Interview: Tilda Swinton
“Age cannot wither her, nor custom stale / Her infinite variety,” Enobarbus says of the iconic pharaoh in Antony and Cleopatra, but he might have been speaking of the perennially surprising Tilda Swinton. When I interviewed her, hunched in her black coat at the chilly Sony offices in Midtown Manhattan recently, she seemed scarcely more wearied by life than she did when I first talked to her, an ethereal 26-year-old, on the London set of Friendship’s Death 27 years ago. She was pleased when I recalled our chat on the set of that Peter Wollen essay film—about an encounter between a pacifist alien and a pro-PLO war correspondent (Bill Paterson) in Amman during “Black September” 1970—because it’s a largely forgotten movie she would like to see resurrected and finally released on DVD.
Natural human decay of body and mind has never bothered Swinton’s Eve in Jim Jarmusch’s philosophically ambitious and densely allusive Only Lovers Left Alive. She and her musician husband Adam (Tom Hiddleston) are terminally beautiful English vampires who might have stepped out of a Symbolist painting; as a time-traveler, three millennia old, Eve is a sister, of course, of Swinton’s title character in Sally Potter’s Orlando.
Though devoted to each other, Eve and Adam start out on different continents. As languid as she is enlightened, Eve lives in Tangier, devours books, and hangs out with the undead Christopher Marlowe (John Hurt), revealed as the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Adam has wound up as a melancholy drone rocker who lives reclusively in Detroit, where he collects vintage electric guitars, champions Nikola Tesla, buys uncontaminated blood from an unscrupulous doctor (Jeffrey Wright), and bitches about the mess Zombies (non-vampires) have made of planet Earth.
To allay Adam’s blues, Eve pays him a visit. They make love, treat themselves to O-negative popsicles, and cruise the post-industrial dystopia at night—Jarmusch’s camera tracking poetically past Detroit’s deteriorating houses as it did those of New Orleans in Down by Law (86). The couple’s idyll is disrupted by the arrival of Eve’s bored, bratty younger sister, Ava (Mia Wasikowska), who, unlike her sister and resentful brother-in-law, has no qualms about sinking her teeth into Zombie throats.
Swinton also graces, in a small role, the spring’s other significant American film, Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Her Madame D.—surely related to Max Ophüls’s “Madame de…”—is an ailing dowager of Old Europe and a lover and legator of the roué concierge M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes). The film’s 17-person makeup team did an amazing job aging Swinton, who proves a convincing dotard, but the Thin White Duchess of 30 years ago shines through.
Only Lovers Left Alive
Did you create a centuries-old backstory for Eve in Only Lovers Left Alive?
In a completely playful way, Jim and I have been riffing about Adam and Eve’s live for the length of time it took to make the film, which was about eight years. The first premise, of course, was [derived from] Mark Twain’s beautiful Adam and Eve diaries [“Extracts from Adam’s Diary,” 1904; “Eve’s Diary,” 1906], which just set the tone and the dynamic between this curmudgeon and this space cadet. We put a lot of stories from their past in the original draft of the script, paring them away in the many drafts that followed. She’s a Bructeri druid and she’s lived 3,000 years, so we worked that constantly. She’s seen everything. That’s why she’s got her particular perspective. She reads humanity, she reads nature, she reads the past, she reads for an attitude to the future.
And is she older than Adam?
Way older. He’s a baby, 500 years old.
Jim Jarmusch has said that whereas Adam is a Romantic—and he has clearly got that Byronic gloom—Eve is more of a Classicist. She exudes serenity and speaks more to the eternal than he does. When he laments the plight of the planet and what the Zombies have done to it, she tries to comfort him by saying: “We’ve done all this before.” You get a sense from her that the Earth will regenerate itself. Did you talk or think about this?
Yes, we talked about it endlessly. I think there’s something really significant about the fact that he’s an artist and she isn’t. At the same time, there is this primary issue, which is that she’s that old. So the question is, will Adam have the same perspective as she does in two-and-a-half-thousand years? I don’t know. Maybe he will. But if he doesn’t, I wouldn’t be surprised. I would then suggest that that perspective might be something that she has access to because of her position not as a maker, but as a sort of lightning conductor. It’s not quite that she’s an interpreter or translator, but more like she’s the grounding cable for Adam. I don’t know whether he would ever be able to access that because I don’t know whether it’s his place as an artist to be that grounded.
Maybe that’s the nature of their bond, and that’s why they need each other, why it operates, and why it will never stop operating. Because it’s for her to have this literally earthed feeling so that Adam can float and so that he can be caught in his own spirit and not caught in anything else.
Do you think Eve vampirized Adam?
I wonder. Who knows? They are, as she would say, related by blood. Yeah, maybe.
I can imagine that after 500 years, one wouldn’t want to spend too much time with one’s spouse. Whereas Adam chose seclusion in Detroit, she went to Tangier. I assume Christopher Marlowe probably went there for the beautiful boys, like Joe Orton, but why did she?
Probably to meet Rumi or Hafez [13th- and 14th-century Persian poets, respectively]. I don’t know. I think, for company. I sense that company’s extremely important to her, in a way that it’s literally antagonistic to Adam. Detroit was always going to be Detroit, and we knew we needed an old civilization for her. We were going to put her in Rome for a long time and then we started to dislodge that and place her on the African continent. Once we thought of Tangier it felt completely right, because it is such a hotspot and such a space station. When you walk around there now, you really wouldn’t be surprised to find William Burroughs in the corner of a café or Brion Gysin or any of them, even if people have told you they’re not alive any more. That’s why it felt so right to put Christopher Marlowe there. It’s where people who are reported to have died are actually living. So I think Eve went for the society there and she went for the invisibility within the society, because it’s one of those places where you can be invisible. There’s a sort of slipstream that you can move through.
Why aren’t Adam and Eve living together at the start of the film?
Maybe they would say they do. Being apart for five years might be like being away for a weekend for them. I think they do live together in the sense that they are truly married and committed to one another for the long term, but in that extremely sophisticated and mature way, which means that they’re living their own individual lives. They’re not editing themselves in order to carry some sort of oneness idea.
This is the third film you’ve made with Jim after Broken Flowers  and The Limits of Control . Do you see Only Lovers Left Alive as more autobiographical than the other two in the sense that Adam and Eve represent different aspects of him?
Well, I met Jim backstage at a Darkness concert and about a week later he sent me a letter asking me to be in Broken Flowers, which was already written and was already happening. So I wasn’t a part of the development of that film at all. I was more of a part of The Limits of Control, but that film was such a particular undeveloped film by its design; it was Jim’s intention to make a film in a manner in which he didn’t know what he was doing. So it was strange. In that sense, it felt extremely autobiographical because it felt like he was looking for cinema. He blindfolded himself purposefully and then felt for that film.
But I would say, yes, [Only Lovers Left Alive] did feel very personal—it’s certainly very intimate and it has a central love in a way that his other films don’t. It’s also true that Sara [Driver, the filmmaker and Jarmusch’s romantic partner] was a huge guiding light on this project and was the person who introduced Jim to the Mark Twain stories. So maybe it is more autobiographical. But I don’t know. I’m not really qualified to judge. Maybe it’s always the case.
When Adam evicts Ava [Eve’s younger sister, played by Mia Wasikowska] from his place in Detroit, she calls them snobs. She’s got a point, because they do exude a haughty, above-it-all otherworldliness. It cautions the viewer not to hang onto their every word.
They are snobs—super snobs. That is the price they pay for having this perspective. Also, I think it’s the way Ava feels about them. She’s very young and still enmeshed with human society in a way that—let’s watch this space, maybe in 1,000 years she will have found a way of mediating with humanity in a less chaotic and dangerous way. They’re safe and also together and have this hermetic seal around them, whereas she’s alone and lonely. Their task is to stay invisible and unreflected and unnoticed. As Eve says to Adam in the club when he’s getting freaked out because his music’s playing there: “Don’t draw attention to yourself.” That’s her modus operandi. For someone who looks as she does to walk through the streets of Tangier without drawing any attention at all shows how incredibly well she does it. That’s what she’s perfected in her life over the centuries. That’s what survival is—this sense of removal and imperviousness.
So I feel Ava is envious of them, but she’s also been “snobbed” by them. Yes she was greedy and drank Ian [Adam’s mortal go-between, played by Anton Yelchin] and she’s a mess and all mixed up, but I have great compassion for her. She hasn’t met anyone who can keep her company through the centuries, so I totally forgive her.
As Eve in Only Lovers Left Alive, you are ageless, but as Madame D. in The Grand Budapest Hotel, you are at the very end of…
I don’t age in that either!
Well, no you don’t age, but you are aged. I wondered if you got a glimpse of how you might appear on film when you’re 90.
One of the things I really love about both of these characters is that they are so young at heart and so in love. They are both ancient young lovers. Madame D., in particular, is like a 9-year-old with half a butcher-shop of meat on her face, who’s all atwitter and scared. I would hope that I would look half as good as Madame D. when I’m her age. She tells everybody she’s 83, but she’s actually at least in her middle nineties, I would say. One of the things that was really beautiful to explore in both of those portraits was the idea that—and this is quite a practical observation that I’ve made over the years with ancient beloved people in my life—real spiritual youth is gained latterly. That is something that I really wanted to just flick into being in these two people. It’s the idea that when you are that old, that’s when you can really love, really appreciate nature, really be grateful and full of wonder.
Throughout your career you’ve played characters who have a certain exquisiteness to them, going all the way back to Edward II  or Orlando. I’m thinking as much about their looks and style as much as their personalities. Is it sometimes a relief to you to play characters who are much more raw? I’m thinking of Ella in Young Adam , for example.
Or Julia [in Julia, 08]?
Yes, characters that enable you to get down and dirty. Does it come as a relief to you to throw away all the maquillage?
It feels pretty much the same deal. It’s always a disguise of a sort and it’s always a revelation of a sort. It’s just the dial is twisted to some different level. None of them feel less constructed than any other and none of them feels less real. It’s just a different look and a series of different gestures. So, no, not particularly, they’re just different shapes.
You’ve done much to preserve Derek Jarman’s memory and, indeed, you talked about him at South by Southwest in March. I know you were close friends, but can you possibly isolate what it was he contributed to your own development as an actor, in terms of freedom and trust?
First of all, I would say that preserving Derek’s memory is not the point. Talking about him—you know, whenever I’m in a position of talking to young filmmakers, students, whoever and they’re looking or asking for some example—is about disseminating the fact of Derek, because he’s still so much alive. I’m on the faculty of Béla Tarr’s film school in Sarajevo, and when I was showing Derek’s films to the doctorate students there, so many of them had not heard of him, which is not to their discredit but it says something about history. It’s 20 years since he died and it’s never going to be not necessary to keep perpetuating [his work]. It’s not preserving, it’s just keeping it, throwing it out there, because it is that modern and it is that relevant and powerful. As I think I said at South by Southwest, the significance of Derek is that he shows that there was a time when a self-determining artist like him was central to the culture. The proof was that he was completely torn to shreds by [the Thatcherite Oxford historian] Norman Stone in an enormous article in the [English] Sunday Times [January 10, 1988].
But what did he do for me? He gave me this completely unique opportunity to find out what I was interested in and not pay attention to what I wasn’t. There’s no question in my mind that I would not be performing at all if it weren’t for Derek. I was on the verge of never performing again when I met him. There wasn’t a cinema at the time that I felt I could be in, and I didn’t want to be an industrial performer or actor. He was the first and only person who said: “Well, OK, let’s look at what you do want to do. Let’s just build on what you are interested in.” That meant being silent, for a start, or just moving or looking into the camera. All my references as a performer and as a cineaste were silent movies, so he said: “Let’s do that. Let’s build on what you feel strong about.” Who else would do that for someone who was a completely unconstructed actor but almost too cine-literate for my own good at that point? He made all that a strength and made it possible for me to find my way through.
He did that for other people, too. Sandy Powell, the great costume designer, who has gone on to work with Scorsese, built her own voice through her experience of working with Derek. Caravaggio  was her first [feature] film, as it was mine, as it was Simon Fisher-Turner’s [as a composer]. So many of us started with him—John Maybury, Cerith Wyn Evans. He was so empowering. He made filmmakers of all of us, which doesn’t mean to say he made us directors, but we were all filmmakers. He gave us responsibility for our departments, which was hairy a lot of the time because we were a bunch of kids. He would say: “Go away and make these costumes and come back and we’ll use them.” Of course, occasionally he would filter but he wanted us to share in the authorship.
The Last of England
Which of his films gave you the greatest opportunity to experiment?
Particularly those I call the home movies, The Last of England , our segment of Aria , and The Garden . I’m sure people think I’m splitting hairs when I say I’m not an actor, but the reason I say it is because when you look at that early work . . . that’s not acting, that’s performance. It would be way too pretentious to call it acting. So to work with him was the only way I could find out how I could do it at all. Because if he hadn’t invited me into the kindergarten, I would have never got the chance.