Her unsparing performance as a monstrous alcoholic who kidnaps a young boy in Erick Zonca’s Julia, due out next spring, was the talk of this year’s Berlin film festival. And in her first comic turn in a Hollywood film, the Coen brothers’ Burn After Reading, opening in September, she’s utterly convincing as a peevish married woman who falls into an affair with a womanizing federal marshal, played by George Clooney. Pitt, John Malkovich and Frances McDormand round out the cast. “I don’t know if it will make anybody else laugh, but it really made us laugh while making it,” says Swinton over a lunch of artichokes and truffles at the Bowery Hotel a few days after the W shoot. “The film is full of freaks. They’re all frantic in different ways.” Dressed in a tan silk blouse, baggy jeans and mohair flats, Swinton wears no makeup, which only enhances her porcelain skin and barely there lips and brows. But it’s her bright emerald eyes that most command attention. Friendly and frank, she’s easy to talk to but not eager to please.
Swinton plays Katie Cox, “who is very bad-tempered about everything,” she says, enunciating each precisely chosen word. “She’s constantly having to cope with these hopeless men, so she’s in a bad mood all the time. I find that very funny because I’m very slow to anger myself.” Her den-mother instincts come into play when talking about her friends, Clooney in particular. “He makes a serious business of good friendship,” says Swinton, who first worked with him on last year’s Michael Clayton, in which she played cunning corporate lawyer Karen Crowder. “I also feel protective of him. The ambition that he has to be a force for good needs protecting because it attracts, you know, free radicals.”
Swinton, who doesn’t own a television, had never seen the Oscars until this year, when she went home with an Academy Award for best supporting actress for her turn in Michael Clayton. “I really can’t remember anything except that I feel like something indecent happened,” says Swinton, who got up on the podium and compared Oscar’s buttocks to those of her agent Brian Swardstrom, to whom she said she was giving her award. (And so she did.)
What provoked greater chatter, however, was her supposed decision not to wear any makeup. Amid the sea of bared, spray-tanned limbs and plumped flesh, Swinton, 47, pale and plainly beautiful in a Lanvin silk satin gown, stood out as the most naked of all. You could even see the lines around her eyes. She was, in fact, wearing makeup, just a little bit, but her approach to beauty, as with all things Tilda, is unorthodox. “This is skin born of the Scottish highlands, so why hide it?” says her close friend and sometime stylist, Jerry Stafford. “Why the hell put foundation on it and all this garish lipstick?”