The “Human Touch” actor was speaking as part of a masterclass session at the Venice Film Festival on Thursday morning, when she was asked how she felt about Berlin’s initiative — particularly relevant given Swinton’s wide-ranging roles playing non-gendered or queer characters, such as her breakout portrayal of Orlando in Sally Potter’s 1992 film, as well as non-binary The Ancient One in “Doctor Strange.”
“Humans are so interested in division and compartmentalizing ourselves. As we’re really getting to understand now, this is not the way to go — dividing people up and prescribing a path for them, whether gender or race or class,” said Swinton, who seemed somewhat exasperated to be commenting on the matter.
“It’s just such a waste of life. Life is too short for all of this. I’m really happy to hear that about Berlin and I think it’s pretty much inevitable that everybody will follow. It’s just obvious to me. The whole idea of being fixed in any way, it just makes me claustrophobic,” continued Swinton.
“It just makes me sad to call yourself definitively heterosexual, definitively homosexual, definitively male, definitively female. It makes me want to go to sleep. So bravo, Berlin.”
Swinton, who regaled the Venice audience with her thoughts on cinema, acting and collaborations with the likes of the late Derek Jarman, Luca Guadagnino and Bong Joon-ho, in the 40-minute session, also made clear her feelings about travel during the coronavirus pandemic.
“We have cinema to take us where we want to go. We can stay out of the air and go to the screen and that’s very important and we can’t get frustrated,” said Swinton.
“I’d rather someone get a box set of [David Attenborough] or [Hayao Miyazaki] and be safe and inspired and stay out of those planes. That would probably be my suggestion.”
Asked whether acting becomes more difficult as you get older, Swinton — who was using an interpreter via earpiece to understand the Italian moderator’s questions — said “in some streams, for sure, but if you’re feeling the pinch of other people’s priorities, my advice is to jump ship. Find fellow travellers with the same curiosities as you. Don’t stay where you’re feeling blocked. Move sideways, move underground.”
“I either haven’t got enough brain cells or I have too many that I simply don’t understand why age would be a cut-off point for anything. I draw a blank on the divisions of age or gender or any sense of identity,” she said.
The actor, who received the Golden Lion with a rousing speech at Wednesday’s opening ceremony, was upfront about her shyness — “Every time I go out in public is a step for me because I’m a shy person,” she admitted — and belief that every job will be her last, not because she won’t be offered another, but because she likes the sense of finality.
“Every single film I ever made, I intended to be my last film,” said Swinton. “I always had a great love of doing one appearance and then, over. My favourite performance is the donkey in ‘Au Hasard Balthazar.'”
Asked about taking on more mainstream roles over the course of her career — a term which, incidentally, she doesn’t register: “Career is not a word I recognize; I recognize a life,” she declared — Swinton said, “It never occurred to me that I started with experimental film and would one day jump ship to make mainstream films. The bigger budget projects came to me; I never went anywhere. The mountain came to Mohammed for me.”
The actor, who won an Oscar for “Michael Clayton” and also starred in “The Curious Life of Benjamin Button” and “Okja,” says she approaches “big studio films” as experiments.
“When the first studio films came to me, I noticed they were all experiments. The first one was Francis Lawrence, who asked me to be with Keanu Reeves in ‘Constantine.’ The special effects and atmosphere of the fantasy generated in the camera at the time was cutting edge. He knew it, I knew it. That was easy. Also I loved his work and loved Keanu.
“The next moment was when Andrew Adamson came to me and asked me to be in the first [Chronicles of Narnia] film. That was a huge experiment. He was an animator and he wanted to make his first live action film. The way he asked me was like a first-time filmmaker asking me to come on this adventure with him.”
The sense of experiment, said Swinton, is “almost essential.” “It’s not a question of budget or streams. That’s the thing I’m interested in.”
Swinton will appear again later on Thursday for the premiere of her short film with Pedro Almodovar, “The Human Voice,” which marks the director’s first English-language project and was filmed during the summer.