Swinton always knows when there's going to be
trouble in the Balkans. The low-flying RAF bombers,
which often shatter the ceaseless skies above
her Highland home, begin to swarm like midges
as military action approaches.
Scottish star of Orlando and Your
Cheatin' Heart might be dropping off her
twin children, Honor and Xavier, at their Gaelic
nursery or talking with her 'sweetheart', the
artist John Byrne, when the rumble and shriek
causes her to look up and think of Bosnia.
by the coast in the village of Portmahomack,
chewing chips and sipping whisky, Swinton has
to raise her voice to be heard over the jets.
Two Thousand Acres Of Sky was never like this.
spends about half the year at her home near
Tain in Easter Ross, where she has lived since
moving from London a few years ago. The rest
of her time is taken up with filming, promotion
and going to meetings in America; she is in
Los Angeles more than Glasgow.
schizophrenic,' she says in the well-bred English
accent that belies her Scottishness. 'I'm developing
integrated schizophrenia. I do lead at least
two completely separate lives. On Friday I'm
going to New York, and I will pick up a bag
out of my little office, which I have not unpacked
since last week when I came back from Moscow.'
at a picnic table by the Dornoch Firth, she
talks about The Deep End, which will
have its UK premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival.
She plays Margaret Hall, a mother who finds
her son's gay lover dead on the shore of a nearby
lake. Assuming her son is involved, Hall disposes
of the body, only to become the victim of a
blackmailer. This is Goran Visnjic, the Croatian
actor better known as sexy Dr Luca Kovac from
ER. Not that Swinton, a woman entirely
unimpressed by getting jiggy with Leonardo DiCaprio
in The Beach, could care less.
a terrible letdown to everybody, I'm afraid,'
she smiles. 'I'm the person who never saw Titanic,
I'm the person who has never watched ER.
I'm the useless co-star of all these great heart-throbs.'
icon of the arthouse and member of the Democratic
Left, the political organisation formerly known
as the Communist Party of Great Britain, Swinton
has never had much truck with Hollywood. She
can't stand being described as an actress --
'I just want another word,' she wails -- because
the term makes her think of theatre, which she
loathes, and because she thinks it misrepresents
her work. And, since the two are inseparable,
1995, one piece of serious dabbling brought
her to national attention and an appearance
on the 10 o'clock news. Performing The Maybe,
she lay almost motionless in a glass case for
56 hours. The piece was seen by 22,000 people
in one week at the Serpentine Gallery in London.
The following year it was equally popular in
plans to revisit The Maybe, possibly taking
the piece to a site somewhere in the former
Soviet Union. It will have the added resonance
of echoing the embalmed corpse of Lenin, which
lies in state in Moscow's Red Square.
was going to make it in Moscow before, but I
became pregnant so it didn't come true,' she
explains. 'I really wanted to make it when I
was pregnant but, when I discovered I was having
twins, it was a little too dangerous. But the
idea of being pregnant was such a beautiful
thing -- all those levels of encasement. I've
been invited to make it in Japan as well. It's
a piece that I will make until I'm 100. I'll
make it until I am dead then that can be the
last stage. I can decompose.'
first began performing at Cambridge University,
where she studied Social and Political Sciences,
before graduating to theatre work, including
an unhappy stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company,
which she compares to working for ICI. In 1985,
she met the painter-turned-director Derek Jarman
and worked almost exclusively with him for nine
years on seven films including Edward II.
is often described as Jarman's muse, but rejects
the term, saying their relationship was 'familial'.
Certainly they were close, and were often mistaken
for man and wife while walking near his cottage
in Dungeness. Their bond was, she says, strengthened
by the fact that both had fathers in the armed
died of Aids-related causes in 1994. 'I am profoundly
sad,' she says. 'I lost my friend, and that
can't be good. But the saddest fact was that
of his long illness and the way in which such
a thing removes someone, incrementally, away
from the company of life, not the fact of his
eventual release from it all. God rest him.'
Jarman not died, Swinton thinks she may still
have been working with him now. She was fortunate
'to meet and fall in with the Derek Jarman laboratory'
as it was a safe environment for a young actress.
She knew that she wasn't going to be sexually
exploited. 'It was a place where my heart and
mind and sensibility and brain were required
as well as everything else.'
of the power in her looks, Swinton kept her
head down during the Eighties, 'to avoid being
utilised by other people for their own ends'.
Things are different now. She feels she has
barely started the work she hopes to achieve
in life, and is keen to get on. 'I had my foot
on the brake for most of my 20s and most of
my 30s as well,' she explains. 'The brake's
off now, that's all I can say. I'm safe to come
is working and travelling more now than she
has for years. Since becoming a mother, she
has somehow managed to find the time, energy
and will to make films which should definitely
see her broadening her audience. As well as
The Deep End, she has parts in Cameron
Crowe's forthcoming Vanilla Sky and Spike
Jonze's Adaptation. Shooting begins in
Glasgow this month on Young Adam, a film
of the novel by Scottish beat writer Alexander
Trocchi, in which she will star with Ewan McGregor.
Swinton used to get obsessively involved in
the creation of her films. She would regularly
work on scripts and help raise funding, even
putting in her own money. But the greater investment
was one of time -- she spent five years developing
Orlando with Sally Potter.
often now, she receives the finished script,
flies to some exotic location, delivers her
lines and returns home with a cheque. She has
even become slightly more relaxed about what
to call this kind of work. 'If you ask me if
I am an actress,' she grins, 'I would say, 'Yeah,
The Swintons, A Daughter
1960, Sir John Swinton, a Major-General in the
Scots Guards, was posted in London. On November
5, his wife gave birth to a daughter, Matilda.
The timing could not be more appropriate. A
date synonymous with political assassination,
at the start of a decade synonymous with youthful
rebellion? Anyone coming into the world on such
a day would surely be destined to grow up with
little respect for the values of the establishment.
And so it proved with Tilda Swinton.
comes from what she rather distastefully refers
to as the 'owning-classes'. The Swintons have
lived in the same place in Berwickshire since
876, and Tilda grew up in the large house recognising
her own face in the portraits of ancesters that
lined the walls. By email, tapping out a response
at 32,000 feet en route to New York, she describes
what she was like in her formative years. 'As
a child -- blithe. As a teenager -- silent.
And watchful, maybe. A natural punk, had I but
known it. When I later discovered that punk
existed outside of me, it was profound recognition.
And relief. And indignation that my circumstances
-- held away from so much of life in a boarding
school in Kent -- had denied me of this company
above all. I'm still lastingly indignant about
was West Heath boarding school, where Swinton
lost her Scottish accent (something she seems
to feel very sorry about) and found herself
in the same year as Diana Spencer, whom she
was in touch with until the royal wedding in
1981. 'I think I was not so much shaped as paralysed
by my seven years at boarding school,' she remembers.
'Shut down, I would say. In some kind of internal
holding pattern with my bearings lost, deadly
shy and baffled.'
West Heath in 1977, she attended Fettes College
in Edinburgh and, from there, went to Cambridge,
having made a conscious decision not to go to
drama school. At university, she became involved
in serious political theatre. She graduated
in 1983 and, following the blip of the RSC,
joined the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh. She
also joined the Communist Party.
a communist, she found her most recent trip
to Moscow, which she first visited in 1988,
very moving. And she was gratified to see the
people becoming disillusioned with capitalism.
But how does she reconcile her political beliefs
with her involvement in an industry which is
so driven by money and which tends to pay individuals
not really very involved in that industry,'
she replies. 'I've had a tangential relationship
with it, in that I did make The Beach
and I am aware that one of the people in The
Beach was paid $21 million and all sorts
of other people, like the entire Thai crew,
were paid somewhat less. But the reason Leonardo
DiCaprio gets paid 200 million, billion, squillion
is actually not for being in a film but for
opening 100 supermarkets a week and becoming
a brand name. I believe you get paid the most
for things that you really shouldn't do.'
troubles Swinton. While telling me that she
and Byrne became virtual hermits in London,
she says, 'living in the heart of Chelsea with
no money is a fairly dispiriting business',
then furiously interrupts herself, 'Well, it
shouldn't be dispiriting! It shouldn't be dispiriting
having no money! What's wrong with having no
money? You don't need money to have fun. Or
to have love.'
any case, they moved north of the border and
recently bought another house in Nairn. Neither
Byrne nor Swinton have family in that corner
of Scotland, which is partly the attraction
of living there. She can't imagine staying anywhere
but the Highlands ever again.
was very important for us to come back to Scotland,'
she says, playing with the pink flower tucked
behind her watch. 'I know I don't sound it,
but Scotland is where I'm from. This was always
home. And it was very clear to us that this
was what we wanted.' She laughs, slyly. 'Not
just for our children, although the free-range
element, the fact that our children are more
like feral animals than human at the moment
is only to the good. I mean, they're three.
There's plenty of time for them to learn to
did it change her, having children? 'Just on
a molecular level. What does it do? It just
uses you. It's such a good feeling. There's
just nothing to spare. It makes a factory out
of you. And it's very good for the love quotient
in your life.'
you see Swinton, Byrne and the children together
there is, to quote Darius from Popstars,
a lot of love in the room. They embody one of
life's simplest but most easily forgotten lessons:
do what makes you happy and you will be happy.
and Byrne met in the mid Eighties when she was
working at the Traverse. Considering her 'amazing',
he wrote the acclaimed BBC1 comedy drama Your
Cheatin' Heart for her in 1990. They would
like to work together again, but have no specific
plans. In the meantime, they are a constant
source of inspiration for each other. 'How could
it not be inspiring being around John Byrne?
Apart from the fact that he's my sweetheart,
which is an inspiring thing to be able to say,
he's quite something. He hasn't started his
work yet, either. You ain't seen nothing yet.'
Deep End is at the UGC, Edinburgh on August
16, 8.30pm and the GFT, Glasgow on August 18,