Tilda Swinton is pretty tricky to write about. There’s nothing about her that I relate to and frankly, I’ve hated some of her performances and I honestly believe if we met that the blend of our personalities could only result in disaster, but still, I find her utterly beguiling. From her unique family set up, to her multifarious fashion sense, to her prolific film roles, Swinton is a shapeshifter with continuous intrigue.
The roles that she’s pursued might award her with the title of ‘character actor’ (a problematic term which suggests that playing a character takes a special sort of actor). In this instance, I’ll use it to mean that she’s diverse and bold in her choices and often elects to play characters fiercely different from her own persona. Male actors who are deemed ‘character actors’ exist in swarms – think Gary Oldman, Guy Pierce, or Ralph Fiennes, but it’s harder to name females – not through lack of talent but rather lack of opportunities.
Swinton’s versatility has earned her some of the more exciting on screen moments in recent film years. As the hiding rock star in Bigger Splash, vampire rocker in Only Lovers Left Alive (a film also notable for being the only occasion that Tom Hiddleston has ever exuded sex appeal), a media mogul in Trainwreck, bereaved mother in We Need to Talk about Kevin – each character is strongly detached from the former. She fully transforms from one film to the next and I’d propose that that theme is also present in her style.
It’s hard to describe Swinton’s aesthetic. It’s almost as if she is a gallery playing host to a bevvy of rotating artists. Her sharp angular face and lean ceramic-like body make her an ideal canvas to decorate with Avant-Garde fashion.
Though, one gets the sense that this is not a passive experience for Swinton. With her eclectic character range, I’d wager that she is equally involved with selecting the fashion that adorns her.
Though it’s hard to use simple adjectives to define Swinton, perhaps a common thread visible in her performances is a sense of coolness. When I think of Swinton, warmth does not come to mind, and accordingly that makes her an exciting colour when it comes to thinking about the palette of femininity that we see represented on screen. Far removed from the homemaker or love interest, Swinton is carving out paths for a plethora of other women. Recently, she starred in the film clip for David Bowie’s The Stars (Are Out Tonight), which depicts a far looser understanding of gender and representation.
Another seductive factor about Swinton is her domestic set-up. For a while there, it looked like Swinton successfully proved that open marriages worked in a sort of new age gothic fairytale. She lived in a massive house in the middle of the Scottish Highlands with her husband, playwright John Byrne and their two children. Her lover, an artist 20 years her junior also joined them. It sounds complicated, but Swinton called it sane. The set up did not last and her and her husband have now split.
Sure, a bohemian lifestyle like that may be emblematic of the privilege that imbues her life as the common Joan could not dream of living in a mansion by the sea with her lover and husband and Hollywood movie career. But there’s something to be said in Swinton’s embrace of a model of living other than what our society so readily subscribes to. I think that might be true of all her pursuits.