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Past Article

The Two Lives or More of Tilda Swinton
By Nina Rehfeld
September 8, 2003 - 5:36 AM PDT

"A new, very exciting Scottish cinema."

Little wonder that Nicolas Cage's Charlie Kaufman breaks out in a profuse sweat in the presence of Tilda Swinton. It's not just that beautiful women make Adaptation's blocked screenwriter nervous; his agent is disturbingly beautiful in some other-worldly sort of way, not to mention smart, generous and, while she seems vulnerable, she maintains control of the situation. Odd that that description of Swinton's presence in what amounts to a bit role holds true, more or less, when it comes to the films she stars in, a few of them all but built around her. Orlando, for example, in which she plays a man who becomes a woman over a period of 400 years. Or two films by Lynn Hershmann-Leeson, Conceiving Ada and Teknolust, the latter of which features not one but four Tildas.

When Swinton says she lives "at least two lives," she's referring, of course, to her private and professional lives, but also to the different worlds in which she works. Adaptation, The Beach or The Deep End may not be the sort of mainstream Hollywood fare Vanilla Sky sets out to be, but they're close enough compared to the eight films she made with Derek Jarman before he died nearly a decade ago or her frequent ventures into the art world with projects such as The Big Maybe.

And she writes. Reviews, essays and feisty arguments will pop up now and then in British papers and magazines. For a sample, the moving open letter to Jarman she wrote last year would be an ideal place to look first.

Her latest film, Young Adam, is, she'll have you know, a Scottish film, through and through. Based on the novel by Alexander Trocchi, the film also stars Ewan McGregor, Emily Mortimer and Peter Mullen, is featured on the cover of the September issue of Sight & Sound and was shown at Cannes. Which is where Nina Rehfeld talked to Tilda Swinton.

You work in Hollywood, live in the Highlands. You must have a good agent.

I have two good agents. And they're very understanding about my double life. And it is a double life. At least two lives. And it's a very healthy existence for me. To be honest, I don't work all that much in Hollywood.


Well, they've beefed up some things. They're trying to make me look really respectable. They're trying to clean me up, I can tell. You mentioned the Royal Shakespeare Company, but I was there for one year.

Is it true that you found out what you didn't want to do while you were there?

It's true. It was a very good thing to do nice and early. I had not worked in film when I first left university. I knew I was performer and I was working in the theater because that was what was available to me. Hadn't yet discovered the camera. Hadn't yet discovered Derek Jarman, which was how that happened. So, I went to the Royal Shakespeare Company, like you do. I just learned really fast, like all young people do. It was a very good lesson. To decide what you don't want to do.

What intrigued you about this project?

I'd never read Young Adam, oddly enough, but I knew enough about Alexander Trocchi to be intrigued by any adventure taken in his name. He's a very significant figure for us in Scotland. He's our Beat writer and he has a reputation that's been largely suppressed by the Scottish literary establishment. He was an internationalist at a time when nationalist art was all the rage. And he was a big-time junkie and a social anarchist. He left Scotland quite early and went to live in Paris and became engagé. He started a literary existentialist magazine called Merlin and wrote pornography for the Olympia Press, then went to New York and became a heroin addict and hung out with Kerouac and Ginsberg and anyway: He was always of interest to me. Because I've always been interested in Beat. I knew David Mackenzie slightly. Years ago, we'd worked on a sort of film school short together. He sent me the script, and I met him - here, actually. Two years ago, we had a meeting in the Carlton to discuss things - but we didn't need to discuss very much.

Could you say that there aren't any cities in Scotland where there are as many circles of artists as there are in, say, Paris or New York?

Let's face it. There are certain places where it is easier to find company. Still, I think. There are certain places that attract a feeling of safety for a certain kind of exploration. It probably shifts from decade to decade and it was Paris in the 50s, and to some extent, it still is. It comes and goes. I know myself, having lived in London for a long time for a similar reason, because there was a sense of community there and like-minded people, and then, times change and London changes and the rents change. [laughs]

But why is it so difficult to find company in Scotland?

It isn't difficult to find company in Scotland. For me, it isn't difficult. But I think for him, it was. In the 50s. Very difficult, as I understand it. He always had a battle. Again, you have to remember that this was just after the war and nationalism was everywhere - and here we are, seeing it all over again. Wars do very bad things to people's nationalist instincts. He was determinedly internationalist and experimental and I think he felt it was a very hide-bound environment. Funnily enough, considering Scotland at the moment. I mean, Young Adam is the latest, I would suggest, in a new, very exciting Scottish cinema which is not actually possible in London at the moment.

Why not?

Because English cinema is a avowedly class-obsessed and determined to sell itself to America. So it's consciously watching itself, crossing its T's and dotting its I's and trying to serve the tourist industry.

To do this whole, quirky British, "Come on, let's laugh at ourselves..."

Or just, "Let's be very aware of what 'British' is." I still don't know what "British" is. They try and package it, don't they? They just try to decide what it is and whether it's gangsters or people in corsets or cheeky people in the north... they're just trying to sell it.

I've read that you raised quite a bit of trouble during the making of this film.

You bet. We very nearly didn't make this film. The British Film Council didn't do anything. This film actually folded twice. Really folded.

While shooting?

No, no, before we started production. It just didn't happen - twice. The British Film Council did nothing to support it. Eventually, they did put in the final whatever percent we needed. Maybe ten percent - and let's not underestimate that. The final ten percent is what you need to make the film. The first 90 percent is always easier to find than the last ten. But they will claim this film. As a British Council film. They're going to call it a British film. And I refute that. It's a Scottish film. And the reason it's a Scottish film, apart from its subject and apart from its sensibility - very important - but if it hadn't been for the support of Scottish Screen and the Glasgow Film Office, it simply would not have been possible to keep it going. So there you have it.

This role seems to have a wide span between sensuality on the one hand but also a dry and forbidding nature on the other.

There you have the Scottish. You know, Calvinism vs. the passion.


Yeah. Robert Louis Stevenson. Jekyll and Hyde. The fundamental duality of man. Very Scottish. The English don't struggle with it so much, it seems to me. The Scottish struggle with it all the time.

Where does that come from?

It comes from, I would say, two things. First, because it's a Presbyterian country and it's also a Catholic country. And because it's an occupied country! [laughs] To a certain extent. It certainly has a sense of itself as a country that has to cope with the concept of being occupied. Slowly, less so, but generally, for the last however many hundred years, it's been governed from London. Which bears no relation.

Do people have any sense at all of London as their own capital?

It's a different country. Scotland is a different country and always has been. One of the things that always strikes me about all this talk about an independent Scotland is that Scotland is independent. It's just England that isn't. Really. That is really the way it is. Because... we've got the oil! [laughs]

Love factories and nude scenes. >>>

"A new, very exciting Scottish cinema."
Love factories and nude scenes.

back to past articles


Nina Rehfeld
A freelance journalist based in Berlin, Nina Rehfeld's reviews, interviews and articles have been published in several major German papers and magazines. For more info, see the Kulturbotschaft.

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