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Swinton, Tilda (1960- )


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One of the most individual and distinctive of present-day British actors, Tilda Swinton has lent her striking presence to an impressive range of films. Starting out in the challenging, mini-budget art films of Derek Jarman, she has recently been taking roles in more mainstream Hollywood movies - though rarely in anything routine.

Katherine Matilda Swinton was born in London into a patrician Scottish military family that can trace its lineage back to the 9th century. Her father was Major-General Sir John Swinton, Head of the Queen's Household Division and later Lord-Lieutenant of Berwickshire. Her mother Judith was Australian. After attending various private schools - which she loathed - and performing voluntary work in Africa, Swinton went to New Hall College Cambridge, where she joined the Communist Party and graduated in 1983 with a degree in Social and Political Sciences.

Her acting career started in student productions at Cambridge. She later appeared at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh and, after graduating, with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Swinton left the RSC after a year, finding herself out of sympathy with the company's ethos, and has since expressed antipathy towards live theatre: "I'm not one of those performers who says the theatre is my great love.... I'm not really interested in the theatre at all to be honest.... I find it really boring."

Instead, she formed a close relationship with the maverick gay filmmaker Derek Jarman that lasted until his death in 1994. For Jarman she appeared in Caravaggio (1986), his segment of Aria (US/UK, 1987), The Last of England (1988), War Requiem (1989), The Garden (1990), Edward II (1991), Wittgenstein (1993), and lent her voice to his final film Blue (1993). Other directors were attracted by her otherworldly, androgynous appearance. (Swinton wears little make-up in everyday life, and has sometimes, to her amusement, been mistaken for a man.) She played an alien robot messenger in Peter Wollen's Friendship's Death (1987) and, for Sally Potter, the sex-swapping title character in Orlando (1992), adapted from Virginia Woolf's novel.

After Jarman's death Swinton appeared to lose her way a little. In 1995 she lay for several days in a glass case in the Serpentine Gallery for spectators to gaze at, a display interpreted by some as an act of mourning for Jarman. But her commanding screen presence and unconventional looks - short red-gold hair, pale complexion, high cheekbones, tall slim figure, direct blue-eyed gaze - attracted independent filmmakers in both Britain and the USA, and she soon built up an impressive gallery of boldly off-centre roles. For Susan Streitfeld's debut feature Female Perversions (US/Germany, 1996) she played a high-powered, sexually voracious attorney forced to deal with her sister's kleptomania; in video artist Lynn Hershman Leeson's time-spanning fantasy Conceiving Ada (US/Germany, 1997) she was Ada Augusta Byron King, daughter of Lord Byron and deviser of the first computer language.

Swinton never seems to care whether the characters she plays are likeable. She was Muriel Belcher, the abusive and foul-mouthed queen of Bohemian Soho, in John Maybury's biopic of Francis Bacon, Love Is the Devil (UK/France, 1998). In Tim Roth's The War Zone (UK/Italy, 1999) she played a mother who refuses to acknowledge the incestuous relationship between her husband and her teenage daughter, while as the leader of the seemingly idyllic community in Danny Boyle's The Beach (US/UK, 2000) she appeared at first benevolent, only gradually revealing a heartless streak.

With thriller The Deep End (US, 2001) Swinton moved closer to the Hollywood mainstream, at once tough and vulnerable as a woman determined to conceal her gay son's guilt of murder. Since then she has skilfully steered a course between arthouse projects and the more offbeat side of mainstream, often choosing support roles in mainstream films that appealed to her: Spike Jonze's typically quirky Adaptation (US, 2002), David Fincher's reverse-life fantasy The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (US, 2008), and as a sweating, nerve-ridden executive in corporate drama Michael Clayton (2007), a role that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

On the arthouse side, she played the slutty, adulterous wife of a bargee in David Mackenzie's Young Adam (UK/France, 2003) and the high-strung wife of a port official in Béla Tarr's Simenon adaptation The Man from London (Hungary/Italy, 2007). In Julia (France/Belgium, 2008), Swinton's selfless performance in the title role - a loud, malicious, self-pitying drunk - was by far the best thing in a clumsily-scripted film.

To date, Swinton's only involvement in a franchise has been as the ice-cold White Witch in the Narnia series, starting with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (US, 2005) and following it with two sequels. She made a very convincing witch, lending the role a touch of cool irony. One of her finest recent performances, though, was as the mother of a psychotic son in Lynne Ramsay's adaptation of Lionel Shriver's We Need to Talk About Kevin (UK/US, 2011). In a riveting, agonised performance Swinton inhabited the role like someone with her skin flayed off and every nerve-end left exposed and screaming. Astonishingly, it went unnoticed by the Academy Awards.

Philip Kemp

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Selected credits

Thumbnail image of Caravaggio (1986)Caravaggio (1986)

Derek Jarman's stunningly beautiful portrait of the gay Renaissance painter

Thumbnail image of Last of England, The (1987)Last of England, The (1987)

Derek Jarman's darkly poetic vision of a nightmare England

Thumbnail image of Love Is the Devil (1998)Love Is the Devil (1998)

Innovative feature-length biopic of the controversial painter Francis Bacon

Thumbnail image of War Requiem (1989)War Requiem (1989)

Derek Jarman interprets Benjamin Britten's oratorio about Wilfred Owen

Thumbnail image of Wittgenstein (1993)Wittgenstein (1993)

A playful portrait of the philosopher by Derek Jarman

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