For 15 years now, Swinton has been asserting her iconic presence in independent film (most notably in the work of the late Derek Jarman, and in Sally Potter's Orlando), and just lately, Hollywood has begun to notice her. She had a small, crucial part in the Leonardo DiCaprio unintentional farce The Beach, and will be seen in Cameron Crowe's Vanilla Sky (with Tom Cruise) and Spike Jonze's Adaptation in months to come.
Out right now is The Deep End—a transgressive mood piece about parenthood in the guise of a taut, if conventional (and highly implausible) American independent thriller—which Swinton recently came to Seattle to promote. In person, the actress is no less striking than on screen, though perhaps a bit sillier, of all things. When I arrive, she's chasing around her hotel suite, looking for chocolate. She speaks at a full gallop, with Cambridge elocution and a self-effacing, Pythonian wit underscoring the occasional dramatic emphases.
I read something where you said you realized pretty early on from working in the theater that you preferred to work in film. What were the specifics of that realization?
It's kind of a two-pronged thing. One of those prongs is that I was getting the sense, even though I was working pretty much in the experimental theater—and there are people constantly trying to kind of play around with the way in which theater is put together, and all power to them—that there's a sort of paradigm that asserts itself in the industrial theater which didn't feel like home to me. There's a certain passivity in the audience which seems to be virtually endemic, and there's a sort of infantilism among the actors which absolutely alienates me. The second prong is that when I started to work with the camera, I realized that THAT was what I was interested in: just the environment--the working environment of filmmaking. It really feels like home to me. Which doesn't mean that I'm not interested in live performance. But it would be difficult for me to go back to that fourth wall. I never believed in that before. I didn't really buy into that at all.
It's interesting that you bring up the idea of the theater audience being passive because, I think, at least among theater practitioners, that's exactly the opposite of the whole premise. But it remains true. It's sort of funny because theater is meant to be—
Interactive in some way,
And a more authentic, real, direct interaction. But the fact is that there's way more pretense.
There's way more pretense. Well, the scale is different from the start. It seems to me that what cinema can do which theater cannot do, however tiny your theater is, is offer up a kind of molecular scrutiny of people behaving, which the theater just can't. And for me, the sort of Nth degree of that is the close-up. Just the very fact that you can go up to somebody, and you can be three inches away from them, and you can deal in the fantasy that they are unwatched by you. That's what I'm in it for. My favorite and the most enlightening film performance that I can think of is the performance of the donkey in Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar. Because there is a way in which the donkey, by virtue of the fact that he is a donkey, is doing absolutely nothing but being a donkey, and the way in which Bresson frames the donkey, and the kind of clarity of that frame, and the fact that you know for sure you're not being sold anything by the donkey means that you are so free to project onto the donkey that for me, it's like the perfect performance. It's all about projection. And in the theater, I think largely it's about that the actors are the ones who do the projection, and in the theater, they project onto the audience.
Literally. Well, literally, if you're lucky.
Moving into your film work, starting off with Derek Jarman—you went from experimental theater to working with someone who was trying to experiment with film, while still being very classical in a lot of ways. Your presence on the screen was so iconic to him. That must have been an interesting transition.
Well, the clue is in the question (if that was a question). The way you phrased that, when you talk about going from experimental theater into someone working in experimental film, it sounds as if there's an assumption that both of them are departures from somewhere else. And the truth is, y'know, that's where I'm at. It's an easy thing. I mean, it's not like I then in between went back to the Ambassador Theatre dressing room or whatever. It was just incredibly good luck because we came together on that basis. What my friend calls "the mixture of standards and anarchy" is kind of what makes me tick, too, and always did and there was a match there. It was the dialogue that we found between each other.
Now you're beginning to work a bit closer to the mainstream, at least occasionally. I can only imagine that the experience of making The Beach had to be a pretty strong contrast to making Caravaggio or whatever.
Well, less dialogue... I have had a couple of people ask me to do things recently in these rather strange industrial environments. When Danny Boyle asked me to go and do The Beach, which happens to be made by 20th Century Fox and there's a transport captain who has to make 500 people get to work every morning and all the rest of it... that was exotic. And Cameron Crowe asked me to go and, you know, turn up for a couple of days of filming Vanilla Sky. Again, it's an invitation to go and visit this extraordinary, you know, very exotic industrial apparatus. I think those are the only two. And Spike Jonze, as well. But that was kind of more familiar. So, I've only had these small, like, visitor's passes on these things, but my observation is that the greater the number of memos, the less dialogue you have. There's less time, less opportunity for people to try and discover things. Although, I'm sure that's not true for Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky. I know it's not true for Leonardo DiCaprio in The Beach. I think maybe it's got more to do with the fact that I'm just turning up like a mascot for the day. The actor's job is a very tangential attachment. I really don't know. You'd have to ask Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio what it's like to be in one of those big industrial things and be in every frame of it. My guess is that the experience is similar to being in every frame of Orlando, or every frame of Female Perversions, or every frame of The Deep End, in the sense that you have to wrap it 'round you, and there's lots of time and lots of space and lots of dialogue and lots of energy. I don't know. I doubt I'll find out.
In almost all of your independent work, sexual identity, and specifically homosexual identity, is a central component of your characters, and of the films themselves—sexuality is very much the text. The closer you get to the mainstream, there seems to exist the perception that such themes need to be more sub-rosa to be communicated to a larger audience.
It's a very interesting thought, and my first question is, in the quote-unquote—and I don't like to use "mainstream" because I honestly believe that you are in the middle of your own mainstream and.... I mean, I've never seen Titanic, but I'd stand in a long queue for lots of other things—but in the commercial mainstream, as it's perceived, is it because the whole notion of sexual identity has to be subtextual because there can be no consensus about it? One is dealing with consensus all the time in the world of that commercial mainstream.... There's a fake sort of cultural observation—nothing for you. What links The Deep End up for me in those terms to my own work is that it kind of broadens it a little bit. It broadens it but in a sense it brings it more precise. It's a game to present people who may have the concept that there is such a thing as "normal" and unsettle it a little bit. I can see that my interest is crucially, really, always with identity, generally. And specifically, because I do have to consider motivation: How is it possible to be a woman, a kind of emerged woman? And if you say that, then, you can put Margaret Hall next door to Eve in Female Perversions or you can put her next door to Orlando or Isabella in Edward II, and it's fine. And yet, there is a question about sexual identity, in terms of gender identity and in terms of erotic identity. But I think the lowest common denominator is just: How is it possible to make friends with all your virtual selves, which means emerging in some way, and being... powerful. I've gone all vague again. It looked precise there for a second and then it got all blurry.