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Tilda Swinton - Biography

TalkTalk have created this exclusive biography of Tilda Swinton - we believe it to be the most comprehensive on the web

Tilda Swinton

Personal details

Name: Tilda Swinton
Born: 5 November 1960 (Age: 54)
Where: London, England
Height: 5' 11"
Awards: Won 1 Oscar and 1 BAFTA, nominated for 1 Golden Globe

All about this star


When in 2005 Tilda Swinton appeared as Jadis, the supreme force of evil in the epic fantasy The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, her appointment came as something of a surprise to all. She was not familiar to mainstream audiences, despite having recently appeared alongside Tom Cruise, Nicolas Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio. The art-house crowd , knowing her well as Sally Potter's immortal Orlando and a longtime collaborator with Derek Jarman, would not have expected her to contemplate headlining such a blockbuster. Feminists, too, aware of the sexual politics running through much, if not all of Swinton's work, might've blanched at her agreeing to play such an icon of female wickedness. Yet here she was, staring icily out from the posters, daring anyone to argue.

That, at least, should come as no surprise. Tilda Swinton is without doubt the most challenging actress Britain has produced in years. Hailing from a madly traditional family, she broke free during punk times and, unlike most punks, continued to test herself and her audiences with a caustic mixture of art and politics. Becoming known as "the Greta Garbo of the avant garde", she rejected a training with the Royal Shakespeare Company to follow her own wilder path. Though not always easy to decipher, her intelligent experiments have been constantly fascinating to watch. And Jadis is just another of these, as if Swinton decided to become a worldwide superstar simply because it would be something different to do. Her career (though she would never use that word herself) including an Oscar win in 2008, has been literally extraordinary.

She was born Katherine Matilda Swinton on the 5th of November, 1960, in London. She had two older brothers, James and Alexander, with another boy, William, arriving in 1965. Her lineage was excessively impressive, the Swintons' recorded history stretching back well over a thousand years. Their crest, featuring a boar chained to a tree proper (their motto is J'Espere) possibly sprang from their bravery in clearing wild pigs from the woods of Northumbria, which then reached to the north of Edinburgh. Perhaps it simply referred to their property at Swinewood. Certainly their name and crest were first recorded in the year 886 when their Germanic ancestor Edulf, Lord of Bamburgh, officially acknowledged Alfred the Great as his overlord. From then on the family - packed with soldiers, statesmen and priests - would own swathes of property in northern England and southern Scotland, though they'd concentrate themselves in Scotland when William the Conqueror began to subdue Yorkshire, Durham and Nothumberland in his notorious "Harrying of the North".

Throughout British history, the name Swinton would continually pop up. In 1371 Sir John Swinton would strike a deal with John of Gaunt and take part in the 100 Years War against France, singlehandedly fighting his way into the town of Noyon. Later, allied with the French (well, the Swintons were proud Scots), his son would disable the Duke of Clarence, Henry V's brother and commander of the English army. In 1650 another John Swinton would fight on King Charles I's side in the Civil War (he'd soon switch sides), his brother being killed in an attempt to snatch away Cromwell's standard. For hundreds of years, with the country's politics and religion ever-changing, the supremely pragmatic Swintons would be lauded for their loyalty and condemned for their treachery, having fortunes gratefully bestowed and angrily confiscated. But they would hold on to power, prestige and the family seat at Kimmerghame, a castle at Swinton, near Berwick-on-Tweed on the eastern coast of southern Scotland. Sir Walter Scott said he was honoured to be a "mere twig" on their family tree.

More recent history has hardly taken the gloss from the Swintons' achievements. In 1908, Alan Campbell Swinton wrote to the science journal Nature suggesting that the newly discovered properties of the electron might provide a means for "Distant Electric Vision", via a cathode ray tube. John Logie Baird would promptly take Swinton's theories forward and invent the television. Come the First World War, another Swinton, this time Sir Ernest, would be Kitchener's official war correspondent. Appalled by the senseless slaughter of men marching into machine-gun fire he would come up with another idea, this one latched onto by government minister Winston Churchill - thus the tank was created. As well as these there'd be Tilda's great-grandmother Elsie Swinton, a famed beauty and celebrated singer at Edwardian house parties, whose portrait would be painted by both Walter Sickert and John Singer Sargent. Her face, like those of many other forebears, would stare down at young Tilda from the packed walls of Kimmerghame, reflecting her own image, demanding she follow in the family's glorious tradition.

Tilda's own parents were amongst the elite of their respective nations. Her father, another Sir John and the 7th Lord of Kimmerghame, had served with the military in Germany immediately after WW2 and, during the Fifties, had worked as aide-de-camp to Sir William Slim, Governor General of Australia. After returning to Germany (Tilda would spend part of her upbringing there), he'd take command of the Queen's Household Division between 1976 and 1979 and, for eleven years from 1989, would be Lord Lieutenant of Berwickshire. Tilda's mother, Lady Judith Balfour Killen, was the only daughter of Harold Charles Killen of Barellan, New South Wales, a rural farming area later famed as the birthplace of tennis star Evonne Goolagong. The Killens had owned vast holdings in the region, WW Killen having in 1914 built the Merribee Station homestead, the huge Federation-style centre of one of the largest merino studs in Australia. Judith would meet John at a function at Australia's American Embassy.

Wherever they travelled - and they travelled a lot - Tilda's family would always return to the comforts of Kimmerghame. It was here that the first seeds of socialism were born in the young girl, when she began to wonder why children she regularly played with were seated downstairs at church while the Swintons were perched up on high. She would ask questions and receive no good answer. She would furthermore recognise that she was the only one asking such questions. Already, she had begun to feel apart, alien.

Naturally, as a girl she was expected to make a fine man a fine wife some day. So, at the age of 10 she was sent south, far south to West Heath school for girls' near Sevenoaks in Kent, an establishment with around 100 boarding pupils (her brothers would all attend Harrow). Soon her class would be joined by a young Diana Spencer (Swinton would remain in contact with Spencer until the Royal Wedding in 1981). West Heath, aiming to produce high calibre spouses, was not an academic hot-bed. Consequently, keen to make something of herself for herself, Tilda's first rebellion was highly constructive as she lent her undoubted intelligence to study, eventually becoming the only girl in her class to take four A-Levels.

Aside from study, Swinton was a champion sprinter. However, when her abilities were noted and it was decided to enter her into county meetings she shied away, pretending to sprain her ankle. She later explained that she just loved to run, loved the sense of freedom it gave her, a feeling of being alive. Organised competitions, with their concomitant responsibility and desire for prizes, stripped the activity of its joy, to her of its very point. It's very simplistic to say so, but there is a marked parallel between her behaviour here and the choices she'd make in her cinematic career, when she'd continually pick projects that took her out to the edge (physically, emotionally and academically) rather than those that might lead her to fame and fortune.

Beyond academics and sport, there would inevitably be theatre, Swinton being involved in putting on several school productions. There'd be music, too, and the school's Madrigal Choir. Tilda would, late in her West Heath career, provide words for Voices, a piece composed for the choir by musician and academic Peter Willsher. But Swinton does not have the fondest memories of West Heath. The punk rock explosion of 1976 had been a revelation to this mostly silent and watchful teenager, and she became increasingly indignant that boarding school life kept her from the action.

Eventually, Swinton would leave West Heath for Fettes College in Edinburgh, very close to home. Known as "the Eton of the north", the place included amongst its alumnae Prime Minister Tony Blair, Ruthven Todd, a Scottish poet who edited William Blake, and Tilda's own forebear Alan Campbell Swinton. Interestingly, Ian Fleming had James Bond attend Fettes after he'd been expelled from Eton for seducing a school maid.

On leaving Fettes, she'd take two years off before entering university, first working with children in a black township in South Africa, then in Kenya. This experience would be a real eye-opener, pushing Tilda ever more to the Left. By the time she left University she'd have joined the Communist Party.

Deciding not to attend drama school, Swinton now enrolled at New Hall, Cambridge, a college for young women, former pupils including concert pianist Joanna McGregor, TV presenter Claudia Winkleman and Jocelyn Bell Burnell, the astrophysicist who discovered pulsars. Here Swinton would remain from 1980 to 1983, studying social and political science as well as English Literature. Though she had initially thought to become a writer, acting, or at least performing was still important to her - she'd loved collaborating on productions at West Heath - and she now became involved in serious political drama, punky stuff intended to provoke and inform. One fellow student would later recall how glamorous Swinton had appeared, and how she'd once performed completely naked. Seeking further collaboration, she'd join the famed Cambridge Mummers for The Duchess Of Malfi in Cambridge, The Comedy Of Errors in London and a European tour of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Given her background and this love for collaborating with fellow artists and performers, it was perhaps predictable that she'd now join the Royal Shakespeare Company. This was an exciting period for the troupe, with young turks Kenneth Branagh, Gary Oldman and Daniel Day-Lewis strutting their stuff and strong female personalities like Juliet Stevenson, Harriet Walter and Fiona Shaw challenging the RSC's male-dominated structures. But Swinton would not rise through the ranks, appearing only in four very minor roles, all at the Barbican in 1984. She'd be Juliet in Measure For Measure, starring Stevenson, Daniel Massey and Peggy Mount: a plebeian woman in Julius Caesar, with Peter McEnery and Gemma Jones: a nun in the controversial The Devils, again with McEnery: and a soldier's mum, washing her long red hair in a bucket, in Mother Courage, adapted from Brecht by Hanif Kureishi and starring Judi Dench and Zoe Wanamaker. It was an inauspicious start and the end came quickly. Perhaps the formality of the place offended her punky sensibilities, perhaps she reacted against another set of faces looking down at her from the walls, perhaps it was simply all-too-normal for an alien seeking kindred spirits, but Swinton would later say the RSC taught her only "how not to do it", adding that being there was like working at ICI and that actors were treated like "paper knickers".

Searching for a more visceral form of theatre, she now moved back to Edinburgh and the Traverse Theatre, a company dedicated to new writing. Her first appearance here would be in The White Rose in 1985, a play for just three actors, concerning the contribution of women to the Red Army's struggles with the Nazis at Stalingrad and beyond. Kate Duchene would star, with Ken Stott, both as pilots, with Tilda appearing as engineer Ina Pasportnikova. Come December of that year, the production would transfer down to the Almeida in London's Islington. As well as vital experience, The White Rose would also give Swinton an introduction to her future husband, artist and playwright John Byrne, 20 years her senior. A working-class Paisley man who'd put on The Slab Boys at the Traverse back in 1978 (he'd later write Tutti Frutti) , Byrne was famed for bringing the voice and thinking of the Scottish west coast to the stage for the first time and for putting Scotland on the TV map. Also a renowned painter, he was a Scottish Renaissance Man, and funny with it, later rightfully receiving an MBE. For The White Rose he'd been acting as designer, painting the set, crushing an enormous fur hat onto Tilda's head then disappearing mysteriously into the night. It would be four years before they'd hook up for real.

1986 would bring several productions Tilda's way. There'd be Zastrozzi, a four-hour miniseries based on Shelley's novel, written while he was still at Eton. Presented as a contemporary romance, this would be dreamlike and death-ridden, hugely gothic and ambitious - aside from the soap Brookside, it was Channel 4's most expensive production ever. Then there'd be Egomania, or Insel Ohne Hoffnung, directed by Christoph Schlingensief, well-known in Germany for his deliberately offensive works. Concerned with our need to embrace and integrate our own destructive impulses, this would see Udo Kier both as an aristocrat and a mud-eating demon, drawn towards Tilda who, as the embodiment of love, is threatened by Kier and abducted by witches. Heavily processing his images, creating beauty out of darkness and attacking the audiences preconceptions by, for example, blasting out industrial noise during love scenes, Schlingensief would teach Tilda much in her quest for new and more provocative forms of expression.

The mid-Eighties were a great time to be on such a quest. Success was not always being measured solely in terms of profit and, backed with funds from the BFI Production Board, the likes of Peter Greenaway were being nurtured and allowed to grow as artists. Another such maverick was Derek Jarman, already notorious for such pieces as Sebastiane, dealing with homosexual desire, and Jubilee where Queen Elizabeth I was transported to the end of the 20th Century. He would be a perfect workmate and mentor for Swinton - brimming with ideas, burning with intelligence, strongly political (especially in terms of sexual politics) and, seldom directing his performers, wholly open to any imaginative contribution. He and his troupe of collaborators (many of them, oddly, from the RSC) were the group she'd sought since West Heath - alien punks, just like her. And for Jarman, surely, Swinton was a godsend. Her aristocratic features immediately conjured thoughts of an English class system he itched to assault. They also spoke of opulence and decadence, both important in his work. And she was keen, interested and brave.

Swinton's first collaboration with Jarman would be Caravaggio, a lurid, fictionalised biopic of the 16/17th Century painter. Dealing with censorship, sexuality, violence and artistic transcendence, this would picture Caravaggio as a bisexual thrill-seeker. At one stage he would meet a brutish Sean Bean at a bare-knuckle boxing match and begin a menage a trois with Bean and his girlfriend, Tilda, a prostitute attempting to rise through the social ranks. Having partly cast Swinton due to similarities between her features and those of the women in Caravaggio's paintings, Jarman would set up several extraordinarily beautiful scenes around her - one where she's floating in a lake having been drowned by Bean, then lying dead on a table being painted and mourned by Nigel Terry's Caravaggio. It was truly stirring stuff.

All of Swinton's work at this stage, and for many years to come, would be designed to challenge and fascinate. Her next project, directed by Klaus Wynborny, who'd been a camera operator on Herzog's The Enigma Of Kasper Hauser, would be The Open Universe. Intense and thoughtful, this would see a young man in Marseille meeting Tilda and her new husband, then cut to them on a boat in the South Pacific where the boy would kill the husband and have sex with Swinton before they land on a cannibal-infested island. Not released until 1993, it remains one of Tilda's harder-to-find efforts.

Swinton would now rejoin Jarman for Aria where a series of high-profile directors, including Altman, Godard, Roeg and Ken Russell, were each given a 10-minute segment to give a sense of the meaning of opera. Jarman would show a veteran singer giving her final performance, intercutting it with home movie footage of an earlier love affair (acted out by Swinton and another Jarman favourite, Spencer Leigh). Next would come Friendship's Death, set in Jordan at a time of conflict with Palestine. Bill Paterson would play a cynical Brit journalist who saves young Tilda from a thuggish PLO guard then is bewildered when, elegant and enigmatic, she claims to be an alien, a survivor of an earlier mission to Earth. In a very theatrical production, Paterson would set out to discover the truth, the pair engaging in some warm, witty and intriguing discussions about politics, robots and the nature of existence. It would not be the last time Tilda would use such intellectual sci-fi to get across her points.

Though Tilda would quickly find that screen-acting was her preferred medium, 1987 saw her still flitting between stage and screen. Onstage, she'd appear in Strauss's The Tourist Guide and Brecht's Die Massnahme, both at the Almeida, and then, at the Royal Court, Karge's confontational one-woman show, Man To Man, the latter two productions being directed by Stephen Unwin, who'd earlier helmed The White Rose at the Traverse. Man To Man would be a wonderful part for Swinton as she played out the true story of a woman who took on her dead husband's identity in order to survive in Nazi Germany. Like much of Swinton's work it would denounce the stifling of personality and ask us to question who we really are.

Having appeared in the award-winning short Degrees Of Blindness, inspired by a William Blake poem and directed by Jarman acolyte Cerith Wyn Evans, Swinton would then involve herself in Jarman's video backing for Sylvano Bussotti's avant garde and homoerotic opera L'Ispirazione, performed to great acclaim at the Communal Theatre in Florence. She'd then stay with Jarman for The Last Of England, a harrowing contemplation of the nation under Thatcher, referencing everything from drugs to nuclear power, the Royal Wedding to the Falklands War, and picturing our green and pleasant land as an industrial slag-heap. Tilda would stand out in one memorable sequence, hacking off her wedding dress with shears in a weird and unnerving parody of Charles and Di's nuptials.

Sadly, Jarman had now been diagnosed with AIDS, and his work became darker and ever more striking. 1989's War Requiem would be an ambitious piece that blended visual images with Benjamin Britten's music and Wilfred Owen's poetry, with Laurence Olivier, in his last role, as an old soldier looking back to the insane conflict of WWI. Tilda's Caravaggio co-stars Nigel Terry and Sean Bean would both appear, with Swinton herself as a nurse both at the front and tending for the aged Olivier, her character representing the compassion and powerlessness of those who witnessed the horror but did not fight.

The same year would see Swinton on TV in Play Me Something, based on a John Berger short story and starring Berger himself as a mysterious story-teller entertaining a group of passengers waiting for a plane to take them from the Isle of Barra to Glasgow, Tilda playing a young hairdresser on her way to a bigger and better life. As the others join in with their own jokes, songs and stories, his tale becomes increasingly complex, exploring people's relationships with sex, music, politics and each other. The programme would win a Europa Prize at the Barcelona Film Festival, and would show Tilda's willingness to back the Scottish film industry, something she would do throughout her career.

1989 would also mark Tilda's definitive move into film. Ending her stage career (for now at least), she'd finish with Stephen Unwin's production of The Long Way Round at the Royal National Theatre, and Pushkin's Mozart And Salieri, directed by Manfred Karge, which took her from the Almeida to Vienna and Berlin. Having played a female soldier, a female alien, a seductress and prostitute and embodiments of female beauty and female compassion, this latter play would see her further exploring human (sexual) nature when, for the first time, she played a man - namely Mozart himself. Her quest for new challenges, new lessons, was showing no signs of stopping.

The course of her searching would now lead her to love. Playwright John Byrne, who'd worked with her on The White Rose at the Traverse, had continued his successful TV career and had written a part for her in his latest serial, Your Cheatin' Heart. Once more dealing with Glasgow's working class and idiosyncratic underground, this had John Gordon Sinclair as a food and wine correspondent who, having got piano bar waitress Tilda the sack, joins her in a journey round the city's Country & Western clubs as she hunts the men who framed her husband and had him jailed. Featuring such top Scot vocalists as Maggie Bell and Eddi Reader as well as Swinton's White Rose co-star Ken Stott, the show was very well received. It also saw Swinton hook up with Byrne, having met up again in the BBC canteen. Their quick and prolific minds and love of art and all things Scottish would see their union prosper and endure.

Of course, Swinton would continue to enjoy her artistic relationship with Derek Jarman and would join him for The Garden, an exotic and disturbing feature that appeared as the dreams of the director himself as he looked out from his home beside Dungeness nuclear power station. Notions of love, family and time (he had so little), mingled with angry images of sexual oppression as Jarman controversially placed a gay couple in the position of Jesus Christ, with Swinton playing a Madonna figure, pusued with her child by a loathsome and vicious pack of paparazzi.

Regularly throughout her career, Swinton would be drawn to work with female directors, at least those with something interesting to say about the female condition. Now she returned to Germany for The Party: Nature Morte, directed by her friend Cynthia Beatt, who'd earlier acted as executive producer on The Open Universe. This would be a contemporary literary piece, littered with poetical and novelistic references, set at a party and structured as a series of vignettes as guests flitted in and out of camera. The real action, though, would concern Swinton, unhappily married and humiliating her husband as she flirts with a French stranger.

Truly finding her feet as an actress, Swinton would now deliver an undeniably brilliant string of performances. This would begin with Jarman's Edward II, based on Marlowe's play, which portrayed the titular monarch as a gay martyr, brought down by his love for Piers Gaveston. Tilda would stand out as Edward's queen Isabella, icily imperial and, sexually rejected by her husband, increasingly murderous as, together with court and church, she plots her bloody revenge. Her efforts would see her lauded as Best Actress at the Venice Film Festival.

Next would come a screen adaptation of Man To Man, the stage role she'd played five years earlier. Directed by John Maybury, who'd drawn scenes and costumes for Jarman's Jubilee and edited The Last Of England, this was a brilliantly filmed piece making the absolute most of Swinton's immense performance (she'd wear a stained vest, blacken her teeth and shove a rabbit's foot down her Y-fronts to appear as the deceased husband). As a concentration camp victim, a desperate woman, a character from Weimar art and many others, she was placed at the centre of a succession of extraordinary and beautiful images. It was a real tour de force by Maybury who'd been given only ten days and '160,000 by the BBC, plus three weeks to edit.

And now came the film for which - up until the Narnia Chronicles - Swinton would be best remembered. This was Sally Potter's Orlando, a movie that had taken five years to come to fruition. Based on Virginia Woolf's novel, this had Swinton playing a young nobleman who's told by Quentin Crisp's Elizabeth I that he can keep his wonderful estates if he remains young and vibrant forever. So he does, passing through four centuries and changing sex along the way as the film wondered what it means to be born in a particular time, place or social group, or of a particular sex, and followed the history of the oppression of women. The scenes Potter set were literally amazing - who could forget the court skating on a wintery lake? - and Swinton, still unfamiliar to most, was a revelation, sweet and bemused, abused but unbreakable.

Having popped up as Ophelia in an animated Hamlet, Swinton would now return exclusively to Jarman. Sadly, with the visionary director now succumbing to complications from AIDS, their remaining time together would be short. Nevertheless, they would collaborate successfully on Wittgenstein, a very theatrical dramatization of the life and thoughts of the great philosopher as he passed through Cambridge and began to make sense of his homosexuality and ideas. Swinton would appear as Lady Ottoline Morrell, imperious mistress of Michael Gough's Bertrand Russell, the couple acting as patrons of the troubled young man. And, visually, Jarman would excel himself, his vivid costumes fabulously vibrant against his pitch black backgrounds.

The end would come with Blue, Jarman's compelling record of his own last days. The voices of Swinton, Nigel Terry and Jarman himself would leap out from a cold blue screen, the limitless space forcing the audience to engage with the painful words. There was no self-pity at all as endless visits to hospitals were described, as hope was sparked and extinguished, as the man's love of life was made abundantly clear. A towering final achievement and a fitting memorial to a political revolutionary and courageous humanist.

Naturally, Jarman's passing would leave an enormous gap in Swinton's life. She'd narrate the techno documentary Visions Of Heaven And Hell and, along with Rupert Everett, would have her face distorted and deconstructed in John Maybury's Remembrance Of Things Fast, which explored a modern gay existence while pushing back the boundaries of video art. But she wouldn't make a movie proper in three years. The collaborative group that Jarman provided was gone, and so, it seemed, was all possibility of finding another. "That kind of art", she would later say "is dead. What you can do now is subvert with art that disguises itself as commerce".

During this period, Swinton managed to support herself and Byrne for a full year by betting on the horses, having as a child been taught to pick winners by Bert Matheson, a gardener back at Kimmerghame. But she did not depart entirely from the public eye. Indeed, she achieved what was to date her high-point of notoriety when, in 1995, as part of a show by the artist Cornelia Parker, she appeared as an exhibit called The Maybe in the Serpentine Gallery, for a week spending eight hours a day asleep in a glass box (the original idea had been for her to dress as Snow White). Beside the display case a small sign would read "Matilda Swinton (1960 - )" 22,000 people would gawp at this living artefact. One of them would shout "Wake up, you stupid cow!" and this feeling was shared by many critics. Brian Sewell, in particular, would froth at the mouth, calling The Maybe "a feeble and utterly self-indulgent performance by two inadequately educated women... showing it in an art gallery does not make it art". Derek Jarman would have loved it.

1996 would see Tilda take The Maybe to Rome, and appear in the video accompanying Orbital's The Box. She'd also return to film with a bang in Female Perversions. Adapted from Louise J Kaplan's non-fiction book The Temptations Of Emma Bovary and directed by Susan Streitfeld, this saw Tilda in her first American part as an up-and-coming lawyer, ambitious for a judgeship, who uses her sexuality and just about anything else to further her career. She engages in a twisted affair with an executive, and another with a female psychiatrist who takes the next office, and feels threatened by her sister Amy Madigan's shoplifting, as the film explored the modern female's need to be admired and desired and to dominate, as well as the fine line between perfectionism and madness.

Still vainly seeking the buzz and fulfilment of the Jarman experience, Swinton was now basing her film choices not on the quality of the scripts she was offered but on how interested she would be to work with the directors who came to her with projects. The next successful applicant would be Lynn Hershman-Leeson with Tilda's second sci-fi project, Conceiving Ada. This would see a computer researcher seek to build a gizmo that would allow her to communicate with her long-dead heroine Ada Byron King, daughter of Lord Byron and the woman who devised plans for the very first computer (but was never properly credited). Swinton would play Byron King with palpable intellectual tension and curiosity, seeing her as a modern-day explorer trapped in starchy male-dominated Victorian England as well as suffering uterine cancer. Indeed, the movie might have been improved by ditching the techie stuff and concentrating more fully on Swinton's character.

Swinton would now, for a while at least, keep her projects to an absolute minimum. 1997 would see her give birth to twins, Honor and Xavier, and she and Byrne would decide to move from Chelsea and raise the kids in Tain, a pretty little town on the Dornoch Forth, north of Inverness. Eventually, they would send the children to a local gaelic nursery (taking lessons themselves so they could speak the language at home). Come 2002, Honor and Xavier would be ready for Moray's Rudolf Steiner school so, in order to be closer, Tilda and John would purchase a property in Nairn, "the Brighton of the north", right on the Moray Firth. All parents were expected to take turns cleaning the school and Tilda, ever unstarry, would be happy to do her bit.

Having made a directorial debut with the 9-minute short Will We Wake for BBC2, Swinton's next onscreen outing, 1998's Love Is The Devil, would see her reunite with director John Maybury. Here Derek Jabobi would play artist Francis Bacon, taking small-time crook Daniel Craig as his lover. Unfortunately Craig suffers badly as Jacobi uses his intellectual superiority to run the poor man down, his cruelty being matched by his friends, including Tilda, close to unrecognisable in crazy prosthetic teeth, appearing as Muriel Belcher who ran the Colony Room, an all-night bar favoured by such Soho denizens as Bacon, Lucien Freud and Jeffrey Bernard, as well as Richard Harris and Peter O'Toole. Very different would be 1999's The War Zone, directed by Tim Roth. Here a working-class London family makes a new start in the Devon countryside, Swinton playing mum to Ray Winstone's dad. All is cheery, mum's pregnant and successfully bears the child, but their son sees something untoward between his sister and dad. Unable to accept his behaviour as wrong, Winstone believes the boy is deliberately upsetting a happy family, Swinton is keen not to know the truth, and the whole charade descends into a messy tragedy. It was harsh viewing, indeed, but still rewarding.

With the kids growing fast, Swinton was now able to up her workload somewhat, and the year 2000 would see her in two new releases. In Danny Boyle's The Beach, Leonardo DiCaprio would play a traveller in Bangkok who hears of an island paradise. Arriving there with two French companions, he discovers a hippie community led by a severe and increasingly dictatorial Tilda who's trying to run the commune without annoying the armed dope farmers with whom they share the island. Swinton likes Di Caprio but he prefers Virginia Ledoyen and the delicate social structure begins to crumble as the movie spins wildly through Lord Of The Flies territory, into videogame madness and on into all-out action. Tilda would immediately slip back into low-budget mode with Possible Worlds. This was an existential odyssey, questioning what is real and what is not, following a man as he slipped between parallel existences in search of the love of his life. Swinton would hold it all together, playing the man's lover in each new world, somehow making the women the same but completely different. It was heavy and noirish, but fascinating nonetheless. Swinton clearly enjoyed playing multiple characters once again, and would take up the challenge once more within two years.

With The Beach under her belt, Tilda was now being offered Hollywood fare and, when sufficiently interested, she was taking it. 2001 would bring her first Hollywood headline role, The Deep End, based on the novel The Blank Wall by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, an author said by Raymond Chandler to be the finest suspense writer of her time. Here Swinton would play a mother of three living on the banks of Lake Tahoe with her husband away at sea. When her eldest son comes out of the closet and starts seeing a much older club owner connected to gangsters, she naturally worries and offers the man money to stay away from the boy. But then the man turns up dead, and it looks like the son did it, so she covers it up and slips ever deeper into a morass of murder, blackmail and fear. It was a great role - Swinton says she took it because it was a woman thinking her way through a crisis for 90 minutes - and it should really have had her nominated for an Oscar, not just a Golden Globe.

The same year would bring her biggest movie yet, Vanilla Sky, wherein playboy publisher Tom Cruise falls for Penelope Cruz only to be driven off a bridge by a jealous Cameron Diaz. He wakes to a warped reality - is he alive, is his face destroyed, has he murdered someone? Gradually the pieces fall together, then fall apart again, with Tilda turning up late on as an almost comically prim and efficient cryogenics administrator who (kind of) helps us understand what the hell is going on.

With Cruise and DiCaprio on her CV, Swinton could now quite easily flit between Hollywood and the outer reaches of indiedom. For her next project, Teknolust, in her own words "a cyber vampire morality tale", she would step away from the mega-bucks to reunite with Conceiving Ada's Lynn Hershman-Leeson for more female-orientated sci-fi and another multi-character role. Here Tilda would play a frumpy San Franciscan bio-geneticist who breeds three SRAs (self-replicating automatons) from her own DNA - a dark-haired sexpot, a dizzy blonde and a neurotic red-head, all also played by Tilda. Confined to the lab their real selves gradually emerge but they need to feed on male sperm to survive - no, really - and so the sexpot breaks out of the lab, seduces men and brings food back to her sisters, sealed in condoms. But then the men she's milked suffer erectile dysfunction and weird rashes spring up on their foreheads. The authorities are alerted and geneticist Tilda is called in to investigate, along with transsexual private dick Karen Black. Also featuring a dance routine with all three Tilda clones in kimonos, making DNA patterns with their arms, it was one the true cineaste could not afford to miss.

A little less out-there (though not by much) would be Adaptation, directed by Spike Jonze and written by the alarmingly talented Charlie Kaufman. Here Nicolas Cage would be asked to base a screenplay on journalist Meryl Streep's book about a Florida orchid-thief, with the film flitting between Streep's adventures and Cage's problems as he becomes hopelessly blocked and is further frustrated by his (possibly imaginary) brother's success with a cheap slasher flick. Swinton would pop up as a sexy and elegant film executive, pushing Cage into delivering a first draft.

If Swinton appeared to be moving towards the mainstream and an easier artistic life, it was just an illusion. Sure Vanilla Sky and Adaptation hadn't really tested her, but Teknolust was wild and her next effort would stir up yet more controversy. This would be Young Adam, based on the novel by Alexander Trocchi, for which Swinton would return to her Scottish homeland. Set around 1960, this would see her as the owner of a barge, moving between Glasgow and Edinburgh and resigned to a dull life with husband Peter Mullen. But things change dramatically when she hires young Ewan McGregor and a body is found in the water. She begins a torrid, reinvigorating affair with McGregor, but there's something deeply wrong and she loses her nerve, as this tough film broods on the nature of evil.

There'd be more evil in Norman Jewison's The Statement. Here Michael Caine would play a Vichy collaborator who's been sheltered since the war by a shadowy Christian sect. Now bulldozing judge Swinton seeks to bring him to justice for his crimes against humanity while a Jewish cabal is also after retribution. Both sets of pursuers are remorseless, with the aging Caine shambling from one hiding place to another. It was a taut thriller but, with no obvious heroes in view, a box office bomb.

Having the year before been a member of the Cannes jury that awarded the Palme D'Or to Michael Moore's Bush-baiting Fahrenheit 9/11, Swinton would enjoy a rush of releases in 2005. First would be Thumbsucker, an American indie that Swinton herself had coaxed into being, acting as adviser and confidante to director Michael Mills and helping to attract both producers and actors (having learned this from Derek Jarman, she calls it "cultural activism"). In the movie, the thumbsucker of the title would be the discontented 17-year-old son of Tilda and Vincent D'Onofrio who, sent to oddball orthodontist Keanu Reeves, is put on Ritalin and becomes a monster. The film's real emotional weight, though, lay with Swinton, who works at a rehab centre and is entranced by the celebrity patients, particularly TV star Benjamin Bratt. Her fantasies draw ever closer to a family-shattering reality but then are burst when she, rather graphically, removes drugs from his anus. Uber-critic Roger Ebert would pay her the greatest compliment by saying she acted as though she didn't know the ending.

Constantine, based on the Hellblazer comics, would not initially appear to be Swinton's thing at all. However, if she wanted to experiment with a comic book adaptation, this would have to be it. Keanu Reeves (again) would play the lead, a failed suicide doomed to hell and dying of cancer, who sees demons around us and kills as many as he can in the hope of avoiding his eternal punishment. Swinton would appear as Gabriel, a duplicitous angel who's engineering a demon-led apocalypse and attempts to thwart Reeves in his mission. Perhaps that was what drew her in - a dying hero taunted by an evil angel. It wasn't exactly Blade.

Next would come a brief cameo in Jim Jarmusch's Broken Flowers. Swinton had met Jarmusch backstage at a gig by The Darkness (she's a bit of a rocker on the sly, also enjoying the oeuvre of Marilyn Manson) and he later wrote to her, offering this part. The movie would see Bill Murray as an over-the-hill Don Juan, lost in stagnation, who hears he's being sought by a 19-year-old son he didn't know he had. Thus he's persuaded to seek out any former girlfriends who might be the mother, Jessica Lange and Sharon Stone being two, and Tilda another. His encounter with her would be the film's most furious sequence as she's straggly haired and vengeful trailer-trash, backed by mullet-haired bikers with bad teeth.

2005 would end with Swinton's highest-profile role to date, and quite possibly the highest-profile role she'd ever play. This was as Jadis, the White Witch of The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe, the first episode in a new franchise hoping to emulate the success of The Lord Of The Rings (both were written by fusty old university professors, both filmed in New Zealand, what could go wrong?). The part was originally offered to Michelle Pfeiffer, but family responsibilities had her turn it down. Swinton, meanwhile, one of the few mothers brave enough to admit they actually enjoy time away from their brood, took the opportunity and made the film her own. Her tactic, she said, was to concentrate on the thing children understand least and hate most - not violence or shouting but coldness. She would make herself the epitome of Narnia's eternal winter. Mr Fox and Mr Beaver, played respectively by Swinton's former co-stars Rupert Everett and Ray Winstone, had better beware.

2006 would see Tilda immediately return to indieland with the Sundance Lab project Stephanie Daley. Written and directed by Hilary Brougher, this would see her as a pregnant forensic scientist investigating 16-year-old Amber Tamblyn, said to have concealed her own pregnancy and murdered the child. Clearly Swinton would need to leave Jadis well behind. Her next two projects would see her return resolutely to the art-house world. First would come Doug Aitken's Sleepwalkers, a public art work where massive film images would be projected onto the glass and granite walls of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Dealing with art and architecture, the isolation of modern existence and the life of human beings within urban systems, the images would follow five individuals through their somnabulant journeys. Donald Sutherland would be hit by a cab, then perform a dance of vengeance on its bonnet, while Swinton would play an executive and violinist. Her challenge, she said, was to begin as a character and progressively disappear into her environment. Few actors would like the idea of that. She'd then move on to Bela Tarr's The Man From London. Tarr was best known for drawn-out dreamscapes, explorations of human desire that were considered either works of genius or stultifying bores, but this effort did actually have a plot, being based on a novel by Georges Simenon. In it, Miroslav Krobot would play a railroad signal box operator who witnesses an act of violence and finds some stolen money. Naturally, he pays for it, Swinton appearing in a five-minute cameo as, as she put it, his "Hungarian fishwife".

Swinton's final release of 2007 would be the biggest, Michael Clayton. Here Tom Wilkinson would play a bipolar lawyer who, when defending a giant corporation against multi-billion dollar claims, loses it completely and threatens to blow the whistle on the guilty company. Fixer George Clooney is called in to sort it out, but his conscience begins to undermine his professionalism, much to the chagrin of Swinton, the company's top legal executive, a woman so gripped by ambition she even considers murder to protect her position. Swinton said she was interested in the character's struggle for total control, deliberately adding unhealthy pounds to her skinny frame so she could show herself to be losing her fight for fitness. The film would be a big hit and win Oscar nominations for Swinton, Clooney and Wilkinson. Of the three, Swinton would prove to be the awards season winner, picking up both a BAFTA and an Oscar. In a rare move into the mainstream consciousness, she'd also be a patron of the Edinburgh Film Festival, and pop up in the tabloids in stories revealing that, though she was still devoted to her family and in a mutually loving relationship with John Byrne, she was also "travelling the world" with another man, also a painter.

2008 would bring yet more fascination with Julia, the first English language film by Erick Zonca, director of The Dreamlife Of Angels. Long and fraught, the film would see Swinton as a blowsy, frustrated and deeply troubled woman, a hard drinker and tough talker, who's persuaded by an acquaintance to help snatch the son she's not allowed to see. Swinton winds up performing the kidnap herself and breaks for Mexico, on the one hand trying to extract ransom money from the boy's industrialist grandfather, on the other attempting to avoid the attentions of Mexican slimeballs. It was an emotionally gruelling and desperately challenging lead role - how could she turn it down?

Following Julia would come the Coen Brothers' Burn After Reading, another excuse to shout at George Clooney. Here John Malkovich would play a drunken CIA agent who writes immensely compromising memoirs after he's sacked, memoirs he promptly loses. Clooney's an agent sent to sort out the mess, soon believing the diaries have fallen into the hands of some unscrupulous denizens of a gym, including Brad Pitt, with Swinton appearing as Malkovich's wife. Next would come the delayed second installment in the Narnia Chronicles, Prince Caspian, where the Pevensie children return to the fantasy world to discover they've been away for hundreds of years. Now they must help heir to the throne Caspian to snatch power from evil king Miraz, and foil a plot to raise Swinton's Jadis from her icy grave. Following this, she'd reunite with Brad Pitt for David Fincher's The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, based on an intriguing and hugely amusing short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald where a fellow is born as an old man and gradually grows younger.

Though she's now balancing Hollywood work with indie efforts, we can expect nothing from the mercurial Tilda Swinton. She's said she'd like to recreate The Maybe in Moscow, thereby risking a fraught reaction if people think she's being disrespectful to Lenin's corpse. Inspired by partner John Byrne, she could easily stretch her artistic wings and come up with something new. Her increasing experience and now-bulging contact book might see her attempt to emulate Derek Jarman and pull together her own team of like-minded artists and performers. Maybe, in a truly punky and wanton act of hypocrisy, she might even return to the RSC. That would make people think - and that's what Tilda Swinton, who defied her illustrious family by becoming illustrious in her own inimitable way, is all about.

Dominic Wills

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