People In Film | Tilda Swinton

Tilda Swinton | Force Majeure

With those strikingly angular features that veer between the ethereal and the ferocious, Tilda Swinton is the kind of woman you simply cannot take your eyes off. It’s a commanding presence that filmmaker Wes Anderson took full advantage of when casting the Oscar-winning British actress for his latest wry comedy, MOONRISE KINGDOM. Swinton’s character in this 1960s-set film goes simply by the name of Social Services. She’s described in the screenplay as “a fifty-year-old woman in a blue and white uniform pants-suit with a Salvation Army officer-style hat and a red ribbon tied in a bow around her neck.” And it is in such a spiffy costume that a flame-haired Swinton gets to chew out both out the local sheriff (played by Bruce Willis) and the Khaki Scout troop leader (Edward Norton) after a child she placed into their care is struck by lightening. “You two are the most appallingly incompetent custodial guardians Social Services has ever had the misfortune to encounter in a twenty-seven-year career. What do you have to say for yourselves?” demands Swinton’s character in a rapid-fire reprimand that accepts no prisoners. A day after completing shooting, Swinton spoke to The Playlist of her relish in playing such a role last yearl –– and the joy of working for her first time with Anderson. “The film is about a community of adults who don’t really know what they’re doing, and I play one of them. She’s the point of authority, she’s social services, and she’s brought in as a sort of last resort, force majeure. And she has a head to head with Bruce Willis, which you can imagine is quite fun.” She adds, “MOONRISE KINGDOM is the most recent party that I accepted to go and enjoy, and that was really great fun. It was Fran McDormand, and Edward Norton, and Bill Murray, and Harvey Keitel, and it was laugh-a-minute. For us anyway. Who knows what’ll happen in the cinema?”

Tilda Swinton | Androgynous Icon

Tilda Swinton in Orlando

Earlier this year, Tilda Swinton found herself named alongside a global who’s who of political leaders, business tycoons, sports stars and assorted celebrities on Time magazine’s list of the 100 Most Influential People. Writing the accompanying tribute, filmmaker Sally Potter dwelled on Swinton’s “luminous, naked face” and suggested that her magic lays in her ability to conjure up the quiet magnitude of human experiences. “In an agile, complex cinematic trajectory from Caravaggio and Michael Clayton to We Need to Talk About Kevin she gives us unlimited space as viewers to gaze and wonder, to think and be moved,” noted Potter. It was Potter’s 1993 acclaimed screen adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando that first drew worldwide attention to Swinton. Spanning 400 years, the film is a gender-bending epic that revolves around Swinton as she switches sexual identities throughout history. The deliberate androgyny is one that Swinton –– who professes to idolize David Bowie –– delights in cultivating to this day, parading on red carpets in either sweeping gowns or severe men’s suits. “I would rather be handsome for an hour than pretty for a week,” she told W Magazine last year. But otherworldly though she might appear, Swinton could not have come from more traditional stock. The daughter of Major-General Sir John Swinton, she hails from an ancient Anglo-Scots family that traces its lineage to the 9th century. Growing up in the privileged world of the landed class, she was a contemporary of the future Princess Diana at her girls’ boarding school and went on to study English lit at Cambridge. Even her acting start could hardly have been more mainstream –– the Royal Shakespeare Company –– although she was soon rejecting that in favor of the avant-garde fringes where she truly found her identity as someone her father calls “contrary.”

Tilda Swinton | "My Mother-lode Trilogy"

Caravaggio (1986); I Am Love (2009)

Swinton is, by inclination, a collaborator. “She likes nothing better than to be shoulder on shoulder with her companions on the long perilous haul known as movie development,” says film director Sally Potter in Time. “This greatly endears her to all who work with her.” Swinton’s habit of colluding with directors was born of her work with Derek Jarman, the radical British filmmaker who directed a young Swinton in seven pioneering films from her 1986 screen debut in the anachronistic period piece Caravaggio to the truly monochromatic Blue in 1993, just before he died. “Everyone who worked with Jarman worked behind the camera,” Swinton told Paste Magazine. “It was so clear there was nowhere else I could have gone to have that kind of experimental license to play. And so to a certain extent, I’ve never done anything else.” Her collaborative spirit inhabits three acclaimed recent films, all of which detail the complications of motherhood – a troika that she has laughingly dubbed “my Mother-Lode Trilogy.” In Erick Zonca’s Julia, she plays an alcoholic who kidnaps a young boy; in Luca Guadagnino’s I Am Love, an upper crust Milanese housewife whose affair destroys her family; and in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin, her character struggles to comes to terms with her son and the murders he’s committed. Given the repressed emotions seething beneath all these three roles, it comes as a surprise to learn that among the projects that Swinton is planning with her I Am Love director Luca Guadagnino is a remake of the classic Auntie Mame, in which she plans to the play the flamboyant free spirit popularized by Rosalind Russell, Angela Lansbury and Lucille Ball. Then again this is the same actress who thinks nothing of hauling a movie projector around the Scottish countryside, creating a makeshift, mobile film festival for the benefit of an audience camped out on bean bags. Behind those piercing emerald eyes of Swinton’s, there’s clearly a bon vivant itching to come out.

Tilda Swinton | Industrial Spy

Tilda Swinton in Michael Clayton and BURN AFTER READING

Once she began drawing raves for her first American role, as a desperate mother in Scott McGehee and David Siegel’s modern noir The Deep End, it was only a matter of time before Hollywood came calling. Sure enough, like so many of her British peers, she even made the grade as a Hollywood villain, depicting Narnia’s White Witch in all her gleeful spite as part of Disney’s 2005 $180m adaptation of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe. And yet, compared to the challenging European art films that Swinton spends years gestating, even the most ambitious U.S. studio films serve simply as quick, escapist diversions for her. “A Hollywood movie like Michael Clayton is a holiday for me,” Swinton told W Magazine, even though she nonetheless won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for her riveting portrayal of a highly-strung lawyer opposite George Clooney in that film. It’s unlikely Swinton will ever go completely Hollywood, far less choose to live in L.A. over the Scottish highlands she calls home. Swinton actually gave away her Oscar to her agent and despite having appeared alongside the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio (The Beach), Tom Cruise (Vanilla Sky) and Brad Pitt (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and BURN AFTER READING), she talks constantly of feeling like an outsider spying in on what she dubs “Industrial” filmmaking. “When I visit Hollywood, I come in and out like a tourist, and I am really happy to be a tourist,” she told The New York Times. It’s a disconnect that Spike Jonze even played off against in Adaptation, casting her as, of all things, a fawning Hollywood studio executive. “Yes, it's a bit of an in-joke” she told the BBC. “I've been on the other side of the table many times, trying to get people to be sympathetic to projects, and I've been the victim of that kind of intense kindness masking extreme stupidity. So I feel I know the territory. It may be unfair of me but I do feel I know it.”

Tilda Swinton | Forever Experimental

Tilda Swinton in 2009's THE LIMITS OF CONTROL

From her heyday with Derek Jarman to her films with American auteur Jim Jarmusch (like BROKEN FLOWERS and THE LIMITS OF CONTROL), to even her most big-budget work, Swinton demonstrates a penchant for working with cutting-edge filmmakers. Despite appearances, Hollywood maybe not quite so alien after all to her. “I’ve only made about five or six true studio films, and to me all of them have been with experimental filmmakers,” Swinton told The New York Times. “It may be that David Fincher has $200 million or whatever to make a movie, but like the other directors I’ve worked with he is always messing with the form and still working in a way that felt familiar to me. Or when I was working on Constantine, and there was all this tech geek stuff going on, it felt a lot like back when I was doing a Pet Shop Boys video with Derek Jarman, shooting it against a blue screen.”

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Moonrise Kingdom Character Poster: Social Services

This is Social Services. Custodial Guardian, Juvenile Refuge, 27 years. Nothing else is in your power.

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