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Sitting in a nondescript conference room in a flatiron office building, Tilda Swinton looks a bit out of place. Like a foreigner making a brief pit stop in the Land of Modern Marketing before returning to a life spent on a higher plane. Standing nearly 6 feet tall in flat black sandals and draped in flowing black layers, her bleached blond hair shorn and buzzed, she exudes a monk-like asceticism that would seem to preclude her Starbucks coffee and Whole Foods fruit cup, from which she occasionally, languidly plucks a lone blackberry.
Her otherworldly appearance is not unexpected to anyone familiar with Swinton’s reputation as a fiercely intelligent, cool creature whose finely honed film performances have at times alluded to superhuman qualities. But in her latest role in “Julia,” out Friday, she is practically unrecognizable as a reckless alcoholic who kidnaps the grandson of a tycoon at gunpoint, hoping the ransom money will provide a panacea for all of her problems.
“In my experience, most of the drunk people I have ever known and loved have not been the kind of losers that we tend to be shown,” explains Swinton, who herself avoids the bottle (“If I drink, I fall asleep”). “My experience secondhand has been of a courage and an energy. So I thought about this for a while, how I’d like to develop a project about such a woman.”
As Julia, Swinton paints an eerily convincing portrait of a woman whose life is a series of odd jobs, blackouts and one-night stands. To do so, the actress had to gain weight, chain smoke and don come-hither sequined get-ups. It proved one of the more physically demanding parts she has taken.
“Julia had to look and feel like someone who, 25 years ago, might have been pretty damn hot, but who has really, really wrecked herself physically. And can’t see it, by the way. She still thinks she is a goddess,” says the actress. “But there’s that feeling of the toll on the body of not looking after herself and throwing herself around; she’s covered in bruises. She constantly puts herself in a boundaryless state.”
According to her French director Erick Zonka, the same might be said of the actress herself.
“She is very present and very bold,” he says. “She has no fear of putting herself in the hands of a director because she likes it when one plays with her like she is dough.”
Swinton, 48, has made a career of plunging her pale, angular, often androgynous beauty into a vast array of parts.
“Transformation doesn’t scare me. That effort to sustain the status quo has never been something I’ve personally been drawn to,” she says. “A lot of people are trepidatious of encountering change. And I find that very interesting, that predicament. And then feeling them being pushed over the precipice rather than going willingly towards a transformation.”
Born into a Scottish military family, Swinton graduated from Cambridge University and did a brief stint in the Royal Shakespeare Company before beginning an almost decadelong collaboration with the late filmmaker and artist Derek Jarman. She first gained widespread notice as the lead in Sally Potter’s “Orlando” (1992). In 2001 she caught the eye of American audiences as a suburban mother in the thriller “The Deep End.” Since then she has earned an almost cultlike following among indie aficionados for projects like “Adaptation,” “Broken Flowers” and “Thumbsucker” while maintaining a more mass presence as the angel Gabriel in “Constantine” and the White Witch in “The Chronicles of Narnia.”
Her best supporting actress Oscar for her role as an uptight attorney in “Michael Clayton” has only further cemented her studio presence.
“Before I won a couple of prizes last year, I was just an art freak who nobody particularly bothered about. And my life hasn’t changed since winning those prizes and putting a spotlight on me,” she says, adding with a smile, “I certainly know that most people who wave at me in airports I’m sure aren’t Derek Jarman fans.”