Individuals and Immortality: Tilda Swinton

Andy Spletzer | Monday, March 25, 2024

Individuals and Immortality: Tilda Swinton

The following is an interview I did 30 years ago. I was a young film critic at this upstart newspaper called The Stranger, and the paper itself was not even two years old. We were still figuring out what the paper could and should be, and one decision we made was to dedicate nearly 3,000 words to an interview with Tilda Swinton. Among other things, you’ll see her views on gender were not just progressive for 1993, they feel current as of today! Because there is no digital archive for the first five to 10 years of Stranger newspapers, the only way you’d be able to read this would be to find an old print edition or maybe on microfiche in the library... or thanks to SIFF. If you’re not already, become a member today!
—Andy (former film critic and current programmer for the festival)

See Tilda Swinton in Problemista, playing at SIFF Cinema Uptown through April 3, 2024. 

Individuals and Immortality: Tilda Swinton
by Andy Spletzer
July 1993

Tilda Swinton is the star of the art-house blockbuster film Orlando. The film, based on the book by Virginia Woolf, raises questions of gender and mortality by having its main character switch from being a man to being a woman mid-life, as well as living for 400+ years. Though the story may sound fantastical, the emotions that propel it along are the same ones that everyone feels when they are growing up and trying to establish their own identity.

When I spoke with Tilda, she seemed like she had been thinking about these topics for a long time and was just waiting for an opportunity to talk about them. In a sense, it reminded me of late-night conversations I had with friends when I was in college. She spoke with such energy and enthusiasm that, I have to admit, by the end of the interview I had developed a bit of a crush on her. See if you don't feel the same.

What was it that drew you to the part in Orlando, what grabbed you first?

Well, I read the book when I was fifteen, and I think what made me think that it would make a film was not only the great sweep of it, historically and geographically, but the way in which this consciousness, this search for identity, is actually played out through this novel. I think fifteen is as good a time as any to read this book, because of course one's asking oneself questions of this nature at that time. It was just really wonderful to me to feel that these questions were at least raised and addressed, and then in 1988 I was beginning to think again about these questions.

What aspects of the questions?

I had already made two pieces of work about, generally speaking, cross-dressing, and I made a piece about Mozart which was a live performance, a station piece, and then I also made a live performance which was a one-woman show called Man to Man, which, in fact, has now been made into a film, about a woman who disguises herself as her dead husband and lives her life in disguise as a man. I was beginning to think again about all that, though, because I was wanting to come at the question from another angle, and that being an angle not of sublimated sexuality but of revealed limitlessness. Not even duality, just limitlessness.

And of course having read all that, and it having, sort of, been looming in the back of my brain for a very long time, the limitlessness of immortality seemed to be a good area to draw in order to look at this limitlessness of gender, and at that moment I met with Sally Potter and we realized that we both had been having the same fantasy, so we joined forces and five years later here I am. It was something to do with the way in which we all ask ourselves questions about whether something might have happened to us if we had been a man; if something might have occurred to us if we had been a woman. Would we have behaved differently if we had been different?

Gender roles...

Not just gender roles. It was beginning to occur to me round about that time that I personally was getting tired of this binary system that we have been living in—that we are encouraged to live in, let's say. Though I must also say that for me the film is less importantly about gender than it is about mortality, because it's under the great wing of the limitlessness of immortality that the limitlessness of gender is tucked. I mean, if man is an immortal being, as of course we all are because we are mortals, then we are all things at all moments. The choice is ours. Change is inevitable. So there was that book. It came back to me.

Considering the fact that you've done this "cross-dressing thing" before, what is it that you enjoy about playing a man? What's the difference that you see?

Well, what I find becomes absolutely, gloriously apparent is how similar men and women's experiences are, actually. Certainly, lot the similarities are worth concentrating on and that we can save ourselves a lot of bother, really, in glorying in those similarities. To accept that others are basically the same as us, meaning they are basically human, goes a long way to clearing up most of the distress of being alive, it seems to me.

How can any of us begin to understand if we don't understand the oppressions that the so-called opposite genders have experienced in order for them to oppress us? We can't even begin [to understand], so the first thing we must do is try and know something about that experience. The easiest way, of course, is to simply ask and listen really listen, and believe, and try and understand that there is no oppression without oppression; there is no cruelty without cruelty; there is no bigotry without bigotry. No child is born a bigot. We all learn these habits, we all learn shame and we learn unhappiness, actually (laughs).

When you're playing these roles, and when you're playing men in particular, do you look inside yourself and look at what is masculine and what is feminine inside of you and emphasize one or the other?

The short answer to that is absolutely not. First of all because I don't really believe in masculine or feminine sides. I believe in behavior, but I think that the interesting thing about behavior is trying to work out what's learned and what's innate. I am absolutely unconvinced by this concept of a convincing man or a convincing woman. I think that we all labor, are encouraged to labor, under the misapprehension that there is such a thing as a convincing man or a convincing woman.

Convincing man?

What I mean by that is this: it's a specified gender behavior, specified gender type. Both men and women are constantly—I mean, when you think of the agonies that young things go through trying to become a convincing member of their gender, I can't even begin to imagine the agonies that young men go through trying to be as male as they possibly can be, and women constantly being reminded on every street corner what they are supposed to look like if they wish to be convincing women, which of course they have to be because otherwise they will not be able to operate. I think this is a mistake and a terrible manipulation of people's senses of themselves and a terrible waste of a true human identity.

What is it that says that any of us should have to decide, at any point, what we are? There are enough examples of people who have changed their minds or have discovered that nature made mistake, so why should any of us have to run for cover round about thirteen and go on doing it for the rest of our lives? And when I think of the distress that this causes individuals and the isolation of that distress—terrible.

Anyway, so when you ask about convincing male behavior, that's my answer. I don't actually believe in it. I believe that there some—

—You’re not trying to say people are individuals, are you?

(Laughs.) Well, you said it. People are human, as such absolutely identical and absolutely distinct.

Human first.

And I genuinely believe that gender politics have become—and I say that rather than "always were," because I wouldn't wish to be interpreted as underestimating the extraordinary work of gender politicians—but I do sincerely believe that in this present moment gender politics have become a distraction from more pressing maSers of mortal scale.

We are living through, in this Western bit of civilization, a death-phobic society, and we have an opportunity now to concentrate on what it is to be mortal, which of course is the same thing as being immortal, and if we continue to tie ourselves in knots, dividing ourselves up from each other, then we're missing a great opportunity.

It’s not just with gender and sex either. It's also with race—

—and nationalities, and I mean, I believe we have really started to live in figurative times. What I mean by that is not only that I am—as a performing artist I'm delighted to feel the alliance of conceptual artists and conceptual sculptors who have started to sculpt the human form, and conceptual filmmakers who have started to make films about human beings again or for the first time even, or painters who have started to paint human portraiture. I only say I'm delighted because it means that it's an alliance for me because, obviously, I'm an artist who's a performing artist so I can't work conceptually.

But also because we no longer live in a binary political system. The center has exploded, really, and we're all thrown back on ourselves in a really innate way.

Last but not least, of course in this whole question, is the crucial work that's been done by gay liberation over the last several years.

Some of the most interesting films of late have been exploiting, in a positive sense, gay themes.

[It goes back to] questions of identity. I remember noticing in the middle eighties when I was starting to think about these things, and I began to notice that the barometer of mainstream Hollywood—which is not a bad barometer, actually, if one is looking for the crassest form of global consciousness one could look for—was beginning even then to look at gender issues through all the baby films: Is it possible to be a convincing woman and have a baby? Is it possible to be a convincing man and care for a baby? And recently the global consciousness has been passing through, obviously with films like The Crying Game and My Own Private Idaho and basically looking at, you know, it is possible for gay narratives to somehow, how can I say—

—approach and be accepted by the mainstream?

Yeah, be accepted and be seen be audiences. To be actually tolerated. Tolerated by audiences, which I think shows how much work's been done. When I say toleration I don't want to be misunderstood. Toleration is obviously not what one needs, but it's a step, because obviously the first thing that happens is that people freak out, and they've started freaking out less and less and less, which is good news.

And the people who still are freaking out are looking more and more like they are out of the mainstream.

They are sort of digging their own graves, in a sense. But it seems to me that now we have a further development in this global consciousness, which shows that we're getting somewhere, which are all these films we have at the moment about immortality and eternal youth. We've got Death Becomes Her, which was really so fascinating to have that film made about that context, in that context, particularly in relation to women's issues. And then, what I was talking about before of being a convincing woman, that issue was actually, I think, begun to be addressed in that film, which was amazing. And then you've got Dracula and then you've got Forever Young with Mel Gibson coming back to life atier being frozen, and then you've got Frankenstein coming up, and then you've what else?

You've got Ghost.

Exactly. So that seems to me to be the agenda right now.

I believe you said earlier that to be mortal is to be immortal. I was wondering—

—Hmm. What did I mean by that?

What did you mean by that?

What I'm suggesting is that, as we are mortal, as we are human, the only thing we are responsible for is our own lives and not the pasts of our ancestors nor the futures of our children. As we are individuals (as you say) and flesh and blood and as we grow and age and wither and die, as Quentin says in the film; as we are flesh we are also spirit, and our capacity to be immortal is held in our capacity to live in the present—not in the post for the sake of other people, and not in the future for the sake of other people, but now and for ourselves, absolutely.

I think this is what I feel about the end of Virginia Woolf's novel. There is this great rush into the present, this feeling of ecstasy, this feeling of absolute power to affect the course of one's own life, which is a feeling of limitlessness because it assumes that one can make any change that one will, and in that sense of limitlessness we are immortal.

I think I understand what you're saying.

I'm not sure I do.

I'd like to try and pull it in another direction. So immortality is less a span of time and more of an emotion and a feeling, almost a power.

Well, it's just, what I'm suggesting is that the present is what matters and that we have to live in the present. I just thought of another film, Groundhog Day. It is, I think, a really, really valuable little film. Little. I say little not in a pejorative sense but in that it does what I think Hollywood so rarely does, which is take the most complicated and the most simple little idea, which is live each day as if it were your last, and it makes a mainstream Hollywood picture out of it. It is also an anti-cynicism film, which I find amazing to come out of there. And I think the fact Bill Murray, whose auteurship in this film is really beautiful, he takes his persona that he's built up in his previous work and he explodes it. I really was delighted when I saw this film. Did you feel the same way?

I liked it a lot. It really took me by surprise.

I think it's seriously disarming. It goes right to the heart of the matter, and as such I think it's a very big film. I think that the fallout from it is really going to be quite immense. That really has a kinship with Orlando. Maybe it's not as evident in Orlando; maybe other things are, but the basic tenet is the same: You can change. You can decide to change, and no one else is going to decide for you.

It's funny because women, in particular, live their lives in a certain way until their husbands die and when their husbands die—this is also true of men, of course—but I think because statistically the roles are different, women tend to kind of stay in the house until their husbands die and then their lives begin. Then they start to travel and they start to change; they actually start to change. For so much of their lives before this, however happy their marriages are—this is not to undermine the nature of their relationship with their husbands—but the relationships are defined by a sense of stasis. Stasis is the goal. Obviously married women do not have a monopoly over this, but I think all of us, as children, are encouraged to be suspicious of change. It's out there.

And the thing about Orlando that I would like to say: It's really about a very ordinary life. There is nothing that Orlando experiences that we don't all experience, especially when we are young, developing things.

Do you see it as a progression, maybe metaphorically, in the film?

I see Orlando developing, yes, absolutely. I see Orlando growing and I hope very much that people will not feel nostalgic for the beginning when they come out at the end. I hope that the payoff is that however nostalgic one may be inclined to feel about the past, that the present is infinitely more important. Dependence on the past is death, it's real death.

The other thing, of course, that Orlando is about is the inheritance of wealth and the relationship that the owning class, and by that I mean the class of people who define their position in society by their ability to own beyond the nature of their own labor and to own at the expense of other people's labor. The relationship that the owning class have with immortality, the concept of immortality—also because I come from this background—in my opinion it's a mistake to believe that immortality is simply one's portrait on the wall alongside a host of ancestors, at the expense of one's own life. That's not immortality. I mean, there is a very definite way that the owning class operates: on the wall rather than in life. That one sort of gains human status when one's been killed in battle and one's portrait is on the wall.

And you come from that background?

Yeah, I was brought up in that background. I'm a survivor (laughs). And I was very fortunate to be born a girl, because the question of inheritance, of course, was not foisted upon me, but I have three brothers, and I can see—I've had a lifetime of witnessing the pressures and the sublimations that go with it, so the film is really very much dedicated to my brothers and, actually, to my father as well.

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