished with feathers and sequins. “That coat I could happily go away with today,” Swinton says with a grin. She is moved by the structured nature of many of the pieces, referencing the relationship between early Chanel couture and the idea of a uniform. “There’s always the ghost of a structure somewhere; the cut is incredibly important, particularly when you’re working with tweed.”
Her new projects
Swinton, Sundsbø and Stafford spent a lot of time thinking about the narrative pull of the clothing before the shoot. Of a black skirt suit affixed with a bow-shaped belt, she says, “we suddenly realised it felt very elegiac, like a mourning look, and we were able to swing into that.” For another, a structured multicolour tweed jacket with a matching full-length skirt, they began talking about the paintings of Léon Bakst, the Russian artist who crafted the costumes for Ballet Russes in the early 1900s. “We realised we needed movement,” says Swinton, who made affected, gazelle-like prances across the lush green gardens of Myddelton House, “all in service of the look.”
When our interview wraps, Swinton makes a point of thanking and saying goodbye to everyone on set before disappearing into a car. She will battle London’s notorious traffic to make her train, which will take her home to Scotland tonight. Soon, she’ll start filming new, projects: a musical with Joshua Oppenheimer, and a still under-wraps project with Julio Torres alongside Isabella Rosselini and Greta Lee. As I watch Swinton’s car leave, the actor only discernable front her shock of acid-yellow hair, I can only hope her promise that each film she works on will be her last never comes to fruition.