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The Actor’s Non-Actor

Tilda Swinton and the art of doing very little, exquisitely.


Tilda Swinton first encountered the filmmaker Luca Guadagnino in 1994. She was at home in London, sifting through her mail, and chose to ignore a letter from the Italian filmmaker asking her to be in a short film based on “Penny Arcade Peep Show” from William S. Burroughs’s The Wild Boys: A Book of the Dead.

A few months later, Swinton was in Rome. After participating in a panel about the late film director Derek Jarman (Swinton made her 1986 film debut in his Caravaggio), she noticed an Italian man lingering by her side in the lobby of the theater. “I sort of expected him to peel off,” she says. Swinton decided to ignore him, but he took the gentlest hold of her sleeve and hung on while she finished a conversation. He introduced himself, reminded her of Burroughs and of the letter. “He said, ‘I never made the film, because you never replied.’ ” Swinton narrows her green eyes and wags her finger. “Very clever!”

Swinton and Guadagnino became great friends (Guadagnino, it turns out, has a charm gigantic enough to pull off mild stalking) and began a sixteen-year discussion that resulted, ultimately, in Io Sono L’Amore, or I Am Love, a film that opens next month with Swinton as star and producer. “In these long working relationships with people, the conversations are really the important things,” she says. “The films are like school projects that kind of come off the semester.”

The conversations between Swinton and Guadagnino were mostly about love. “About the revolution of love,” she says, “about the natural grace and the natural brutality of love. The ways in which love can unhand and at the same time destroy things.” Swinton, of course, has a famously complicated—or perhaps supremely uncomplicated—love life of her own. She has lived for a long time in the Scottish countryside, often with John Byrne, an artist, playwright, and author, and their 13-year-old twins. But she also has a relationship with an artist named Sandro Kopp, who is seventeen years younger than she is. These days, they all live on the same road, in separate houses, and are, in Swinton’s words, “a happy family.”

At the moment, Swinton is at the Bowery Hotel, on a very short break (sixteen hours) from the Connecticut set of We Need to Talk About Kevin, a film about mothers, sons, violence. She says she hasn’t slept much, but her eyes and skin are remarkably clear. Her hair, notably changeable, is, for this role, short and jet-black, and she’s wearing a long white kurta over spotless white jeans. “It’s funny that there are people here who only think of me as an actor,” says Swinton, who turns 50 in November. “I never think of myself as an actor.” She considers herself a collaborator, primarily, and even though I Am Love is the first film she’s officially produced, she spends years working behind the scenes to make the projects she believes in happen. But she did, of course, win an Oscar. For acting.

“The Oscar’s a huge mistake, a red herring,” she says of her 2008 best-supporting-actress award for Michael Clayton. “I know most people, whether they act or not, would like to set their sights at standing up in front of 3 billion people accepting a golden statue. I never have, so I feel a little sheepish about it. I’m like the person in Pass the Parcel, like the music stopped at the wrong time.”

In I Am Love, Swinton plays Emma, a Russian woman who has married into the Milanese haute bourgeoisie and, for twenty years, performed the role of Italian matron faultlessly: Her children are charming, her outfits unruffled, and she runs her villa like the conductor of a fine symphony. Among the film’s greatest pleasures are the long shots of uniformed staff moving seamlessly through the house’s corridors and in and out of its many well-oiled doors.

Things begin to unravel when Emma falls in love with a chef, the young friend of her favorite son. (The falling-in-love part goes down over a meal. “Prawn-ography,” Swinton says.) “It’s about a woman of a certain age whose mothering is coming to completion—it’s her reencounter with herself,” Swinton says. “The wheel has turned, she is thrown back on her own resources.” The topic of the female midlife crisis, the debacle of the empty nest, is the stuff of Elizabeth Gilbert and prime-time network TV—not exactly revolutionary. I Am Love’s revelation is to make it so fabulously chic, to set it to the music of John Adams, to watch these problems play across Swinton’s ghostly and incredible face as she glides about in clothing by Raf Simons and carries armfuls of shopping bags from expensive designer shops.

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