Credit: Nicolas Genin

From Wes Anderson to Jim Jarmusch: Tilda Swinton’s 10 best film performances

“I’m from the same planet as David Bowie.” – Tilda Swinton

There has always been something otherworldly about Tilda Swinton. A perennial ‘shape-shifter’, Swinton is one of the most uniquely talented actors of the current years. She is best known for her fearless and eccentric performances, and equally well as an artist who enjoys experimenting with makeup. In the futuristic fantasy Snowpiercer, she and her makeup designer used an artificial nose, protruding teeth, and vibrant lipstick to create a grotesque, tyrannical administrator as she continually pushes the boundaries of ‘normal’.

For The Grand Budapest Hotel, director Wes Anderson exploited the new makeup technology for grotesque comedy. To portray an elderly woman, Swinton wore eleven pieces of prosthetic makeup on her neck, chin, earlobes, forehead, and nose—along with five wig pieces. This to an effect effectively sums up her own statement regarding the type of roles she chooses to portray on the screen. “It’s a real comfort zone for me to feel alien,” she says.

Born and schooled in London, Swinton began her career in experimental films, directed by Derek Jarman, starting with Caravaggio, followed by The Last of England, War Requiem, and The Garden. Her first major break was for her portrayal of Isabella of France in Edward II. Swinton won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival for the same, and she next starred in Sally Potter’s Orlando for which she was nominated for the European Film Award for Best Actress.

Swinton has no qualms in admitting that she’s ‘different’ from the rest of the other actors, remarking: “I have never described myself as an actress. This is partly because I never intended to become one, but also, as a point of accuracy, because whenever I read or hear proper actors describing their working lives and processes, I know that my own existence is dissimilar in too many ways to claim kin. I became a performer at a point in my life when – temporarily as it turns out, but for a long time nonetheless – I stopped writing.”

Being among the most acclaimed and versatile actress working in the movies right now, she achieved commercial success to go with the critical appreciation for her features in recent years. In 2007, Swinton’s performance as Karen Crowder in Michael Clayton earned her both a BAFTA Award for Best Supporting Actress as well as the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role at the 2008 80th Academy Awards. She also garnered widespread popularity portraying the Ancient One in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, appearing in Doctor Strange and Avengers: Endgame.

An actor of the highest quality; we, on her 60th birthday, look back at some of Tilda Swinton’s finest film performances.

Tilda Swinton’s 10 Best Films:

10. Orlando (Sally Potter – 1992)

Tilda Swinton played the titular character of Orlando in this period drama film loosely based on Virginia Woolf’s 1928 novel Orlando: A Biography. Also starring Billy Zane as Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, and Quentin Crisp as Queen Elizabeth I; Orlando was critically acclaimed and particularly applauded for the performance of Swinton and its visual treatment of the settings of Woolf’s novel.

Potter saw Tilda Swinton in the Manfred Karge play Man to Man and found there to be a “profound subtlety about the way she took on male body language and handled maleness and femaleness.”

Played with exceptional poise and beauty, Swinton described her character: “If you read two sentences on Orlando, you think it’s about difference — you think it’s about a change of gender and living through many different centuries. It didn’t take me long to figure out that, actually, what I wanted to do was to look at the similarity — look at something very simple and very unchanging — so that (the character) doesn’t actually change. Orlando is a persistent spirit: The changes in gender apparatus move around, but Orlando stays the same.”

9. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson – 2014)

Wes Anderson’s visually stunning modern masterpiece The Grand Budapest Hotel, apart from starring Tilda Swinton as the wealthy dowager and secret owner of the hotel Madame D, also included the likes of Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray and Jason Schwartzman in the one truly all-ensemble cast.

To get ‘into the skin’ of the very old Madame D, whose death and will drove the plot of the film, Tilda Swinton endured five hours in the makeup chair to put on her appearance and five hours to take it off.

On the delightful experience of donning so many prosthetics, she says: “Oh, it’s like going to the best fancy dress party in the world, and you get your costume provided for you. And in this case, half a butcher shop of meat to stick on my face. It was just a hilarious and wonderful group of people. It would be hard to resist any party that Wes Anderson threw as far as I’m concerned.”

8. Young Adam (David McKenzie – 2003)

Based on the 1954 novel of the same name by Alexander Trocchi, David McKenzie’s erotic-drama film Young Adam was particularly praised for the performances of its two leads: Ewan McGregor and Tilda Swinton.

In one typically enigmatic turn, Tilda Swinton played the barge-owner Ella who is stuck in a loveless marriage with her husband Les (Peter Mullan) and has hired the young and cocky Joe Taylor (Ewan McGregor), who fancies himself a writer.

Unsurprisingly, BAFTA Scotland named it Best Film and honoured Ewan McGregor as Best Actor in a Scottish Film, Tilda Swinton as Best Actress in a Scottish Film, and David Mackenzie as Best Director, with all three of them being nominated for British Independent Film Awards.

7. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch – 2013)

Only Lovers Left Alive saw Swinton join hands with someone of an equally unconventional auteur in Jim Jarmusch in his brilliant study of art and style all within the veil of one “crypto-vampire love story.”

Swinton plays the other half of a vampire couple ( the other being Tom Hiddleston) going through the typical vampire stuff. She says that she and the New York-based indie-film trailblazer have always ‘just clicked.’

“I love that film. I hadn’t seen it for a while — it’s so beautiful, and it’s just gonna burn forever, that film. (Jim) is a great artist. I had an early attachment to his cinema: Stranger Than Paradise was the first American independent film that I saw. And it was about America, but it was about being an alien. It was before I’d come here, so it really meant a lot to me. And I think he does that for the globe as an American — he’s there for the aliens.”

6. The Deep End (Scott McGehee, David Siegel – 2001)

Despite years of previous credits, this was the film that put Tilda Swinton firmly on the map in Hollywood and almost earned her an Oscar nomination back in 2001.

Loosely adapted on the novel The Blank Wall by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, the film marked the fulcrum point in Swinton’s acting career, after which she moved away from the UK art film scene and started accepting more Hollywood roles. She collected Golden Globe and Indie Spirit nominations, won the Boston Society of Film Critics Award, and came third at the New York Film Critics’ Circle.

On the complex character, she portrayed: “She’s involved with a sleazy art dealer and she’s sending him compromising love letters. I think Scott and David felt that in order to update the book you need something that is reality-threatening for Margaret and a few love letters is not that rich for a blackmail deal. I think it is a good decision, again, because I think the fallout of that means that she is very isolated. I imagine that that moment of the beginnings of sexual activity in your child, of whatever gender, is sort of the main territory of this.”

5. Edward II (Derek Jarman – 1991)

One of her many early experimental collaborations with Derek Jarman, Swinton won the Volpi Cup for Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival for her portrayal of Isabella of France in Edward II.

It is based on the play of the same name by Christopher Marlowe. The plot revolves around Edward II of England’s infatuation with Piers Gaveston, which proves to be the downfall of both of them, thanks to the machinations of Roger Mortimer.

“Conversations, particularly around a certain kind of political activism, gave rise to the films. There was a time in the late Eighties when there was a political situation where the Tory government were attempting to bring in all sorts of hideous restrictive laws. There was this thing called Clause 28, which was about restructuring the cultural life of gay people. We were very involved as political activists, and out of that conversation came, ‘What film could we make? Shall we make Edward II?’ Because Edward II is about a gay king. It was definitely a response to the times.”

4. Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-ho – 2013)

Before Okja, Tilda Swinton worked with Bong Joon-ho in the post-apocalyptic sci-fi Snowpiercer. Swinton first met Bong at the Cannes Film Festival, where she was of the mind that she did not want to make any other films, a decision she takes after each film: “And that one (and only) condition in which I will make another film is that I will have some fun.”

Bong and Swinton experimented with voices, mannerisms and the general appearance of the character of Mason. About her character, Swinton said, “Mason is a pretty monstrous construct so we felt we were dealing with extremes, but the truth was that we didn’t have to go that far. Look at Hitler with his dyed black hair and Gaddafi with handmade medals stuck on his jacket.”

“This is a joke that’s gone sour — I hope anyway — we take these despots and we make clowns out of them to make them somehow more palatable. We find them amusing. I think for a while that was the power of George W. Bush — people found him kind of hilarious, all those memes and all those jokes. He was worth it, somehow, for the amusement value. But there’s not much amusing going on now.”

3. Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy – 2007)

This legal thriller written and directed by Tony Gilroy in his feature directorial debut starred George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, and Sydney Pollack and chronicles the attempts by attorney Michael Clayton to cope with a colleague’s apparent mental breakdown and the corruption and intrigue surrounding one major client of his law firm being sued in a class-action case over the effects of toxic agrochemicals.

It was nominated for seven Academy Awards, with Swinton in the role of a ruthless lawyer on the verge of a mental breakdown taking home the prize for the Best Supporting Actress.

Swinton explained: “What was different there was that the tenor — the calibre of the narrative and the kinds of performances that it asked for — (was) much finer, much more naturalistic, much less fantastic, much less expressive. That was a bit of a departure. It was really interesting to work with something really naturalistic. Women like (Karen) really do exist, and they really walkabout and dress like that and talk like that. That was a bit of an adventure for me.

2. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino – 2009)

In this Italian romantic drama directed by Luca Guadagnino, Tilda Swinton plays the wife of a rich industrialist who has an affair with a chef. It was the first instalment in Guadagnino’s self-described Desire Trilogy, preceding A Bigger Splash and Call Me by Your Name.

Producers Swinton and Guadagnino developed the film together over an 11-year period. Guadagnino is a master of synthesis, likening his film to epicurean wizardry: “When you do a consommé, you cook a lot of ingredients slowly for a long time, a complicated culinary process that gets you a cup of clear broth that tastes beautiful. I would say that is what we tried to do. We really got to the essence of things.”

Adding: “It’s about figuring out really care what the character is going to look like, how they’re going to move, how they’re going to talk, what they’re going to say, the environment they’re going to be in, and what choices they’re going to make about what’s going to occupy their rooms. (Her character Emma) walked in the most uncomfortable Salvatore Ferragamo shoes — I shouldn’t really say that, but I’m afraid it’s true. And she was a little bit protective.”

1. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay – 2011)

In arguably her most popular role, and Tilda Swinton in one of her very best outings: she starred as the mother of the troubled Kevin, struggling to come to terms with her son and the horrors he has committed. She was nominated for the Golden Globe Award, Screen Actors Guild Award, and the BAFTA for Best Actress in a Leading Role in what was essentially a career-defining, milestone performance.

On the similarity of the role with her own life, she said: “It had something — not everything — to do with the fact that I had children myself. I was very interested in what it is to be a mother and all the different predicaments that one can find oneself in as a mother. The Deep End, We Need To Talk About Kevin, I Am Love, Julia: There was a sort of quartet at the time, which were very much about being a mother.”

She continued: “I was really, really fortunate in my own life — it is a piece of luck that, for whatever reason, I lucked out with my kids. I was ready to be a mother. It’s all been great. But the interesting thing that I noticed when they were born — I had twins — when I first saw them, I remember this moment of feeling a real surge of love. The second thing I felt was relief that I felt the surge. I remember thinking, ‘Huh? Why are you relieved? You mean, it might have been different?’ It was like my psyche knew that it might’ve gone the other way. And I have known women for whom it has gone the other way — that was something I was really, really interested in exploring.”

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