AUSTIN — Tilda Swinton sits in a wide-open hotel conference room wrapped in a thick, cream-colored sweater so large it could fit two of her. Swinton’s most recent films, The Grand Budapest Hotel (which opened last weekend) and Only Lovers Left Alive (which opens April 11), are playing at the SXSW Film Festival, and outside attendees are huddled underneath umbrellas as downtown Austin is soaked with a steady stream of cold, gray rain. And indeed, when asked how she is doing, Swinton’s otherworldly face is also downcast — but for an unexpected reason.
“I’ve never been here before,” she says. “I’m going this evening, and it’s a bit sucky. It looks great out there and we’re missing it all. Anyway. We’ll all have to come back.”
That ability to see the great good fun hidden inside what most others would describe as damp misery is one of the many reasons Swinton has become a figure of endless fascination to an eclectic cluster of fans. Starting her career in the world of avant-garde cinema and theater in the 1980s and ’90s, Swinton has brought her ethereal, androgynous presence to an increasingly wider audience with roles in films like 2001’s Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise, 2005’s Constantine with Keanu Reaves, and as the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in 2005. Swinton won an Oscar for her turn as a morally bankrupt corporate lawyer in the 2007 thriller Michael Clayton, and she’s since worked with the Coen Brothers and David Fincher, and to wide acclaim as the desperate mother of a sociopath in Lynne Ramsey’s film We Need to Talk About Kevin.
This year, Swinton, 53, will appear in at least four films in four wildly different roles. She plays an elderly dowager in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, which expands its theatrical run this weekend. In Only Lovers Left Alive, from writer-director Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers), she stars as a regal, ancient vampire named Eve who reunites with her beloved, a vampire named Adam (Tom Hiddleston) living in Detroit. On June 27, Swinton will appear in Snowpiercer — the first English-language film from acclaimed South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho (The Host) — as the dowdy administrator of a giant train containing what’s left of humanity after a climate-change apocalypse. And this summer, Swinton will play Christoph Waltz’s therapist in Terry Gilliam’s The Zero Theorem.
With so many opportunities for American audiences to see Swinton, her unique celebrity has every chance of growing that much larger. But in a conversation with BuzzFeed, she explains why she simply cannot be bothered by fame — and why she thinks Facebook is doomed.
I understand Only Lovers Left Alive was in development for a particularly protracted period of time?
Tilda Swinton: Well, I say it’s eight years. Jim [Jarmusch], I think, says it’s less. But I think it was like eight years ago that he rang me up and said, “Hey, man, let’s do a vampire film.” I’m really glad it took that length of time, because the right band came together, and you need that. You can’t go too soon.
Was the notion of immortality what connected with you for the project?
TS: The more I think about it, the more I think [the film] is more about love than it is about being a vampire. It’s about a long life and a long love, and the idea of them being so long lived, so long loving that they are vampires — she’s 3,000 years old, and he’s 500 — is kind of a secondary thing. Their outsider status, I think, is where the whole vampire trope kicks in. The two of them against the world.
But the thing that drew me in was Jim. Frankly, if Jim said he wanted to make a film about that bottle of water, I would be inclined to say, “Let’s do it.” When he first mentioned to me that he wanted to make a vampire film, one of the responses that came to my head — I’m not sure I actually said it — was, “But hang on, haven’t you been making vampire films all along?” Because it really is like Jim has been making vampire films for years. His nocturnal world and that dreamscape that he so regularly lives in his films seems so hypnotic.
Is it usually the filmmaker that draws you in to a project?
TS: Pretty much without any exception, yeah.
What is it about specific filmmakers that you are so attracted to? What is it about Jim Jarmusch or Wes Anderson or Bong Joon-ho?
TS: I think off the top of my head, the lowest common denominator would be that they are master filmmakers who create their own worlds. That’s the thing that I feel, as a film fan, what draws me forward. It’s a really delicious thing to know someone’s work as well as I knew Jim’s, for example, before I met him. And then to be invited into that world? It’s like in Mary Poppins, when they step into the chalk drawings. If you are a film nut and you’re invited into those worlds, if you love those worlds, it’s kind of a trip. I think that’s really the thing.
Jim, particularly, because I feel I’d grown up with Jim. I first saw Stranger Than Paradise when I was a student, and for all of us European film nerds, he was really significant because he was the first American independent filmmaker who framed an America from a kind of alien’s point of view. You know, he felt like a Bulgarian filmmaker. And yet he was American! It was something we could really chew on. It felt like he built a bridge for us. And then, you know, I was hooked.
As much as you’re attracted to working with specific filmmakers, it seems those filmmakers are equally attracted to working with you. What do you think it’s about you, if I may ask, that has these filmmakers inviting you to their worlds?
TS: I actually don’t know. Uh. (pause) I don’t know! I mean, all the filmmakers that I work with are playful individuals, and play is pretty much all I can do. I don’t have a bag of skill-tricks or all sorts of professional ambitions and credentials. I’m there to play and to converse and to be enthusiastic about the crack. And I suppose if they’re not into that, then they’re not going to come to me. So maybe — I don’t know! You’d have to ask them. Obviously different things. (pause) I’m very cheap! (chuckles)
It’s safe to say that without exception — even with Michael Clayton — your characters are quite visually striking, even within the context of the world in which they’re living. Do you bring your insight into your appearances? How does that collaboration work?
TS: That’s the bulk of my work, I would say. That’s what I do. What I can contribute, really, more than much else, is to disguise myself, and try to blend in to the landscape of the frame. And I love that. That’s just fun, building up the disguise, whatever it is, whatever the caliber is. With Michael Clayton, for example, you know, [it was] really a quite fine toothcomb, realistic stroke, naturalistic disguise. Just looking like a real American corporate lawyer, that’s, you know, a big leap (gestures to her face) with no prosthetics. (laughs)
In Only Lovers Left Alive you have that magnificent mane of hair. How did that come together?
TS: We talked a lot about what life would be like to be so refracted from society, to be such cats who walk by themselves — what that would make you. And quite quickly we realized that would make you animal, really. You’re not really a person anymore. You’re a beast. And so we thought a lot about wolves. Jim is very big into dogs, you know. He’s like a white dog. And it so happened that we were developing the wigs, we needed this incredible volume, and we couldn’t get it with human hair. This point came when I said, “Let’s try wolves’ hair.” And that’s what works. There’s a heartbeat in the film, which is a wolf’s heartbeat. When we greet each other to begin with, we smell each other before we kiss. All that feeling of finding a different way of moving that was just exotic. It didn’t have to be specific. It didn’t have to be copying anything that really exists. It just had to be weird.
It felt to me as if whatever hair that person had when they turned into a vampire, that was what they’d have for the rest of their existence.
TS: Yeah. That’s true for a lot of us, isn’t it? That we hit a certain point — actually, this is a different conversation. But someone — and this is almost too intimate — was talking to me about fame, and we were talking about [how] people who become famous, at a certain point, kind of psychologically become fixed at the point at which they become famous. So if you’re 19? If you’re 12? It’s interesting. Anyway. It’s not for that (points to voice recorder), but it is a little bit like being turned into a vampire.
Speaking of a kind of fame, when, if at all, did you recognize that, through the work you’d done in the ’80s and ’90s and on stage and in museum pieces, you had cultivated a fan base, people who were keen to see you?
TS: It’s funny, I was just talking to some people here who were a little bit horrified that I am as willfully ignorant of a kind of world that they operate in. So I feel apologetic that life is too short, man. I just can’t be involved. I just don’t have the hours in the day. I have children, and a garden, and a sweetheart, and dogs, and a school, and I just can’t be that aware. There’s a sort of peripheral hum here somewhere (slowly waves fingers far away from her face) which makes me aware that some people, of interests that they might have. But it doesn’t actively involve me. It’s about their interest and it’s about their stuff. So if I’m inspiring that interest, that’s totally fine. But I can’t really be involved in it.
Do you have people approaching you, wanting a photograph, wanting a kind of standard celebrity experience?
TS: I wouldn’t know what’s standard, and I wouldn’t know what’s unique to my life. But yeah!
How is that interaction for you, given how you feel about fame?
TS: It’s really lovely. No, the authentic presence, I’m all for. I think it’s a really lovely thing, when people are delighted to see you and they want a photograph. It’s a huge part of making the work, because the work is made by the audience, and so to actually meet the audience is as much a thrill to me as it may be to them. It’s a meeting. It’s an actual meeting. It’s great!
Part of what fame today is about is being present on the internet through social media. It doesn’t seem to be active lately, but how aware are you of the @notTildaSwinton Twitter account?
TS: (A huge grin) Yes, I do know about that.
What was your reaction when you first learned of it?
TS: (Almost whispering) I think it’s hilarious. I’ve been in touch with those guys. It doesn’t happen anymore?
When I checked this morning, it hadn’t been updated in a while.
TS: OK. Anyway. I mean, that’s what’s I’m saying. That’s here in the periphery. It’s all, you know, more flowers in the garden. It’s other people’s work, which is really great. And, yeah, on it goes.
When observing the arc of your career, you have become present in more — I wouldn’t say Hollywood movies, as one thinks of them today, but certainly more mainstream cinema. Is there any design to that?
TS: Well, it’s really interesting, that question, because I’m wondering about it myself. The fact is that there’s a very, very small pocket of time in which I did play with what you might call some mainstream gestures. The reason I say “you might call it” is because I’ve always been suspicious of the word “mainstream.” The truth is, my mainstream may be somebody else’s trickily little brook, and vise versa.
There was a little moment when I made a couple of gestures which were real, for me, experiments. Like, being in a Disney movie, and being in a film which in itself was actually in Hollywood terms relatively left field, although it had George Clooney in it. I won a prize, which is really, really famous — more famous than the film, more famous than I would ever, ever be. And so those two tiny gestures — not that I had anything to do with Oscars, but they came my way — they are the misrepresentations of my life to a lot of people, certainly on this continent. They don’t know anything about anything else I do. They think that that’s what I do.
Apart from that, the films that I’ve been making recently, if they are more mainstream — and I’m not arguing that they may be — that says more about the culture, that Wes Anderson or Jim Jarmusch or Bong Joon-ho are considered more mainstream. Because 10 years ago, they wouldn’t have been. So I think that doesn’t really say anything about me. It’s a great thing for somebody to recognize that Jim Jarmusch is a master and not just some kind of left-field, avant-garde filmmaker. That he has got that weight in the culture is fantastic. But that’s the mountain coming to Muhammad, right? I think that that’s fascinating. Maybe it’s just that they are longer in the tooth. Maybe it’s to do with the generation of film critics who are just banging on about them more and more and so they’re more central.
You’d been alluding to a conversation you had where people were horrified you weren’t aware of a certain kind of thing — what was it specifically?
TS: Oh, there’s this assumption that you alluded to that everybody’s on Twitter, and that it’s relatively un-mainstream — whatever we’re going to call un-mainstream — to not do Twitter. It’s sort of shock-horror, apparently. Or to not have Facebook, or whatever. Not to interface at all with social media. That’s what I was meaning.
It almost feels like people who have a certain celebrity are afforded more privacy not being on social media than they would’ve had in the ’90s without that existing.
TS: Interesting, yeah. Well, I mean, one does wonder how it’s all going to come out, really. As I say, I’m so out of the loop, I don’t even follow the debate about it, but I imagine sooner or later, what cool kid of 14 is going to want to go on Facebook now when their parents are on it? I mean, very quickly, it’s going to be the most arcane development. And, personally, I think very soon people are going to realize that writing letters with ink is popular! (Laughs) Or, I don’t know, sitting down in person with somebody could actually be the happening thing.
This interview has been edited and condensed.