In the recent sci-fi drama Teknolust, Tilda Swinton played a bioengineer who created a line of robots that subsisted on human semen. The fact that she also played three of the robots should give you some sense of her ability: she can populate and command an entire film. Swinton, who is British and forty-two, is possibly the least ordinary actress around, and she has lent her complex beauty to some complex cinematic discussions about sexuality. Her roles have included a courtier whose lifetime spans centuries and genders (Orlando); the head of a family destroyed by incest (The War Zone) and a Nevada soccer mom who becomes complicit in the murder of a man who’s blackmailing her gay teenage son (The Deep End). She has also been excellent in Adaptation (as Nicolas Cage’s agent) and the films of Derek Jarman.
In Young Adam, Swinton plays an unhappily married woman in 1950s Scotland who develops a carnal relationship with a slumming writer (Ewan McGregor) who may or may not be responsible for the death of his girlfriend (Emily Mortimer). Based on a novel by Alexander Trocchi, the film is about moral ambiguity, yet the sex scenes were anything but. (Though, as usual, they’re entirely more natural than the stink about the film’s NC-17 rating would indicate.) I talked with Swinton about Young Adam‘s sexual choreography and why she doesn’t consider NC-17 scarlet letters. —Michael Martin
So many of your roles examine sexuality, either in an oblique or very direct way. Why do you keep returning to the subject, each time from a different angle?
Swinton: Well, even beyond sexuality, I’m generally interested in identity. As a performer, I’m constantly fascinated with the idea of being able to know what anybody else’s experience is, and how misleading all informatives, like appearance, can be. For example, Orlando is ostensibly about a varied existence — a change of gender. But I made my task something very specific, which was to remain the same. By the same token, in The Deep End, you have a woman who looks like a J. Crew mother who can manage it all. Then we begin to realize what’s going on inside. Every time I see one of those women stuck at a stoplight with the children in the back of her car, I sort of think, “What have you just done? What’s going on in your life?” And you just don’t know. You can sit next to somebody on the underground, and you can look at them quite intensely, but you can never, ever know what they’re wearing under their clothes. I’m interested in that whole question of where we wear our identity and how can we see it. The interesting part of the task for me is how you signify it. So sexuality is, of course, a great way of having a conversation between people. I’m particularly interested in that, and in this film in particular, showing the way in which having a sexual dialogue with someone can be something developing and changeable and maybe uncomfortable and complicated. Just complicated and human, no more and no less.
What bothers you about the way sex is usually portrayed on screen?
Swinton: For me, sex is a refraction of the thing about identity. In the sexual contact, which is usually — but not exclusively — between two people, you do retain separate people. Very, very often in movie sex you see this fiction about unity. A union. That somehow these two thinking beings become one, and there’s one action and they’re sort of perfectly in sync, and the lighting’s perfect, and they’ve got their eyes closed, and they’re gone, you know? And then you cut to someone having a cigarette. And it’s all so much Novocain. Meanwhile, those of us us watching it are going [whispers] “I’m never going to tell anybody, but I never have sex like that. But I’m never going to admit it because I’ll sound like such a loser,” and everybody else here is going “Oh yes, that’s exactly how I was last night.” Nobody owns up. So it’s wonderful to actually have an opportunity to get real and show how complicated and fascinating sex is.
Your roles, at least in regard to sex, were getting more and more conceptual. Why, now, did you return to the basic carnal stuff?
Swinton: I have this very strange relationship with my work, which is that it’s like a conversation between me and it. It just develops and develops, and I’m very nicely served by the universe: just as I’m ready to take the conversation further with myself, some other individual pops up, like David McKenzie did, with this idea of making this film, and provides exactly the leap to the next adventure. For some reason, it completely makes sense to me that this should be the next step. But I realize that there’s no reason it should make sense to anyone else. I’ll tell you one thing, and this is banal to say because it just makes it sound like it’s all planned, and nothing is planned at all. But one link is with The Deep End, and one link is that I’m making a film later on that revolves around the relationship between an innocent party and a dead body. That, by the way, was always a recurring dream of mine as a child. That whole Deep End experience of finding yourself with the dead body: you know you didn’t kill it, but you know if you’re found with it, you’re gonna be done for it, so you have to get rid of it. And that’s a really important nub of Young Adam Joe knows for absolute certain that if someone comes around the corner, that’s it. Nobody’s ever going to believe what happened. So that has nothing to do with identity or sexuality, but that is a link. I’m just fascinated by it. It is about appearances again, I suppose. It’s about, “How am I ever going to be able to tell you what really happened? You’re never going to believe me.”
This is not some calcified period piece.
Swinton: Yes. Alexander Trocchi was an existentialist. He was looking at an alienated artist in the post-war period. It’s modern because it applies now as well. We’re living in a new Beat time, in my view. And it’s very difficult for us to hang on. But we must, particularly this year, hang on to the idea that we can actually change things. That’s the sort of environment that Joe finds himself in, in Young Adam. He goes out of his head and into his body. He does physical, manual labor, and starts fucking around. He chooses to have a kind of animal contact, with an extremely unsophisticated, very nonverbal, exhausted, disappointed, half-dead woman. It’s as if he brings her back to life, which is a very interesting idea when you consider his relationship with the body they just pulled out of the canal.
Ella does some things that someone might consider cruel — like dumping her impotent husband — but I never lost sympathy for her. I felt her needs were legitimate. So you’ve taken the archetype of this adulterous wife, and sort of flipped the expectation. Margaret Hall also is, like you said, this very J. Crew mother, and you turned her into this ass-kicking heroine, but not in the Linda Hamilton sense. To what extent are those Hollywood archetypes in or out of your mind when you’re developing your characters?
Swinton: I think they are there. A large part of my filmmaking self has to do with my love of being in the cinema audience, and my relationships to what I want to see on the screen, what I have seen on the screen and what I don’t want to see on the screen again. Archetypes are always there. It’s sometimes interesting to just flip them a little bit and see the underside. But if you’re going to show some of the undersides, you have to show the audience the underside of something that they accept. There’s an alarm bell that goes off in my head if I can sense that I’m making a mistake. One feels that one’s actually putting something up there that’s not fresh somehow, that it’s got some Saran Wrap over it and is gonna slip down for the audience. We’re like the raw food movement in cinema—so determined to give people things that do some good, that they recognize as real.
Were you intimidated by the nudity in Young Adam? Most American actresses, at comparable points in their careers, would avoid it.
Swinton: I don’t quite understand that. The short answer is no. I mean, that’s what the film is all about. It’s not a thing that I have a qualm about. I made The War Zone when I had just given birth to twins, and my post-partum frame was very much on display there. There’s nothing I’m particularly keen to hide about my humanity. Let’s put it that way.
How did you and Ewan McGregor prepare for the sex scenes?
Swinton: We rehearsed for a couple of weeks before we shot. We were very clear that this film’s so much about a relationship that’s borne out through the sexual contact, and that that’s the way they communicate. And we also knew that, on a practical level, if there was going to be that much sex in the film — which there clearly had to be because sex is the meat and potatoes of the thing — it had to be varied for the audience, because it’s important to keep the audience living in it. So we did rehearse it very, very scientifically. We decided exactly what we would do at every moment, what the texture would be. For example, the first scene Ella and Joe get together, when they’re on the riverbank. The interesting thing is that we decided not to kiss on the riverbank. We decided to delay that. And funnily enough, the scene on the riverbank is the one that the censors who gave it an NC-17 rating objected to.
The characters are completely clothed. You can’t see anything.
Swinton: But he’s going down on her. It’s very interesting, isn’t it? When you think of all the other things in that film—
A handjob, alternate uses for custard—
Swinton:—that little scene is what they’re worried about! I just think it turned them on. But anyway, it’s fine. I have no problems with the NC-17 rating. I want more NC-17 films. More adult cinema!
The more films that are released of quality, the more the stigma will be reduced. I did want to ask you how you felt about it. It seems ironic that Young Adam involves a trial and guilt by presumption—the film is sort of going though the same thing.
Swinton: Yes, but you know what? It’s all fine. The film will find its audience. All these films will eventually find their audience, slowly the stigma will be reduced, and we will have an adult cinema again. But what bothers me is that the cinema — what Fox News calls the “wholesome cinema that our children are supposed to be able to see” — is so violent. I’m not even talking about the content. I’m talking about the way in which it’s cut. And then the religious programs which parents are supposed to be able to view with their children.
Did Derek Jarman’s death leave a cinematic void that hasn’t been filled? Or are newer filmmakers extending his vision?.
Swinton: Well the truth is, everybody, when they die, leaves a void that cannot be filled. And of course the answer is yes, but also in another sense the answer is no. One of the things about Derek Jarman was that he was a painter who worked alone when he painted, but I firmly believe that one of the reasons he made films was for the company. He made filmmakers of all of us, that’s the truth. I don’t mean he necessarily made directors, but he made us filmmakers. Because we lived in a state of mutual responsibility for what we made. He shared the responsibility for making the film. He didn’t necessarily know what he wanted – he knew what he didn’t want – but you had to keep coming up with stuff. So that is a tradition to which I belong, but it is also a tradition of collective work. The great news is that that sort of group of people and that sort of sensibility is beginning to become more active again. And I think partly it just has to do with the time. It has to do with the culture of resistance. The necessity is for us to pull together and to speak up and to make work and be visible. But it’s also just to do with life and getting a second wind. Generally, I feel very optimistic. More optimistic than I have in a while.
Your physical appearance is always written about in this sort of breathless way. How do you characterize your looks?
Swinton: [laughs] I don’t know. When I’m in northern Italy, I walk about feeling slightly less of a freak. And there was a Botticelli exhibit recently in Paris. I remember when I first started to be photographed, people couldn’t understand how it was possible to go around with no eyelashes, no eyebrows. Now it’s much more accepted for people not to wear eyelashes or lipstick or whatever they do, but then it was quite freaky. Um, a kind of boiled look. The problem for me is that I look like so many people in my family, so I can’t really see anything. Except I could say that I look rather like my father without his mustache.