A short time ago in Los Angeles, actress Tilda Swinton had a very busy few days. She was there promoting her work in Erick Zonca‘s “Julia,” screening at AFI Fest 2008. But in the two nights preceding its screening, she continued her newfound role as a staple honoree with back-to-back fetes: a tribute at AFI, and an award of excellence at the 2008 BAFTA/LA Britannia Awards. “It’s very strange this getting awards,” Swinton said upon accepting her award from BAFTA/LA. “I have to confess until so recently that the only thing I’d ever won was a raffle when I was twelve. I got a bottle of aftershave I gave my brother for Christmas and he still has it.”
In the midst of all of this, Swinton found the time to sit down with indieWIRE poolside at the Avalon Hotel in Beverly Hills.
“I’m very jetlegged and I’ve got a kind of throat infection but apart from that, I’m doing good,” Swinton said about her hectic Los Angeles itinerary. “I mean, I enjoy it fine because if you think about what I’m doing here, I’m doing things that I have some real connection to. I’m only too happy to come and present ‘Julia.’ I’m really proud of that film. I’d go anywhere to talk about it or screen it. Having to stand up and accept an award is a challenge. I have to say, it’s not my favorite thing in the world but otherwise going around for the work is good. I had a possibility to present ‘Julia’ so they kind of got me on that.”
In “Julia,” Swinton plays the title character, an alcoholic who tries to extort money by kidnapping a young boy. The film made its world premiere earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival, and is just one of many films in a busy year following Swinton’s Academy Award win for “Michael Clayton.” A few months ago saw the debut of her work in Joel and Ethan Coen‘s “Burn After Reading,” and next month sees the release of David Fincher‘s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” in which Swinton co-stars opposite Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett.
Swinton argued that despite these notable roles, and that golden statuette, her profile in the U.S. “hasn’t exactly raised.” “It’s kind of duff-tailed,” she laughs. “It’s like a major red herring has entered the stream. And I don’t know if it’s actually changed anything because to be honest pretty much everything that I am doing and have been doing ever since the Oscars I was gonna do anyway. I mean, I went straight from [the Oscars] to Italy to make a film with a friend of mine I’d been planning to make for seven years. [And then I] inaugurated my film festival, and worked on my foundation, and talked about the film I’m making next year which we’ve been talking about for two years. So there’s nothing that’s sort of active – I don’t think, but you should ask my agent. I mean, I’m pretty shielded from all of that. I don’t live on this planet. I live somewhere else. So I can go away and hang out with people that don’t have television and don’t know.”
But Swinton does acknowledge a positive side to all of it. “The good news is that the films that I am developing now are getting very friendly receptions from financiers and it’s [become] possible,” she said. “There’s no way of knowing how much that’s been effected but let’s say the odds are they feel more secure. I don’t really know what the branding of the Oscar means but it seems to mean something. It’s like a talisman.”
For nearly twenty-five years before winning that Oscar, Swinton has managed just fine without it. She has built one of the most eclectic resumes of any contemporary actress, and this has given her some pretty exceptional insight into the changes in the industry – both in the US and in Europe – that she has witnessed firsthand.
“Funnily enough, I have a very good what the Germans call ‘blick’ on [the industry] today because for the last two days I have sat through tributes,” Swinton said. “And it’s such a dubious business sitting through tributes to yourself. But one advantage – you have to find some advantage – I found with the AFI tribute was they put together a 45 minute collage… In fact, it was an in-order-of-existence screener of all of my films. And I have been working in independent film since 1985. So I did find it very interesting to see that in a way there’s a story there in that 45 minute reel of development and the ups and the downs of independent film.”
“I start off with Derek Jarman, Sally Potter, Peter Wollen in England in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” she recalled. “And then things change. I mean, things change politically. Things change economically. And that kind of filmmaking in the UK becomes impossible. And then I go into American independent film. I work with David Siegel and Scott McGehee on ‘The Deep End‘ and I work with Spike Jonze on ‘Adaptation‘ and I work with Lynn Hershman on ‘Teknolust‘ and ‘Conceiving Ada.’ And you can see – if you’re looking for it – that there was no independent film going on in the UK at that time. Because I’m not doing it. I had to come to the West Coast of America and now I’m going back. So you can see things are kind of getting healthier in Europe.”
Swinton’s “understanding” regarding American independent film, and she admits she hasn’t made one in some time, is that it has become “much more difficult and tricky” than when she was working in it. “But that’s just evolution,” she said. “And that’s what happens. And it’ll all come back around. It’s what happened in Britain, when we were making what we used to call it experimental films. It was very independent, but it was before what I call ‘co-dependent film.’ It was before the studios realized that independent film would be able to make them some money. The second people started to make national product out of us, those independent days were really over.”
As for Swinton’s evolution, she seems to be heading home. Her last three films were made with European filmmakers, and she is continuing to develop projects there. She has also taken on considerable curatorial work in Europe. “I have a foundation that Mark Cousins and I have inaugurated which is going to take up a lot of my time,” she said. ” We’ve created a foundation – the 8 1/2 Foundation – in which children can write to us and request a film from a menu of films that we will curate. Very world classics of cinema. Films they are not likely to see at their cineplexes. And we will send them for their 8 1/2 birthday. And I’m quite involved in that.”
She’ll also be curating – with Cousins – more editions of their Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams, a film festival which had its first edition this past August in Swinton’s hometown of Narin, Scotland. The festival uniquely charged either 3 British pounds or a tray of home-baked cakes for entry into the films, and screened three films a day in the 200-seat (or beanbag) ballroom from which the festival gets its name.
“It was a complete dream,” Swinton said of the event. “It was really wonderful.”
Swinton said the festival will continue in Narin, and will also take itself on the road. “We’re going to make another edition of that in Beijing,” she said. “The Scottish government has asked us to do that in March.”
And what about the upcoming awards season? Swinton does have a supporting role in a film – “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” – that is getting quite a bit of buzz.
“I won’t have to go through the cycle again,” she laughed. “There’s no second wash for me. I’m well out of it. But I think that David Fincher will find himself going around and around and around. I have a feeling that he’s made a masterpiece.”
It seems Swinton may also be “well out of” her recent strays toward mainstream U.S. cinema. “I feel that I have the guts to say this to myself now,” she said. “And it’s not really got anything to do with Oscars, its got to do with battle fatigue I suppose. I feel very clear about how a certain period of my working life has come to an end. It’s completed, let’s say. There’s a kind of spy mission I’ve been on particularly in American studio films that I feel that now I’ve got my data. And I’m gonna take it home.”