Tilda Swinton is currently being photographed for the Observer in various costumes. Upon my arrival, she has changed into plaid pants and two-tone shoes, standing still as a hairdresser styles her blonde quiff. This gives her the appearance of an exotic bird or a stylish rebel, although her serene face contradicts any potential aggression. It is immediately evident that Swinton is fully committed to the task at hand, while also being considerate towards those around her. The combination of professionalism and warmth is disarming, especially when one might anticipate a certain level of celebrity aloofness.
Swinton is a renowned celebrity, recognized by the New York Times as one of the most exceptional actors of the 21st century. She is known for her originality, uniqueness, and curiosity, and has portrayed a wide range of characters, from a distressed mother in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011) to the elderly and irritable Madame D in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and the White Witch in the Narnia series (2005-2010). She recently starred in Almodóvar’s short film The Human Voice (2020) and is soon to appear in his upcoming feature film (details still undisclosed). She is a versatile performer, yet always remains true to herself. Swinton has received numerous accolades, including an Academy Award, a Bafta, and three Golden Globe nominations. Despite being 63 years old, she is still considered a fashion icon for her androgynous beauty and timeless appearance – like a figurehead on the front of a ship. As I watch her on screen, I can’t help but wonder about the contrast between her life in the Scottish Highlands by the sea and the glamorous world of London.
Eventually, we locate a peaceful area to have a conversation in the dressing room of the studio. There is a lot to discuss as we not only have questions from famous individuals and readers, but also need to make room for her new movie, The Eternal Daughter, directed by Joanna Hogg. This can be seen as a follow-up to the Souvenir films, which focused on coming-of-age themes and starred Swinton and her daughter, Honor (who has recently graduated from Edinburgh). Swinton has now changed into her own attire, a casual and vibrant red mohair sweater that matches her lipstick from the photo shoot. She sits on a tall chair, almost as if she’s waiting for a cocktail (unfortunately, one is not available).
In The Eternal Daughter, Tilda Swinton portrays two characters: the mother, Rosalind (familiar to those who have seen the Souvenir films), and the daughter, Julie, who are now middle-aged. Some may see this as a gimmick, but it should be watched before making any judgments. The film showcases masterful artistry, beginning with a scene of a white taxi driving down a straight road surrounded by winter trees and mist. Julie is taking her mother to a country house hotel that turns out to be eerily empty, almost like a dream or a nightmare. The hotel is filled with dark, melancholic mahogany furniture and staffed by a passive-aggressive receptionist, with a constant gale blowing outside. These elements may seem like the ingredients for a typical ghost story, but The Eternal Daughter offers a haunting of a unique nature. Swinton herself confirms that the film explores the idea of haunting oneself, stating, “That is the central theme of the film.”
Oscar Wilde stated: “All women eventually turn into their mothers. That is their unfortunate fate. No man does. That is his.” Swinton proposes that, in the movie, the main question is “where is the boundary between my identity and that of my mother?” She switches between portraying a refined, wealthy mother and a lively, urban filmmaker daughter with a rough quality to her voice. The two women are simultaneously connected and hopelessly distant, making the film worth watching again as it delves into the concept of seeing things twice.
Swinton and Hogg have been close friends since childhood and often discussed their similar mothers. Both were from aristocratic backgrounds and had mothers who married in the 1950s and prioritized being devoted wives above all else. Due to this, there was a limited closeness between the mothers and daughters. Swinton and Hogg both went on to become artists, which may have been difficult for their mothers to understand and feel included in. When asked about this, Swinton becomes emotional, as the film has allowed her to explore the gap between herself and her mother and grapple with the question of how to let go of a parent.
Thirteen years ago, Swinton’s mother passed away, preceding Hogg’s mother. Swinton recalls sharing the news with Joanna and taking care of her and adopting her speech patterns and clothing. During the time between her mother’s illness and her passing, Swinton found herself deeply entwined with her mother’s possessions and mannerisms. She would even feel a sense of excitement when using her mother’s phrases, as it was a way to keep her memory alive. However, Swinton also felt burdened by the responsibility of surviving, which she perceived as a form of betrayal.
Perhaps it is due to the topic of grief or because he remains in her thoughts like a recurring theme in any serious discussion with Swinton, that we transition to the passing of her dear friend Derek Jarman (whom she acted alongside in films such as Caravaggio (1986), The Last of England (1988), War Requiem (1989), and The Garden (1990)). She reflects on losing him to AIDS when she was 33. Even years later, she recalls feeling as though she could have died alongside him: “I had a strong connection with Derek and I remember being acutely aware that, in a strange way, I could have followed him.” She also speaks about the late John Berger, another close friend. And just as she worked on a film about Jarman’s life in 2008, she also made a film about Berger that featured her twins, Xavier and Honor (children of writer John Byrne). “I remember thinking: can we create a film where people can meet John?” Swinton struggles to find a word that accurately describes the two men: “To label what they possessed as just charisma is too simple because they embodied such a powerful life force.” And although inadequate, this term must also apply to Swinton herself. As we move on to the questions, I observe her responses: focused, engaged, sometimes bursting into laughter and occasionally pausing to request more time to think and ensure she answers the question accurately.
It is a widely acknowledged fact that you bear a striking resemblance to David Bowie. I recall seeing a video of the two of you swapping outfits; he dressed as you and you dressed as him. What was discussed during that encounter? And which of your various personas do you believe Bowie related to the most?
During the production of The Stars (Are Out Tonight) music video, directed by Floria Sigismondi, I discovered a comical, oddly-shaped carrot in my salad during lunch. We joked about it and it became a topic of conversation for days. However, amidst the lightheartedness, I also recall a serious conversation with him. He was very sick at the time, something I was aware of but unaware of the severity. He began discussing the concept of an afterlife and firmly stated his belief that there was none. He would often send me various images, some silly and others more serious. I was always impressed by his keen awareness of our activities and surroundings. I was honored when he attended my exhibit, The Maybe, at MoMA. My partner, Sandro Kopp, spotted him standing unnoticed in the crowd for quite some time. Additionally, I have a photo of myself, taken by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, with smeared makeup that he adored and often mentioned to me.
What is currently on your mind when you dream?
Silvia, a reader of the Observer, from Sofia, Bulgaria.
Forgetfulness sometimes leads to the excitement of traveling without worrying about misplaced passports. The idea of being able to breathe underwater is also enticing. Although I am not particularly forgetful, traveling requires a lot of effort, especially because I tend to become more relaxed and comfortable at home. Unlike those who work in cities and are constantly active, I am not as motivated at home. Today, I have brought along many things related to my dog – this green waterproof jacket beside me is actually my everyday jacket and it contains unnecessary dog items.
If given the opportunity, which photographer from history would you choose to have your photo captured by and why? You have been photographed by many talented individuals in the past.
I admire Paul Strand, in part due to my fondness for the Hebrides, which hold great significance for me. Despite being American, Strand’s photography in the Hebrides was exceptional. His portraits of individuals resemble landscapes and vice versa.
What is the most distinct characteristic of being Scottish that becomes apparent when traveling abroad, particularly in the United States?
Kevin Nel, Leigh-on-Sea
One of my defining Scottish characteristics is my tendency to cry upon hearing bagpipes, regardless of where I am in the world. This summer, my son and I, both military history enthusiasts, visited Normandy and Pegasus Bridge. It was here that Lord Lovat brought his own piper from Beauly, close to our home, to play as they crossed the bridge under dangerous and daring circumstances. The use of bagpipes has long struck fear into the hearts of the English, as it did for the Nazis during this event. Additionally, I cannot tolerate being referred to as British, as my Scottish identity is strong.
Do you have a favorite character or a character concept that you would absolutely love to portray? Please share all the details about this character.
I envision a detective or possibly a lady from the countryside living in a rundown estate who has a strong passion for detective stories. She is inexplicably drawn into solving a complex and gruesome mystery. It is highly likely that she is unable to speak… perhaps even a ghost… Yes, a ghost, attempting to convey her clues from beyond. In my mind, the crucial piece of evidence that solves the murder is a dog’s nose print on the lower section of a French window – the only feasible culprit being a small, short-legged terrier. Go ahead and write it, Wes – you know you are tempted to…
What are the positive and negative aspects of being a fashion icon?
Sarah McLeary, Dunbar
Beauty is subjective. There are no negative effects, and the positive result is great enjoyment.
What do you enjoy the most about dogs and the ocean?
These things symbolize a feeling of belonging and the feeling of being at home. I have resided near the ocean for 25 years and can’t imagine not living there; it’s incredibly indulgent and truly enlightening – just like dogs. I have been a part of a group for almost as long for the same purpose.
Is talent in acting innate or learned?
Lizzie Hyder, Exmoor
In my experience, acting is a deliberate creation aimed at achieving a specific impact. On the other hand, performance is a natural ability that we all possess, without the need for deliberate learning.
I greatly respect your strong commitment to artistic authenticity, as well as that of Derek Jarman. In today’s society where artists and performers are often pushed towards commercialization, it is becoming increasingly rare. How do you combat this pressure and maintain your artistic independence? How do you safeguard and foster your creative freedom?
Having a sense of oneself as a commodity can be a hindrance. I consider it a privilege that Derek and I both lack this perspective. While Derek studied painting in art school, I pursued social and political sciences at Cambridge. However, I have openly expressed my regret for not writing enough. Performing and creating films for me exist in a space that is neither here nor there. As the character in La Dolce Vita states, “I’m too serious to be a dilettante and too much of a dabbler to be a professional.” I came across this quote while still in university and it struck a chord with me. In the film, it is said with modesty, but I see it as a position of strength because it allows for flexibility and fluidity. By keeping work in our peripheral vision, it can live in an environment of excitement, relaxation, and play.
Were you ever a victim of bullying in school due to your red hair and freckles? If so, how did that experience affect you?
Sara Jane Tipton, Bradford
I endured severe bullying during my time in school. The school had a pervasive bullying environment. I can only say that I managed to make it through. I have told my children that if they ever experience feeling overwhelmed when they’re young, I would prefer them to come home and admit they were overwhelmed rather than admit they were the ones causing the overwhelm.
Daisy May Cooper
, Tina Fey, is known for her iconic portrayal of Liz Lemon on the popular sitcom ’30 Rock’.
Tina Fey, a well-known comedian and writer, is famous for her memorable performance as Liz Lemon in the hit TV show ’30 Rock’.
If you were to return as a spirit, who or where would you choose to haunt?
My grandmother used to say that the best part about dying is being able to visit all the places you never had the chance to while alive. I have every intention of haunting with vigor and without discrimination. My actions on April Fools’ Day are just practice for the afterlife, which I now realize I believe in. I have plans in place that I am excited to put into action. Daisy, I have saved a collection of butterflies and a particular scent just for you.
Which character’s wardrobe did you like wearing the most?
Ben Akhtar, Brussels
Rosalind Harte over the two Souvenir films and The Eternal Daughter wears a wardrobe made up very largely of my own mother’s clothes – her shoes, her jewellery. I have a particular tender affection in my memory of wearing these things.
What has been your most significant or influential experience with a character’s costume and makeup? Why was it meaningful?
It’s challenging because I enjoy working with outfits and appearances in general. It’s my way of staying true to my initial goal, which was to only be in one movie – then get edited out. Therefore, constantly changing is crucial to me. However, it would be impolite not to acknowledge Orlando, as it revolves around a character who primarily changes their clothing but not much else.
Based on Jim Jarmusch’s film Only Lovers Left Alive, it is known that you are a vampire. Who would you prefer to spend eternity with?
Reworded: Henriette van Dorp is from Hengelo, Netherlands.
I really enjoy that question [laughs]. Christopher Lee and I have always talked about working together in the future… I can still hope.
I received my film education at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh and the Everyman in Hampstead (which I attended instead of lectures). Where did your film education begin?
The cinema in Eyemouth, a small fishing village near my hometown in the Borders, held a special place in my heart. It was small and tucked away on a side street, but it was well-loved. Sadly, it seems to have closed down. My brothers (I have three) once took me to see Confessions of a Window Cleaner in secret. On the car ride home, they drilled me on the plot so that I could pretend we had actually seen Gold with Roger Moore. The next morning, when my father asked about our trip to the movies, I confidently recited the entire plot of Gold. He was suspicious, likely realizing that I seemed too invested in the film. My cinema education continued at the Arts Cinema in Cambridge for Tarkovsky and the Lumiere cinema in St Martin’s Lane for films by Jim Jarmusch, Ozu, Parajanov, and John Waters. Unfortunately, the Lumiere has since closed down, making it difficult for me to revisit St Martin’s Lane without feeling a sense of loss.
Are there any specific authors or books that you currently feel you are in conversation with?
Sue Pitkin, Chicago
Muriel Spark’s The Driver’s Seat. She never fails and this particular book has something breathtakingly and empoweringly vicious about it… It feels really modern … She just sends me.
Have you had the opportunity to collaborate with renowned directors in the industry? Your decisions have been bold and unconventional. Are you interested in directing your own movie? If so, do you have a specific project in mind?
I am attempting to avoid doing this regularly because, well, let me consider… until it appears more like an easy task rather than something that fills me with dread, I will avoid it. Additionally, as your question suggests, I have had the opportunity to collaborate with some of the most renowned film directors of our era and therefore have a greater understanding of the demands of directing a film.
What guidance would you offer to up-and-coming artists facing challenges in securing resources and opportunities to create amidst current financial constraints?
Daniel Grimston is a multi-talented artist hailing from London, known for his skills as a playwright, poet, actor, and director.
I do not believe in giving advice, particularly to artists. You are aware of what needs to be done. Take care of yourself and the parts of you that must be clear in order to create your art. And protect your passion.
Which of your films would you choose to send in a capsule into deep space as a representation of human civilization for aliens to discover?
James Pattison, Durham
The Eternal Daughter explores themes of love, evolution, and perseverance in the face of one of life’s greatest challenges.
Did Derek Jarman offer any particularly impactful advice or words of wisdom that have influenced you up to this point? (He advised me to approach each day at work with the same enthusiasm as going to a party, which I have strived to follow!)
I have also learned and hold close the lesson that was taught. I highly regarded his viewpoint that when we were rushed to leave a location without completing everything we had planned, it was actually beneficial because it guaranteed our return. This perspective was valuable and optimistic – the ability to look forward and turn regrets into new opportunities and goals.
DJ and writer
What steps do you take to prepare for a role, starting from the initial read-through to fully embodying a character?
As you are aware, Julia, from your personal experiences and professional endeavors, dedicating a significant amount of time to prioritize quality moments with friends.
I am aware that you own four springer spaniels. What attracts you to this particular breed?
Irene Salazar from Essex is a devoted admirer of springer spaniels.
What makes this story so captivating? The perspective, wisdom, priorities, and humor woven throughout. Of course, loyalty is a given when it comes to dogs. In The Eternal Daughter, the main character is Louis, while Souvenir features Rosie and Dora. In Souvenir: Part II, Snowbear, Rosie’s grandson, joins the cast. Louis, Rosie’s son, takes the spotlight as the superstar known as King Louis. However, he’s not one to whine or complain. In fact, he’s quite stoic and philosophical, serving as the poet of the family. That duty falls to Snowbear, his nephew, who provides the whimpering in The Eternal Daughter. It’s reminiscent of the Singin’ in the Rain scene where Debbie Reynolds’s singing was dubbed by Betty Noyes in the 1952 musical.
How do you handle burrs on your pet’s ears and tail, as well as muddy paws?
I understand the importance of being humble and patient, and I know that my life would be lacking without these qualities. I don’t mind taking the time to carefully remove burrs and occasionally cutting my dreadlocks. It’s actually enjoyable for me to sit and groom my ears while watching a movie. Living by the ocean is very beneficial, especially when it comes to keeping my dogs’ paws clean. They get a bath every day.
Musician, Young Fathers
Have you ever regretted a decision you made while playing a character?
This is a thought-provoking question and I am truly honored that he has chosen to share his thoughts. It is a common occurrence for regret to surface when a director decides to change the camera angle. The key is to move on and make the best of the situation. Each shot brings with it a multitude of decisions and it is normal to second-guess oneself rather than feeling confident about the outcome. In fact, I have come to be wary of those rare moments when everything seems perfect. These instances often involve the least interesting take. As the philosopher Heraclitus once said, “Embrace doubt.” It is through doubt that we gain insight. This is something I also learned from Derek Jarman.
Do you believe that there is a contemporary artist whose work is similar to that of Derek Jarman, your dear friend and colleague?
Jamie Matley, Manchester
Derek’s remarkable quality lies in his role as a torch bearer, descending from a lineage of unconventional artists that began with William Blake. What makes him truly special is that he was motivated by the same essence that has inspired countless other artists, and he would have been proud to support and celebrate this. His spirit is an inspiration for a collaborative approach to art and an inclusive attitude towards viewers, coupled with a bold enthusiasm for creating work. I can personally vouch for this, as I, too, am influenced by this same force.
What advantages does a Steiner education offer?
Self-determination. Flexibility. The knowledge that life without screens is possible. An ability to climb trees/make things with your hands/grow food/sing and dance with abandon. My children were privileged to experience a Steiner education. I look at them now, at 26, and see two undaunted and spirited individuals, imaginative, generous, merry-hearted, fair-minded, open-eyed, self-determined, democratic, adaptable, collaborative, grounded, grateful, kind and generally up for bringing what they can to brighten the horizon.
Which team do you prefer, Nairn County or Inverness Clachnacuddin? (These are competing Scottish football teams located near Inverness.)
What sets your partnership with Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino apart, having worked together on multiple projects such as A Bigger Splash and Suspiria?
Marco Foti, East Sussex
Luca feels like a playmate from a very early sandpit… I first met him when he was 22 and the fantasies and projects we dreamed up then were always wild and beyond our immediate horizon. The character of that early bond goes on: we have retained that sense of the ramshackle and over-reaching.
What is your preferred loch in Scotland and what makes it your favorite?
Chris Harland, Leeds
This is a small lake located on an island in the Outer Hebrides. It resembles a tennis court in size and during the summer, it is filled with water lilies. I am unsure of its name, but I am certain it has a lengthy Gaelic name. The water, composed of peat, has a certain buoyancy to it. Its color is reminiscent of a fine malt whisky and it lifts you up like a cloud from beneath. For me, it is the closest experience to nirvana. There is nothing quite like it, and it remains unchanged. Tomorrow, I will be presenting my all-time favorite film, I Know Where I’m Going! by Michael Powell, at the South Bank. The film has been newly restored and will be released nationwide. The island featured in the film, Mull, also remains unchanged. I visited there last month and it is a dependable and unchanging place that cannot be ruined.
Most people recognize you as the fiercely protective mother figure in Danny Boyle’s The Beach. Did you view the movie’s exploration of issues like overtourism and sustainability as a prediction at the time?
R Evans, Hertfordshire
We, including Alex Garland who wrote the book the film is adapted from, had a feeling that things were going to get worse before people truly realized what was happening. It’s hard to believe that back then, we were able to film on the beautiful and isolated Thai island of Ko Phi Phi Le without any other people around. However, 25 years have passed and the island has now turned into a tourist destination.
Is life more bizarre than fiction to you?
Ayo Akingbade, London
I fully embrace oddity; let’s welcome increasingly bizarre and unusual stories.
As you age, do you notice a shift in the type of projects you want to pursue and the roles you are interested in playing?
Mellissa Reynolds Donello, Worcester
I struggle with this issue because I have a tendency to create projects in collaboration with others. These projects are not handed to me, but rather are custom-made for me, ensuring that they remain personal and significant to my own life. In fact, I find it increasingly fulfilling to create pieces based on my own experiences, distancing myself from the expectations and suggestions of others.
“The movie, The Eternal Daughter, will be shown in cinemas in the UK and Ireland starting on November 24th. The BFI Southbank will also be featuring a series of films by Joanna Hogg, titled Internal Reflections, throughout the month of November.”