Sense and Sensuality

Sense and Sensuality

Sense and Sensuality

Tilda Swinton Hasn't Transcended Notions of Gender and Sex as Much as She's Obliterated Them. Now, at 49, She's Adding Age to the Hit List in One of the Year's Most Erotically Charged Roles

Tilda Swinton Hasn't Transcended Notions of Gender and Sex as Much as She's Obliterated Them. Now, at 49, She's Adding Age to the Hit List in One of the Year's Most Erotically Charged Roles

Photography: Inez & Vinoodh

Text: Anthony Kaufman

Tilda Swinton, the art-house goddess, holds vast chameleonic powers. “I’m always very interested in transformation,” she says.

Indeed, variously blonde, brunette, and redhead (her true color), androgynous, angelic, erotic, repressed, and fucked-up, Swinton slides through performances (and even public life) like a magical shape-shifter from a faraway land.

Ever since her work with seminal director Derek Jarman and career-defining turn in Sally Potter’s 1993 alt-classic Orlando, in which she played Virginia’s Woolf’s gender-bending protagonist—transcending the limits of both sexuality and mortality—Swinton has taken on roles that explore the nature of boundaries and the need to shatter them.

“I’m intrigued with the way people feel circumscribed by society, or circumscribe themselves into one identity that they can’t morph out of,” she says on the phone from London.

“This doesn’t make sense to me,” she continues. “So I like looking at people who hang their hat on one particular hook, and then go down with that ship,” she says with a laugh. Consider, for example, her Oscar-winning performance in Michael Clayton as a cutthroat lawyer—“a neurotic shark in pearls,” according to one critic—who is undone by her own tunnel vision.

In Swinton’s latest film, I Am Love, a labor of love she developed for eleven years with Italian director Luca Guadagnino, she plays Emma Recchi, the refined Russian-born wife of an Italian textile tycoon. Eventually the character realizes she’s trapped on just such a sinking ship—albeit one that is lavishly decorated.

“She has a very carefully chosen wardrobe, which is like a uniform,” explains Swinton. “A woman in that situation is never very far from a pair of Ferragamo shoes. It’s this idea of wearing these golden handcuffs,” she says. “Everybody puts on what they need to prepare themselves for the world, and a woman in that scenario needs to dress a certain way to pass muster.”

For Swinton, Emma’s sleek, conservative outfits—all designed by Raf Simons for Jil Sander to reflect the film’s “period” Y2K moment—helped her to get under the character’s skin. “Dressing up is the majority of the preparation,” she says. “It’s all about disguising me as somebody else, and when you’re working to put together a portrait of someone, deciding how they present themselves to the world is one of the first things you do.”

Like the costumes, the film’s central Milan location is high-class: a modernist art deco estate, known as Villa Necchi Campiglio, erected during the Fascist era. With its high ceilings and grand spaces, the property is a testament to the wealth and splendor of the characters, but also, as Swinton points out, a symbol of their entrapment: it both defines and confines them.

“Making any piece of work about rich people is dangerous business,” explains Swinton. Like Orlando, she says, I Am Love was meant to show how much of that lifestyle is stifling, censoring, and built on denial. Swinton should know. A descendant of a 14th-century Scottish King, the London-born Swinton was educated at the posh West Heath Girls School in Kent, alongside Princess Diana, and later at Cambridge University. “Going to boarding school put me off England for life,” Swinton once told The Times of London.

I Am Love may showcase an elite lifestyle—the pristine architecture, the elegant fashions, and sumptuous plates of haute cuisine—“but we knew we wanted to deconstruct this,” says Swinton. “On one hand, you need to show it for all its elegance and grandeur, but on the other hand, you have to make sure that by the end of the film people are claustrophobic and would rather take off those golden handcuffs and roll around naked in that garden and be free.” Emma’s fate turns on an illicit love affair with a younger man, consummated out in the open.

“That was the task of the film,” adds Swinton, “to make it about love, about the revolution of love and how it can really explode a certain milieu. When real love breaks out, love that is about honesty and real encounters with real things, it’s anathema to that environment, and it really breaks things, and breaks the spell of that denial.”

Swinton is intent on bringing about a parallel revolution in cinema. Together with Guadagnino—“she’s a filmmaker,” he says, “not an actress”—she is planning to develop more projects that emphasize “pure cinema,” she explains, “cinema that pushes [film] forward as ‘sense-ational’—that is, engaging all the senses… We want to make films that one can lose oneself in. Unexpected. Maybe unimaginable.”

Swinton’s personal life suggests a similar freedom from convention. As widely reported, Swinton has been living with German painter Sandro Kopp, who is eighteen years her junior. The two met while filming the first installment of The Chronicles of Narnia, and the romance attracted attention from the tabloids, particularly since Swinton is also living with 70-year-old Scottish artist John Byrne, her longtime lover and father of her twin children. Swinton was unfazed by the salacious reports, calling the situation “really very dull” in the Daily Mail.

Few actresses of Swinton’s age are as revealing when it comes to sexuality. I Am Love is the latest in a long line of performances that expose Swinton’s soul as well as her body, beginning with 1997’s Female Perversions, in which her character’s sexual appetite consumes both men and women. In 2003’s Young Adam, her sexual relations with Ewan McGregor are particularly explicit.

If transformation is a recurrent theme in her work, sex is, too. Why, you might ask, is it so important to explore one’s libidinous side? “How could one not?” she replies. “I don’t think of it as a side, as having corners. Life is a sensual business. And to deny it or edit it would be one big waste.”

Credits: Makeup Linda Cantello for Giorgio Armani Cosmetics (Joe Management)  Hair Christiaan using Kiehl’s  Manicure Anny Errandonéa (Marie-France Thavonekham)  Lighting technician Jodokus Driessen  Photo assistant Eduoard Boutinaud  Digital technician Brian Anderson  Studio manager Marc Kroop  Makeup assistant Cedric Jolivet  Location Studio Rouchon, Paris  Printing Box