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Tilda Swinton Is Not Quite of This World

Tilda Swinton, photographed by Norman Jean Roy. Styling by Alicia Lombardini; Hair by Elsa using Oribe Hair Care for Shuly NY; Makeup by Fulvia Farolfi for Chanel. Lace fabric by Solstiss.

It was well before eight on a Thursday in March, and onstage at Joe’s Pub, ­cocktail in hand and wearing a pleated ­lavender dress, was Justin Vivian Bond, the post-gender cabaret performer and a good friend to the better known. “When I was younger, I never drank gin, because it would make me mean,” Bond drawled. “But now I’m older and I can’t tell the difference.” Earlier, Bond had joked about how a performance at that twilight hour at Joe’s Pub is a “matinée,” and swung into what seemed to be the ­evening’s theme song about “night ­people”: “Before the sun, can spoil the fun … we’re night people.” Then Tilda Swinton walked in, perhaps the ultimate night-­people hero. She was, in fact, a bit late, coming from a taping of Late Night With Seth Meyers, where she was promoting a vampire movie, a very stylish one, Only Lovers Left Alive, which the director Jim Jarmusch had made with her and in some ways about her. Or about the two of them, since the movie is a portrait of an ageless haute-bohème pair who live in a perpetual state of artistic and philosophical vanguard glamour.

Swinton shares with Bond and Jarmusch, among other friends and collaborators, an impeccably shod artist-as-revolutionary worldview. When she walked down the cabaret aisle, in a severe off-the-shoulder gray sheath, with her handsome younger boyfriend, Sandro Kopp, everyone, including Bond, skipped a beat. Swinton is hard to miss, and her ­presence can be, to those susceptible to her austere weirdo-ness, vaguely exalting. If she didn’t exist, there is no way anyone else could play the role, or roles.

But before Tilda Swinton was this strapping space aristocrat, or pensive movie star, or fabulously tailored fashion hologram with an ever-mutating, post­-human ­coiffure (it’s mixed with yak hair in Only Lovers), she was, like many of us, someone avoiding a set of expectations laid down before her. Swinton is the descendant of a medieval clan of Anglo-Scot toffs, a tall, clever girl sent away early to boarding school (where she studied for a while alongside the future Princess Diana), the daughter of a major general in the Scots Guards who was expected to, as she understood it at the time, not be too freaky, or too much ­herself, for that ­matter—whoever she was exactly—and probably, as she once joked, marry a duke.

Regal, then, comes as naturally to her as her clipped upper-caste accent. But she has also become very much her own exquisite thing, only attaining widespread fame in her 40s (in part for being this in extremis beauty), just as more ­ingénue types are in panicky plastic-surgery ­shoring-up mode. Everyone describes her as a space oddity—related: the ­Tumblr (­TildaStardust) dedicated to the zany notion she and David Bowie are actually the same person—and it’s easy to see her as the alabaster ambassador from a more advanced corner of the galaxy. She talks about her friends as her heroes, whose faces “are lining my space capsule that is hurtling through space.” Hell, send her an email and the auto-reply you get back says: “Hello, I am away until 01/01/2070 and am unable to read your message.”

Her friend the writer Hilton Als told me that they met in New York in 2001, when her film The Deep End was coming out, about a mother in a rather tough situation thanks to her son, this being one of several types of roles she tends to be cast in. “I went up to her and said, ‘Tilda Swinton, I’ve been looking for you!’ ” She attracts that kind of projected familiarity (you could feel it in the room at Joe’s Pub, too): There’s something about her that makes people who ­themselves feel like oddballs want to know her. She invited Als to her ­screening, and they became friends. “She is very open to the possibility of chance,” he says.

“I do like not knowing where I’m going, wandering in strange woods, whistling and following bread crumbs,” she says. But she’s always collecting those crumbs in the company of “fellow travelers,” or friends of a well-selected type—what she calls, because this is how she feels about what it is that she does, “the fellowship behind the cause.”

And that cause? It’s a bit martial in tone. She’s on a mission here, a duty toward artistic virtue, whatever that entails. “It must be remembered that Tilda is a military daughter and that she was sent away at a very young age,” says Als. “She doesn’t come from a world where self-expression, let alone the feeling of being seen, are actively encouraged. That she has managed to achieve something in both realms has less to do with her will than her imagination … And so, she fights for the life of her dreams with the ardor of a military person and the drive of a girl who will not be ignored.”

Swinton gave a speech a year ago at the Victoria and Albert Museum in ­London (“My favorite playground as a child. Medieval armor: my fantasy spacewear”), at the opening of a Bowie exhibition, invoking his album Aladdin Sane. “The image of that gingery, bony, pinky whitey person on the cover with the liquid-­mercury collarbone was—for one ­particular young moonage daydreamer—the image of planetary kin, of a close imaginary cousin and companion of choice … How clear it now is—how ­undeniable—that the freak becomes the great unifier,” she said. “The alien is the best company after all for so many more than the few.”

Tomboyish in person, Swinton announced herself as a dashing, androgyne art-and-fashion icon by starring in Orlando, the 1992 film of the Virginia Woolf novel about a pretty young man who, over the course of several hundred years, never ages, though does wake up one day, about halfway through, a woman. Since then, she has become an inspiring touchstone to a much bigger universe of what she calls “like-minded freaks.” See the funny homage of the parody Twitter account @NotTildaSwinton, written in her supposed voice: “I have named every one of my hairs, and tie strands together so they may converse. At night, the din of their chatter is almost unbearable … In 1979, I fed a black bear both of my legs. I lay on the ground for 7 years, until that bear’s legs were brought to me by his son … I remember Pangaea. The highway system was a mess.”

“Here’s a great story,” Als tells me. “I wrote a movie she loved and wanted to be a part of. I’d sent the script around to friends. Tilda and I were eating, and a friend who’d read the script passed by and complimented me on it and then wondered how I would get it made. Tilda started rubbing her ears. As the man walked away, she said, still rubbing her ears, ‘I want you to pull those bad thoughts out of your head and never ­listen to No.’ ”

Photo: Norman Jean Roy. Coat by Valentino.

Before I met Swinton, I met Kopp, both her lover and, when called for, her ­protective majordomo (with, those who know them say, a fleeting top note of Svengali). He helps keep her legend on the road without the famous-person personal-­publicist apparatus. It was the night before Joe’s Pub, at the after-party for Only ­Lovers Left Alive, downstairs at the Handy Liquor Bar in Soho. Over in the corner, ­Jarmusch, baby-faced still at 61, was at a booth: He doesn’t seem to be a natural social mixer. A few of Swinton’s friends stopped by, ­including Joel Coen, Ryan McGinley, Patti Smith, Steve Buscemi, and Casey Legler, a Ford male model who is actually a woman.

Kopp detained me for a few minutes, as if assessing me, while Swinton, on the couch in her shimmering op-art Haider Ackermann suit (which looked a bit like very glamorous silk pj’s) and ’80s synth-band military-clipper haircut, chatted with a friend. Kopp showed me a picture of their dogs on his iPhone. And then, sweetly, asked me to “not be mean to my baby.”

The two met nearly a decade ago when she was making one of her few big-­budget films, Disney’s The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Swinton played the evil White Witch (she once called the character “the ultimate white supremacist” and bragged that she was proud that she’d helped derail a “knee-jerk attempt to make her look like an Arab”). Kopp, 18 years younger, was playing a centaur. Which sounds like an ­OKCupid fantasy-couple match for two far less attractive people.

Kopp, an artist who, among other things, paints his friends’ portraits via Skype, is also the center of the titillating and well-circulated part of her legend: that somehow she lives up in the highlands of Scotland in a thruple with two obedient men. Those men are Kopp, and her ex-partner, the artist and writer John Byrne, 20 years her senior, with whom she has twins, Honor and Xavier (who are now 16 years old). All of this came into tabloid focus in 2008, when ­Swinton became mainstream famous by winning an Oscar for Michael Clayton, and her sensible arrangement—Swinton explained that she and Byrne hadn’t been “sweethearts” for some time, and he wasn’t interested in traveling with her or taking the kids snorkeling, and in any case they were all good friends, and he had taken up with his own sweetheart nearby—seemed like something only a man could get away with, and therefore all the more legendary. Of course, if she were a man, it would hardly have been worthy of much attention.

But it also plays to this idea about Swinton’s disciplined disregard for convention, as much a part of her peculiar kind of fame as anything she’s done onscreen. She’s a den mother, a hand-holder (she took mine at Joe’s Pub), a person who makes you feel you can be led somewhere better. Meeting her, you get a flash of Mary Poppins; possibly more to the point, there’s good reason why she’s worked for years to try to remake Auntie Mame. “If you’re looking for some kind of key,” she says, “I would say that the key to me is my relationships.”

Those relationships branch wildly. It’s only a few clicks beyond her red-carpet looks (Lanvin, Jil Sander when Raf Simons ran the place), Chanel ads, and W-­magazine fashion spreads (an ­amusing one was Juergen Teller’s 2008 shoot of different urban archetypes: a punk, a society lady, etc.) to see how she connects with those other fellow ­travelers, bohemeonauts like the late film director Derek Jarman; Luca ­Guadagnino, with whom she made I Am Love, in 2009; Wes Anderson, who directed her in The Grand Budapest Hotel; and Bong Joon-ho, the South Korean director with whom she did the upcoming sci-fi epic Snowpiercer. And the people she went on vacation with—she organizes a sort of annual artists retreat—in the Maldives this past December: Ryan McGinley, Michael Stipe, Thomas Dozol, Vik Muniz, and, since he’s actually been in space, Buzz Aldrin.

On her 53rd birthday last November, MoMA threw her a tribute, which was also a fund-raiser for its film department. It was sponsored by Chanel (which of course she wore). Anderson, Bowie, Ralph Fiennes, Karl Lagerfeld, and Vogue editor Anna Wintour co-chaired the event, and Sofia Coppola, Jessica Biel, Lupita Nyong’o, Zac Posen, and Mike ­Bloomberg were in the crowd. “People think she’s like a chic fashion victim,” Lagerfield said of Swinton, but in fact, “she’s the most down-to-earth ­person you will ever meet.” Wintour praised her fashion and acting adventurousness. And, to bring it all together, Bond sang her a “Happy Birthday.”

Photo: Norman Jean Roy.

The morning after the Joe’s Pub show, Swinton is swaddled in a cozy ­cardigan in the faux-medieval lobby of the ­Bowery Hotel, turned sideways in her chair, leg over the armrest. Between us is a tree-stump table that looks, she observes, like it was made by Davy Crockett. 

She’s emerged into the daylight of the early afternoon, after nearly having ­canceled, in a series of emails full of ­mannerly regret all morning—“I am in a battle with a mega sore throat plus other grisly mucus-based symptoms.” But eventually, after an agreement that I walk my dog over to help comfort her (“Fuck ­Theraflu—a Therahound is what I need”), followed by a disappointing call to the front desk to discover my plump old pit-bull mix is too big for the Bowery’s lobby, she’d descended to meet me. She orders ginger tea, spinach, and Tuscan beans and declares the spread “quite cosy,” ­pronounced with her posh soft s. She’d wanted mashed potatoes, but they weren’t on the menu, and the waiter offered her fries instead, but she demurred. “No, too many hard edges. I feel like I should take my teeth out for this.”

And then we get down to it: Is she just acting out, I ask, some sort of class rebel, Sybil Crawley as dressed by Haider ­Ackermann, Lady Gaga via Evelyn Waugh? “That would be some acting out, wouldn’t it?” she says with her precise diction. She once said she’s a fan of ­Robert Louis Stevenson’s An Apology for Idlers, which advocates, she says, “this sense of ­living according to one’s own internal rhythm and what I think corporate ­business might refer to as ‘wasting time.’ ” To me, this sounds, it’s true, less like acting out by slumming with the punks who know how to dress than like a truly ­aristocratic pursuit. Or one, in any case, unencumbered by frenetic middle-class striving.

At Cambridge University, she tells me, she fell under the spell of what she describes as “a kind of high church of ­fellow traveler,” this old set of 1930s Communists like Margot Heinemann and Raymond Williams: “They were my teachers; they built everything which my generation could aspire to in terms of fairness and kindness and a kind of good path for humane living,” she says. She’s firmly of that strain of the well-born and well-­intentioned left who sees the dream of a new world being an artistic one too. After school, she was briefly involved in theater. Then she met Jarman and started to make films, and it’s the imprimatur of his ­particular kind of activist chic that her later working life bears more than any other. For 13 years in London and elsewhere, she fit right in with what she fondly recalls as the ­“kindergarten atmosphere” of Jarman’s creative world, which included a number of friends who were also involved in causes like OutRage! (roughly the ACT UP of the U.K.). Jarman’s films had a defiant purpose but also a sense of ­family: It may be difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when making a film with complicated gay desire at its center, like his Caravaggio from 1986, was a political act. His last film, Blue, was so named because he was losing his sight by that time, owing to aids, and so that color is all you see onscreen. (MoMA owns it today.)

But Jarman’s death—and he wasn’t the only friend whom Swinton lost—also changed her. “When Derek died, I was left without a clear idea of being able to examine this sort of work with anybody else,” she wrote in an email.

I had been making films for nine years, including Orlando with Sally ­Potter, spun up out of five of them,
but I still had no sense of myself as a professional with a quiver full of craft and autonomous capacities. I was brought up in a pack and I felt
like a pack animal isolated for the first time.

That performance she did at MoMA last year, where she lay in public in the museum like Sleeping Beauty, was a reprise of something she did to mourn ­Jarman in 1995. Called The Maybe, it involved her lying all day in a glass box in London’s ­Serpentine Gallery. She performed it again last year, a reckoning with the death of her mother, among other things.

And after the original performance of The Maybe, she started a new life in her Scottish homeland, with Byrne, and had her twins. “My connection with London was very ­fleeting,” she says now. “I lived there for 13 years, and it might as well have been a weekend. I spent most of the time with nocturnal people.” Besides: “My family comes from the south of Edinburgh, and I would always see the signs saying: TO INVERNESS AND THE NORTH. And I just always wanted to go to Inverness and the North.”  

But almost 20 years later, she’s both the survivor and the keeper of the flame of a kind of artistic idealism that is hard to ­discern now: the kind that grew up in tension against what now seems like the great counter­revolution of Reagan and Thatcher. Though to say she’s a ­Communist is a bit of a red herring. Like Eve, the well-dressed vampire she plays in Only Lovers, she’s more a well-read, well-heeled, well-beloved Romantic. She once gave a speech about why movies matter, written in the form of a letter to her son, who asked her what people’s dreams were like before cinema was invented. Her answer is suitably bohemian-­rhapsodic: “Our dreams are the place where we can remember that which we never realized we knew.” And as her friend Als says, “She lives to dream.”

 Swinton and Jim Jarmusch spent eight years collaborating to make Only Lovers. It’s a kind of shared vision of the world and mutual portrait of how they operate in it, as style vampires. Eve is the many-centuries-old and philosophically supportive better half of a well-networked bloodsucker ­couple who are, in their met-everyone, seen-it-all way, over it. Or, more precisely, over us, the “zombies,” as her hot-rocker-bod, very, very longtime companion (they were most recently married in 1868) Adam puts it (they don’t even prey on humans anymore, preferring blood banks). Adam is played by Tom ­Hiddleston, and much of his movie ­character sounds like a grumpy bruised ­version of Jarmusch. And by ­zombies, Jarmusch means the ­uninquisitive, the masses of people who, to his dismay, are too busy polluting, consuming, and fighting to try to apprehend the world, or conjure a new one. “Passengers” is how Swinton describes them to me—space capsules again. “My line,” she says, “is ‘I don’t have a career. I have a life.’ ”  

She returned to this theme in her email:

“A while ago, once again up against someone close to me dying, I worked out that, in a nutshell, when the chips are down, my basic battery is charged by the endlessly reliable generators of Nature and Friendship: Beyond any other thing, these two influences that never fail to buoy and nourish me.

“This, of course, is very close to what Eve in Only Lovers knows and values: the company of fellow travelers, the slow burn, the long view—and the perpetual guiding change of nature. Both are ­bigger than us; they support and carry us. We can fly at the back of the formation they form and take our place as a part of ­patterns they make … We set out to make something about ­companionship and wonder in the face of bitterness and ­disillusionment—and we set out to hope that companionship and wonder might win. And, in addition, Eve expresses something very accurate about me, which is not the artist in me but the cheerleader of artists, the bird at the end of the phone, the dance partner, the ­appreciative reader of proofs, the bearer of the bucket, and the sponge in the ­corner, sometimes the jester with the balloon on a stick. This is, beyond ­anything I think, the part of my work that I treasure the most, my job, above all, as artist’s moll.”

*This article appeared in the April 7, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Norman Jean Roy; Norman Jean Roy; Norman Jean Roy; Norman Jean Roy