Wednesday, January 9, 2013

In Character: Tilda Swinton

No one plays a woman in constant duress quite as well as Tilda Swinton. Don’t get me wrong, she can hit any emotion demanded of her, but in looking over the roles I’ve chosen as her best, the majority of them highlight Swinton at her most unnerved. Whether she’s scrambling to protect her son, herself, her lover, or the billion-dollar corporation she works for, there’s simply no match for Swinton’s desperation. And it’s for that reason that Swinton is, and I’m sure will remain, one of the very finest actresses currently working in film.

Five Essential Roles
The Deep End (2001)
Margaret Hall
Margaret Hall is a normal woman living a normal life. Married, kids, successful husband – she’s an idealistic representation of American upper-middle class. But when she learns her teenage son is having an affair with a much older man, she has every intention of putting an end to it.

Soon after Swinton approaches her son’s lover (played with the charm of a snake by Josh Lucas) things go wrong for the Hall family very very quickly. There’s trickery, blackmail, murder – so many times during the film, it appears as thought the jig is up for innocent little Margaret. But looks certainly can be deceiving.

Broken Flowers (2005)
Because Swinton’s screentime in Broken Flowers clocks in at less than two minutes, it’s fair to say that this is definitely not one of Swinton’s most discussed roles. What it is, however, is easily one of my favorites.

By the time I saw Jim Jarmusch’s remarkable little film, I knew damn well who Tilda Swinton was. But I don’t think it was until months later that I realized she played the final former lover of Bill Murray’s cross-country quest to locate the mother of his suspected son. Most of the women on Murray’s voyage treat him openly, others timidly, and one even sexually. All are nice, except Penny. Clad in white trash-perfect attire, heavy eye make up and a killer attitude, Penny spits venom at Murray’s character, giving the film a shocking jolt of tension. It’s a remarkable performance, never mind its length.

Michael Clayton (2007)
Karen Crowder
I thought Cate Blanchett had the 2007 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the bag. Maybe Amy Ryan would take the steam of her critics awards and nab it, or possibly veteran Ruby Dee could pull an upset, but certainly not Swinton, I mean, she didn’t do anything in Michael Clayton, right?

So when Swinton’s name was called, I took it as a sign of faith. The Oscar voters knew that her desperate work as the desperate Karen Crowder was something we rarely see: a woman in complete self-inflicted peril, without the benefit of monologues, tears or all that much time on screen. In short, after Swinton won, I went back and judged her work in the film. Harshly. At first glance, sure, you can say Swinton isn’t doing too much in the film, when in fact, she’s actually doing everything.

Early in Michael Clayton, Sydney Pollack bellows aloud: “Where the fuck is Karen Crowder?” Ha, wouldn’t she like to know.

Julia (2008)
The best, most sadly overlooked performance of Tilda Swinton’s career is her starring work in Erick Zonca’s criminally ignored Julia.

In the film, itself based on and inspired by John Cassavetes’ Gloria, Swinton plays a reckless alcoholic who parties, sleeps around, loses jobs – you name it. In spite of her recklessness (or is it because of it…?) Julia is propositioned to kidnap a boy and split the ransom money. And, given Julia’s insatiable aptitude for fucking things up, the situation goes very wrong very fast, resulting in a unique thriller rooted by a devastating and daring performance.

In his review of the film, Roger Ebert noted that Swinton will take on any role regardless of ego, paycheck, vanity or career path. All that matters, he said, is whether the movie interests her. Couldn’t agree more. That is what makes Swinton one of the best we have.

I Am Love (2009)
Emma Recchi
I Am Love didn’t sound like a movie I wanted to see. An Italian family melodrama about wealth, class, and infidelity, made by a guy I was unfamiliar with, starring people I’d never heard of. Enter Tilda Swinton, who turned my apathy into curiosity. And in watching the film, my curiosity was flipped to unexpected admiration.

I Am Love is a uniquely executed, visually stunning, and impeccably acted drama about a well-to-do housewife who decides to stray from her marriage with her son’s friend. Speaking flawless Italian with a slight Russian accent (a great little hint that while Emma is a part of the wealthy family she married into, she’s not really part of it), Swinton portrays her character’s initial tediousness, quickly developed lust, and eventual dread, all with the subtle wonderment that we’ve come to expect from her. We’re never entirely sure of Emma’s motivations, but we have the best of times trying to pick the pieces apart.

The Best of the Best
We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
Eva Khatchadourian
When I set out to draft this post, I honestly thought I would choose Julia as Swinton’s best role, not just for the sake of being different, but because she really is quite flawless in that film. But upon rewatching We Need to Talk About Kevin, I simply cannot turn my back on the miracle(s) she executes here.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is a dark, relentless film, and Swinton is its anchor. I spoke earlier of Swinton’s knack for portraying desperate characters, and I believe Eva Khatchadourian to be the definitive summation of those roles. As we track Eva from a carefree young woman, to a despondent new mother, to a mortified middle-aged housewife, there’s simply nothing about Eva’s despair that you can ignore.

Just look at the still I’ve chosen to represent her work here. If you’ve seen the film, you know that just below the frame is a stroller containing Eva’s newborn, ceaselessly crying child. And playing over the soundtrack are the very loud sounds of construction equipment. The jackhammers pounding into the sidewalk are Eva’s first semblance of relief since her boy was born. They drown out the cries, and they bring her peace.

I remember the first time I saw We Need to Talk About Kevin, and how struck I was by that simple moment. I thought, “Wow, this lady’s got it bad.” I didn’t know the half of it, but Swinton’s fearless, tireless performance had me hooked from frame one. Which is something I could say about damn near anything she’s in.

Other Notable Roles
In Vanilla Sky
Orlando (1992)
The War Zone (1999)
The Beach (2000)
Vanilla Sky (2001)
Adaptation. (2002)
Young Adam (2003)
The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005)
Thumbsucker (2005)
The Man from London (2007)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Burn After Reading (2008)
The Limits of Control (2009)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)

Previous installments of In Character include:
Steve Buscemi
John Cazale
Don Cheadle
Patricia Clarkson
Cliff Curtis
Jeff Daniels
Viola Davis
the Cast of Django Unchained
Michael Clarke Duncan
Chiwetel Ejiofor
William Fichtner
Brendan Gleeson
Bruce Greenwood
Philip Baker Hall
Woody Harrelson
John Hawkes
Philip Seymour Hoffman
Richard Jenkins
Erland Josephson
Elias Koteas
Heath Ledger
the Cast of Lincoln
William H. Macy
Christopher McDonald
Alfred Molina
David Morse
Emily Mortimer
Gary Oldman
Guy Pearce
Kevin Pollak
Joe Pantoliano
John C. Reilly
Sam Rockwell
Campbell Scott
Michael Shannon
David Strathairn
Danny Trejo
Stanley Tucci
Emily Watson
Shea Whigham
Ray Winstone
Jeffrey Wright
Steve Zahn


  1. Ralph Fiennes next. It's only rational.

    1. HA! You're just running this column at this point. So many great choices!

  2. Friggin love Tilda. Her look and her performances.

  3. She's easily one of the best actresses working today. She is also someone who is fearless into any role she's playing. I think if someone was to do a David Bowie bio-pic in the style of I'm Not There, she should play the Thin White Duke or Ziggy Stardust.

    Speaking of Bowie, have you heard his new song? I'm in awe of it. I'm just glad he's back.

    1. Holy shit dude, Swinton as Bowie, I think you're onto something there. That is genius.

      I think Bowie's "Where Are We Now?" is remarkable. So glad he's back as well.

    2. Swinton as Bowie is a great idea! I've never thought that anyone would quite be able to pull off his unique charisma on film (aside from the man himself, naturally) but Swinton would be perfect!

    3. I think we may be on to something here. Void, better © that idea!

  4. I just wanted to wrap her up and give her a hug in We Need to Talk About Kevin, she was so fragile in that. I think the first film where I ever really knew her was in Narnia though :) 2005, I would have been....14, I think. She's such a unique, amazing individual!

    1. I was first introduced to her in Constantine. Her character was easily the most fascinating in the film. Then came Narnia, before I discovered the rest of her filmography. She's a fantastic actress indeed.

    2. @Ruth, God, I know exactly what you mean about her character in WNTTAK. You just want to tell her everything's going to be all right, even though we know it won't.

    3. @Teddy, I agree, Constantine isn't much of a movie, but Swinton is kind of awesome in it.

  5. Great post! I haven't seen most of these but want to now. Tilda Swinton's work in I Am Love was incredible - mysterious at times, predictable at other moments. Thanks for reminding me of this film.

    1. Thanks! So glad you're a fan of her work in I Am Love. That's a hell of a movie right there.

  6. Excellent choice!

    Eva in We Need to Talk About Kevin is such an incredibly complex role, and she nailed it. For me, the film may be too disturbing for a second viewing, but I was definitely amazed, especially by her performance. Reading the novel made me appreciate the complexity of the character, and of her work, even more.

    Loved Michael Clayton. "Where the fuck is Karen Crowder?" Hah!

    She was magnificent as Katie in Burn After Reading, too -- such an incredible bitch. "For fucks sake, Ozzie!" Great stuff.

    I haven't seen most of these others, though Julia has been on my list for ages.

    1. Thanks! I honestly never thought I would watch WNTTAK again, it's just that intense, but I did for this post, and I appreciated her work even more.

      I LOVE her work in Burn After Reading, such a perfect bitch, so different from the isolation of Karen Crowder.

      Julia is a really twisted little movie. She's great in it!

  7. She's so amazing. She's like an alien woman sent to make everything awesome.

    My favourite performance of hers is in Kevin as well, though I too was blown away by I Am Love.

    1. Ha! I love that, an alien sent to make everything awesome. Fucking perfect.

  8. Dan here. I just showed this to my friend who is obsessed with Tilda Swinton and she absolutely loves this post. She's so happy you mentioned Julia because she feels like nobody talks about that movie enough. Another recommendation for you because I can't believe you've yet to do Pete Postlethwaite. He's one of the first actors I think of when talking about actors you know by face but not by name. Heck even Spielberg called him the greatest actor alive.

    1. Nice man, so glad to hear that! Julia... what a great little film that is. Too bad it never really saw the light of day.

      And actually, before I officially started my In Character column, I wrote a very similar post about Postlethwaite when he died. It's actually my first unofficial In Character piece. Enjoy!

  9. We need to talk about Kevin is a movie that haunts me to this day- I was very impressed and moved by it, and Tilda Swinton was a main reason for that. She is one of my favorites in the industry right now! Great write-up!

    1. Thanks! That is a haunting film if there ever was one. I mean, wow. She's so damn good in it.

  10. Fine choices. I'd probably chose Michael Clayton as her best (barely over Kevin), but I still haven't seen Julia or The Deep End yet.

    1. Oh she is so perfect in Michael Clayton. Her final scene is just so pathetic: "You--you don't want the money?"

      Both Julia and The Deep End are really something.

  11. At first I was debating on who I thought was a better actress Tilda Swinton or Cate Blanchet. I still think Miss Blanchet is extremely talented and I will watch her in anything. The characters that Miss Swinton portray are more memorable, and makes me want to seek them out again. Great post.

    1. Thanks man! And I think that's a very interesting challenge to take on: Swinton vs. Blanchett. I'm not sure I could pick one, I love them both equally. Two of the finest living talents we have.

  12. I really need to see "I am Love" and "Deep End"! Great choices here, for me her work in Julia is #1, than Clayton and than Kevin but it's really all so brilliant it's tough to even say why, she just has such power and charisma and she always becomes her characters, there are never any flaws in her performances.

    I also love her as those fierce, powerful characters like in Vanilla Sky and The Beach. She acts as if she "had all the answers" and the protagonist usually looks like a helpless fool with her in the scene :)

    1. I remember you hailing her work in Julia as your personal favorite and hey, that is perfectly okay with me. She's brilliant there.

      You're spot on about the all the answers vs. helpless fool game she can spin. Ah, she's just so good.

  13. Excellent post, whatever role she is in, she just adds a unique and quirky quality.

  14. Amazing profile of my favorite actress! I still haven't seen her Oscar-winning turn in Michael Clayton, but the fact she has an Oscar proves there is justice in this world.

    1. Thanks man! Dude, you HAVE to see Michael Clayton ASAP. It is precisely the type of subtle performance that is rarely awarded an Oscar, which makes her win that much more thrilling.

  15. A true chameleon, she buries herself in any role she is given, love that about her. She also acts like nothing is beneath her which refreshing, that or she is just very careful about the characters she chooses. My favourite section of Limits of Control was hers.

    1. Totally agree! I need to see Limits of Control again actually. Didn't fully click for me the first time. But I do love her in it.