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Tilda Swinton's career climb

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Tilda Swinton, an art-house siren with translucent skin and flaming red hair, inspires a rather slavish devotion among cineasts. On the IMDB message boards, threads are listed under panting titles like ”Is Tilda Swinton the God of the Universe?” and ”Cinema’s Most Astonishing Face Since Garbo.” Quite a few take potshots at Cate Blanchett, the similarly regal actress to whom Swinton is most often compared. (Upon news that she and Blanchett would both star in David Fincher’s upcoming The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Swinton’s fans gnashed their teeth in anticipation of a theatrical showdown.) During a recent dinner with the actress in New York, where she is currently shooting the new Coen brothers movie, Burn After Reading it quickly becomes clear why people in her orbit are so taken with her.

The 46-year-old-Cambridge-educated actress, who lives in a seaside town in her native Scotland with her 9-year-old twin son and daughter and their painter father, John Byrne, is boisterous and familiar. She’s able to talk about her work in the European avant-garde world — such as her conceptual art piece in the ’90’s when she climbed into a glass box at a gallery and lay there, as if asleep, for eight hours a day — without sounding like a windy ass. She grips your arm when she talks and waves her white napkin in the air like a soccer hooligan — ”Surrendah, surrendah!” — to get the smitten waiter’s attention. When the chef sends out a precious amuse-bouche, she coos over the little cup of what the waiter refers to as tomato water. ”This reminds me of the first time I went to a Japanese restaurant and we all got so excited about what we were eating. At the end they brought out some fruit and I was marveling, ‘Oh, this banana skin, exquisite, what have they done?’ Well, it was just banana skin.” Writer-director Tony Gilroy, who cast Swinton in his new thriller Michael Clayton, sums up her charm succinctly: ”She makes you want to run off to the circus with her.”

In Clayton, Swinton stars opposite George Clooney as Karen Crowder, an ambitious corporate lawyer frantically trying to manage her unraveling world. Clooney is the handsome titular hero to her desperate villain, and their electric confrontation is a wonder to behold. ”I knew George would be great,” says Gilroy, who first fell for Swinton after seeing her Golden Globe-nominated work in 2001’s The Deep End. ”I knew Tom Wilkinson would be great and Sydney Pollack was a lock. I really thought that I had done a smart thing casting Tilda — I thought it would give us a little avant-garde cred. But I was completely unprepared for how much deeper she took this.” When Swinton talks about the film, she wrestles with notion of gender identity — ”What if this was Michael Clayton, played by Jodie Foster?” she wonders — and outlines her approach to the awkward physicality of her character. ”I had this enjoyable fantasy about Karen having chosen her makeup on a trip to Dallas, Texas, years ago to visit her sister?”

As proud as Swinton is of Michael Clayton, she’s still getting used to her inclusion in mainstream Hollywood films. Here is a woman who made her movie debut in 1986 in the British painter and experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio. The two would go on to work together for seven years on eight films before he died of AIDS in 1994. Her ”day job” has always been working with edgy filmmakers like Jarman, Lynn Hershman Leeson, David Mackenzie, and Sally Potter, for whom she delivered an astonishing performance in the 1992 adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. It’s only in the last few years, in blockbusters like 2005’s The Chronicles of Narnia (in which she played the cruel White Witch) that Swinton has started moonlighting in the capacity of what she delightedly refers to as a ”studio spy.”

Swinton came to Hollywood for the first time in 2000, merely to appease her agents and prove to them that there wasn’t a place for her in the studio machine. ”Then I could go home and get on developing my projects with my friends,” she says. ”I remember saying there was really no point. What was there being made that could ever accommodate me? What was there that I could contribute? On paper, it didn’t look as if people were coming up with parts…. Oh, I don’t want to fall into some boring rant about women in film, but you know what I mean.”

The night before her first round of meetings, Swinton says, she couldn’t sleep and watched a late-night movie on her hotel room’s TV, the 1945 noir film Mildred Pierce starring Joan Crawford. The next day, when Fox Searchlight honcho Claudia Lewis asked the actress, ”If you could do anything in Hollywood, what would it be?” Swinton responded that she’d love to make a film like Mildred Pierce. Based on that conversation, Swinton was cast in her breakthrough role in The Deep End.

”It’s shame on me, really, for imagining that people wouldn’t be open enough to consider someone a little different,” says Swinton. And now, in a move that should impress those who wag fingers at Hollywood’s treatment of grown women, Swinton, an unconventional beauty in her mid-40s, who’s an angular 5’11” in flats, will appear alongside Brad Pitt in Fincher’s Benjamin Button. And she’ll play Clooney’s harping lover in the Coen brothers’ caper Burn After Reading. ”I’m surprised and impressed that the mountain can come to Muhammad,” says Swinton.

It’s getting late in the evening, and she has an early morning call to the Burn After Reading set, but the actress still has meetings to go before she sleeps. With a hearty handshake, Swinton’s off to persuade the program director of a nearby art-house cinema to launch a Derek Jarman retrospective. However hard Hollywood falls for her, she’ll never quit her day job.

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