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MEMORIA OF A LIFE WELL LIVED:

TILDA SWINTON

People like me who have committed their lives to filling pages like these have lists. While some lists are like a totem, reaching toward a moment as if it had already come true, others never appear on paper. Independent from the routine of writing articles, conducting research and nosing around, these lists seek ideas that gratify the mind, give us pleasure and keep our passions alive. While we collect data from the world around us, our processor sometimes kicks in at that magical part of a movie, and sometimes it crashes in the middle of a book. You remember some lines you had lingered on under the hue of a reading lamp, or you feel your brain spin faster and faster, like a cooling fan, as your heart beats faster and faster at an art exhibition. And on one side, dreams of interviews pile up. Speaking from the point of view of an interviewer, an interview is an experience with a very uncertain end, which is sure to be a once-in-a-lifetime occasion. It involves admiration and disappointment, as much as it does formality.
 

And just like that, one person gravitates towards another, like a magnet. Whoever the interviewee is, they suddenly become the creator, the narrator, the advocate as well as the embodiment of your ideas and curiosity. From the vague prospect of a tête-à-tête happening, until it actually does, the fact that the paths of two people will cross for a mere hour at most resonates deeply in your soul. You wear it like a coat until the day of the interview, and also after it is over. Either that coat becomes drenched, weighing on your shoulders, or it is your emotions that get rained on. You feel the tremendous urge to get home and transcribe the interview, as soon as possible. It was 2015, I was scheduled to meet with John Malkovich in the lobby of a hotel under construction... I remember every detail. His exquisite, self-designed suit, the paper cups we drank tea from...
 

Tilda Swinton is a true luminary, one of the world’s most accomplished performers, whose career spans five decades. We, at 212, feel honoured to have the opportunity to acquaint ourselves with such a renowned figure within the fields of theatre and cinema. Her debut appearance, Egomania: Island Without Hope, was filmed in 1986. Moonrise Kingdom in 2012, Last and First Men in 2020, The Human Voice in 2020…Her filmography is staggering. Having played a phenomenally diverse range of roles, each time she devotes herself completely to the character in question.

 

Tilda is impressive and unique, not only in the sense of her professional achievements – but also in her physical appearance and the way she presents herself. She has been living in Scotland for over twenty years, currently in Nairn, overlooking the Moray Firth in the Scottish Highlands. Like a tourist, Swinton keeps her time in Hollywood brief, she appears only in the most prestigious productions. It is obvious that she thoroughly loves her secluded life, she feeds on it. Although she abandoned her dream of pursuing writing as a career, back in her school years, Swinton is an accomplished writer, who carefully picks her words with the same impressive tone that serves as a hallmark of her performances.
 

Since this interview does not require me to travel back and forth, there is no actual rendezvous place or virtual room. Corresponding differs in every way was supremely nourishing and easy. In the pages that follow, I will share my correspondence with Tilda, shaped around a series of questions. The very thought of Tilda writing back was a delight, which I hope will be just as much of a pleasure to read.
 

One should also take the time to read well, to exchange letters, to wait and feel the thrill of receiving a reply. Does my persistence in pursuing these prospects give away my age? Is it romantic? Is it feminine? I beg to differ. If you ask me, we have a dire need for sincerity in words, the deep meaning of conciseness and the voids around it, more than ever. Life is all about emotions: Human nature requires a degree of emotional attachment, does it not? I adore my job, just like Tilda. Who knows, we might meet in person one day?
 

Thank you, Tilda! You are one of a kind!

ON MEMORIA

 

Memoria is ‘an isolation, a connection, and a vibration’ explains director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. This statement sounds uncanny and even contradictory at first, but slow cinema takes you through an almost meditative session in Memoria. How would you describe the film in your own words? And how do you expect viewers to ‘digest’ it, considering we all feel like we’re stuck in limbo with the ongoing pandemic?


I hope and believe that we are all in a much softer position these days to dive into transporting experience. We all have, unavoidably, a distinctly closer acquaintance with solitude, reflection and a sense of displacement, as we have found ourselves planless and still. When we developed and prepared and shot Memoria in 2019, we were confident that it might provide nourishment for those open to it. What we couldn’t have foreseen was how much solace and companionship it might offer to an entire world gone slow to meet it in these intervening years. The audiences who have already seen Memoria have encouraged us to understand that it is, in many ways, more than a film. I would describe it as an invitation to experience. And is, potentially, a transformative one: your eyes and ears - and to a certain extent your consciousness - will possibly never be the same again. It is a mystery story, and a pathway in a dreamscape.


You’ve referred to Memoria as a ‘dreamscape’. Indeed, we could describe the creative process behind the film as you ‘co-dreaming ’ with Weerasethakul to create your own imagined reality in a setting that was foreign to both of you. It’s safe to say that this project saw both of you leave your comfort zone. As a performer, what was your biggest takeaway from that experience? How did stepping outside your comfort zone affect your craft in Memoria as compared to your other performances?

 

In terms of being in a new corner of our planet, I must say that finding myself in far flung places has always been one of my great pleasures. In many ways, maybe this displaced state of lostness for which we were searching IS my comfort zone. Certainly Colombia was an extraordinarily welcoming and comfortable place for us to land: we found such comradeship with our fellows there and we formed a very close unit of like-minded cineastes in order to make our film. 

As for what I describe as the ‘predicament’ of Jessica, that too, in terms of performance, was a supremely nourishing and easy. In fact, it was a high wire, strung between tension and ease: Jessica’s dislocation - from society, from her own sense of balance - is also the portal to her profound connection with everything around her. Her sense of hearing, her attention to the evidence of her eyes, her savouring of the atmospheres of the streets of Bogotá and of the hills in Pijao: she is opened up to this ability to receive and respond, moment to moment. Her situation places her in a kind of Zen state of being.
In truth, stepping into Joe’s frame is stepping right INTO my comfort zone as an artist. Our shared aesthetic, his understanding of rhythm and frame, the space and time within the long takes, his enthusiasm for my contribution to be that of presence and behaviour, divested of all outward performance and socialised coding - all make for something very close to my own impulses and that makes me very happy. It’s a piece of work, and a performance, that is very close to me. My work with him is one of the jewels of my life.

 

Memoria also deals with the concept of time itself, particularly through the dialogue between Jessica and Hernan by the river. Time is relevant to many of your projects. You’re also known to spend decades in discussion with directors prior to the making of a film – such as with Luca Guadagnino for Suspiria, and with Apichatpong Weerasethakul. This goes against convention in the film industry where projects are generally wrapped up in a couple of years and rapidly consumed by audiences. Do you feel like you have to justify (to yourself ) spending so long on a project? Or is the journey more important to you than the final product, the film?

 

One of the great good fortunes to have come my way has been finding colleagues with which to build long, engaged and inspiring working relationships. And one of the things that links pretty much every one of my fellows and me is our acknowledgment that a long development is a good, good thing. Often, naturally, enforced due to money matters, nevertheless, however much interstitial moaning and groaning goes on along the way, I have never once known a film not benefit from a really thorough pre-production. So often the work just needs to make its own way: we tie ourselves to the end of its tail and get carried along. There’s no rushing. The journey towards the shoot itself is usually my favourite part of the entire process, the discussions, the problem solving. Nine times out of ten the perfect location only becomes available in the final months of preparation, or the right performer appears/becomes old enough just in time. And the material only ever deepens and evolves. It’s an act of faith, setting out on the trail, and our privilege is to follow it, however long it takes.

I confess that when you describe a film as ‘final product’ it gives me pause. And makes me recognise, not for the first time, how pre-industrial my instincts are: the magical properties of a long-standing working relationship is that the conversation, the fellowship is, in fact, the trunk of the tree, each film merely a branch, or even leaf, that grows out of this bond.

 

Have you ever experienced anything similar to exploding head syndrome, or ever heard voices in your own head? As you were getting ready to depict Jessica’s predicament onscreen, where did you search for meaning when accessing the role?

 

I’m relieved to say that I haven’t experienced the bang in the head. Nor voices other than my own. But during the long gestation of the film, various things happened in the lives of both Joe and me that we wove into the narrative. During the fifteen years that passed, both my parents died and I realised that when Joe and I spoke of looking for an atmosphere of ‘lostness’ in Jessica, this might not only reside in the reality of her being displaced in a country she is ‘foreign’ in, but that it described fairly closely aspects of my experience of grief. This guy-rope of autobiographical fact sewn into the essence of Jessica’s life provided great meaning for me: it grounded me and kept me in a state of unedited being, ‘unperforming’, unfiltered, authentic.


A sense of physical and mental displacement and disorientation is a theme that dominates Memoria. We have collectively experienced the pandemic. What disoriented you the most during the last two years?

 

I think what I mention above about grief - the bemusement, the pathless and misted future, the sense of loss and need to let go (of projected projects and adventures) - applies to us all, still, in relation to our response to the pandemic. We are all in a state of low-level, if not actual, mourning for what might have been, what we expected and desired. The challenge of learning to live more harmoniously with this consciousness of our powerlessness in the face of our eagerness to be effective is very real. In this sense, I do believe we are all in this together. And no doubt there is a way to emerge as more evolved beings as a result of meeting this challenge. For myself, I had a blessed two years: my children came home for five months and we were together throughout the Spring and Summer of 2020 in heavenly - and sane - Scotland with air and space and our health intact. Since then I have worked consistently on five (!) pictures, from Pedro Almodóvar in Madrid to Joanna Hogg in Wales, to George Miller in Sydney, to Wes Anderson in Chinchón, to Julio Torres in New York. Back to back. With a not nice (but gratefully not worse) dose of Delta in between. So, I suppose the most discombobulating thing for me, personally, has been the lack of space, recuperation and rest in 2021. And the seemingly unavoidable negotiation with the mind-fucking cat’s cradle of the currently ever-changing goalposts of international travel...

BEING TILDA

 

How do you maintain your sanity in a chaotic world?


I strongly believe that the best way to deal with chaos is to make friends with it. 

 

You famously chose acting instead of being a professional writer. Do you still write for your own? Do you keep a diary, for instance?


To be accurate, I didn’t choose not to write. I very much wanted to write, as it had sustained me throughout my teens and into a place at university. I simply found that I stopped. For a long while. And then let myself float into other people’s worlds. It never changed much, for years, this pretty much flaneur position of going where my nose took me, until very recently when I felt a tide turning. Yes, I started to write again sporadically about twenty years ago. But I’m beginning to write again consistently now.


What is the best present you have ever received, and why?


My last horse. Because he was my first great companion in life.
 

You are widely regarded as an ageless powerhouse thanks to the vast range of roles you’ve taken on and projects you’ve participated in. At the same time, you have undeniably gained plenty of experience that comes with age. What’s your favourite thing about getting older?


Shedding things. And people younger than oneself. And inspiration and progress
wherever it sprouts.


You have famously avoided repeating roles throughout your career, yet your 2013 reprisal of The Maybe stands as the only striking exception. What changed your mind?


The Maybe is a never-ending project that I intend to revisit throughout my life. 

 

You are currently filming David Fincher’s latest movie, The Killer, and you’ll star in Joshua Oppenheimer’s upcoming musical. You also have five recent projects that are currently in post-production. At 61 years old, with 92 movies under your belt and seven upcoming ones – not to mention numerous other productions and art performances – you are in a position where one could easily think that you have achieved your career aims. What keeps you going as a creative individual?
 

Curiosity and fellowship.

ON WOMXN, GENDER, IDENTITY & MOTHERHOOD


Long before gender and identity became deeply explored topics as they are today, you referred to gender as ‘transformative possibility’. It’s been more than a decade since you made that comment. Since then, how has your view changed (or has it)? What makes a woman? How would you describe being a 21st-century woman?


In the conversations around gender I have long been bemused by the attachment

to a binary paradigm. I feel myself blessed to have been born, somehow, with a deeply ambivalent attitude to gender: since I was quite young I was never quite sold on the definitive presentations made that advertise ‘real’ manhood or ‘real’ womanhood, and was always drawn to the, shall we say, sur-real province of the flexible and expansive life. I have to admit, I’m not sure I really believe in definitive identity as such: it’s always occurred to me that one has the liberty to choose one’s shape and vibration from minute to minute. Maybe my visualisation of identity is of something more liquid, capable of transmutation, of constantly holding multiple facets and possibilities, than anything conclusively actualised and prescribed. More à la carte, or even dish of the day, than set menu.
So, as for a 21st century - let alone any - woman, I’m flummoxed to know what that could possibly be as something describable, sorry.
 

Throughout a timeline that translates history to herstory, who do you think are the most iconic women of the last 100 years, and why?

 

Pass. Lists - and ‘most’s not useful.


If you could live in any artwork, which one would it be?


The landscapes of Miyazaki Hayao or Michael Powell.

 

In your essay for Aperture, you wrote, ‘Woolf believed the fundamental creative mind to be androgynous.’ She is a figure whose work is important to you, as it is to many people. So, to revisit Woolf ’s renowned question, in your perspective, ‘What would have happened if Shakespeare had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith?’


It’s very likely, as Woolf posited, that she would have been married off at fifteen and borne a swarm of children and maybe died producing the youngest.
Alternatively, maybe she would have written all her brother’s work.
 

You produced and narrated the documentary Women Make Film: A New Road Movie Through Cinema. What are your most salient memories or takeaways from that project?


There is an understandable and righteous focus currently on a desire to see ever more films made by filmmakers as representatively diverse as our planet holds. This is a good call, without a doubt. At the same time, the fact is, we are sitting within over a hundred years of cinema by now. So much of it made by women. And, whilst ‘WMF’ concentrates principally on the enormous wealth of women directors whose work has not only impacted the development of cinema over the last 12 decades, but has profoundly influenced the films of their - pretty much invariably more recognised - male fellows, the truth is, the creative might of women producers, designers, writers, cinematographers, performers and many others across most fields of application in the production of films, ALL OF THEM FILMMAKERS by definition, is never ending. One of the impulses of our series that was important to me was the significance in the gesture ‘we bemoan the lack, but let’s celebrate and draw strength from the treasure’. What we ask for is not so far from us. And it is ready to support and encourage future generations, of whatever description they choose, to step forward fearlessly and self-determinedly.


You have stated that Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Medea is one of your favourite movies of all time. What makes Medea, one of the earliest feminist texts, still relevant today?


I would say that my attachment to that film is principally to do with my love of all things Pasolini in combo with the sublime Maria Callas. My admiration for Euripides’ play definitely heightened when I had my own children and discovered a whole new depth of passion and violent imagination. I think this chamber of bottomless fierceness, this wilderness of savagery that Euripides identifies in Medea is astonishingly wise. It has honoured something otherwise largely suppressed across most societies: the deep knowledge in all women of the duress brought about by their marginalisation - and for those women who bear children, the innately bloody and brutal arena in which they live. Women still murder their own children in the depths of their despair more than two thousand years after Euripides wrote his play. The chances are, they always will. This deathless text and its perspective is alive to a truth about a mother’s profound anguish - as of that of a rejected lover - as fresh as the day. 

 

Apart from being a mother to twins, you also have several dogs, one of whom even served as a muse for Okja. You’ve undoubtedly heard the Pope’s recent comments where he said having pets rather than children ‘is a denial of fatherhood and motherhood and diminishes us, takes away our humanity.’ As someone who has lived with animals all her life – and who has stated that your dogs taught you ‘patience, perspective, joy, loyalty, the simplicity and presence of their joy’ – what do you make of this statement? Could pet ownership really be a ‘selfish’ act, as the Pope suggested?


I’m very sorry to hear that the Pope is unenlightened in this respect. Obviously what the Vatican needs is a pack of Spaniels. If anybody can direct us toward the highest realms of humanity and unconditional love, it’s they.
 

 

 

Thanks to MUBI.