We Spoke To Tilda Swinton And All We Got Were These Five Wise, Impromptu Life Lessons
"Life isn't about carrying society's perceptions and projections of us. It’s about finding your own path and being as easy and happy as you can be while on the earth."
It’s often said that Tilda Swinton is not of this Earth. The British actress — considered one of the best of her generation — has been working since the mid-eighties and has developed quite a reputation in that time. She has won an Oscar, become a fashion icon and built up a body of some of the most eclectic and versatile work on the stage, silver and small screen. She also slept in a glass box for a week one time as a piece of performance art, but that’s neither here nor there.
Swinton is next set to star as the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful being the Ancient One in Marvel superhero blockbuster Doctor Strange (a role that she said required “no research at all”). While in Hong Kong recently to kick off the film’s global press tour, Swinton sat down with Junkee for what was supposed to be a chat about Doctor Strange but ended up being about much, much more.
Here are five impromptu life lessons served up by the immortal, immaculate Tilda Swinton:
Perspective Is A Superpower
“I not only feel really old, but have always felt really old,” says Swinton, when looking for comparisons between herself and the Ancient One. They’re hard to find, surprisingly, given the character is a mystical mentor unbound by the conventions of time and space. Yet they do share one superpower, says the 55-year-old, and that’s perspective.
“My entire life has been built on the ancient, beloved people in my life: starting with my grandmother who lived until she was 98. That’s the thing being ancient really gives you, that’s the super power of an ancient person — the perspective. It means that you don’t sweat the small stuff, you don’t even sweat the medium stuff, you don’t even sweat at all. You just keep breathing, you look forward, and you know it shall all pass.”
Keep Banging On About Things You Want Changed
Swinton is a big believer in the idea that nothing worth fighting for ever came easy. And as for “representation of women” in Hollywood, she says the only way to undeniably make and see change is to be persistent. Hella persistent.
“It’s really important for people to just keep banging on about it as loudly as they can,” she says. “Let’s face it, that is what works. It’s like bringing a ship around. You put the brake on the Queen Mary II and it takes about a month for it to turn around. That’s what you have to do, you just have to keep applying the right hand brake, or the left hand brake, and just sticking with it until such time as it has a bearing.”
While the stats are improving in terms of women working in front of and behind the camera, they’re still far from something to write home about. Of the 250 highest grossing films of all time, only 2 percent have been directed by women and, as of 2015, speaking parts for women on screen are at just 30 percent and usually taken by white women in their twenties.
It’s even harder for women of colour, but Swinton insists “it will change” — and soon. “Everybody just has to keep knowing the reality and for women, yes, it’s a patience that we’ve borne for decades now. Knowing that we would more often than not go into a cinema and be asked to pour ourselves into the avatar of the male hero and we will experience the story of the movie through his eyes. Let’s just hope that we don’t have to employ that patience so much in the future.”
Speak Loudly And With Confidence
“I would say it’s really important as with any question of diversity for people to speak loudly and with confidence,” says Swinton. It’s a statement that may surprise people. Not that Swinton speaking out in favour of diversity is at all surprising, but what is surprising is that she brings up this topic unprompted. She wants to talk about diversity, she wants to talk about whitewashing and she wants to address the controversy surrounding her character in Doctor Strange.
“For example,” she continues, “there was a question of the Ancient One — which in the comic strip of Doctor Strange was an Asian man — and there was absolutely a justified outcry from the Asian American community. Particularly that a part which might have gone to an Asian American actor was going to someone who was white. There was a slight gloss over the fact that actually it was a woman — a woman who was over 50 and not wearing a bikini — but we’ll let that slide for a minute. But seriously, it’s really important — that outcry is important and valid and incredibly important to support… I stand by it.”
Travel Light In This Life
It’s not surprising that the Narnia actress was somewhat of a muse for the late David Bowie and has become an icon for others who don’t want to adhere to society’s conventions. Whether that’s challenging the definitions of gender or just proudly marching to the beat of your own drum, Swinton says it means “one can travel light” in this life.
“We’re encouraged by society to constantly carry society’s projections of us,” she notes, with a heavy sigh. “Oh, I’m a woman therefore I must be this, therefore I must dress like this, therefore I must think this, therefore I must behave this way, therefore I must live this way. Or oh I’m a man, therefore this means I have to look this, therefore I have to do this with my life, therefore I had to have this attitude or oh I’m gay, this means I have to do this, that or the other… That feels like a misunderstanding of what life is, really.
“It’s not about carrying these perceptions and projections. It’s about finding your own path and being as easy and happy as you can be while on the earth. It’s about ease and lightness and flexibility so one can make all sorts of choices and touch all kinds of existence.”
Never Underestimate Fun
“I don’t know about wisdom,” says Swinton, when asked about what wisdom she has garnered from navigating numerous creative fields with unrelenting bravery and scope. “I’ve certainly had a lot of fun and I continue to have fun.
“I’ve always pitched myself as having a good time. I believe certainly for me, that’s where it’s at. I want to be happy, I have no interest in being miserable. That’s my modus operandi: I just look for the nicest people to hang out with. To make work with your friends is the highest luxury, in my opinion.”
Doctor Strange is out in cinemas October 26.
Maria Lewis is a journalist on The Feed SBS and author of the Who’s Afraid? novel series available worldwide. She’s also the co-host and producer of the Eff Yeah Film & Feminism podcast.