Is there any role that Tilda Swinton can’t play? By now, through a series of eclectic performances, Swinton has proven herself time and time again to be one of the most consistently impressive actors of the 21st Century. A woman of seemingly boundless talent, she’s landed roles in small arthouse pictures like We Need to Talk About Kevin and Limits of Control as well as international smashes like the billion-dollar-grossing Avengers: Endgame. Of course, an artist of such skill is bound to acquire a cavalcade of fans and esteemed collaborators, which is made clear by the fact that Swinton has become a personal favorite of auteurs like Wes Anderson, Bong Joon-Ho, Joanna Hogg, among others. It isn’t just that Tilda Swinton is one of the greatest performers of her time (she is) or that she earns herself roles in a long train of noteworthy releases (she does), but what’s even more impressive is how damn versatile the woman is. She’s got the tendency to awe with deeply transformative performances that traverse across genres, tones, and styles without misstepping in the process.
She’s conquered cinema and has dabbled in television, guesting on a Season 1 episode of What We Do in the Shadows as a fictionalized version of herself that leads the Vampiric Council. Swinton has even appeared as an alien-like traveler eerily prowling through the East London night in the music video for glitchy-electronic act Orbital’s song “The Box”, as well as starring as David Bowie’s wife in the late rock-star’s video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)”. No stranger to eccentric musicians, Swinton also lends her voice to narrate When Björk Met Attenborough, a BBC documentary on when the mononymous Icelandic star met David Attenborough to discuss her 2011 album Biophilia.
Swinton’s filmography feels like a roulette wheel of possibilities, with each next project the actor takes on being as impossible to predict as the last. While no actor’s oeuvre is completely bulletproof and without the occasional dud, Swinton has at least proven to be of refined taste. The projects she takes on are exciting, the roles bold, and the majority of the works that she appears in range from good to excellent. Regardless of the role in question—whether the budget be massive or minimal—Swinton can always be counted on to bring her A-game.
Tilda Swinton’s Career Began with a Bold Start
In the earliest days of her acting career, Swinton starred as a wide-eyed fashion enthusiast that gets sucked (literally) into the shallow world of style magazines in Caprice, a thirty-minute short by her future frequent collaborator Joanna Hogg. In Caprice, Swinton exudes the vulnerability of an awe-struck youth and the jaded disillusionment of one coming to terms with reality in the same single bound. Around the same time as her first of several collaborations with Hogg, Swinton pursued her interest in art and provocation through performance and found the ideal collaborator in queer activist and experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman (and Swinton would go on to narrate a documentary on the late filmmaker, titled Derek). Jarman’s works were daring, bold, and inventive, and they frequently focused on subjects of gender non-conformity, androgyny, and queerness. Exploring lead roles in Jarman films like Edward II and The Garden convinced Swinton to continue acting (thank you), and proved to be an accurate representation of the slightly-off-center path that she has continued through her career.
Tilda Swinton Takes Risks
It may sound cliché, even pretentious, to suggest that Swinton is an artist rather than merely an actor, but it’s a point that’s hard to argue against. She’s expressed disinterest—even dismay—at the thought of being an “industrial actor”. Avengers and Narnia aside, Swinton has been particularly skillful at circumventing traditional star-making roles in favor of the proverbial path less traveled. After breaking through with starring roles in excellent movies like Orlando and The Deep End, the actress has worked on some fascinating arthouse films from some of the most acclaimed international filmmakers. She starred in the glacially-paced and beautifully bleak film The Man from London (directed by Hungarian master Béla Tarr), played front-and-center in Almodóvar’s short film The Human Voice, appeared in villainous roles in each of Bong Joon-Ho’s English-language movies, and led Apichatpong Weeresethakul’s lyrical opus Memoria. Through it all, Swinton has taken far more risks in her selective and artistically-oriented performances than average.
Tilda Swinton Can Shape-Shift Across Tones
What’s most impressive about Tilda Swinton as a performer, though, is her complete ability to shape-shift from one tone to another without skipping a beat. She can do uproarious comedy (look no further than her brilliant dual role as the Thacker twins in the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar!), psychological drama (I can’t possibly sell We Need To Talk About Kevin-era Swinton enough), and horror (she’s electrifying in Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria reimagining, but more about that later) all with equal effectivity. She’s even played twins on more than one occasion, and each time she’s able to walk the line between the two by distinguishing the subtle differences that make each sister an individual, while sharing mannerisms to show their uncanny relation. In other words, no genre is a hurdle Swinton can’t clear.
It would be easy but unfair to categorize Swinton as a purely esoteric performer. While it’s true that it’s the strangeness of many of her roles that make them so memorable, it’s Swinton’s skill and devotion to these characters that make them so believable. 2018’s Suspiria finds her in a triple-pronged role, one of which rendered her utterly unrecognizable. It was initially intended to be a secret that the role of Dr. Klemperer, the school’s psychotherapist, was played by Swinton. The role is credited to one Lutz Ebersdorf, a nonexistent actor that nobody would recognize, even though the name is merely a pseudonym for Swinton. In the role as a elderly spectacled man, the actress is transformed and unidentifiable, which can be contributed in equal parts to exceptional costuming and make-up, as well as Swinton’s transformative acting. So devoted to actually becoming Ebersforf was Swinton that she actually insisted on integrating a “weighty set of genitalia” into her costume.