Talking to Only Lovers Left Alive star Tilda Swinton is an event unto itself. Having emerged from avant-garde theater work and the films of Derek Jarman, the actress has become one of the most celebrated working actresses, and someone who is known for taking interesting and challenging roles. In some ways she has the career that James Franco seems to lust for. So any chance to talk with Swinton is a treat.
What was your favorite characteristic about your character Eve? What did you like most about her?
Tilda Swinton: That she doesn’t sweat the small or the medium or the big stuff. That she’s full of wonder. And she’s always looking up, which feels to me pretty much the prerogative the people who’ve lived that length of time. She knows what’s worth what.
This is your third time working with director Jim Jarmusch. Did you guys have to even talk any more or do you have some sort of psychic connection? Does he give you a lot of direction? Also, where did the title come from? Did he tell you what the origin was?
Tilda Swinton: The title’s kinda been floating around for years. Someone made an album. Someone wrote a book or something.
There was a book the Stones optioned….
Tilda Swinton: Exactly. And they were gonna make a film…someone amazing. Who was it? Yeah, I don’t know. I’ve never asked Jim actually. But I remember when he first mentioned it to me, the title was there. It was like a flake that was already on it. It just feels like it’s always been there, that title. As for…we talk all the time. Whether we talk about anything that’s pertinent to the making of the film, I don’t know. We’re friends now and part of the reason that I love to work with him is it means I get to hang out with my pal for longer than if I wasn’t shooting with him.
This one was another long gestation – another seven or eight years since now and when he first rang me up and said (does impression of Jim Jarmusch), ‘Hey man. Let’s make a vampire film.’ So that means a lot of cud chewing – many breakfasts when I was flying through New York saying, “So where are we?’ And many moments on the phone. Many conversations in dark corners of where we were going to go next over the years. When we came to shoot, the lovely thing about those long developments is that when you come to shoot, it’s just grace. You’re so relieved to finally be putting it down and you’ve also had that length of time to talk about it that you really don’t need to talk about it that much.
The physicality that you bring to this role is so incredible. It’s nuanced – just you walking down the street is pretty badass. How do you bring that to your role? Was there some kind of inspiration that came to you how you would move like a vampire?
Tilda Swinton: We talked a lot about what it would be if you were that unsocialized because they’ve kind of been lifted out of human society. Very quickly we start to talk about them as lone wolves. So we talked about them as animals when we were putting together the look also we ended up filling those wigs with yaks hair and wolves hair. There’s a heartbeat in the film that comes up and down in the soundtrack which is actually a wolf’s heart. So I thought a lot about wolves when we were thinking about how Eve would walk about. If you’re not in the pack, if you are alone at night and you can kind of take your time – you can pick your rhythm. I think this is always the case with Jim, not only is the music is very important lifeblood but also the camera, the move, the feeling of movement is always very important to him.
We had the wonderful Yorick Le Saux who’s this great cinematographer who I’ve worked with a couple of times before – with Luca Guadagnino on I Am Love and also on Julia with Eric Zonca. He’s such a great dance partner. So walking alongside him was really kinda creamy. Yeah, so wolves, I would say – that’s mainly where we went to.
What was the essence for you – the attraction of the lasting relationship between your character and Tom Hiddleston’s? What did you and he do to create this lived in, really comfortable long-term bond you clearly share on screen?
Tilda Swinton: One of the first bits of sand in the oyster for Jim which he immediately told me about on that telephone call eight years ago was this book by Mark Twain, The Diaries of Adam and Eve, which is so delightful, playful, sort of fictional (or maybe not) diaries of the original Adam and Eve which spells out very clearly that this enormous love affair between two opposites. That was a foundation stone for us – that they would be in it for the long haul but completely different. That I find really enticing to show two people really loving each other but not being like each other at all. We talked a lot about that. That was fun because that feels really human, playing with that.
Also, as you notice, we wanted it to be about a marriage in which they talk – as long relationships do. There’s a sort of tradition of showing people coming together and then ‘The End.’ You never really see them living it out. Living the ups and downs and talking it through and chewing the cud. We really spent a lot of time wanting to get that tone of two people who were family – it’s a long, long marriage. They are family. They are the same kind and that’s why they still dig each other even though they’re so different and he’s so tricky to live with and she’s such a space cadet. They have this communication thing going and they really like talking about stuff. We really wanted to show that. It felt like it was something we hadn’t necessarily seen before.
As distinctive is your relationship with Tom is as Adam, you have an equally powerful, yet distinctly different relationship with John Hurt as Marlowe. How did you two go about establishing cadence and rhythm between yourselves?
Tilda Swinton: The relationship with Marlowe is a very precious part of the film for me honestly because it felt very close to my own experience. Having a very close relationship with, in my life, Derek Jarman whose disappearance from the building I had to witness also felt very kind of close. But him being a different kind of partner for her. He’s her neighbor. He’s her companion in a way that Adam isn’t as quotidian as Marlowe is for Eve. It just felt completely alive and fresh – I just know that relationship inside and out. And John does too. He was the perfect dance partner to play that out with.
He also feels like family, not only because our references are kind of similar. We actually, funnily enough last year, John and I made two films together (or rather not last year, the year before) – this film and Bong Joon Ho’s Snowpiercer so we spent the year together which was wonderful. At the end of it, we realized that we’d known each other for years and years and years without working together. So he feels like family. And so we just put that into the film. Two sort of ramshackle outsiders who John was absolutely convinced we were lovers once which is in there let’s say. He’s very kind of glamour rogue.
It’s very fun to watch these vampires because I haven’t seen them like this on screen before – so modern. What was that like for you as a character to really thrive in the celebration of all these different times in history where a vampire could be cynically minded?
Tilda Swinton: Well he’s very young, you know. He has yet to learn. He’s only 500-years-old. She’s 3,000-years-old. She’s a Brooktary Druid. She’s seen it all and she knows that survival is possible – that survival’s possible if one keeps their eyes open and takes it all in. It’s not like she’s recommending turning one’s face away. She talks about witnessing the Inquisitions, the Middle Ages. She’s witnessed all the Holocausts that have ever been and yet she’s still seen humanity and spirit and nature survive those things. So she knows that as long as one keeps looking up and as long as one keeps breathing and keeps one’s perspective, survival is possible.
And when she says to him when he gets down, she says, ‘You’re immersion in your own despair is actually vanity in that if you could just use your life on making the right sense of priorities. Concentrate on nature. Get your guidance from nature which survives consistently – particularly in a place like Detroit.’ To go to Detroit and to feel the way nature is taking over there is a really positive thing. And kindness and friendship and dancing! She’s got her priorities right.
Marlowe is revealed to be the actual writer of Shakespeare’s work. For your character were there any interactions your character had that may have changed the course of history that didn’t make it into the film?
Tilda Swinton: I’d like to leave that to your fantasy. I think it’s interesting that she’s, as we tell the story, she’s not an artist. He’s an artist, and she’s not; she’s a noticer, and in many ways, she’s a kind of conductor – she’s like a lightning conductor. She can feel the substance of history. She can tell how old this is. She can read every language under the sun through her fingertips. She’s a noticer. She knows every Latin name of every creature. She’s the eyes and the ears and the kind of fingertips, and he’s the artist. I think it’s interesting that they’re put against each other. That sort of came out of the Mark Twain, her noticing. He’s the one who names everything in the garden, he’s the sort of authority – he’s putting it out there. She’s the one who’s picking it up. And we just sort of riffed on that. But I love the idea of anybody’s fantasies about anything she might have had a hand in. You can feel her going through the centuries, just spinning plates and then running away. I don’t know, but feel free to fantasize.
I don’t see this film so much as a portrait of vampires as immortality. It seems like they’ve been apart for a while at the beginning of the movie, but maybe for them a hundred years is like an hour and a half.
Tilda Swinton: It’s like a weekend. It’s like they’ve gone on a mini-break. Yes, they are. I mean, I loved the practical approach to immortality, or even let’s face it, long life. I mean, I don’t know that you have to be much older than 26 these days, maybe even younger, to feel the pull of fatigue and oversaturation and losing one’s way and needing to reboot your interest in life, living, society, one’s fellow man. I think that’s a pretty unexotic thing, but I don’t know whether it’s necessarily looked at very often. It’s also a kind of taboo, really, the idea that society seems to hold these days, that you just, I don’t know, you aim for 21 and then you just stay there somehow by an act of will. You just stay on that pinpoint and you don’t look down, and you don’t ever encompass the idea of getting an older, because that would be the end. And I loved that fact that what Jim is looking at here is how one goes on living, how one goes on loving, how one goes on renewing, and as I say, rebooting one’s sense of wonder and engagement. It feels strangely radical and unfashionable, the very fact that they are trying not to be young, actually. They’re trying to survive youth. I don’t know if that answers your question.
Why Detroit and Tangier? And these characters were vampires, but it doesn’t seem like they’re “the undead.” What to you was sort of the foundation for what you wanted to explore, since Adam has a heartbeat and there are other details that contradict the mythology of vampires?
Tilda Swinton: Well, we were slightly messing with the form — that is true. We’ve all seen a lot of vampire films, and we liked the idea of kind of disconnecting some of the myths, some of the tropes, and then inventing some new ones. So we’re hoping all of the campire films from now on will involve these gloves that we actually put out there in the first place. But I think we all felt the same, their being vampires – very evolved vampires, very humane, virtually vegetarian vampires – is secondary to the idea of them being immortals and being lovers, and in a way that only lovers can really be immortal. Because they kind of live on in each other’s spirits. But Detroit was always going to be an important character in the film. I think I’d like – I’d like Jim to be here anyway, but I’d like him to talk about that, because my sense is that Detroit was always like the Emerald City for him, and so for him it’s a real love story to make a film there, for him. Tangier was a kind of newer idea; there was a moment when we were going to make it Rome, and for all sorts of reasons, Rome is sort of detached. And then we wanted very much to look at making her home on the African continent, and then it became Tangier.
And Tangier, now that it is Tangier, seems to be such a natural home for her; it’s a different kind of wilderness. It’s packed full of people from all corners of this particular planet, and probably others, and from all particular centuries. I mean, you really do get a sense that Paul Bowles is still living there. You get a sense that William Burroughs is that guy in the corner. You know that Rumi is there, Hafiz. It’s got that sense of all time and space end and start in Tangier. And also, you can walk around Tangier at night and cause absolutely no ripples at all, even with a great, massive wolf’s hair wig on and fantastic pants. It’s just a sort of hot spot of spirit, and it felt like a very nice partner to this relatively unpopulated Detroiut, where people are rare relative to empty windows and grass and wolves. And once we settled on Tangier it felt really the right place for her.
Tilda Swinton: Oh, my sister Ava. Eve loves Ava, who knows what their story is. She does say they’re related by blood, but one doesn’t necessarily know what that means. But she’s even younger than Adam, she’s more of a baby. I think one of the things we were looking at there is that the older they get, even the gap between Adam and Eve, the older they get brings this wisdom, this extraction from society. Ava is still super mixed up in it all. She lives here (in Los Angeles), somewhere. She’s mixed up, she still having a relationship with human beings, with zombies, she’s not there yet. Maybe she won’t even get there.
Where Adam is in this situation where he’s detached a bit but detached in a dark and truculent way where they annoy the hell of him and he can’t stop complaining about zombies. And then Eve has made it to the other side. She’s full of compassion but as I say, she knows what not to sweat, and human society can’t throw any curveballs for her. She’s seen it all and she knows what’s going to come out in the wash. But Ava is the youngest, she’s still dangerously mixed up in human society and that’s the problem. If she detached more then things wouldn’t turn out the way they do.
As you reflect on the film and how Eve elegantly transitions through society, what do you take away from making this film?
Tilda Swinton: There’s a short answer to that and a slightly longer one. The short answer is making any piece of work over a long period of time is something I have the privilege to do and I really love it because it means the course of the piece of the work tracks a large piece of my life. So I had done eight years of living during the course of making this with Jim, and that’s always true when I make film money with lucre, that eleven years of my life, and that’s something I know how to negotiate because you’re actually cooking with real stuff. But with this one there’s an aspect that’s quite particular. My mother died during the course of making this film, which is so strange because we were preparing to make a film about immortality and while we were shooting she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and suddenly I was thrown into this very strange reflection. And for me, a year later, this film is all about mortality in the lightest way, it’s got a lot to do with people preparing to die, or how to survive death, which is what they do eventually.
Even Marlowe, when he says “I soon will be dead” you can see he’s kind of up for it. And that’s a heavy thing to lay on this room. But I wasn’t preparing to throw a shadow on the film, and now I see a year later that it’s enriched my experience of the film even more, because it’s about not only surviving life but surviving death. I’m very grateful for it. My parents celebrated their fifty eighth wedding anniversary a month before my mother died and they were for me the archetypal Adam and Eve so the film was more personal than I intended it to be. It’s been an interesting discourse to be a part of during that moment in my life.
Looking at your body of work, it seems you may have more opportunities than other actors to bounce back and forth between roles that demand a real type of specificity and roles that call for a variety of interpretations. Do you have a preference between those types of roles or do you find one more fun or more challenging than the other?
Tilda Swinton: It’s all endlessly fascinating, it’s just a different caliber, it’s like getting a tooth comb with a finer tooth to it. It’s only relatively rare. I came from of a kind of cinema that grew out of the art world, working with a sort of naturalist grain is something that I’ve rarely done. But when I have done it I’ve enjoyed and found it a special atmosphere. For example the film I made with Tony Gilroy, Michael Clayton, or even the film I made with Lynne Ramsay We Need to Talk About Kevin, that sort of realism, just to try to spin the realism a little, has been very interesting and maybe I’d always want to spin it, but to spin it with that naturalistic grain, has been very interesting, even though I do it very seldom. I don’t know, it’s all been fun to me. It’s all dressing up and playing, whether it’s dressing up as a corporate lawyer or dressing up as someone of 96 with a whole butcher shop on my face. It’s dressing up and playing, and trying to keep breathing.
I’m still a bit curious about the characters respective attitudes toward culture and cultural knowledge, which they’ve experienced a great deal. As you said she seems very enthusiastic and open to so many things, where he seems to be a little more particular and conflicted. He says very firmly “I have no heroes” and then we see his heroes. So I’m wondering, other than his relative youth, what his problem is?
Tilda Swinton: I would say off the top of my head that he’s a maker and she’s not. He’s an artist. It’s an interesting question why it’s so difficult for him to admit he has heroes, is it a question of ego only, which is not an inconsiderable issue, maybe it’s that important to him, maybe that would effect his ability to have a voice and make work, I actually don’t know as much as you, but I would say the main difference is that he’s a maker of culture and she is a filter, she picks it up and throws it back. She’s an amplifier, let’s say. But in itself she’s an artist, but whatever she does she’s not invested in protecting herself from anything and he is. That’s more precise.
Maybe this has nothing to do with his age, maybe in two thousand years he’ll still be the same, but he’s investing energy in resisting things, and protecting certain things and filtering certain things out. And maybe he’s in a state of antagonism, not just with people, but with the world and with thoughts. And she is just open. She’s either learned, I’d like to think she’s learned it, and it’s not just something given to a few, that one can learn with time to be safer to be more open and not to be threatened. He’s invested a lot of energy into being protected. And maybe it’s a problem for him, or maybe it just makes him tick. I don’t know. We’ll just have to wait for the sequel.
You talked about this a little bit, but did you consult with the costume designer?
Tilda Swinton: Yes, we always work together very closely. As far as I’m concerned it’s the lion’s share of my work putting together the disguise, and I like to have it done so once we start shooting we can play and stop working. We had such fun putting all the looks together, because of all the portraits what we needed to do was have no distractions, we had to keep alive that they were living in all centuries at once. So every element, the height of the heel, the substance of the pants, the cut of the jacket had to, or rather needed to not indicate one period. So the jacket it might be a bit fifties, a little bit 1530’s, a little bit last season.
That feeling of fluidity and lastability was essential and fun to do. Bina Daigeler the designer, who actually is German, is masterful in walking that line, but Jim has such a clear eye and was a very much a martinet on making sure that agelessness was fluid. Even tiny details of makeup, there was a moment where we all thought it was fantastic to have an eye line, that that would just fix it, but you can’t go into the 1530’s with it. So those were a delight to play with.
Only Lovers Left Alive goes into limited release April 11.