Tilda Swinton is currently being photographed in various outfits for the Observer. When I arrive, she is wearing tartan pants, two-tone shoes, and a blond quiff. She stands still as a hairdresser styles her hair, giving her the appearance of an exotic bird or a stylish troublemaker. However, her serene face prevents her from looking aggressive. It is immediately evident that Swinton is fully committed to the photoshoot and treats everyone around her with kindness and consideration. Her mix of professionalism and warmth is disarming, especially when one might expect a sense of superiority from a superstar.
Swinton is a highly regarded actor, recognized by the New York Times as one of the top performers of the 21st century. She is known for her originality, distinctiveness, and curiosity, taking on diverse roles such as a distressed mother in Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk about Kevin (2011), an elderly and cranky Madame D in Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014), and the White Witch in the Narnia film series (2005-2010). She recently appeared in Almodóvar’s short film The Human Voice (2020) and will star in his upcoming feature film (details yet to be revealed). Swinton is a versatile actress who remains true to herself, receiving numerous accolades including an Academy Award, a Bafta, and three Golden Globe nominations. Despite being 63 years old, she continues to be seen as a fashion icon for her androgynous beauty and timeless profile, similar to a figurehead on the front of a ship. As I watch her on screen, I can’t help but wonder about the contrast between her “real” life in the Scottish Highlands by the sea and the glamour of London.
Finally, we find a peaceful spot to converse in the dressing room of the studio. We have a lot to discuss as we not only have questions from celebrities and readers, but also need to make time for her latest film, The Eternal Daughter, helmed by Joanna Hogg. This can be seen as a follow-up to the Souvenir films, which revolve around coming-of-age themes and starred Swinton and her daughter, Honor (who recently graduated from Edinburgh). Swinton has now changed into her own attire, a casual and vibrant red mohair sweater that matches her lipstick from the shoot. She sits on a tall stool as if waiting for a cocktail (unfortunately, one does not appear).
In The Eternal Daughter, Tilda Swinton portrays two characters – Rosalind, the mother (familiar to those who have seen the Souvenir films), and Julie, the daughter, now in her middle age. Some may view this as a gimmick, but it is worth watching before making any judgments. The film showcases exceptional artistry, beginning with a white taxi driving down a straight road surrounded by winter trees and mist. Julie is taking her mother to a country house hotel that seems to be in a dream or a nightmare – a deserted setting with a melancholic atmosphere, an uncooperative receptionist, and a constant gale outside. These elements may suggest a traditional ghost story, but The Eternal Daughter offers a haunting of a different nature. Swinton herself agrees that the film explores the idea of haunting oneself, stating, “That is the central theme of the film.”
According to Oscar Wilde, women inevitably become similar to their mothers, while men do not. In the film, Tilda Swinton raises the question of where the boundary lies between herself and her mother. She portrays both a refined and wealthy mother and a troubled and edgy filmmaker daughter, with a husky voice. The two characters are intertwined yet also separated, making the film worth watching again as it explores the concept of second glances.
Swinton and Hogg have been close friends since they were 10 or 11 years old. They often discussed their mothers, who share similar qualities. Swinton comes from a distinguished Anglo-Scots family with a military background, and her mother, like Hogg’s, married after the war in the 1950s, had children in the 1960s, and prioritized being a devoted wife above all else. Due to this, their mothers had limited emotional closeness with their daughters. Additionally, both Swinton and Hogg pursued careers as artists. When I mention that this may have been challenging for their mothers and they may have felt excluded from their daughters’ lives, Swinton becomes emotional and tears up. The film provided an opportunity for Swinton and Hogg to explore this distance and ask the unanswerable question: how does one let go of their mother?
Thirteen years prior to Hogg’s mother’s death, Swinton’s own mother had also passed away. Swinton recalls discussing this with Joanna and how she had taken on her mother’s mannerisms and even wore her clothing. During the time before and after her mother’s passing, Swinton felt deeply connected to her mother through these material objects and language. She saw it as a way to keep her mother close to her. However, she also felt a sense of guilt in surviving without her mother.
Perhaps it is due to discussing grief or because he remains unforgettable and unforgotten, returning like a refrain in any formal conversation with Swinton, that we transition to the loss of her close friend Derek Jarman. She appeared in several of his films, including Caravaggio (1986), The Last of England (1988), War Requiem (1989), and The Garden (1990). Swinton reflects on losing him to Aids when she was 33. Even years later, she recalls feeling as though she could have died herself: “I was very close to Derek and I remember being acutely aware that, in a strange way, I could have gone with him.” She also speaks about her late friend John Berger. In 2008, she collaborated on a film about Jarman’s life and also made a film about Berger that involved her twins, Xavier and Honor (children of writer John Byrne). “I remember thinking, can we create a film in which people get to meet John?” Swinton struggles to find a word that accurately describes the two men: “To label their charisma is actually limiting because they were such life forces.” And although it falls short, this is the word that must also apply to Swinton. As we move on to the questions, I observe her responses: focused, engaged, sometimes laughing out loud, and occasionally pausing to say she needs more time to consider before answering.
It is widely acknowledged that you and David Bowie share a striking resemblance. I recall watching a video of the two of you swapping outfits; he donned your style and you his. What was discussed during that encounter? And which of your numerous personas do you believe Bowie related to the most?
While filming the music video “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)” directed by Floria Sigismondi, I discovered a strange-looking carrot in my salad during lunch. We joked about it and it became a running joke for days. However, during a serious conversation, my colleague mentioned his illness and his thoughts on an afterlife. He expressed his belief that there was no afterlife. Despite his illness, he continued to send me images, some silly and some serious, showing how aware he was of our work. I was honored when he attended my exhibition “The Maybe” at MoMA, and my partner Sandro Kopp even spotted him in the crowd without anyone else noticing. One of my favorite memories with him was when he admired a photo of me with smeared makeup by Jean-Baptiste Mondino. He often praised that photo to me.
What are your current dreams?
Silvia, a reader of the Observer from Sofia, Bulgaria.
Being forgetful. The exciting possibility of traveling without misplaced passports. Breathing underwater. I am not usually forgetful, but traveling requires a lot of effort, especially because when I am at home, I tend to relax and become less active. People who work in cities probably have to stay active, but I am not very active at home. Today, I have brought a lot of items related to dogs – this green waterproof jacket next to me is actually my jacket from home and it contains various dog-related items that I do not really need.
If given the opportunity, which photographer from history would you choose to have your photo taken by and why? You have been photographed by many talented individuals in the past.
Paul Strand, partly because I associate him with the Hebrides, which I love so much and which is so important to me. Strand was American and his work in the Hebrides was quite extraordinary. His portraits of people appear as landscapes, and vice versa.
What is the most distinct Scottish characteristic that stands out when you are traveling abroad, specifically in the United States?
Kevin Nel, Leigh-on-Sea
I am unsure if it is my most prominent characteristic as a Scottish person, but I cannot help but burst into tears when I hear the sound of bagpipes anywhere in the world. This summer, I visited Normandy and Pegasus Bridge with my son, both of us being avid military historians. We learned that Lord Lovat had his own Highland bagpiper from Beauly (near our home) join him as they crossed Pegasus Bridge under dangerous and daring circumstances. This must have instilled fear in the Nazis, as bagpipes have been known to do to the English for centuries. Another distinct trait of mine as a Scottish person is that I cannot tolerate being referred to as British.
Do you have a favorite character or concept for a character that you would be thrilled to portray? Share all the details about her.
I envision a detective, or perhaps a lady from the countryside who resides in a decaying mansion and has a great fondness for detective stories, being ultimately compelled to solve a complex and horrific mystery. It is highly likely that this individual is unable to speak, and may even be a ghost. Yes, a ghost attempting to convey her solved clues from the other side. I can picture the last clue that unveils the truth behind the murder being a smudge from a dog’s nose on the lower panel of a French window – the only feasible suspect being a particularly short-legged terrier. Go ahead and write it, Wes – you know you want to.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a fashion icon?
Sarah McLeary, Dunbar
The perception of a fashion icon is subjective. There are no negative aspects and the positive aspect is a deep sense of enjoyment.
What is the reason for your strong affection towards dogs and the ocean?
These things symbolize a feeling of belonging and the feeling of being at home. I have resided by the ocean for 25 years and cannot fathom living without it; it’s extremely indulgent and truly enlightening – just like dogs. I have been a part of a group for almost the same amount of time for the same purpose.
Is talent innate or developed in actors?
Lizzie Hyder, Exmoor
In my experience, acting is always a deliberate creation, carefully constructed for a specific impact. On the other hand, performance is something inherent and natural within us, which we are all capable of at any given moment.
I greatly admire your strong and untamed artistic authenticity, as well as that of Derek Jarman. In a world where artists and performers are often pressured to conform and be marketable, how do you resist and preserve your creative freedom?
Having a strong sense of oneself as a commodity can hinder personal growth. This is something Derek and I are fortunate enough to not have. While Derek studied art as a painter and I pursued social and political sciences at Cambridge, I have been open about feeling guilty for not writing as much as I should. However, performing and creating films both exist in a transitional space for me. A line from the movie La Dolce Vita resonated with me: “I’m too serious to be a dilettante and too much a dabbler to be a professional.” I first read this while still in university, and it struck a chord with me. In the film, it is spoken as a sign of meekness, but to me, it represents strength because it allows one to remain adaptable and open to change. Keeping work in one’s peripheral vision allows for a sense of adventure, rest, and play in the process.
Did you experience bullying in school due to your red hair and freckled complexion? If so, how did it impact you?
Sara Jane Tipton, Bradford
I experienced relentless bullying during my school years. The environment at my school fostered a culture of bullying. I am grateful to have survived that experience. As a parent, I have always told my children that if they ever felt overwhelmed or bullied, I would prefer for them to come home and tell me about it rather than become the bully themselves.
Daisy May Cooper
, Tina Fey, is known for her iconic role as Liz Lemon on the hit NBC sitcom, “30 Rock”.
Tina Fey, the comedic performer and author, gained recognition for portraying the iconic character of Liz Lemon in the popular NBC comedy series “30 Rock”.
If you were to return as a spirit, who or where would you choose to haunt?
My grandmother once said that one of the benefits of death is the opportunity to visit all the places you were unable to while confined to a physical body. I am actively planning to haunt various places with enthusiasm after my passing. My pranks on April Fools’ Day are practice for the afterlife, which I now believe in. I have specific plans that I am eager to carry out. Daisy, I have a surprise in store for you – a swarm of butterflies and a unique fragrance.
Which wardrobe did you like wearing the most for your characters?
Ben Akhtar, Brussels
Rosalind Harte wears a wardrobe consisting mostly of my mother’s clothes, including shoes and jewelry, in the two Souvenir films and The Eternal Daughter. These items hold a special place in my heart and I have fond memories of wearing them.
What has been your most significant or influential experience with a character’s costume and makeup and what made it so impactful?
It can be challenging since I have a passion for creating costumes and overall appearances…it’s my means of staying true to my initial goal, which was to only be in one film – then be removed. Thus, constantly evolving is crucial to me. However, it would be impolite not to acknowledge Orlando, as the story revolves around a character who primarily changes outfits but doesn’t undergo any significant personal changes.
Based on the information from Jim Jarmusch’s movie Only Lovers Left Alive, it is evident that you are a vampire. If given the chance, who would you choose to spend eternity with?
Henriette van Dorp, Hengelo, the Netherlands
I greatly appreciate that question [laughs]. Christopher Lee and I have always discussed the idea of collaborating in the future… I can still hope for it.
I received my film education at the Filmhouse in Edinburgh and the Everyman Hampstead, which I attended instead of going to lectures. Where did your cinema education begin?
The movie theater in Eyemouth, a small fishing village near my hometown in the Borders, held a special place in my heart. Although it was small and tucked away on a side street, it was beloved by many. Sadly, I believe it has now closed down. My brothers (I have three) once took me on a secret outing to see Confessions of a Window Cleaner. On the drive home, they quizzed me about the plot so that I could convincingly tell our father we had seen Gold with Roger Moore. They described the plot of Gold in great detail, and the next morning when my father asked about our trip to the movies, I was able to give him a thorough summary. He was suspicious, perhaps realizing that I was paying too much attention. As I got older, I continued my movie education at the Arts Cinema in Cambridge (for Tarkovsky) and the revered Lumiere cinema in St Martin’s Lane (for Jim Jarmusch, Ozu, Parajanov, and John Waters). Unfortunately, the Lumiere cinema has since closed down, and I can no longer pass through St Martin’s Lane without feeling a sense of loss.
Are there any writers or books that you are currently engaging in conversation with?
Sue Pitkin, Chicago
The novel “The Driver’s Seat” by Muriel Spark never disappoints, and there is something incredibly bold and empowering within its pages. It has a distinctively modern feel that captivates me.
Have you collaborated with renowned filmmakers? Your decisions have been bold and unconventional. Do you have an interest in directing your own movie? If yes, do you have a specific project in mind?
I am attempting to avoid doing this frequently because… let me consider… until it becomes a manageable task rather than something that causes me anxiety, I will avoid it. Additionally, as you noted, I have been fortunate enough to collaborate with some of the most talented film directors of our era and am well-informed on the demands of directing a film.
What guidance would you offer to aspiring artists who are facing challenges in finding resources such as space, time, and funds to create their work during these financially difficult times?
Daniel Grimston is a multi-talented artist from London, known for his work as a playwright, poet, actor, and director.
I have never been inclined to follow advice, particularly for artists. You are aware of what needs to be done. Take care of yourself and attend to the aspects of your being that must be unclouded in order to create. And safeguard your passion.
Which of your films would you choose to send in a capsule into deep space as a representation of human civilization for aliens to discover?
James Pattison, Durham
The Eternal Daughter is a movie that explores the themes of love, growth, and overcoming challenges in the human journey.
Has there been a particular counsel from Derek Jarman that has been impactful or wise words that have influenced you until now? (His counsel to me was to tackle each day at work with the enthusiasm of attending a party, which I have endeavored to uphold!)
I have also gained wisdom from that experience and hold it dear. I highly appreciated his viewpoint that when we hurry to leave a location without completing all our plans, it can actually be beneficial because it ensures our return. This mindset is valuable and inspiring – the ability to look forward and turn past regrets into future opportunities and goals.
DJ and writer
What is your process for preparing for a role, starting with the initial reading to fully embodying the character in the end?
As you are aware from your personal life and work experience, Julia, it is important to prioritize spending quality time with friends.
I am aware that you have four springer spaniels. What attracts you to this breed?
Irene Salazar from Essex is a devoted fan of springer spaniels.
What makes this so enjoyable? Perspective, wisdom, priorities, humor, and loyalty. Although the latter is a common trait among all dogs. The main character in The Eternal Daughter is Louis. In Souvenir, the stars were Rosie and Dora. In Souvenir: Part II, they were joined by Snowbear, Rosie’s grandson. Louis, who is Rosie’s son, takes the spotlight. He is the ultimate star – King Louis. However, he is not known for his whimpering skills. He is a stoic and uncomplaining dog, the philosopher of the family. The role of whimpering in The Eternal Daughter is played by his nephew, Snowbear – reminiscent of Debbie Reynolds’ singing being dubbed by Betty Noyes in the 1952 musical Singin’ in the Rain.
How do you handle burrs on ears and tails and dirty paws?
Having developed modesty and patience, I am fully aware that a life without them would lack greatly. Dealing with any imperfections is a simple task, and I even enjoy the challenge of grooming my ears while watching a movie. Living near the ocean proves to be beneficial, as my dogs require daily baths to clean their muddy paws.
Musician, Young Fathers
Have you ever regretted a decision you made while playing a character?
This is a thought-provoking question and I am honored that he has chosen to share his thoughts. It is common for regret to be felt when a director decides to change the camera angle. The key is to learn to move on from these moments. Each shot presents choices and it is natural to have doubts rather than feeling confident. In fact, I have become wary of moments when I do feel confident because they often turn out to be the least interesting takes. Heraclitus once said, “Doubt is essential for growth.” Doubt leads to understanding, which I also learned from Derek Jarman.
Do you believe that there is a current artist whose work is similar to the great Derek Jarman, given your close friendship and collaboration with him?
Jamie Matley, Manchester
Derek was a torch bearer who came from a lineage of outsider artists, starting with William Blake. He was known for his inclusive and collective approach to work, and his passion for creating art was contagious. He inspired many artists who shared his spirit and would have been the first to celebrate their success. His radical enthusiasm for his craft was a strong influence on others, including myself.
What advantages does a Steiner school education offer?
Self-determination. Flexibility. The knowledge that life without screens is possible. An ability to climb trees/make things with your hands/grow food/sing and dance with abandon. My children were privileged to experience a Steiner education. I look at them now, at 26, and see two undaunted and spirited individuals, imaginative, generous, merry-hearted, fair-minded, open-eyed, self-determined, democratic, adaptable, collaborative, grounded, grateful, kind and generally up for bringing what they can to brighten the horizon.
Which team do you support, Nairn County or Inverness Clachnacuddin? (These are rival football teams located near Inverness in Scotland.)
You have collaborated with Italian filmmaker Luca Guadagnino on multiple occasions, such as A Bigger Splash and Suspiria. What sets your partnership with him apart?
Marco Foti, East Sussex
Luca reminds me of a childhood friend from our early days in the sandpit. I was introduced to him at the age of 22, and our ideas and plans were always daring and beyond what seemed possible at the time. This dynamic of our initial connection has continued, as we still have a tendency to be chaotic and set ambitious goals.
Which Scottish loch do you prefer and why?
Chris Harland, Leeds
This is a small lake located on an island in the Outer Hebrides. It is about the size of a tennis court and during the summer, it is filled with beautiful water lilies. Although I do not know its specific name, I am sure it has a lengthy Gaelic name. The water, which is made of peat, has a unique buoyancy. It has a hue similar to that of a fine malt whisky and lifts you up like a cloud from underneath. To me, it is the closest thing to paradise. There is nothing else like it and it remains unchanged. Tomorrow, I will be heading to the South Bank to showcase my all-time favorite movie: I Know Where I’m Going! by Michael Powell. The film has a new version and will be released nationwide. The island featured in the movie – Mull – also remains unchanging. I visited there just last month. It is a dependable and unspoiled place.
You may be most recognized as the fiercely protective mother figure in Danny Boyle’s film The Beach. Did you anticipate the film’s exploration of issues such as overtourism and sustainability to be prophetic at the time?
R Evans, Hertfordshire
We, along with Alex Garland who wrote the book the movie is adapted from, had a feeling that things would not turn out well, but as it often happens, things usually have to get worse before people truly realize the situation. It’s hard to believe that we were able to shoot in the stunning location of Ko Phi Phi Le in Thailand with no other people present. It has been 25 years and since then, the island has transformed into more of a tourist attraction.
Is life more bizarre than what is depicted in fiction?
Ayo Akingbade, London
I fully embrace oddity; let’s welcome increasingly bizarre stories.
As you age, have your preferred projects and desired roles shifted?
Mellissa Reynolds Donello, Worcester
I struggle with this issue because I have a tendency to create projects that are customized with the help of collaborators. These are not films that are offered to me, but rather pieces that are created with my own input, making them more meaningful and personal. In fact, I find it increasingly fulfilling to use my own life experiences as inspiration for these pieces, rather than following the ideas of others.
The movie “The Eternal Daughter” will be showing in cinemas in the UK and Ireland starting from 24 November. The BFI Southbank is hosting a series of films by Joanna Hogg, titled “Internal Reflections,” throughout the month of November.