For over 25 years now, Tilda Swinton’s willowy silhouette and intense, expressive face have been lighting up the silver screen. Among her many appearances, some have stood out more than others, such as in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, where she played an ancient vampire, a melancholy metaphor for the eternal artist in a world that no longer has much use for poetry. But poetry is precisely what the Scots-born Swinton has constantly sought to bring alive right from her beginnings in the late 1980s, when she worked with the high priest of British queer cinema, Derek Jarman. Since then she’s been directed by the Coen brothers in Burn After Reading, by Wes Anderson in Moonrise Kingdom and The Grand Budapest Hotel, by David Fincher in one of his best films – The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – as well as by the South Korean filmmaker Bong Joon-ho in Snowpiercer and Okja. Apart from French actresses Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche, it’s hard to think of anyone who could rival her in terms of diversity and creative energy.
And in reality Swinton is the co-author of the roles she plays, something that goes beyond mere acting. Fashion and auteur cinema see in her a muse with unfailing taste who is attracted to the radical like a moth to the flame, but defining her as such does not tell the whole story – she’s also capable of bringing a welcome queerness to popular big-budget productions such as The Chronicles of Narnia or Doctor Strange. This autumn her latest film with her close friend Luca Guadagnino hits the screens: a remake of Dario Argento’s cult 1970s horror film Suspiria, in which she plays a choreographer who is literally haunted by her profession. Disturbing, free, funny and luminous, Swinton constantly manages to fuse the contrary. Numéro asked her about her creative process, her love of witches, the roles of technique and instinct in her craft and even her nighttime dreams…
Numéro: Let’s talk first about Suspiria. It’s probably one of the most deranged and fascinating films you’ve ever done. What did you like about the project?
Tilda Swinton: I’ve been talking to Luca Guadagnino for over 20 years about a dream to make a “cover” of Dario Argento’s 1977 Suspiria. We both had a bit of a thing for that film: Luca since his teenage years, me having seen it as a student. The project of digging into the same soil as a beloved tree and finding new instincts growing out of that ground is a particularly satisfying one. Dario’s film is an hallucination – bonkers in all the right ways and wildly inventive. It quite literally inspired Luca to be a film director in the first place. And I’m sure he’s not the only one...
“Dario’s film is an hallucination – bonkers in all the right ways and wildly inventive. It quite literally inspired Luca to be a film director in the first place.”
How would you describe the shoot? Was working on the film like a trance?
I wouldn’t use that word, no. It was, like all filmmaking, highly practical, an endurance in terms of stamina – but great fun! We had the luxury of shooting in the peace of a location – an abandoned hotel near Varese in the north of Italy – in which we were able to build all our sets without interruption or outside concerns. We were a nice mixture of old friends, colleagues who have worked together over many years, new faces, and a company of dancers, who were the heart of our enterprise. Their discipline and the inspiration of their work gave us all a daily boost. It was cold and misty most mornings, and we worked from darkness to darkness all through the winter. We ate risotto with chestnuts every Sunday. It was magical!
In popular culture, witches are very interesting female figures. Feminists tend to adore them. How about you?
The last witch in Scotland was burned, less than 200 years ago, in a village near to where I live in the Scottish Highlands. A mile from our house, a woman called Isobel Gowdie, a powerful and charismatic “teller of tales,” was burned alive after “confessing” to acts of witchery ranging from turning herself into animals to shagging the devil and every thrilling possible thing in between. I have always found this fascinating stuff, not only because of the proximity of these casual matters of fact, but the consistent narrative that runs through our ever-evolving “civilization,” the incidental devaluing and demonizing of the intelligence of women and the attempts to suppress their “magick” in the name of the rational. Meanwhile, the vital significance to the human psyche of wild women, of wise women, of devouring mother figures, from Kali in India to the Gorgon everywhere, the child-stealing Rangda in Bali, to the snake goddesses of Greece, is very real. The power of the feminine and its formidable shadow potential is accepted throughout human culture across all continents and millennia. We need to know the dark stuff to truly value and understand the light. The supernatural properties of people of all genders – from shaman to priest, from dominatrix to rock god or goddess and well beyond – drive our society forward always. All hail the witches and wizards, their spells and hocus-pocus, their illusions and enchantments!