THE IDEA OF IDENTITY
an interview with tilda swinton
(from the archives of Ziggy's Video Realm)
Today, Tilda Swinton is well known as one of the most talented performers in Hollywood, brought into the mainstream spotlight through roles such as that of the White Witch in the Narnia films and, oh yes, a golden statue named Oscar for her work in Michael Clayton. But before any of that occurred – just before, it turns out – she was kind enough to chat with Ziggy about her work in earlier films such as Orlando, Possible Worlds, and Teknolust, and to discuss the concept of identity. We are thrilled to finally be able to share this once thought-to-be-lost interview from 2004/2005. *
Ziggy Berkeley: What made you decide to become an actress?
Tilda Swinton: I'm not sure I ever have decided to become an actress, although I realised I was a performer very early: at age 4 standing on a parade ground and feeling the difference in the space between the tarmac and the grass surrounding it, and in a train at age 10 when I realised that nobody in the carriage would be able - necessarily - to know what I was thinking.
Ziggy Berkeley: You have, throughout your career, displayed an incredible talent that could easily make you into one of the spotlight leading ladies of Hollywood if you so chose, and yet you tend to gravitate toward more "eclectic" and often lower profile films. What draws you to these types of roles in particular?
Tilda Swinton: I had the great good fortune to start making films in an environment that spoilt me utterly: with Derek Jarman in the 80's. This was an environment built on company and the idea of the process of work – building a film, or anything – being more important than the finished product; the idea that you build work together and that it is the conversation that sustains each one of you beyond each person's individual contribution. That is my habit, and what I find I am in it for. I would always choose an interesting conversation first when assessing the possibilities of a new project beyond other criteria. For example, choosing roles, as you suggest, is never the primary thing I'm into. People. Subject. Then – maybe – my contribution, i.e. the role I might play.
Ziggy Berkeley: Is it just a coincidence that several of your films involve you playing either multiple parts or at least multiple aspects of the same character?
Tilda Swinton: It isn't. You could say either that I am fascinated by exploring the idea of identity, or, simply, that I am schizophrenic.
Ziggy Berkeley: Though not your first film, the first exposure many audiences had to you and your work was by way of Orlando. How did you come to be involved with that film?
Tilda Swinton: Sally Potter approached me in 1988 to work with her on the idea she had of a film of Virginia Woolf's novel. Five years later the film appeared. Orlando constitutes a very significant period in my life: five years’ work to get something into the light that everybody told us we were crazy to attempt. I have a very great affection for that time and that experience. Sally Potter and I, and our producer Christopher Sheppard, pushed a big rock up a big hill. I'm very proud of that work, and of the film that we made.
Ziggy Berkeley: Had you read Virginia Woolf's novel beforehand, or have you read it since?
Tilda Swinton: I had read it when I was about 15 years old. Like many, many 15 year old girls. And like many 15 year old girls, I fell in love with its territory and its possibilities. I haven't read it since we made the film.
Ziggy Berkeley: What did you find to be the greatest challenge for you with that role? Was it playing across genders, or something else?
Tilda Swinton: The most sustained task for me in the playing of Orlando was the idea of not changing; the idea that, as Woolf says, he/she is the same person, just a different sex. That was the task I gave myself – to show something constant – and to play not a boy, a man, a girl, a woman, but a person: a spirit that persisted. It was a strange and, possibly, unique rhythm.
Ziggy Berkeley: As an actress, which aspect of Orlando's life was your favorite to play, and why?
Tilda Swinton: I always think every film I do is a comedy, and myself, a clown. I relish that aspect of Orlando.
Ziggy Berkley: As a member of the audience, which aspect of Orlando's life is the most fun for you to watch, and why?
Tilda Swinton: I'm always beset by claustrophobia when Orlando becomes a woman, and never more so than during the Victorian period. It is as if struggle enters the life at that point in a new and interior way, so I could say that I enjoy watching Orlando in the relative freedom of his time as a young man, with all its endless scope and sense of freedom.
Ziggy Berkeley: What is your fondest memory from working on that film?
Tilda Swinton: Wow. Five years of my life. St Petersburg. Khiva, Uzbekistan. Dancing the gavotte with Quentin Crisp. Learning to skate over the waves of the frozen Gulf of Finland. Tough choice.
Ziggy Berkeley: Flashing forward a bit, what drew you to become involved with Possible Worlds?
Tilda Swinton: Robert Lepage sent me the script.
Ziggy Berkeley: How did you approach the challenge of playing the same character appearing often in the same or similar scenes but with differing life histories every time?
Tilda Swinton: Well, in many ways, the Joyces are very different characters - in as much as they represent and signify different things to George. The task there was more a question of riding the similarities – certain phrases and gestures built into the story of each scene – over the bedrock of these very different women; distinct personalities.
Ziggy Berkeley: What was the most fun you had on that film?
Tilda Swinton: It was fun from start to finish. Robert Lepage is exactly that kind of collaborator I described earlier when I talked about Derek Jarman: he loves to discuss and pinpoint the detail. He is enormously inventive and full of zest, and Tom McCamus is a joy.
Ziggy Berkeley: In some other possible world where you're not an actress, aside from depriving audiences around the world, what would you be doing?
Tilda Swinton: I exist – literally – in several entirely separate universes every day of my life. I am simultaneously, at this moment, sitting in an aeroplane on my way back from Cannes, writing this to you, in my garden in Scotland trying to get someone with no shoes down from a tree, at a raceground in England eyeing up winners in the paddock...
If I couldn't perform in films, I would be getting on with being the writer I was always supposed to be.
Ziggy Berkeley: Returning to the present of this world, recently, after what seems like ages, Teknolust finally made it to market on DVD. How did you become involved with that film?
Tilda Swinton: Lynn [Hershman-Leeson] and I made Conceiving Ada in 1996 and were always talking about the question of refracted and multiplied identity. It just sprung out of a conversation, I guess, like all the best things.
Ziggy Berkeley: When I chatted with [writer/director] Lynn Hershman-Leeson, she indicated that she felt that you were the only actress capable of pulling off the quadruple role you play. How does that feel knowing that a role is being made pretty much especially for you?
Tilda Swinton: Cosy and warm. And superfree: like I can schwing it and bend it any which way I want and it can't break.
Ziggy Berkeley: You bring very distinct personalities to each of your four characters in the film. Where did you draw your inspirations for those personalities from?
Tilda Swinton: Hahahahahahahahahaha... Well, kinda from myself, but it was more straightforward than you might imagine. The story needs Rosetta to be a certain way; and it needs Ruby to be the caretaker, the one associated with sex and mothering; and Marine is the revolutionary middle one involved with change and progress; so Olive is the youngest, interested in safety and togetherness and peace... It just fell into an obvious pattern, and I took a ruler and chopped myself into four slices.
Ziggy Berkeley: Which was your favorite to play, and which would you most like to meet?
Tilda Swinton: I feel I meet them all, all the time! But a favourite would be hard to choose. I love Ruby, though, in a particular way. She feels the most integrated to me; maybe the most familiar. Maybe hers is the identity I'm living now.
Ziggy Berkeley: Tell us about dancing with yourself. That scene is so much fun to watch... What was it like to film?
Tilda Swinton: A blast. Exhausting. Scientific. Hilarious. But, again: different people dance different ways, right?
Ziggy Berkeley: Apparently, there were quite a few challenges that came along during the filming of Teknolust. Are there any that stand out in your mind as particularly difficult to overcome or interesting to handle?
Tilda Swinton: I think that Lynn and I took like ducks to water in a particular way to the kind of freedom we were afforded by the 24-frames-a-second digital camera we were using. The kind of looseness it meant we could have reminded me of working with Super 8 with Jarman – by this I mean our habit of coming in every morning and reassessing the script and changing it and throwing it away and improvising new, unplanned stuff. But I think it took some others on the crew – understandably – a little longer to catch up with that and not be fearful that we were maniacs let loose on a 35mm shoot. I reckon we all caught up in the end, though. It was a very, very happy shoot.
Ziggy Berkeley: Lynn Hershman-Leeson has indicated that often during filming, only you and she seemed to be aware of the fact that Teknolust is a film with a lot of humor. What was that like, getting the joke while others were missing it?
Tilda Swinton: Even funnier!
Ziggy Berkeley: As a member of the audience, what do you find to be the funniest thing
Tilda Swinton: I love the idea that Rosetta could well just be this sociopath with a cupboard full of terrible wigs. I particularly love the moment when (me – in a wig – as) Rosetta points to a photo of (me – in a different wig – as) Ruby and says “That's me in a wig, playing a part like in a movie.”
Ziggy Berkeley: What is your favorite memory from working on Teknolust?
Tilda Swinton: Always when working with Lynn it has to be Lynn's laugh; like someone just kicked her in the chest and she's croaking her last.
Ziggy Berkeley: How does it feel to be looked upon by so many of your fans as an intellectual sex symbol?
Tilda Swinton: First time I've ever heard such a thing. I'm all for intellectual sex, so bring it on.
Ziggy Berkeley: Is there any sort of project that you would like to do that you haven't yet done in your career, or anyone you'd hope to work with that you have yet to work with?
Tilda Swinton: Too long a list to mention everything and everybody. I am still honestly aware that I have yet to start a substantial phase in the body of my work, but It's a timely moment to ask me as I recently formalised the idea of producing my own films by inaugurating an initial slate of projects which I am developing.
Ziggy Berkeley: What's next for Tilda Swinton?
Tilda Swinton: I am returning this very day from serving on the Palme d'Or jury at the Cannes Film Festival. In the autumn, I will go to New Zealand to play the White Witch in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, directed by Andrew Adamson (who made Shrek), after which I will work with the remarkable Hungarian auteur Bela Tarr on his film adaptation of the Simenon novel “The Man From London.”
Ziggy Berkeley: What do you do when you're not acting or sleeping in clear containers in museums?
Tilda Swinton: I live surrounded by very small and cunning dwarves who seem tireless in their commitment to distract me from everything else but reading stories, going to the beach, and getting lost in woods.
Ziggy Berkeley: Finally, as a member of the audience, what are your favorite films?
Tilda Swinton: Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. This is a question I'm excited about answering.
Peter Ibbetson by Henry Hathaway.
A Matter of Life and Death by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
Au Hasard Balthasar by Robert Bresson.
Close Up by Abbas Kiorastami.
2 or 3 things I Know About Her by JL Godard.
I Know Where I'm Going by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.
There is a very long story behind this interview. I will instead tell a very short one.
This interview was one of the last pieces I ever worked on for my old site, Ziggy’s Video Realm. It was conducted via email between 2004 and 2005, with much space in between communications. Long story condensed, there was a catastrophic loss of data, and of email and contact information. Backups were old and fragmented; most material was gone for good. That was the end of Ziggy’s Video Realm.
When I came back into the game, so to speak, I went through the interviews I still had copies of, and put up the best of those as the only material to be “recycled” from Ziggy’s Video Realm. Alas, there was nothing related to this interview to be found. Or so I thought, until a few days ago. I came across an unmarked disc, and when I checked it, I discovered a document containing the text of my in-progress interview with Tilda Swinton, waiting to be completed. This page is from that text. It is a fragment; but it is a fairly full one.
I don’t know when or whether the rest of her answers might have come, but I do know that I never got to tell her what had happened on my end. For that, and for not being able to previously share the replies she had graciously given her time to provide already, I do apologize to Ms. Swinton. I am very glad – indeed, overjoyed – to share them now. I would also like to thank her for her time and her generosity, now nearly ten years ago, and for the inspiration she continues to provide us all through her art.
– Ziggy Berkeley, March, 2014
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