Many actors profess to be surprised when they win an Academy Award; few look as sincerely stunned as Tilda Swinton did when she was named Best Supporting Actress in the 2007 ceremony, for her expertly frosted turn as a corrupt corporate lawyer in “Michael Clayton.” Her shock, one suspects, had less to do with how favored she was or wasn’t by the bookies than her bewilderment at being in the hunt for Hollywood gold in the first place: Little about the way the iconoclastic British star forges and curates her unusual career has courted the awards and embrace of the mainstream, yet they’ve found her anyway.
The Oscars certainly seemed a world away when the 25-year-old Swinton — who caught the acting bug while studying politics at Cambridge, and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company after graduating — began her film career with Derek Jarman, Britain’s pioneering godfather of New Queer Cinema. Playing the artist’s muse in Jarman’s offbeat 1986 biopic “Caravaggio,” she subsequently filled that role off-screen to the filmmaker himself, collaborating with him on seven further projects before his death in 1994. In 1987’s “The Last of England,” she appeared as a skewed reflection of her own former school friend Princess Diana, violently anguished, wedding-gowned and hounded by photographers; in 1991’s “Edward II,” her coolly voracious turn as the love- and power-hungry Queen Isabella earned her Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival.
But it was director Sally Potter, the next year, who would give Swinton her signature role, as the ageless, sex-switching title character in an inspired adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s “Orlando.” Consolidating her work with Jarman, it sealed the young actress’s reputation as cinema’s most fluid and exploratory emblem of alternative sexuality and gender identity, further fostered through such projects as the erotic psychodrama “Female Perversions” and feminist cyborg fantasy “Teknolust.”
It was Danny Boyle’s “The Beach,” in 2000, that first proved Swinton’s otherworldly persona had its place in the multiplex: As an unnerving cult leader, she was the most galvanizing element of a troubled, wayward adaptation. A year later, a Golden Globe nomination for her role as a desperately protective mother in the indie thriller “The Deep End” sealed her American arrival. Complete commercial anointment would come in 2005, with dual blockbuster roles in “Constantine” and “The Chronicle of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe”; for a generation of millennial children, one of the industry’s most chameleonic actors will forever be known as the imperious White Witch.
Mainstream acceptance has never dulled Swinton’s more avant-garde impulses, however. Between such slick Hollywood outings as “Trainwreck,” “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” and the “Narnia” franchise, her most exciting work has been in foreign and arthouse realms, whether as an alcoholic implicated in a labyrinthine underworld scheme in Erick Zonca’s “Julia,” a reluctant mother devastated by her bad-seed son in Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” or her Italian-speaking turn as an upper-crust femme infidele in “I Am Love.” The latter’s director, Luca Guadagnino, has become a loyal latter-day collaborator, along with such major auteurs as Jim Jarmusch, Wes Anderson and the Coen brothers.
Recently, even the all-consuming Marvel Comics monolith has called on Swinton’s services. Her casting as the Ancient One, an androgynous mystic, in “Doctor Strange” may have prompted an industry whitewashing controversy, but her strange, droll performance, cleverly drawing on her “Orlando”-era otherness in a glittering mega-budget context, was singular enough for the actress herself to emerge unscathed.
That appears to be the secret of Swinton’s success, as her Hollywood exploits have fueled and funded her experimentalism — not in just cinema, but a range of artistic endeavors running from music to performance art to ruggedly independent festival programming in the Scottish Highlands. If, over 30-plus years, this fiercely inventive and adaptable performer has never sold out, it’s because we can’t ever pin down exactly what she’s selling.