Tilda Swinton Talks ‘Doctor Strange,’ Working With Netflix and the Magic of Film Festivals

Photographs by James Wright

Tilda Swinton is sitting cross-legged on a couch in her Highlands home, wearing heavy black specs and an army green Nine Inch Nails T-shirt, surrounded by her trio of spaniels.

The Oscar-winning actor recently returned to her native Scotland after working “almost nonstop” for the past 18 months, at the same time the entertainment business was largely shut down by the coronavirus pandemic.

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James Wright for Variety

An Instagram post of Swinton brandishing an appropriately funky face shield with Pedro Almodóvar on the sanguine Madrid set of “The Human Voice” became a viral sensation last summer. In the fall, after accepting the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Film Festival, she, alongside her dog Louie, starred in a Wales-set film called “The Eternal Daughter” directed by her oldest friend, “The Souvenir” helmer Joanna Hogg. This year, she celebrated Mardi Gras in Sydney with “Luther” star Idris Elba on her first trip to Australia for George Miller’s “Three Thousand Years of Longing.” The two actors spent the first quarter of 2021 in Australia, where she and Elba quarantined for three weeks in a high-rise Sydney hotel, only to “emerge out of a long [elevator] ride into 2019,” as Swinton puts it.

Soon, Swinton will head to the Cannes Film Festival, where she appears in five movies, including Neon’s Colombia-set drama “Memoria” and Searchlight’s “The French Dispatch,” reuniting her with director Wes Anderson.

Swinton has had a front-row seat to an industry in flux, heaving against tectonic changes in exhibition and distribution, while grappling with urgent calls for representation on- and off-screen. In recent years, she faced her own diversity-related crisis, receiving major backlash over her casting as the Ancient One in Marvel’s 2016 film “Doctor Strange” — a role portrayed in the graphic novels by an elderly Tibetan man but written for a woman in the movie.

Looking back, Swinton characterizes the controversy as a “hot, sticky, gnarly moment” that was uncomfortable but necessary for the industry to move forward.

Does she recognize signs of substantial change in Hollywood? “Ask me that in 100 years,” Swinton smirks during a wide-ranging 90-minute Zoom interview. At 60, she exudes a sense of immortality befitting her iconic roles as Sally Potter’s ageless, gender-fluid nobleman Orlando and glam-rock vampire Eve in Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive.” All of which is to say: She may still be around to answer the question.

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James Wright for Variety

Thirty years into her on-screen career, Swinton’s propensity for taking on daring roles is so intrinsic to her cachet as an actor that audiences have come to expect the unpredictable — and unrecognizable — whether it’s the ghoulish Minister Mason in Bong Joon Ho’s “Snowpiercer” or the liver-spotted socialite Madam D. in Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” There’s no shortage of irony that her performance as unraveling lawyer Karen Crowder in the 2007 drama “Michael Clayton” was one of her most conservative roles to date. And yet it is her character’s wordless collapse on a convention hall floor in the closing scenes that stands as the movie’s enduring and most haunting image.

Though she won a supporting actress Oscar for her role as Crowder, Swinton rejects the label of “actor,” never mind “actress.” A more fitting descriptor, she offers, is the German “Mitarbeiter,” which means “colleague,” who fits within a collective or, as she puts it, a “kindergarten” where people come to learn. She likens her work with former mentor, late British director Derek Jarman — her collaborator on several films, including “Caravaggio” — to a “sort of lab.”

Hogg remembers feeling “a deep sense of recognition when I first saw Tilda in Derek Jarman’s segment of [opera-based anthology] ‘Aria.’ It was at the metro in Piccadilly, and here was my dear friend up on a 40-foot screen looking so happy and free. I found it incredibly emotional.”

Thai auteur Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul, who won the 2010 Palme d’Or for “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” says of Swinton: “She considers herself one of the workers in the film who shares responsibilities. She is there not only for the narrative but for the synchrony of everything that contributes to what’s in the frame. So in a sense, she’s a filmmaker as I am and as others are.”

Swinton has, in fact, worked behind the lens on a handful of documentary projects, including “The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger,” but she doesn’t plan to direct anything on a wider scale just yet. A mystery-writing project has been underway for some time with a director still pending. “One part of me is trying to encourage me to do it myself,” she admits. (Hogg, who has known Swinton since they were 10 and directed her and her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne in both installments of “The Souvenir,” says, “Tilda’s writing at school was so beautiful, I thought she’d be a poet, and in many ways that is what she has become.”)

Weerasethakul first encountered Swinton when she cited his 2004 film “Tropical Malady” in an essay. They became pen pals, and in 2012 curated Thai film festival Film on the Rocks Yao Noi. Their first project together, “Memoria,” in which Swinton plays an orchid farmer who begins to hear mysterious noises while visiting her ill sister in Bogotá, will compete in Cannes’ Official Selection this year.

“I love cooking things up with people, and the way one dares oneself with people you really trust,” says Swinton. “What I love most about it, and the most important element, is the ongoing conversation. The films themselves are leaves that fall off the tree — but the tree is the conversation.”

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James Wright for Variety

Swinton doesn’t join a production; she joins a family. There’s a casualness to her that still maintains a serious commitment to the art, notes Weerasethakul.

“She suggested we have parties to celebrate certain milestones, such as moving to a new location or finishing 100 rolls of film,” remarks the 50-year-old director. “She made drinks, soup, went around serving everybody, danced — these activities are as important as making the film itself.”

Anderson, who met Swinton at the 1994 Sundance Film Festival — he with the black-and-white short film “Bottle Rocket” and she with “Orlando” — similarly points out that Swinton, on set, isn’t “only play- ing her part, but she’s a collaborator in the whole project.”

“That’s sort of a rare thing,” he observes. “She’s not just thinking about what she’s got to do. She’s also there to enjoy the whole experience.”

There is, perhaps, no greater party than a Wes Anderson film. “The people he invites are so spectacular,” she enthuses. “It’s not always a great thing that people look like they’re having quite as much fun as we are. One should maybe try and tone it down a little.”

“The French Dispatch” marks the actor’s fourth outing with Anderson, following roles in “Moonrise Kingdom,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and “Isle of Dogs.” She will also star in the American director’s next film, an as-yet-untitled movie set in Spain that will begin production in September.

Anderson says he wrote the role of art critic J.K.L. Berensen specifically for her, and the pair discussed the part years before the movie actually happened. “She instantly knew this is more or less a part only she could play, and had to be for her,” he adds.

Swinton describes “The French Dispatch” as a “love letter to American internationalism” and journalists like James Thurber, Rosamond Bernier and James Baldwin. “I was hanging out with the Fonz!” she says of Henry Winkler, who plays one-half of the “Uncles” in the movie, alongside Anderson regular Bob Balaban. “They were there in their homburg hats every day, and we just sat at their knee and had such fun. There is always a surprise [in Anderson’s films].”

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Born Katherine Matilda Swinton into Scottish nobility (her father was a major general in the queen’s Household Division, which guards the monarch and palaces) with a lineage dating back to the ninth century, she studied social and political sciences and English literature at Cambridge University, and joined the Communist Party. After graduation, she endured a grueling year at the Royal Shakespeare Company that shifted her allegiance from theater to cinema. There, she found Jarman, a gay director who would collaborate with Swinton on eight projects until his death in 1994.

Certainly, the “presiding principle” that spans Swinton’s acting credits may be “people first.” But the unwavering impetus is always the big screen. It’s why Swinton hasn’t yet dipped her toe in the premium television projects that other actors of her generation, like Kate Winslet, Angela Bassett and Cate Blanchett, dabble in. It has been more than 30 years since her last regular TV foray, with the comedy-drama series “Your Cheatin’ Heart” (1990) for U.K. broadcaster BBC, directed by her former partner and the father of her twins, John Byrne.

“I’m a cine-nerd,” Swinton shrugs. “I’m really, really, really devoted to the cinema, and this is another thing that makes me so happy about the prospect of Cannes. These films that I’m privileged enough to be taking are cinema films — they were not made for television.”

There was one Cannes outing, however, that wasn’t destined for the big screen. Bong’s “Okja” for Netflix, which Swinton starred in and co-produced, was one of two projects the streaming giant brought to the Croisette in 2017 (Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories” was the other) in its first and last turn in Cannes. The festival then famously changed its rules following a powerful outcry by French exhibitors demanding that competition films play in local theaters before streaming.

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James Wright for Variety

Swinton stands by the SVOD company. “Netflix was the only studio that gave Bong Joon Ho and us the capacity to do what we needed to do for that film,” she says. “All the other studios turned it down, so we were very grateful to Netflix for giving us that absolute welcome and carte blanche to do all the extraordinary things Bong wanted to do.” As the theatrical disruption rages on, with studios increasingly hammering out shortened cinema runs with major exhibitors, people are forgetting, says Swinton, that movies last forever. “It’s not like something going down a drain, and the screens get smaller and smaller, and then you disappear forever. We’re just in a sort of flux at the moment, and it’s all transitioning. The pandemic came along, and our relationship with live cinema shifted — we got a little screwed. But we’re not settled yet.” Would she work with the streamers again? “I’m devoted to the big screen,” she underlines after a beat. “And to be honest, the more it’s under scrutiny, or I feel that it’s not being valued highly enough, the more devoted I am to it. So I wouldn’t hold [your] breath.” What we really need, Swinton muses, is for streamers “like Netflix, who tell us avowedly that they are dedicated to big-screen cinema and filmmakers, to put some of that incredible wealth into building, developing and resuscitating great cinemas in every city on the planet that they rule.”

Swinton has put her money where her mouth is. Working with Scottish-Irish director Mark Cousins, best known for sprawling documentary efforts such as the 15-hour “The Story of Film: An Odyssey,” the pair took over a “smelly bingo hall” in her village of Nairn, in northern Scotland, and transformed it into a cinema space that hosted their festival, the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams.

“We talked about intermingling a cinema with a children’s party and a mosh pit and installation art,” says Cousins of the venture, where festival-goers watched movies such as “Singin’ in the Rain,” “All About Eve” and “Peter Ibbetson” on bean bags, snacking on baked goods.

Cousins, whose documentary on storied director-producer Jeremy Thomas, which features Swinton, will screen in Cannes, also recalls a trip to China in which they took over a small cinema at Beijing’s China Film Archives and turned it into the Scottish Cinema of Dreams.

“One day, we had a pillow fight, and the pillows burst, and the feathers were fluttering through the forest — it looked like it was snowing,” says Cousins. “It was all about innovation. Film festivals should be reminding us of the dreamlike nature of the movies. They can be industry and business, but it should certainly feel magical and a place where no passport is required.”

The key word with Swinton, opines Cousins, is “transgression.” “She doesn’t like boundaries — gender or genre boundaries — because deep down, Tilda knows that when you’re trying to be creative, boundaries are the enemy and you have to jump them like you jump a fence. And when you do jump them, and you’re somewhere you’re not allowed, Tilda talks about the obligation to go there, and that’s the transgressive way.”

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There are some boundaries, however, that are increasingly difficult to justify breaking. Swinton’s turn as the Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” was one of them. Hiring Swinton, who shaved her head for the part, over an actor of Asian descent was considered a missed opportunity for representative casting.

At the time, Marvel Studios released a statement noting that “the Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character along- side our richly diverse cast.”

However, in May, Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige suggested to Men’s Health magazine that he regretted the choice, telling the outlet that the controversy was a “wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”

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James Wright for Variety

Swinton hadn’t been aware of Feige’s comments, but says she is “very, very grateful that he said that.”
“I remember at the time having a question mark in my own mind, and being attendant to the public response to the idea that a Scottish woman will be playing this character, and being aware that there was no resistance at all — there was widespread welcome — which shifted at a certain point, for very good reasons with which I had an enormous amount of sympathy.”

A “conscious” wave of criticism grew “righteously,” describes Swinton, who relishes bringing the conversation back to the unique relationship between audiences and the cinema. “The audience feels ever more empowered to contribute to the narrative and to feel heard within the narrative, and that’s a really healthy social development.”

Swinton, however, became further entangled in the narrative after reaching out privately to comedian Margaret Cho, who is of Korean descent, to gain some understanding around the casting debate. Cho, who had never met Swinton, was offended by the ask and, during a 2016 guest appearance on the “TigerBelly” podcast, told host Bobby Lee that Swinton “wanted to get my take on why all the Asian people were so mad…and it was so weird.”

In response, Swinton released their full email exchange to the website Jezebel, which depicted what appeared to be an affable conversation between the two. Cho explained that Asian and Asian American stories “are told by white actors over and over again and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it,” while Swinton confessed that “diversity is pretty much my comfort zone” and the “idea of being caught on the wrong side of this debate is a bit of a nightmare to me.”

Cho later said, however, that the interaction made her feel like a “house Asian” because she had been asked to explain “whitewashing” on behalf of all Asian Americans to someone she had never met — a request that, however well-intentioned, highlighted Swinton’s white privilege and fragility.

Reflecting on the exchange, Swinton says, “I made a questionable decision to reach out to somebody in a certain way, which was naive and clearly confusing, because their misunderstanding came about because of it.

“I was embarrassed that I had maybe gone up a blind alley in starting the correspondence in the first place — maybe I had confused matters — but beyond that, I have zero regrets.”

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James Wright for Variety

Nonetheless, it was a “hot moment,” she admits. And for some, those moments are hotter than others. “But the way in which people get listened to is by speaking up and getting hot. And sometimes, it needs to get messy.”

The past five years have exposed deep fractures within Hollywood, with movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter helping to uncover systemic discrimination and abuse toward women and people of color. The prestige once afforded to creatives with serious moral issues but still celebrated in the industry — like directors Woody Allen and Roman Polanski — has been steadily eroded, with social media turbocharging the conversation, for better or worse.

Swinton, who in 2009 joined a tranche of major U.S. and European producers, directors and actors in signing a petition condemning the arrest of Polanski at a Swiss film festival, says the document — signed by Anderson, Martin Scorsese and Wong Kar-Wai, as well as Allen — was “very specific” and suggests that its intentions have been twisted over time.

The petition highlighted that the director’s arrest in a neutral country “opens the way for actions of which no one can know the effects,” and that the signatories wanted Polanski “to know that he has their support and friendship.” Swinton insists, however, that the petition was only in support of film festivals remaining as “safe spaces for cultural work to be experienced by audiences internationally.”

“I remember Wes [Anderson] and I talking about it, and we were confused at a certain point because there was an assumption made about something we felt was inaccurate,” she says. “But you know what? It’s all fine.”

Swinton seems skeptical about sustainable change in the industry happening too quickly. It’s a “long, long, long road,” she says. “There are big shiny claims made and big public shows made, and everybody claps, and it all looks great. And that is not what we’re talking about,” says Swinton. “We’re talking about institutionalized, endemic fairness across the board. Ask me that in 100 years.”

While a wise absence from social media prevents her from witnessing so-called cancel culture, Swinton says she is disappointed that “there seems to be a lack of faith in debate — the capacity to say, ‘Oh, interesting that you think that, because I think something different.’”

It has to be possible to affect each other, Swinton posits, “and to just have a sense of trust that maybe you don’t know best, and maybe somebody else might be able to help you out with your understanding in something.”

As Cousins puts it, Swinton isn’t scared by “the need to look at sin, and people who are doing wrong things.”

“The thing about unpacking sin and owning sin in an era where we as a society are rightly calling out racism, misogyny and transphobia is that it’s a very good conversation to have,” says Cousins. “Call it out — but own it. We humans have a danger and darkness to us.”

Swinton, unlike most, isn’t afraid to step into the darkness, and report back.

Styling: Jerry Stafford/CLM; Makeup: James O’Riley/Premier Hair & Makeup; Hair:  Declan Sheils/Premier Hair & Makeup; Look 1 (white suit): Suit: Schiaparelli; Look 2 (flower-print dressing down): Dressing gown : Haider Ackermann; Look 3: White oxford and black pants: Shirt, pants and shoes : Chanel;