This year alone, she played an undead bloodthirsty muse, a batty train-fascist in an ice-encrusted future world, and somebody named Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis. And of course she was—do we even need to say this?—entirely believable as all three. But Swinton's best role in 2014 was the same tilda swinton gqs woman year one she's been reprising for the past fifty-four years: herself
Tilda Swinton picks me up at the airport. Yup.
From the plane—thirteen hours out of New York, five of them spent delayed, trying to sleep on a bench and contemplating the grim reality of being late to meet Tilda Swinton—Scotland is all low, misty white clouds and moss-colored hills. We land in Inverness, in the Highlands, process through the doors, and…
"Zach, you're here," she says in the tiny terminal, hugging me as if we've met a thousand times before, though our actual count—in this life, anyway; I guess with Tilda Swinton you never know—is zero. She smells like wildflowers and wood smoke. Her sweater is chunky and soft. Her profile is the kind of thing you need to work up to looking at directly.
I fidget, still tight from the plane.
"Everything goes really slowly now," she says, patting my back, giving me permission to relax. "You're in Scotland now."
Right around here, in a normal magazine story, the two of us would have a conversation that just so happened to fill in some tidy facts about Tilda Swinton's year: Her disproportionately memorable two-scene turn in Wes Anderson's wondrous Grand Budapest Hotel as Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe und Taxis, the sexpot octogenarian expertly serviced by Ralph Fiennes. Her bucktoothed and wildly sinister Minister Mason, a comic-horror masterpiece of a performance, in Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer. And perhaps the quintessential Tilda Swinton role, one that Jim Jarmusch wrote for her, as Eve, the centuries-old vampire in _Only Lovers Left Alive,_who uses her infinite time on earth to read lots of books and hang out with metal musicians and an undead Christopher Marlowe, just like actual Tilda Swinton would if she had the opportunity.
She's been acting for nearly three decades and has won an Oscar, yet it always seemed like she was never quite available to us: It was somehow easy to know who she was without knowing exactly what she'd done. Until this year, anyway.
Three singular, remarkable turns in three singular, remarkable movies—a lot to discuss. But over the ensuing not-quite-twenty-four hours that I spend in her company, the only time I see Tilda Swinton's eyes—which are, let's put these words in italics, blue, except when they're green—cloud over with boredom is when we talk about movies she's acted in.
Could you handle seeing Tilda Swinton's eyes cloud over with boredom?
Our plan today is this: "We're going to go to Loch Ness." She leads me to her car, a green Skoda (what is a Skoda? It is the car Tilda Swinton drives) with four identical dogs in the hatchback. Tilda Swinton drives fast through the Scottish Highlands: deep green, hay bales on the side of the road, hay bales on the backs of trucks.
I ask her where we are exactly. She starts drawing a map of Scotland, eerily precise, on the windshield with her finger, driving while nonchalantly sketching on the glass in front of her. "This is Scotland. We're going towards Inverness. This is the very top of Scotland—it goes down like that, and then it comes out like that, and it goes down like that. So you landed, and where we live, Nairn, is a village along the coast. So you and I are driving along this way," she says, tracing her invisible map from right to left, me gripping the armrest as she neatly evades oncoming traffic.
The we above is the we she almost always uses when telling stories: It means her but also Sandro Kopp, her painter partner of the past decade or so; and sometimes also John Byrne, the father of her 17-year-old twins; and almost always the twins, Xavier and Honor. Also her springer spaniels, Rosy, Dora, Louis, and Dot. Her love life, she explains, is not the polyamorous sin marathon that appears in the tabloids—there are two men in her life, Byrne, who now lives elsewhere, and Kopp, with whom she shares a home, an arrangement she has in common with millions of other people—but neither is it boring.
The road is becoming increasingly narrow and untrafficked, then ends entirely as she swings the Skoda to the right and parks. "How are you for warmth?" she asks, winding a scarf around her neck. Golden leaves swirl in the path ahead. We could be advancing on Narnia. The forest is a quilt of rust-colored ferns, mossy branches overhead, the dogs hurling themselves in and out of the brush.
"I must say, I really love living here," she says as the Highland air rushes into my lungs, as disorienting and heady as nitrous oxide. To walk with Tilda Swinton in a forest is to feel like a member of a royal guard. "I love cities for what they do. But once you live in a place like this, you kind of lose your way in a city."
Her hair is blonde, with traces of red. I feel about 100,000 miles away from anything familiar. We turn left, start shuffling down a hill, and then water comes into view, the dogs splashing in ahead of us.
Is this Loch Ness?
"This is baby Loch Ness," she says. "The appendix, or the small intestine."
There is a red sailboat, moored, and a white sailboat, moored, and a majestic woodpile emerging out of the water.
Her 89-year-old father, she's saying, has only one leg. Major-General Sir John Swinton, the latest in a long and decorated line of soldiers, a hero of World War II, from which he emerged short one limb. Another ancestor, Alan Archibald Campbell-Swinton, was a famous scientist: "There are some very zealous admirers of my great-great-uncle who want him to be instated as the true inventor of the cathode-ray tube for television." These are the two Swinton family traditions, she says, sighing: the television and the tank.
I ask her if she feels an affinity for the soldiers over the scientists, or vice versa.
"I spent a lot of time thinking that I was some kind of foundling," Tilda Swinton says, answering a better question than the one I asked. "That I had been a changeling, that I had been found under a bush somewhere, and that I couldn't possibly be kin—but the more I live, the more I feel absolutely like I come out of my family. I'm a sort of strange natural progression."
Down the road is an old restaurant in a low white cottage, and she parks the Skoda in the lot facing the loch—the real Loch Ness, vast and cold looking, gray hills rising around, water washing over the pebbles on the beach.
"You're going to stay here, and you're going to have a little snooze."
For a moment I think Tilda Swinton is commanding me to take a nap in her car.
Do I want to take a nap in Tilda Swinton's car?
But she's talking to the dogs.
They seat us at a wooden table in the back, beside a porthole window that looks out onto the loch, and Tilda Swinton instructs me to scan periodically for the monster. We order tons of food—mussels, fish and chips, a prawn-crab-and-sweet-chile cocktail, two birch beers, two coffees. Also, she tells the waitress, my heart filling with dread: haggis.
"Because Zach's never had any, swinton and he has to."
I ask my first and nearly only proper question of the day. Actually, it's not that proper.
You once said if you hadn't become an actress, you would've become a professional gambler....
"Well, I was a professional gambler. When I lived in London, there were a couple of years when I didn't really earn money doing anything else. I mean, I did other things, like I made work, and I was working with Derek Jarman at the time, but the way I made money was putting money on horses."
What did you know about horses to successfully bet on them?
"My grandfather had an old gardener called Bert Matheson, and he taught me how to pick winners, and it kind of works! It's very strange. I mean, it doesn't always work, of course. It's got something to do with the form, and there's a certain amount of knowledge about particular horses, but it really is not that. It's to do with, um, just looking at the horses in the ring and asking whether they're gonna win or not! Basically, I mean."
One wager—one horse, named Devilry, running one race—"kept us for nearly a year," Tilda Swinton says.
The waitress arrives again.
"Haggis!" Tilda Swinton says delightedly. "Now, don't look frightened."
I am frightened. It's crunchy on the outside, mysterious and warm and salty on the inside—it tastes like something you might eat and wake up from ten hours later, wearing chain mail, riding a stallion. I manage a couple of bites, and Tilda Swinton manages the rest of it. She removes her coffee mug from its saucer and cradles it in her lap as we talk.
For years, she's saying, she has been telling people that she isn't an actress. But finally, over these past few months, as movie after movie featuring Tilda Swinton emerged in theaters, she began considering just admitting it: "I feel a bit embarrassed by saying I'm not an actress."
Still, she doesn't think of what she does as acting, exactly. "For a lot actors, there's a sort of code of honor around playing something other than yourself, which I just don't have. I love feeling like I'm—I won't even say acting out, but performing in some deep seam of my consciousness, or my family's consciousness, or my past. That's really amusing to me."
Which is to say: When you see Tilda Swinton on-screen, even as an angel or a witch or a future fascist, odds are the person you're actually seeing is Tilda Swinton, the human across the table from me at this very moment. There have been exceptions: the murderous general counsel of 2007's Michael Clayton, say, for which she won an Oscar. "I remember someone asked me, 'What's the most challenging thing you ever did?' And I said, quite honestly, 'Playing a corporate lawyer was really a stretch.' " But by and large, Tilda Swinton performs Tilda Swinton.
For instance: Jarmusch's Only Lovers Left Alive, a film about living forever, which she shot two years ago while watching her mother die. She would work during the week and then come home to care for her on weekends. "Old age is really tough," she says. "Because let's face it, when people are younger, you have the luxury of saying it's a tragedy, they should have died later, you know, they could have had another forty years. But I remember sitting beside my mother for weeks thinking, What mortality police can I call? We're really supposed to put up with this?
"It's one of the reasons that film was—is—so tender for me. Because every time I came off the set, Sandro would be in the wings trying to find another plane from a small airport that would be leaving on Friday night."
And so the Tilda Swinton you see on-screen in Only Lovers Left Alive, that languor in living, that person savoring an eternity: that really is a person trying to savor an eternity. And the sadness in the film is her sadness, too—at knowing it's not possible.
"My tropes are dogs and eggs," Tilda Swinton decides, scanning through her photographs, trying to find one particular egg shot—she has chickens in her yard; they lay the most beautifully colored eggs. "My children and my dogs and my sweetheart, I'd have to say." She turns to me: "What are your tropes?"
Mostly I take photos of my girlfriend, I say.
"You can't have enough, you really can't," Tilda Swinton says.
I say it's a point of contention between us, actually, me always taking her photo. Sometimes the results are unflattering.
Tilda Swinton pauses her scroll, a look of concern on her face. "You mustn't show her the photographs!" she says."They're for you, when you're away!"
And then: "Here we are. Look, I found it!"
A photo of four eggs, each a different, distinct shade of white.
Dying light is particularly amazing on her face. She looks like a painting. She actually said that to me herself, earlier: "I don't really look like people in films; I look like people in paintings."
We pass glowing farmhouses and spooky stands of trees. She's driving, talking about Snowpiercer, perhaps her highest-profile role of the year, playing a pig-nosed enforcer on a dystopian train carrying the last survivors of a destroyed and frozen-over Earth. Captain America, Chris Evans, starred in it—there were bloody, elaborately choreographed action sequences, like a real blockbuster might have. But there were also pauses for incongruous sushi dinners and classrooms full of children in song; Swinton says she's pleased about how, "by the skin of our teeth," it remained the oddball film she and the cast and Bong Joon-ho set out to make, despite Harvey Weinstein's well-publicized and ultimately failed campaign to cut twenty minutes from it. It was weird, and people loved it. She was, she says, happy to see Harvey Weinstein proved wrong: "I think that's useful."
Ahead of us, just now taking shape in the twilight, is where she lives, the town of Nairn. "Here we are, coming into the great, great metropolis," Tilda Swinton says. A long greensward of grass appears to our right; in the summer, they show cattle, sheep, dogs here, she says. "I've always wanted to enter the salad-on-a-plate competition."
"It's salad! On a plate! I think you have to grow the items. But then you have to present them nicely, too."
"What else happens here?" she asks, rhetorically. "Tractors get prizes for being particularly shiny."
We pull into her driveway, past a modest white gate, just down the road from the ocean. Her home is large, old, stately, some sort of flowering vines climbing the front. Pink dahlias line the garden, which is enormous and frequented by a tortoise named Slowly and a diminishing number of chickens. "We have a variety of predators," she says sadly. Her cabbages are huge, sculptural.
I ask her what the flowering vines are that cover her home, but darkness has fallen, the day has been long, and she can't remember their name. She promises to write me the moment she thinks of it, scribbling down my e-mail address. My hotel, a labyrinthine Scottish conference center plagued by a roaming bagpiper in a kilt, is just across the street.
We make loose plans to meet in the morning before my flight, plans I'm not convinced will transpire, but fifteen minutes later I get an e-mail.
please send me a message in a bottle or tied to a pigeon or even to the neck of my white hen, speckled jim, who disappears every night and i think must live nearer your windows tonight than ours..
sleep very well
ps creeping hydrangea (brain like wet cake)
When you send Tilda Swinton an e-mail, you receive an auto-reply: "Hello, I am away until 01/01/2070 and am unable to read your message."
But then, a few minutes later, another e-mail, with the subject line "If you see her, send her home." There's no text, just an image of "her": Speckled Jim, a gender-confused white hen with a red beak, roaming the green, green Scottish grass, whereabouts currently unknown.
A proper rainy Scotland morning. "We'll go to what we call the Dunes," she says, swerving in the Skoda to avoid a bird. "Oh, that's a really fat pigeon!" The Dunes are through Nairn, by the water. Around a curve, I see sand, then the beach.
We get out. "I realize I've committed the great sin of coming without a ball. Unless Sandro…yes!" Tilda Swinton emerges triumphant, holding both tennis ball and tennis-ball wand. "Ah, here we go. This is what you came for," she says to me as the beach—the gorgeous beach, the one she'll later send me an immaculately composed photo of, subject line "aide memoire"—spreads out before us.
The beach is vast and deserted. The waves come gently; the dogs charge as she hurls the tennis ball, which inscribes lovely little arcs against the slate sky. The wind coming off the water is raw and invigorating. She points at a spit of land off to the east. "Sandro and I decided we wanted to walk over there. And we were walking, and water—" she gestures up to her thigh, to show how deep it got. "So we said 'Fuck it,' came back here and took off our clothes and just swam out. It was marvelous."
My flight leaves in a little more than an hour.
Tilda Swinton kneels down in the sand. "Here, take a shell! Take a shell for your girl!" she says, handing me a perfect white stone.
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