Looking one moment like a Park Avenue matron and the next like a punked-out artist, Tilda Swinton is doing what she commonly does when she alights in a city from her home in the Scottish Highlands: gallery hopping.
But on this particular weekend in New York’s Chelsea, she is portraying an assortment of über New York women for photographer Juergen Teller. Inside Barbara Gladstone’s gallery, wearing seven-inch stilettos and a silk miniskirt, she gets down on the floor and raises herself into a shoulder stand, jackknifing her legs so that they dangle precipitously. At Andrea Rosen, her 5-foot-11-inch frame skyrocketing another 10 inches atop platform wedges, she pokes her head between the hairy legs of one of David Altmejd’s colossal sculptures of giants.
The next day, as the shoot winds down in a SoHo loft, Teller asks Swinton to play herself. “Do you want me as I am?” she asks, running her fingers through her styled red hair and across her blushed cheeks. “Because this isn’t how I look.” Without waiting for a reply, she walks over to the bathroom, scrubs the makeup off and dunks her head under the faucet, letting the cold water run over her face and ears until they’re pink. Teller snaps away in close-up as Swinton turns toward him, her head in the sink, caring not a whit that the bright, unforgiving afternoon light is streaming through the window.
Swinton might be unique among her peers for her lack of vanity, but it is hardly the only quality that sets her apart. The reigning high priestess of the avant-garde, she’s the rare star to move seamlessly between the art house and the mainstream, lending cachet to each. She’s a screen chameleon whose Bowie-esque androgyny has always given her a certain exotic glamour. Ask anyone she’s worked with to describe her, and they all point to her fearlessness, complexity and searching intelligence. She’s the antidiva, the thinking man’s movie star.
“You say ‘Try it this way,’ and there’s no moment with Tilda—as there is with most actors—of ‘Let me stop and think about how I would do that.’ She just goes,” says David Fincher, who directed her in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which opens Christmas Day. Based on the F. Scott Fitzgerald story, it stars Brad Pitt as a man who ages backward and Swinton as his first love. “She doesn’t announce her presence. She just slowly steals all the gravity.”
Such is her commitment to going all the way that, in The War Zone, a 1999 film, she appeared nude in all her postpartum fullness just four weeks after giving birth to her twins, Xavier and Honor, now 10, “and she wasn’t on the Red Bull and cigarettes diet to get her body in shape,” quips close friend John Maybury, who has directed her in three films: Man to Man (1992), Remembrance of Things Fast (1994) and Love Is the Devil (1998). “I was not in a state to make a film of any nature at that time,” says Swinton, “so I thought the one thing I could contribute was the real body of someone who had just given birth.”