MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Okay, Tilda Swinton is not a household name and her life is not minutely chronicled in Us Weekly, but she is one versatile performer. This Scottish actor has long been a stalwart of low-budget, art-house movies. In recent years, she's taken a turn toward the Hollywood mainstream, but she still sounds queasy about referring to herself as a movie star.

In the last few years, we've seen her as the White Witch in "The Chronicles of Narnia," as an overprotective mother in "The Deep End," and most recently, as the slowly unraveling, ever-perspiring lawyer in "Michael Clayton."

(Soundbite of movie "Michael Clayton")

Ms. TILDA SWINTON (Actor): (As Karen Crowder) This is totally unacceptable. This is a $3 billion class action lawsuit. In the morning, I have to call my board. I have to tell him that the architect of our entire defense has been arrested for running naked in a snowstorm, chasing the plaintiff through a parking lot.

SIEGEL: Tilda Swinton says she never really set out to become an actor.

Ms. SWINTON: I started working in the cinema in a very, kind of, tangential way because I - even though I was there as a performer, I worked for the first nine years of my filmmaking on seven films with one filmmaker, who was Derek Jarman, who was an English filmmaker.

SIEGEL: And so I went back to look at a DVD of "The Last of England," a Derek Jarman film that you were in, and it's experimental films from the - it's from the 1980s, yes?

Ms. SWINTON: Mm-hmm. 1989.

SIEGEL: And - well, describe it a bit.

Ms. SWINTON: This is a film that was made in the most pre-industrial way I can imagine. It was an experiment that Derek and this group that we worked with - we wanted to make an experiment making a film with absolutely no need to write a script or go to anybody for money. It's really a sort of poetic documentary of our life. And then Simon Fisher Turner, who always used to make the music for Derek's films, made an extraordinary score. And it was only at that point that the film was presented to distributors. And it was only at that point that any money was raised for it. So, it really was an inside-out model.

SIEGEL: So we flash-forward now from your doing these experimental films with Derek Jarman to "Michael Clayton," where we see you becoming identified, in the strangest way, with - among other things - sweating during this movie.

Ms. SWINTON: 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: You're not Tilda Swinton, the one who sweated so much in "Michael Clayton"?

Ms. SWINTON: Yeah, I'm the sweaty one with the fat rolls and the dark hair."

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SWINTON: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Well, obviously, something changed in your view of what kind of movies you were making between back then and now. What was it?

Ms. SWINTON: You know, the first thing that changed is that, sadly for everyone, Derek Jarman died in 1994; he had AIDS. 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. And we dealt with it in different ways. I mean, I worked as a performance artist for a while. I made a live piece for a couple of years. And then I had twins, which is, you know, an entertainment, you could say, and certainly of a…

SIEGEL: I bet.

Ms. SWINTON: It takes off a bit of time.

SIEGEL: I bet it does, yes.

Ms. SWINTON: But then a point came when independent filmmakers in America started to contact me. And 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. 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.

SIEGEL: You told an interviewer from The Guardian a while ago, when you were just in one of your androgynous roles, I think this was not "Orlando," but you're playing the archangel Gabriel or someone…

Ms. SWINTON: (Unintelligible).

SIEGEL: Yeah.

Ms. SWINTON: Yeah.

SIEGEL: You said - you just said that…

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: You claimed, at least, that coming out that day, someone at the airport had addressed you as sir, and this was…

Ms. SWINTON: It's a theme tune of mine. It follows me everywhere. It's not that hard. I mean, all you have to do is to be merely six-foot, and have short hair, and not wear make up, and wear trousers, and you - you will still be referred to as sir in hotel lobbies and - well, I am, anyway, I mean. Yeah.

SIEGEL: I find - I just find this hard to believe. You - this happens - this happened more than one or twice, you've been addressed…

Ms. SWINTON: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Yeah, really.

Ms. SWINTON: I mean, I'm not suggesting you guys have been referred to as madam, Robert, but I hope I'm not the only person that's ever happened to. It's just business as usual for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Another - a fascinating thing about your own background that I read was your family can trace its lineage back to the time of Alfred the Great.

Ms. SWINTON: 876 is the date that they bandy about.

SIEGEL: Before that it's all a mystery.

Ms. SWINTON: It's all just a murk in the city.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SWINTON: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Well, who is your ancestor in 876 you've been saying?

Ms. SWINTON: Adolf(ph).

SIEGEL: Adolf(ph). Yes.

Ms. SWINTON: Yeah.

SIEGEL: Well, what did Adolf(ph) do?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SWINTON: Oh, you know, like they all have for all those generations, you know, just bashed people on the head and taken their land and been very greedy and written things down. I mean, everyone comes from an old family. It's just my family wrote everything down. And also, were very lazy and stayed in the same place.

SIEGEL: I want to ask you about something you said a couple of years ago, after making "The Chronicles of Narnia," when you were talking about - which we'd really like to see happen in the movie business - or maybe you wouldn't like to see it called a movie business, but you said you'd like to see distributors with - it's an odd phrase - the kamikaze vision that spreads the long and broad view. The kamikaze vision.

Ms. SWINTON: Well, you know, the idea of art making profit and the idea of making art in order that it made profit and not making art if it looks like it's not going to make profit is anathema to me. 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 cinema and death for the audience. Because it means then that they're only left with the most straightforward, roadside cafe menu of product.

SIEGEL: Well, Tilda Swinton, thank you very much for your time with us today.

Ms. SWINTON: Thank you very much, Robert.

SIEGEL: Tilda Swinton's latest project is the documentary "Derek," about her friend, the filmmaker Derek Jarman. The movie is showing at the Sundance Film Festival, which begins today.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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