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Versatile Swinton impossible to ignore

Actress to be honored as British Artist of the Year

When BAFTA’s Britannia Awards committee got together to choose its artist of the year for 2008, Tilda Swinton’s name came up so often, “You couldn’t not give it to her,” BAFTA/LA chairman Peter Morris says.

“There’s no one more deserving,” he adds. “She’s both a chameleon and someone who makes every role memorable, whether it’s a mother who’ll do anything to protect her son in ‘The Deep End’ or the white witch in ‘Narnia,’ which my 8-year-old son can tell you about. She has a body of work behind her. Just this year alone, she’s done ‘Burn After Reading,’ ‘Julia’ and ‘The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.’ She’s striking to look at. You couldn’t miss her in a room.”

Swinton’s greatest American success to date is the icy corporate consigliore she played in 2007’s “Michael Clayton,” for which she won an Oscar for supporting actress. But the core of her roles is more often mysterious and ethereal, as though the Scottish Highlands of her birth — “‘Braveheart’-‘Brigadoon’ country,” says Morris, a fellow Scot — were more like Prospero’s Isle.

Though her patrician provenance reaches back 11 centuries, Swinton isn’t sure what to make of it. “How can a fish value the influence of the water?” she asks.

Educated at Cambridge, Swinton came to acting through performance art, rather than a conventional approach (though she did work briefly with the Royal Shakespeare Company). Her restless intelligence and supple, austere physical presence blossomed in a nine-year collaboration with the brilliant art film director, Derek Jarman (“Caravaggio,” “Edward II”), who died in 1994.

In Jarman’s “War Requiem,” the eyes of an old soldier, played by the mortally ill Laurence Olivier, are brought vividly alive by the tender ministrations of Swinton’s nurse.

“It is difficult for me to imagine that, had I not met (Jarman), I would be working in film at all,” Swinton wrote in an email from a remote island in the Hebrides. “I don’t know how I could have found a place to make up what I needed to make up for myself. … From him I also learned a habit of work as a joyful, communicative thing.”

Swinton’s unpretentious side brushes off heavy questions about the lure of acting with the rejoinder, “I like to dress up and play.” When pressed, however, she adds, “Maybe the fact that it is impossible, ever, to know the complex inner workings of another person’s life has always fascinated me and drawn me into film, where the idea of being able to witness and scrutinize the ‘unwatched’ is paramount magic.”

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