You know of Tilda Swinton, of course. You couldn’t look away from her outlandish makeup and costume as Madame D, the 80-something wealthy paramour in 2015’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Or her stone-faced White Witch in 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia. Or her grotesque false teeth as an enforcer on a futuristic train in 2014’s Snowpiercer. Or her unflappable hypocrisy as CEO Lucy Mirando (not to mention doing double duty as Lucy’s no-nonsense twin sister) in Netflix’s 2017 movie Okja, a role she says was partly inspired by Ivanka Trump. You’ve admired her singular sense of style on red carpets, where she switches between stereotypical male and female looks with the ease of someone who isn’t at all concerned with gender. As one of the most enigmatic actresses around, Swinton continues to surprise her fans with every role she takes—seamlessly transforming into any character, from a superhero villain to a suburban housewife.
But ask yourself what you know about Tilda Swinton, the human being. The answer is: very little. Who is she, really?
Let’s start with what she’s not. Despite her tendency toward icy queens, Swinton is not an imperious English fashionista living fabulously in London, as one might imagine. She lives in an old home in the Scottish Highlands. She spends much of her time there with her twins Xavier and Honor; lover Sandro Kopp, a German artist; four dogs; and chickens, whose eggs she’s fond of photographing. Based on the versions of her we’re used to seeing, her real life is positively mundane.
She’s also not the kind of high-maintenance Hollywood star who only comes to set for her scenes and then quickly disappears to her trailer. In fact, she’s known to show up early, leave late, and hang out with the crew.
What separates Swinton from other actors of her caliber is that she doesn’t just say she throws herself into her roles—she actually does. She carefully considers everything from the zoomed-out backstories to the tiniest visual details such as the looseness of a wedding ring on her panicked mother in The Deep End (2001). She’s a consummate professional, except her profession just happens to be imagining herself as people completely unlike her in almost every way. She morphs so fully into them that we forget to even ask about the woman behind them.
“She’s really one of the ultimate chameleons in terms of the roles she can take and the roles she’s considered for,” BuzzFeed film critic Alison Willmore says. “I was just reading the other day that the people behind the new It had considered her for Pennywise. I feel like that just speaks to both her talent and how malleable she seems as an actor. You’d be like, ‘Yeah, she can play the romantic lead, and she can also play the scary clown.’”
Wilmore points to Swinton’s first major breakout, the 1992 movie Orlando, in which the actress plays a man who becomes a woman overnight and lives through centuries of English history, “I think there are very few actors who could pull that off. And she does.” Over the years, Swinton has become known for her androgyny and agelessness. Playing supernatural is second nature to her. “There’s something about her that just confounds any expectation,” Wilmore says.
You might get the sense that Swinton can do it all—that she may disappear forever into new identities and places, like her immortal vampire-hipster who has to conceal her true self to survive in Only Lovers Left Alive (2013). That is not quite true, as Swinton would be the first to admit. For one, at 5 feet 11 inches tall, there are the physical limitations of towering over many of her male counterparts. She also provoked a backlash when she was cast as The Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange movie (2017), a character who’s of Asian origin in the comic-book source material.
But Swinton has achieved the rarest and most ineffable thing for a performer since David Bowie, with whom she’s constantly and rightfully compared: She doesn’t seem to fit here on Earth with the rest of us.
There are indeed very few actors like Swinton. There are also very few people like her.She’s one in a long line of Anglo-Saxon nobility known as Clan Swinton. Really. Her father is 92-year-old, Major-General Sir John Swinton, a former lord and World War II hero who lost a leg in battle. Sir John Swinton still lives in the family’s official seat, a centuries-old mansion in Scotland known as Kimmerghame House that has fallen apart and been rebuilt several times over. “It’s hideous, if you must know,” Swinton told the New York Times of the home. “Absolutely hideous. I say that with love.”
If you look at Swinton’s background and ask, “How?” you’re in good company. “I spent a lot of time thinking that I was some kind of foundling,” she told GQ of her upbringing. “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.”
Likewise, her rise through the ranks of Hollywood is something you couldn’t make up. When the world first noticed her in Orlando, her stardom seemed preordained. Her porcelain-white skin and impossibly green eyes are like something out of an Old Masters painting. Director Sally Potter’s adaptation of the gender-bending, time-hopping Virginia Woolf novel Orlando: A Biography seems unfilmable, but Swinton found a way to play it. By that point, mostly known for her experimental collaborations with filmmaker Derek Jarman, she had a transformation as sudden as Orlando’s: Her reputation for her ability to mutate into whatever audacious form a script required was cemented.
So she found new ways to surprise. She took time off to raise her babies and reemerged in The War Zone (1999) as a pregnant wife whose family harbors a devastating secret, and then in Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach (2000) as a terrifying commune leader. Then she took on the only thing more unexpected than switching genders: playing a totally average American mom living in Lake Tahoe in 2001’s The Deep End. Her character in that film, Margaret Hall, wears sensible clothes and almost no makeup. She’s just trying to do the best by her kids, but her life is upended when her gay son’s lover turns up dead.
Even given her early acclaim, directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel weren’t at all convinced while casting. “That was the conversation we were having, ‘Is this outside of her range? Is this something she would even be interested in?’” McGehee says. “We all really liked each other and decided to take a leap of faith. I think even for her, she was like, ‘Is this a leap too far?’ It was a real gamble for her.”
Swinton works best with high stakes. Before acting paid her bills, she made money as an actual gambler in London. The Deep End was a risk that paid off. Made on a micro budget, the indie crime film became a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival, and Swinton went on to receive her first Golden Globe nomination. In the United States, she was on the map. Roger Ebert wrote in his review of the film that her American housewife was more of stretch than her previous “extraordinary” work. “She is believable, and touching,” he concluded.
Of course, it takes a lot of work to appear so effortlessly extraordinary.
Swinton has said before that she doesn’t even consider herself an actor. As ridiculous as that sounds—she won an Oscar, after all, for her role in 2007’s Michael Clayton—people who work with her say she operates more like a close creative collaborator than a typical cast member. She’s as curious about what the cameraman is doing as she is about her own dialogue. “It was almost like being away at camp,” McGehee remembers of filming The Deep End. “It was really a feeling of, ‘We’re all in it’, in a way that wasn’t just her doing her job. She was there as a team member. That kind of attitude really pays off.”She explored every aspect of filmmaking while working alongside Jarman, an adored iconoclast who helped her develop a certain fearlessness that has propelled her ever since. “She’s pretty much up for anything,” Siegel says. “She had to get into Lake Tahoe in her underwear, which was very, very cold. I think she was a little frightened of that initially, but it wasn’t the kind of thing that was going to stop her.”
Ironically, the hardest thing for Swinton isn’t stripping down to her skivvies or imagining herself as a vampire roaming abandoned Detroit streets. Instead, it’s playing the types we’re more used to seeing at the movies, like her scheming general counsel in Michael Clayton. “I remember someone asked me, ‘What’s the most challenging thing you ever did?’” she told GQ. “And I said, quite honestly, ‘Playing a corporate lawyer was really a stretch.’”
There’s a special moment at the end of The Deep End that sums up Swinton’s powers. In the last scene, Swinton’s eyes turn from green to an oceanic blue. She’s wearing colored contacts, an idea the actress helped come up with. Even without dialogue, the image says everything: This is a woman who will let nothing stand in the way of protecting her family. When asked what he learned from making the movie, McGehee answers, “how much you can communicate with the right actress who has the right gifts, in just a silent face.”
Swinton’s collaborators talk about her in the sort of exclamations normally reserved for spiritual leaders or Nobel Prize winners. The Mexican actor Bruno Bichir’s voice goes up an octave as he recalls, in precise detail, working with her on the 2008 movie Julia. Swinton plays an irredeemable alcoholic who kidnaps a boy for ransom and flees to Mexico, only to find something like redemption in a budding friendship with the kid.
Though Bichir says there was “creative fighting” between Swinton and the film’s French director, Erick Zonka, the actress was “immediately lovely” and “creating light” everywhere she went. Swinton and Bichir met in a makeup trailer, where she was, in his telling, in a “beautiful mood, humming like a little bird.”
They shot in the impoverished outskirts of Mexico City, and Swinton would dance in the streets with little kids who were “boggled” by the presence of the witch from Narnia in their town. “That’s the way Tilda was,” Bichir says, drawing out the vowels of her name so it becomes “Teeelda.” “She refused to have bodyguards. She was free. She’s always free.”
Bichir, who comes from a legendary Mexican acting family, adds in deadpan earnestness, “If I had a wish with a genie, I would ask to work all my life with Tilda. Seriously. I pray to that.”
Swinton has fostered uniquely personal relationships in an industry that is infamous for how ruthlessly transactional it is. The same directors enlist her talents again and again from Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom, Grand Budapest, and in 2018, Isle of Dogs) to, more recently, the South Korean Bong Joon-ho (Snowpiercer, Okja), who shares with her a delight in the absurd. One of Swinton’s Springer Spaniels, Rosie, served as a “muse” for the central CGI creature in Okja, a giant, cuddly pig whose young female caretaker tries to save it from being turned into mass-produced meat by Swinton’s multinational corporation.
The reason people want to keep working with Swinton is not such a mystery. “She’s really smart. She has a great sense of humor. She likes people, and people respond to her. You kind of want to hang around her,” Siegel says.
McGehee sighs as he explains that he and Siegel have tried and failed to get other movies starring Swinton off the ground, “the typical sad stories of indie filmmaking,” he says. But they remain in touch with each other. Swinton recently sent them a text as she was watching The Deep End with her daughter Honor, who’s now grown. McGehee says the text message included, “a photo of her in the movie playing on a laptop in her house and through the window you could see her boyfriend Sandro collecting eggs from the chickens. It was adorable.”
Swinton is, at the end of the day, human, despite all evidence to the contrary. It only seems like she materialized straight out of the rolling mist of Scotland whenever paparazzi catch her, whether she’s on the Cannes Film Festival red carpet or on a date in New York City’s Lower East Side, a regal creature from another world we’ll never comprehend. But she’s been at this for a while. She may still have trouble calling herself an actor, but she’s one of the best there is.Fans of Swinton’s fashion sense may be surprised to learn that she doesn’t pick out her own outfits, at least not on official business. McGehee remembers how the actress went directly from khakis and turtlenecks to chic designer wear at the Sundance world premiere of The Deep End. Her friend and now-consultant Jerry Stafford, a colorful Parisian creative director with connections to the fashion world, sent her styling options so she would be ready to make her grand entrance at the festival as soon as she got off the plane.
“She was late for a number of reasons. Someone picked her up in the van with this box of clothes, and she had to change in the van, in open view,” McGehee says. “She had no idea what was going to be in these boxes, and then she puts on these elaborate Jerry outfits that were shipped from Paris in her size, just for her. So she steps out of this van looking amazing. And then she goes to her condo, and the rest of the time, she’s just taking out new outfits from these boxes and putting them on. Every one of them was spectacular. She just went to her fantasy clothes.”
That is to say, Tilda Swinton became Tilda Swinton. But behind all the poses, there’s the woman who likes to hang out with her kids and dogs and chickens at home, and who works hard at her job. She’s not so different from the rest of us. And then she gets delivered fabulous clothes, and when she changes, it’s like you’ve never seen her before.