Actress Swinton Moves from Art House to Hollywood

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Tilda Swinton plays lawyer Karen Crowder in 'Michael Clayton.' i

Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder, a slowly unraveling lawyer, in Michael Clayton. Myles Aronowitz/Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Myles Aronowitz/Warner Bros. Pictures
Tilda Swinton plays lawyer Karen Crowder in 'Michael Clayton.'

Tilda Swinton plays Karen Crowder, a slowly unraveling lawyer, in Michael Clayton.

Myles Aronowitz/Warner Bros. Pictures
Swinton sleeps in a glass box as part of an exhibition called "The Maybe." i

Swinton, who worked as a performance artist for a time, sleeps in a glass box as part of an exhibition called "The Maybe" at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1995. Andrew Winning/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Andrew Winning/AFP/Getty Images
Swinton sleeps in a glass box as part of an exhibition called "The Maybe."

Swinton, who worked as a performance artist for a time, sleeps in a glass box as part of an exhibition called "The Maybe" at the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1995.

Andrew Winning/AFP/Getty Images
George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Tony Gilroy at the Venice International Film Festival. i

Swinton, with co-star George Clooney and director Tony Gilroy, arrives at the screening of Michael Clayton at the Venice International Film Festival. Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
George Clooney, Tilda Swinton and Tony Gilroy at the Venice International Film Festival.

Swinton, with co-star George Clooney and director Tony Gilroy, arrives at the screening of Michael Clayton at the Venice International Film Festival.

Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Scottish actress Tilda Swinton has long been a stalwart of low-budget, art-house movies. Now, she has taken a turn toward the Hollywood mainstream, although she seems queasy about referring to herself as a movie star.

In the last few years, Swinton has played the White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia, an overprotective mother in The Deep End and the motorcycle-riding former fling of Bill Murray in Broken Flowers.

Most recently, she was nominated for a Golden Globe for her portrayal of an ever-perspiring, slowly unraveling lawyer in Michael Clayton.

But for the first nine years of her career, Swinton worked on seven movies with one filmmaker, Derek Jarman. One of those films was Jarman's The Last of England in the late 1980s.

"This is a film that was made in the most pre-industrial way I can imagine," Swinton tells Robert Siegel. "We wanted to make an experiment, making a film with absolutely no need to write a script or go to anybody for money. And it's really a sort of poetic documentary of our life."

Swinton has gone from making experimental films with Jarman to playing an American lawyer in the Hollywood drama Michael Clayton. On screen, her character becomes identified with, among other things, sweating.

"I love that everyone's so shocked that someone would sweat on screen. It feels like it's an unexpected taboo for me. I didn't realize it was going to have such an impact," she laughs. "I'm the sweaty one with the fat rolls and the dark hair."

Making a Transition

Swinton says that many factors contributed to her move toward Hollywood movies.

"The first thing that changed is that, sadly for everyone, Derek Jarman died in 1994. He had AIDS," Swinton says. "And it wasn't just that he was, as it were, my day job. That was my life, and I kind of lived alongside him also. But it coincided, not entirely unrelatedly, with a kind of moment in the system, the political system in the early '90s in the U.K. — as here, as I understand it — when the funding structures changed and funding the kind of art film that we were making became really impossible. And there was this hiatus for all of us."

Swinton worked as a performance artist for a time, then gave birth to twins.

"Then a point came when independent filmmakers in America started to contact me," she says. "So I started to make films in America. And the people who asked me, like Spike Jonze, like Francis Lawrence, like Andrew Adamson, like Tony Gilroy — and this is just zeitgeist — you know, the studios were putting these people, people who knew about me and wanted me in their films, in positions of power with huge budgets. And so, that's the reason that I've been cropping up in these bigger-budget films. It's because the studio has been hiring these lunatics who actually want me in them."

'A Kamikaze Vision'

Swinton has said she would like to see movie distributors take on a "kamikaze vision."

"The idea of art making profit, and the idea of making art in order that it make profit and not making art if it looks like it's not going to make profit is anathema to me," she says. "It feels really like the wrong conversation to be having. And the really crucial people in the chain are the distributors because they are the ones who get the films out there, for people to see and for people to build up their taste and for people to want more of that kind of film. And they do have to have a kind of kamikaze spirit; they have to have a kind of gambler's spirit — they have to be prepared to lose.

"And the idea of the opening weekend being the criterion for little films that may have nobody you've ever seen in before, maybe by a filmmaker you've never heard of whose name you can't pronounce, maybe in a language you've never heard of — the idea of projecting the pressure of having a fantastic opening weekend onto a film like that is just death to the cinema and death for the audience, because it means then that they're only left with the most straightforward, roadside cafe menu of product."

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