The first time Tilda Swinton went to Cannes, it was for a film she hated. It was “Aria” in 1989, an omnibus title with contributions from Robert Altman, Jean-Luc Godard, Bruce Beresford, Nic Roeg, Charles Sturridge, Franc Roddam, and Derek Jarman. “We all got on like a house on fire,” she said. “A lot of people were drawn to libations in the crew. We all saw the film at the end, we all hated the film, and were friends for life.”
Since then, she’s attended to serve on two juries, and for eight films: Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers” and “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Béla Tarr’s “The Man From London,” David Mackenzie’s “Young Adam,” Lynne Ramsay’s “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” Bong Joon Ho’s “Okja,” and Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom.” This year, she returns with Jarmusch’s opening-night zombie comedy, “The Dead Don’t Die.”
Swinton loves Cannes for too many reasons to count; five is plenty. Here they are.
1. Jim Jarmusch.
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“The Dead Don’t Die” is her fifth film with Jarmusch. Swinton loves collaborating with him, partly because he lets her riff. While filming their vampire flick “Only Lovers Left Alive,” he told her he was writing a small-town zombie movie and asked what part she’d like. “The funeral director who’s put out because the dead don’t die,” she said.
Jarmusch took that idea and ran with it. Three years later, she read her part — a Scottish Samurai warrior named Zelda with weird eye movements — and set to work with the costume designer and hair and makeup. “How does this person look?,” she said. “You figure it out together. You have to go there. Everyone has to fill in the jigsaw.”
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Zelda Winston is the outsider in the town who retains a zen calm as everyone else is losing their minds. “She is the foreigner, the outsider,” Swinton said. “She speaks in an accent they can’t quite understand. It’s a small town in America. So she has this particular status. They have no idea where she comes from, really. She’s trying to learn their ways. She’s presumably there for good; she wants to help.” And help she does, by slicing off zombie heads like a pro.
While Swinton studied martial arts in order to pay the Ancient One in Marvel’s “Doctor Strange,” Katana swordplay required another level of training. “I’ve done it enough to know I love it,” she said. “I wish I’d been doing it since I was three. I’m not good at it. I’m good at being very keen on it.”
She deploys a real sword in just one solo training scene. Katana sword blades are lethal. “You have to be precise,” she said. “If you are using a rubber sword it’s not precise. I did think of Uma Thurman and her years of training, that must have been extraordinary.”
“Tarantino should bring you into the “Kill Bill” sequel,” I said.
“That would fantastic,” she answered.
2. Promoting women filmmakers.
Questions about women in film always come to Swinton, who made a documentary about unsung women filmmakers, “Women Make Film: A New Road Movie through Cinema,” with director Mark Cousins. “It’s not a problem for me,” she said. “We have 11 decades of women making films. Another slight tweak of the goalpost is talking about women filmmakers. Women have made films since Mary Pickford onwards in incredible numbers. We know who made Hitchcock’s films with him (Alma Reville), but we don’t focus on it. It might be useful to acclimatize people to what we already have to get rid of the scarcity anxiety, the feeling we haven’t been fed by something. We want more women directors. We need to recognize that we already have them. To acknowledge that change in perspective will make so much difference.”
3. Being a chameleon.
One of Swinton’s great strengths as an actor is her androgyny, from “Orlando” to The Ancient One. She can go feminine or masculine as the role requires. “Most of us can,” she said. “It’s interesting to me that it should be exotic. I’m totally fine about presenting that, but it’s a natural thing, not something I have to reach for, not something many have to reach for. They’re just told quite early that it’s chosen for them: gender, class and milieu. Everybody has that fluidity within them; the rigidity comes later, it’s learned.”
One of the great pleasures is watching Swinton rock a red carpet, especially collaborating with Haider Ackermann at Cannes. She sees it as part of her job. “It’s not a chore,” she said. “It’s creative and enjoyable, and it’s huge part of my work. I work with my friends. It’s a fabulous challenge. How is it possible to go into a space that open and exposed as a very shy person and feel authentic and celebratory and in some way linked to the reason to be there? And how is it possible to weave that into something as simple as a frock or a suit and be as relaxed as possible?”
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4. Serving on a jury.
Swinton served on two Cannes juries, the 2002 Cinefondation jury with Martin Scorsese and Abbas Kiarostami, and Tarantino’s 2004 Competition jury. “It’s democracy in action,” she said. “It’s a test of democracy. The way juries are chosen is very important for a festival. A director can choose badly or responsibly. I haven’t been on one for a while, but I have been on lazily and slightly loaded juries. On a well-chosen jury people can change their minds if you trust each other and the personalities are well-chosen, where you can get into a situation where you think about what they said and change your mind. That’s a dream jury.”
She loved Tarantino’s jury. “With a good jury you can really discuss what prizes are and what does it mean in the future when we give it?” she said. “That jury was the year before the American election of Bush, for the second time. We gave the Palme to Michael Moore’s ‘Fahrenheit 911,’ because this film emboldens and vindicates cinema because this artist can only say these things in cinema, not radio or TV. That was a discussion we came to over 10 days, unanimously.”
5. Talking up her new movies.
Next up for Swinton is director Armando Iannucci and writer Simon Blackwell’s adaptation of Charles Dickens’ “The Personal History of David Copperfield,” which will hit screens this fall. “It’s hilarious and it’s about all the important things in the world,” said Swinton, who is also proud to costar opposite her daughter Honor Swinton Byrne, who makes her film debut in Joanna Hogg’s upcoming “Souvenir.”
Also on the horizon is Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” which is in post-production. It’s set in the French town of Ennuie, and follows several correspondents (Swinton, Frances McDormand, Owen Wilson and Jeffrey Wright) for an American literary magazine. Anderson loves Cannes, too — they could well be back next year.