As the mother of newborn twins, she recalls, she felt initially overwhelmed. “When I became a mother, this new person was born: Tilda as a mother. But then what of Tilda who wasn’t a mother; where was she?” Swinton says. “There was this strange internal pressure but also an external pressure to ignore her or pretend that she’d gone somewhere.” Her career, she notes, affords her the luxury “to have more than one life. I don’t know how long I would have been able to hold out with no time with my singular self.”
When I ask how her children’s lives differ from her own as a child, she says quickly, “It’s pretty much 180 degrees.” Where she and her brothers were “draped around the edges” of their father’s career, she and Byrne joke that “we light the candles and worship at their shrine. They’re in the center of the family.” They’re also the primary subjects of the photographs Swinton has taken for years and plans to organize into an exhibition at an arts center near her home.
Swinton, who has collaborated in the past with artists Doug Aitken and Lynn Hershman Leeson, recently leased an old ballroom in Nairn, Scotland, to create her own film festival. In August the inaugural Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams festival was set to feature such unlikely pairings as a Björk video with All About Eve, as well as two evenings programmed by Joel Coen. Her interest in the vanguard has also led to an alliance with the Dutch design duo Viktor & Rolf, whom she met in 1999. Swinton became their muse and, in 2003, even walked the runway for them, along with an army of Tilda clones.“We talked a lot about how all three of us could infiltrate the system,” recalls Viktor Horsting. “We were fascinated by how we could all be outsiders but also a part of it.”
Her status as a style icon has also been helped along by Stafford, her sounding board in all fashion matters. “She’s always been interested in ambiguity, transformation, transgender,” he says. “Clothes are an extension of this. She loves taking the idea of a lady and just twisting it on its head. It’s Nancy Mitford meets David Bowie.”
To those who don’t know her as well, Swinton’s subversive humor can come as a surprise. During a scene in Benjamin Button, Swinton and Pitt improvised while Fincher filmed them without sound. “I told them, ‘You guys just keep talking,’” says Fincher, recalling that they launched into “the most unbelievably scatological and perverse nonsense. I thought, We’re going to have to get this stuff checked by lip readers because it’s so pornographic. It was group sex with strangers and longshoremen and all kinds of gynecological references. Tilda’s this stunning woman, and at the same time, she can be so foulmouthed and hilarious.”