Art and Film: Tilda Swinton

Hailing from England, Tilda Swinton is a highly acclaimed actress who has made her mark in major as well as art films. She originally started working in theater and then moved on to film. Over the years, Swinton has been featured in numerous top Hollywood movies and has won a slew of awards for her remarkable performances as well as a cult following of fans. More recently she has become a household name due to her recurring role as the White Witch in the Narnia film series. Today Swinton continues to push forward with new and challenging roles while also participating in other art projects that hold an intrinsic interest for her.

Early Years

Tilda Swinton was born Katherine Matilda Swinton in London, England on November 5, 1960. Her bloodline can be traced back several centuries ago to the venerable Anglo-Scot Swinton family that is conspicuous throughout British history. Swinton has three siblings – two elder brothers, James and Alexander, and a younger brother called William.

As a child, Swinton attended elite independent schools and for a while, was classmates with Diana Spencer, who would later become Princess Diana of Wales. She showed a high aptitude for her studies and excelled at running and track as well as theater. While at school, Swinton signed up to organize and act in a number of dramatic plays. As if to prove her seemingly boundless talents, she also wrote the lyrics to a song composed for her school’s choir. Despite her appearances as an outstanding student, Swinton grew restless and upon graduating, she travelled and worked in South Africa and Kenya for a couple of years before heading to college.

Theater Work & Art Films

Tilda Swinton

Swinton originally joined New Hall College (a women’s academic institution) at Cambridge University with the intention of becoming a writer. To this end, she studied English Literature and also Social and Political Sciences. At college, Swinton continued to involve herself in theatrical productions, once even touring Europe as part of the company of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

She already had several theatrical productions under her belt before she joined the Royal Shakespeare Company for one season, performing with the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench and Kenneth Branagh. However, Swinton preferred more artistic, unique and demanding roles and did not feel suited to the parts she was assigned.

After moving away from the Shakespearean scene, Swinton moved to Edinburgh and joined the Traverse Theatre. A few years later she starred in Zastrozzi, a four-part Channel 4 series based on the gothic novel by Percy Bysshe Shelley. Time and again, Swinton was drawn to outlandish roles, some of which went as far as being offensive to critics and audiences. Nevertheless, she relished the challenge and the thrill of playing such confrontational roles. On this path, Swinton met Derek Jarman, a director infamous for his works containing controversial homosexual material. The two hit it off so well that he went on to cast her in no less than eight of his works, starting with Caravaggio, in which Swinton played a lead female role opposite Sean Bean. By the late 1980s, she found herself drawn more to film although she still appeared in a few theater productions.

Mainstream Film Career (2000 to present)

By the time Tilda Swinton gave up theater for film, she was already earning awards for her exceptional performances. At first she accepted parts in relatively smaller films, such as The Party: Nature Morte, Edward II (directed by Derek Jarman), and Man to Man in which she played a widow posing as her dead husband. Swinton’s real breakthrough in film was in Orlando, based on the novel by Virgina Woolf. When Derek Jarman passed away in 1994, Swinton lost her long-time collaborator and mentor. Around this time she floundered, taking a year off from work and engaging in an art exhibit with an artist by the name of Cornelia Parker. She accepted a few more roles in some obscure films and by 1997, Swinton took some more time off after giving birth to twins. By 1998 she was back on her feet, starring in Love is the Devil, alongside Daniel Craig, and then The War Zone in 1999 with Ray Winstone.

Swinton broke out in Hollywood in 2000, appearing opposite Leonardo DiCaprio in the highly acclaimed thriller, The Beach. Following that star performance, she started to receive offers for several more parts in other Hollywood movies. However, she was still choosy, opting to accept roles based on the directors rather than other factors. Swinton played the lead role in The Deep End (2001) and reaffirmed her success as a mainstream actress in Vanilla Sky with Tom Cruise, Penelope Cruz and Cameron Diaz. Despite her new-found popularity, Swinton still returned often to the world of independent film. In 2004 she returned to Scotland to film Young Adam with Ewan McGregor. The following year, she was among the Cannes Film Festival judges. This publicity brought in a number of new filming offers and Swinton made headlines again when she appeared in Constantine with Keanu Reeves. That year ended with an even bigger bang when Swinton turned the traditional wicked witch role upside-down with her icy interpretation of Jadis, the White Witch in The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.

True to form, Swinton immediately followed up her wildly successful part with a few independent and art installations, but returned to Hollywood to film Michael Clayton with George Clooney. Her work paid off and she was awarded an Oscar as well as a BAFTA for her stunning performance. In 2008, Swinton had a chance to team up with George Clooney again, as well as with Brad Pitt, in the dark Coen brothers comedy, Burn After Reading. During this year she also returned to her role as the White Witch in the sequel to the first Narnia movie, and shown alongside Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchette in the eerie film adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.  Over the next few years, Swinton accepted several smaller roles again, and returned with relish for the third installation of the Narnia series, The Voyage