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Tilda Swinton at SXSW: ‘I Don’t Have a Career, I Have a Life’

With two movies at the festival, the enigmatic actress sidesteps the standard interview questions

Tilda Swinton SXSW
Gary Miller/FilmMagic

AUSTIN – “Please go away,” Tilda Swinton says to a publicist 16 minutes into our interview. We are speaking about Scotland, where she resides, and how she sorts out what roles she’d like to play. The 53-year-old actress is firm and honest and returns to me without missing a beat, eye contact intact.

Sipping tea with honey, Swinton has both “Only Lovers Left Alive,” the Jim Jarmusch-directed drama in which she stars as a vampire in love opposite Tom Hiddleston, and Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” in which she plays Madame D., one of Ralph Fiennes’ many older lovers (made up to look like an elderly woman).

On her first trip to SXSW, Swinton was a featured speaker and sat down the morning after her conversation to speak with Variety.

Variety: Do you divide the arts into film and painting or is it all one thing?

Tilda Swinton: There really isn’t more than one thing. I’m always finding myself in the arts, however I do find myself apologizing for not being a proper actor. It’s strange, I apologize for not feeling like a professional, even though I’ve done many films over the past 30 years. I never intended to be involved in the film industry and still do feel that, with the exception of a couple of brief skirmishes with the film industry.

And those were?

There were two skirmishes and they are probably what people know me best for. It’s a moment in a Disney film and a moment in a film which received many prizes that are more famous than the film. There’s a distortion in the perception that I was heading that way. I was blown off course with both of those — well, not blown off course — they were detours for me, and they are not where I live.

Which is?

In the Highlands of Scotland. The things I’m doing, the shapes I’m making, are personal. I very often never tell things to anyone, but my decisions are linked in stories of my own; I’m following my own Morse code.

What was your way into Hollywood?

(Director) Derek Jarman was a painter and at some point I was totting up and noticing something, like a moment when I worked with 10 filmmakers and eight of them were painters first. That feeling of my first relationship with film was coming from the visual realm and that’s where I bounce back to, where the elasticity pulls me back to.

You said you see film as art. What’s the difference between films and movies?

It’s style and beauty. We all split the hairs of film and movies, and sometimes, for pejorative reasons, we go and see a movie or when we are sick of movies and we want to go and see a film. Maybe we think of movies as being story-led or drama-led?

What do you mean?

I’m thinking of this moment when I was privileged to know Michael Powell at the end of his life. I had just come in on a plane to New York and he said, “What was the movie you saw on the plane and was it good?” and I said, “No it wasn’t, it was ‘Batman.’” And he said, and this was one of the only times anyone said this: “You’re wrong, it’s a good film. It’s a good film; any film that sets out to create its own world is a good film.” And I remember swallowing that and letting it digest for years. I think it doesn’t mean to say I want to be in that world or that it’s well realized, but that gesture of making a world unique to that film or filmmaker gets you to the next level. Maybe movies don’t do that.

In your conversation you also spoke about making your own culture. Walk me through that.

This might have something to do with where I come from because I think I am following my own nose much more closely than that. I’m not strategizing. Films take such a long time to make, so if I’m saying now that I must play a brain surgeon and I start the project now, if it happens in five years and then shoot it, I’m going to have to talk about it another two years. I’m way too lazy for that. I just look at my curiosities at the moment.

What roles do you seek out? Do you have anyone you haven’t played that you’d like to?

It’s funny because my presiding principle is twofold. I want to be making work with my friends so when Wes Anderson sends me an email and says come and do this, I never say no to him. I just so happened to play this 83-year-old, who’s probably actually 95. She’s a countess, and it was strange because I was with my mother, who was dying at the time. But it just felt really serendipitous to have this opportunity to do that. So my life is a weird combination of my friends throwing me opportunities, and me dreaming opportunities up. Then when something dovetails like this movie, when I was already thinking about mortality, a particular predilection of mine, it was very intimately sewn up with my own life. So the short answer is I don’t have a career, I have a life. I follow my life and the way I’m living it so no, I don’t have an exterior judgment on what would be good or bad for me.