Tilda Swinton arrives at a swanky Beverly Hills Hotel to promote her newest film “Only Lovers Left Alive,” in which she plays a 3,000-year-old vampire dealing with relationship issues with her younger (by 2,500 years) undead mate, played by Tom Hiddleston, best known for his role as the villain Loki in Kenneth Branagh’s “Thor.”) Mia Wasikowska and John Hurt co-star as other immortal beings in their lives.
The 53-year-old Oscar-winning actress (“Michael Clayton”) reteams with filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, having previously starred in his highly acclaimed “Broken Flowers” and “The Limits of Control.” Her mother passed away during production, which had a significant impact on her performance playing an immortal being and her thoughts now on mortality.
“We started shooting and she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and suddenly, I was thrown into this very strange reflection,” she recalls. “And for me, honestly, now a year later, this film is all about mortality. In the lightest way, it’s got to do with people preparing how to die, or how to survive death, which is what they do eventually.”
Swinton can also be seen (under heavy aging makeup) in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel, in which she plays an elderly dowager who’s death sets in motion a race amongst her heirs to obtain her estate.
For this interview, the actress wanted to focus on discussing her vampire role in “Only Lovers Left Alive,” which arrives in theaters April 4. Aptly, her character is called Eve, while Hiddleston’s character is Adam.
Q: Having worked twice before with Jim Jarmusch, do you guys have to even talk anymore or do you have a psychic connection? Does he give you a lot of direction, how does that work?
Swinton: We are friends now, and part of the reason that I love to work with him is that means that I get to hang out with my pal for longer than if I wasn’t shooting with him. So we are, this one was another long gestation, it was another seven or eight years since now and when he first rang me up and said hey man, let’s make a vampire film. So that means chewing many breakfasts when I was flying through New York saying, so where are we, and many moment on the phone and many conversations in dark corners about where we were going to next over the years, and so when we came to shoot, the lovely thing about those long developments is that when you come to shoot, it’s just grace. You are so relieved to finally be putting it down and you have also had that length of time to talk about it, you don’t really need to talk about that much.
Q: What’s the origin of the film’s title?
Swinton: The title is kind of floating around for years. Someone made an album, someone wrote a book, I have never asked Jim actually but I remember when he first mentioned the project to me, the title was there, it was like a flake that was already on it. It just feels like it’s always been there, that title. And we talk all the time and whether we talk about anything that’s pertinent to the making of the film I don’t know.
Q: What do you take away from the experience of making this film, or learn about yourself in the process of doing it?
Swinton: Making any piece of work over a long period of time is something that I had the privilege to do many times and I really love it, because it means that the course of the piece of work attracts a huge track course of my life. So I had done eight years of living in the course of working on this film with Jim. And on this one I have to confess, there’s a particular aspect, which is quite particular, my mother died during the course of the making of this film, which is so strange because we were preparing for so long to make a film about immortality. And we started shooting and she was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and suddenly, I was thrown into this very strange reflection. And for me honestly, now a year later, this film is all about mortality. In the lightest way it’s got to do with people preparing how to die, or how to survive death, which is what they do eventually. I know that’s a heavy thing to lay on this room, but it is true. I wasn’t preparing for that to throw a shadow on the film, and now, a year later, I see that it’s enriched my personal experience of the film even more because it’s, about surviving not only life, but also death. And I am very grateful for it. And also, by the by, it so happens that my parents were together, they celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary a month before my mother died and they were for me, the archetypal Adam and Eve, this long, long wed partnership. And so it’s very personal, more personal than I intended it to be this film and it’s kind of, it’s been an interesting discourse to be a part of that moment in my life.
Q: Do you have a preference between those kinds of roles or do you find one that’s either more challenging or more fun?
Swinton: It’s all endlessly fascinating. It’s just a different caliber. I started in a kind of cinema that grew out of the art world, working with the sort of naturalistic gray and it’s something I have rarely done, but when I have done it, I have really enjoyed it, and found it, just a special atmosphere, like for example the film I made with Tony Gilroy, “Michael Clayton” or the film I made with Lynn Ramsey, “We Need To Talk About Kevin,” that sort of realism, just trying to spin the realism a little, has been really interesting, and maybe I would always want to spin it, but to spin it with that kind of naturalistic gray, like “Deep Cover,” although I have done it very seldom, but it’s all fun to me. It’s all dressing up and playing, whether it’s dressing up as a corporate lawyer, or dressing up as someone in 96, with the whole butcher shop on my face, it’s dressing up and playing and just trying to keep breathing.
Q: Can you talk about the physicality of your role?
Swinton: We talked a lot about what it would be if you were that un-socialized because they kind of lifted out of human society and they are, very quickly we start to talk about them as lone wolves, so we talked about them as animals, and we are putting together the look also and we ended up filling those wigs with yaks hair and wolves hair and there’s a heartbeat in the film that comes up and down in the soundtrack, which is actually a wolf’s heart. So I thought a lot about wolves when we were thinking how Eve would walk about. And if you are not in the pack, if you are alone at night and you can take your time, you can pick your rhythm and we knew that we, I think this is always the case with Jim, not only is it always, the music is a very important lifeblood, but also the camera, the move, the feeling of movement, is always very important to him.
Q Eve is very much about celebrating every period in history, all of the art and stuff. So what was that like in the character for you, to really thrive and celebrate all these times whereas Tom’s character is younger and more cynical?
Swinton: He’s very young. He has yet to learn. He’s only 500 years old. She’s 3,000 years old and she’s a Druid. She’s seen it all and she knows that survival is possible and that survival is possible if one keeps one’s eyes open and takes it all in and it’s not like she’s recommending turning one’s face away and she talks about witnessing the inquisitions, the Middle Ages, she’s witnessed all the Holocausts that there have been, and yet she’s seen humanity and spirit and nature survive those things. So she knows that as long as one keeps looking up, and as long keeps breathing and keeps one perspective, survival is possible. And when she says to him when he gets down, she says to him, your immersion and your despair is actually vanity and if you just use your life on making the right sense of priorities, concentrate on nature, get your guidance from nature, which survives consistently. I mean particularly in a place like Detroit (where part of the film is set), to go to Detroit and to feel the way nature is taking over there is a really positive thing. She likes kindness and friendship and dancing. She’s got her priorities right.