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Best Of British Biographies – Tilda Swinton

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Ah, Tilda Swinton! Where does one begin when talking about such a skilled and versatile actor? An actor who is simultaneously androgynous and feminine while epitomising the essence of enigmatic, ethereal, and mystical beings from any mythology or religion you care to mention. She can be otherworldly in one project and totally down to earth in the next. In fact, in just one film she  portrays both genders in a story that spans the Elizabethan era; in this case I mean running from Elizabeth to Elizabeth II. That film is Orlando and there’ll be more of that later.

It was quite appropriate that she played the role of The Ancient One in the MCU as she actually comes from one of the oldest clans in Scotland. Katherine Matilda Swinton is the daughter of Major-General Sir John Swinton of Clan Swinton, whose lineage has been charted back to the 9th century.  Their home was Kimmerghame House located in the Scottish Borders near to, and I kid you not, the Blackadder Water. And, if that isn’t enough to establish its  credentials, Kimmerghame was chosen as one of the houses for Fettes College.

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School Days

I’m not going to start on about how, over here, public schools are actually private schools and what the house system is all about. While that may prove wildly entertaining for some of you I doubt that this is, really, the place for it. Suffice it to say that Fettes is one of those schools that you need to be quite well off to go there. Perhaps not quite to the same standard as Eton or Harrow but not far off. Some notable Old Fettesians include former Prime Minister Tony Blair, Lindisfarne guitarist Simon Cowe, fictional spy James Bond, and the usual smattering of priests, poets and Nobel laureates.

1986 – Caravaggio

Oh…not to forget one Katherine Matilda Swinton. She was at Fettes for a while but that was just one of three schools she was at including West Heath Girls’ School where she was a classmate and friend of Diana Spencer, a future Princess of Wales. It would have been nicely circular if Tilda had been in Kimmerghame House while she was there but, unfortunately, Kimmerghame House was for boys only. Such is the way of the English school system; keep the boys and girls separate and there’ll be no hanky panky going on. Apart from industrial to Olympic levels of homosexuality of course.

It’s Not Hogwarts

As far as her education went, Tilda seemed to spend most of her early days attending boarding schools. However, despite what stories featuring Malory Towers, Greyfriars, Linbury Court, or Hogwarts might tell you, boarding school life isn’t the laugh a minute, high jinks in the dorm, midnight feasts, and raids on the tuck shop that it’s made out to be. As an adult, Tilda has spoken out against the whole idea of boarding schools. She calls them ”a very lonely and isolating environment”.

2020 – The Human Voice

Also she has said that boarding schools “are a very cruel setting in which to grow up and I don’t feel children benefit from that type of education. Children need their parents and the love parents can provide.” What caused this outburst? It was a response to being asked about the opportunity to join the Harry Potter franchise; she had been offered the part of Professor Trelawney but turned it down clearing the way for Emma Thompson to take the part. Tilda turned down the role as the books and films had a tendency to romanticise the whole boarding school ethos.

Gap Years

The obvious next step after school is either work or higher education depending on your aspirations and expectations. As seems to be increasingly the case Tilda confounded expectations by going off for two years. During this time she volunteered in townships in South African and as well as in Kenya. Then she came back to the UK and got a place reading Social and Political Sciences at New Hall, Cambridge. As it so often seems to be the case, Tilda started her performing career while at university. You’ve heard of Footlights…surely?

2000 – The Beach

Given the time and place involved it seems hardly surprising that one of her first performances was on the Footlights stage. Also knowing who else was actively involved in Footlights at the time, there is little surprise in finding out that one of the pieces was written by an up and coming pair of unknowns called Fry and Laurie.  Yes, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie. The sketch was set in an American courtroom and was to feature Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, and Hugh Laurie. They needed someone to play the judge and so, according to Stephen Fry “We cast this girl who I, we all, thought was a good actress and was a friend of ours, Tilda Swinton”

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Treading The Boards

Following graduation, Tilda joined the Royal Shakespeare Company and appeared in a production of Measure For Measure. Unlike a lot of actors who insist that they are only ever truly happy and fulfilled when on the stage, Ms Swinton is much happier in front of a camera. Frankly I’m exceptionally glad of that! After all, now that I no longer live in London I would rarely get the opportunity to see any of the finer working actors demonstrating their skills. At least film and TV performances mean that I can get to see them, pretty much, when I want to.

2005 – Chronicles of Narnia – The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe

And who do we have to thank in this case? The legendary director, artist, writer, and gay rights activist Derek Jarman. They met and Tilda became Derek’s muse and Derek became Tilda’s mentor.  Jarman’s work was experimental, collective, and challenging which suited  the young Swinton down to the ground. Not having had any formal training she felt technically under qualified  for much of her career. However Jarman often used her more as a model or presence than a conventional actor, which made her feel much more comfortable. Her cinema debut was, unsurprisingly, in a 1986 Derek Jarman historical biopic, Caravaggio. 

Onto The Screen

Jarman obviously had an eye for young talent as Caravaggio was also an early outing for Sean Bean, Robbie Coltrane, and Dexter Fletcher as well as Tilda.  Now, and then, there are plenty of people who wouldn’t like Jarman’s work on principle. The sort of people who would be quite comfortable to say “That they haven’t seen any of his films because they don’t like them.” Possibly because he was gay, possibly because he was an atheist, possibly he was an avant-garde, free thinker, probably a combination of all those and more. I would just say to them “Your loss!” If you are happy not see some of the most thought provoking and visionary films recorded on celluloid then I hope you find solace in your prejudice.

2019 – The Personal History Of David Copperfield

So we have Ms Swinton on the big screen. She went on to make several more films with Derek Jarman: Edward II, Blue, The Last Of England, War Requiem, The Garden, Wittgenstein, and Aria. To be honest though, Tilda does seem to like working with directors more than once.  Wes Anderson (4 times), Lynn Hershman Leeson (3 times), Luca Guadagnino (4 times), Jim Jarmusch (4 times), Joanna Hogg (4 times), and there are six people she has made two films with. Let’s face it though, she has over sixty films under her belt and she has worked with the cinematic great and good.

Fantastic Range

And throughout those sixty films she has demonstrated the ability to change both her looks and her accent. She can look wild and animalistic, delicate and demure, diaphanous and other worldly, or, sometimes, just ordinary if not actually plain, bordering on ugly. She can play all ages and genders. She can play people from the past, present, and future. Dickens to Doctor Strange, fairy tales to fantasy. She can even play non-humans. And all that is even before we start diving into the voice roles she’s done! 

2013 – Snowpiercer

With a body of work of such breadth and depth it would be inconceivable to try and work through every film she has made so I’m just going to pick a few of my personal highlights. The film version of Snowpiercer from 2013, showed her playing a spectacularly ugly role! Right down to false teeth, big glasses, and a broad Yorkshire accent. She also managed to bring a totally different level of threat and menace which was missing from the TV series. I think Alison Wright is brilliant but she just doesn’t do scary like Tilda and a shoe!

Yak Hair?

When I was writing my piece about Tom Hiddleston I took the opportunity to watch Only Lovers Left Alive which also featured John Hurt. This was a very moody, peaceful film about a group of vampires but the word “vampire” is never mentioned. This is definitely a wild and animalistic role for Tilda. All the vampire characters wore wigs made of a mix of human, yak, and goat hair. They looked fantastic but I can’t help wondering what they must have smelt like if the got wet. I mean…dog is bad enough but yak AND goat?

2013 – Only Lovers Left Alive

I loved her in the title role of Orlando; Sally Potter’s working of the Virginia Woolf novel. This is a delightfully sumptuous period fantasy drama that runs from England in 1603 and runs through to the 1990’s. This is down to Elizabeth I (Quentin Crisp) bequeathing Orlando a large tract of land with a castle built on it, and a generous monetary gift to Orlando and his heirs in perpetuity. However, he only gets the bequest if he obeys an unusual command…”Do not fade. Do not wither. Do not grow old.” Fortunately, the command says nothing about changing gender!

Sir? Madam?

This is just as well because, during a diplomatic “incident” while he is ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, Orlando gets grievously wounded and nearly dies. Instead he falls into a week long coma and, on awakening, he discovers that he is now a woman. This causes all manner of problems because other people have their eyes on the  bequest and make a claim that Orlando must have been a woman all  along and was, thanks to the Tudor patriarchy, never entitled to receive it in the first place. How this story spins out for nearly another four centuries you’ll have to see for yourself! 

1992 – Orlando

One thing that is mildly unusual is that Tilda hasn’t been swept up by every big franchise going. I said earlier why she won’t touch the Harry Potter one but I can’t be the only person who can’t see her as a perfect James Bond character? She could just as easily be a new M or equally easily be an Emily Blofeld. She has the presence to be the overall boss of the Secret Intelligence Service and, with a simple rise of an eyebrow, could be their nemesis. It wouldn’t take a huge stretch of imagination to imagine her as a new 007!

Witch Way Now?

She did join a different franchise. Sadly this one stalled after a few outings. She played the White Witch in two out of the three Chronicles Of Narnia films. I’ll be honest and say that I never got into that book series. I remember being given The Lion, The Witch, And The Wardrobe to read when I was about eight but never got around to reading the other six books so don’t know how many of the books her character appears in. Still, they never made the full series so it is a bit moot really.

2016 – Doctor Strange

She did get involved with THE franchise of the last fifty years…the MCU. She landed the part of The Ancient One in Doctor Strange. She was an excellent choice to my mind but, being honest, I’ve never read the comics so came to the character cold. All I know is that she is an excellent choice for any role where an ethereal, other worldly, mystical personality is needed. She did seem to use the film as some sort of a youth employment scheme; one of her daughters worked in the costume department and her son in the art department designing planets.

Mr Anderson Is On The Phone…

One of her most frequent and enduring collaborators, director-wise is Wes Anderson. Her Anderson debut was as Social Services in Moonrise Kingdom. It is one of those small but pivotal roles which adds to the general madness and chaos that pops up every so often in his films. Her next outing for Wes saw her totally unrecognisable as the 84 year old dowager, Madame D in The Grand Budapest Hotel; one of my personal favourites. Once again her role is one that throws the plot into all manner of disarray when her will is read and not to mention when her second will surfaces!

2014 – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Her next outing was a voice part in the very lovely Isle Of Dogs. She played Oracle, a pug who lives up to her name. Next up was The French Dispatch in which she plays JKL Berensen. Berensen is a staff writer and art critic on the The French Dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun. She holds together all of the first full sized segment of the anthology when she delivers her lecture on the career of Moses Rosenthaler entitled The Concrete Masterpiece. I used to be a lecturer and I wish I could have had a fraction of the grace and panache she has!

Coming Soon!

The next outing for Wes and Tilda was Asteroid City which had its Cannes debut on 22nd May 2023, before being put out on general release in June. I’ve seen the trailer and I’m excited! The visuals look beautiful and the story seems delightfully silly. If it is anything like or then I predict I will be seeing it a couple or three times in the first week! I don’t know what part Tilda will be playing (I spotted her wearing a white lab coat so I’m guessing a scientist of some sort) but I’m sure it’ll be wonderful and I really can’t wait!

2023 – Asteroid City

I’ve seen Asteroid City now and I wasn’t disappointed. As is usual with a Wes Anderson film, the cast is so big and starry that it often boils down to what feels like a collection of cameos. Still, that doesn’t prevent Tilda from lighting up the screen. No mean feat when you are surrounded by the likes of Tom Hanks, Scarlett Johansson, Jeffrey Wright, Edward Norton, and Bryan Cranston amongst others. Ethereal, enigmatic, elegant, and with an extensive range; I haven’t seen her in a role that I haven’t enjoyed.

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