From the characters Tilda Swinton has played on the big screen, you might assume she has a serious personality. The thing is, you’d be wrong.
In person, she is gracious, has a wonderful sense of humour and a suprisingly huge laugh – the kind that gets everyone else laughing just as boisterously. We witness/participate in this at a press event with Swinton in Hong Kong where she is promoting Marvel’s Doctor Strange alongside main star Benedict Cumberbatch, director Scott Derrickson and Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige.
In the film, Swinton plays the powerful master of the Mystic Arts known as The Ancient One who imparts her practices and knowledge to neurosurgeon Dr Stephen Strange, who seeks her out in a bid to heal his damaged hands.
The comic version of The Ancient One is a bald, white-bearded Asian man. However, Derrickson felt it was just bad stereotype to have an old Asian man teach “the white hero” – up on the hill, no less – mystical ways.
To avoid going over familiar ground, Derrickson came up with the idea of having a woman as The Ancient One. Without asking Swinton or anyone, really, he wrote the role with her in mind.
“I have never written a role and imagined an actor; I try not to do that,” Derrickson shares. “But I started to think about Tilda, and all her films were swirling around my subconcious because I have seen all of them. When I imagined her, (the character) suddenly came to life and in all kinds of interesting ways. When I finished the new draft, I brought it to Kevin (Feige) and said ‘The Ancient One has to be Tilda Swinton. If it’s not her, we have to rewrite it. So I hope she likes it.’ ”
Luckily, Swinton did. However, she adds: “Now I wish I asked for more money” before promptly breaking into that abovementioned infectious laugh.
Feige agrees that having Swinton play The Ancient One – who has lived hundreds and hundreds of years – is just great casting. He says: “Tilda is very ethereal, and may know magic herself in real life.”
Up close, Swinton does look ethereal; the mother to a pair of 19-year-old twins celebrated her 56th birthday on Nov 5, but she looks way younger. Perhaps it’s due to her lean and tall frame (she stands at 1.8m), that androgynous style, the piercing blue eyes and pale skin, her good posture and beautiful voice, or even her impressive Anglo-Scots lineage that apparently can be traced back to the Middle Ages. A number of things, actually. Whatever it is, from early on, directors have identified that quality and cast Swinton as otherwordly characters.
In 1992, she took on the titular role in Orlando, which tells of a nobleman who experiences life as both male and female over 400 years. In the other comic-book adaptation Swinton was in, Constantine (2005), she plays archangel Gabriel. Four years ago, Jim Jarmusch cast her as a thousand-year-old vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive.
“I think they are related,” says Swinton of these characters. “I like the relatability of these particular portraits. And yeah, they’ll all meet one day. I should pitch this to Kevin over dinner. I am going to pitch it.”
In a career that started three decades ago, Swinton has built a resume of memorable characters. She has played Mozart in the 1989 stage production of Mozart & Salieri; given an Oscar-winning performance as ruthless lawyer Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton (2007); the distraught mother to a teen murderer in We Need To Talk About Kevin (2011); and the outrageous Minister Mason in Snowpiercer. Swinton has no problem making herself look older (she is the 84-year-old Madame D in The Grand Budapest Hotel), looking perfectly at home as a tanned editor with wavy tresses (Trainwreck) and becoming the cruel White Witch Jadis in The Chronicles Of Narnia films.
“I suppose they will meet in another carriage,” the actress says when the list of these roles is rattled off to her.
Next up, Swinton is working once again with Snowpiercer’s Bong Joon-ho on Okja, scheduled to be out next year, and will be in the remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic horror film Suspiria directed by Luca Guadagnino and co-starring Chloe Grace Moretz and Dakota Johnson.
According to Swinton, she never chooses a role. Her starting point with any project is always the director. “I started with one filmmaker with whom I worked for nine years, Derek Jarman. I am spoiled. I know it has to be a conversation and a partnership and it has to be a family atmosphere, and I am not a proper professional.
“When Derek died, I had worked for nine years but I hadn’t developed any professional acumen. And if nobody else had come out of the woodwork and said ‘we want to work in this way’ then I wouldn’t be making films. But they did, fortunately. Including Scott.”
Derrickson says that during filming, he would notice just how much Swinton would play with the lines. “That is what good actors do, breathe life into the words on the page.”
Swinton adds: “I generally try and persuade the director to cut as many lines as possible, because I don’t remember them and partly because I tend to be more interested in how people behave.”
So, coming back to that presumption about her serious personality, what was the set of Doctor Strange like?
“Serious. Very serious,” Swinton deadpans. “No joking, no levity, no camaraderie. Quiet suffering.” And there is no giant laugh this time, just an ethereal smile.