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NEW YORK — Nothing about Scottish actress Tilda Swinton’s calm, cool appearance suggests the crazy driver lurking within. Seated in a mundane suite at the Regency, wearing a loose-fitting black suit and white button-down shirt, her bleached blonde hair and pale white complexion a perfect foil for her inquisitive green eyes, Swinton exudes a Zen-like aura. But ask Lou Pucci, the young co-star of her new film “Thumbsucker” how they got along and he tells a different tale.

“Mike Mills [the film’s director] gave us 100 bucks and had us go out for a day and do anything to spend it. He wanted us to get to know each other,” explains Pucci. “She almost killed me twice in the car! Because she slammed on the brake thinking it was the clutch and there was no clutch. And then her eye started hurting so we had to go get Visine for it. Then I got in a car accident because I had to take over at the wheel and somebody backed into me. Like, it was retarded!”

Best known in the U.S. for her role in “The Deep End” and Sally Potter’s 1992 “Orlando,” in which she played both a male and female character, Swinton, 44, has forged a career out of the combined ingredients of challenging, art-house works (she famously collaborated with indie darling Derek Jarman for nine years) and Hollywood blockbusters with an edgy twist, like Francis Lawrence’s “Constantine” and Cameron Crowe’s “Vanilla Sky.”

Her latest, “Thumbsucker,” falls solidly in the former category. It’s a first-time feature from Mills, whose commercial work for companies like Gap and Nike and graphic designs for musicians like Sonic Youth, Beastie Boys and Beck have earned him an insider following. Adapted from Walter Kirn’s novel of the same name, “Thumbsucker” tells the story of Justin Cobb (Pucci), a high school senior growing up in an Oregon suburb who still sucks his thumb. After his hippie orthodontist, played by Keanu Reeves, rids him of the practice through hypnosis, Justin struggles as a whole new host of personality traits emerge through his experiments with Ritalin, other drugs and sex. His mother, Audrey (Swinton), and father, Mike (Vincent D’Onofrio), are going through their own form of adolescence as they grapple with their identities as middle-aged parents (they insist Justin call them by their first names, so they can feel more youthful).

This story first appeared in the September 8, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Swinton was drawn to the project at the outset by the prospect of working with Mills, with whom she met before reading the script and whose focus jibes with her own specific interest in movies as an art medium. “I’m really interested in human behavior and the ways in which human beings are so inarticulate — I find that very moving,” she explains between sips of coffee spiked with honey (“It’s like a children’s drink,” she offers of her concoction). “I live in this independent sensibility, because to a lesser or a greater degree, the filmmakers who are working with that sensibility are working with the idea of the inarticulacy of people and confusion and complexity of human existence, rather than the things that go well. Rather than in any notion of successful lives, I’m much more interested in failure.”

Such fascination with humans’ inability to communicate seems almost ironic (or fitting) coming from the lips of such a highly articulate and assured speaker. Her conversation has the intensity of deep thought and a clipped enunciation that reveal her Cambridge education and upper-class Scottish upbringing.

As Pucci puts it, “She is like this psychoanalytic freak. She is amazingly smart — she’s probably the smartest person I’ve ever met. And she’s kind of out of her mind, just like me. We’re both just out to lunch a little bit.”

This mental prowess is evident even in her approach to her craft. While other thespians may wax on about inhabiting their characters’ psyches, Swinton has a more sociological take on acting. “It’s all signs and meanings — you’re not actually playing a character. I mean, I can never quite understand that phrase. You are concocting a collage of signs and signals about what a person might look like, about the gestures, about the sounds and about the decisions that somebody might exhibit to be a certain way in order for the story to be what it is,” she says. “It’s not about inhabiting anything. It’s about sending, tapping out smoke signals about the shape of something in a very short space of time, which is 90 minutes.”

Pushing the envelope even further, Mills is hesitant to characterize Swinton as a performer at all. “I think that we share a cause in trying to make the world a little bit more permissible to human foibles and not treat these things that we think are our huge flaws as failures, but just part of being human,” he says. “I think Tilda’s a huge activist for that. She’s not really an actress. She’s not really interested in acting. She’s interested in making more room for different kinds of human beings and she does that through being in movies and doing press.”

On the other hand, Swinton clearly has no problem acclimating herself to the big-budget movie environment. In fact, her next role is in Disney’s “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,” in which she plays the White Witch, a character that, like her role in Jim Jarmusch’s “Broken Flowers,” allowed her to disappear into a disguise. It is an opportunity Swinton relishes.

“I always think it would be better if performers only appeared once. I think that’s the ideal: only being in one film and never making another,” she says. “Because it’s so great meeting someone for the first time … Generally speaking, I think one’s just desperately trying to remain a human being and not become an actor, and certainly not look like an actor or feel like an actor in someone’s mind … It’s a luxury for me. So having been in more than one film, I suppose the aim is now to be in so many that one can eventually run the gamut, so one ends up looking like a person.”

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