We sit down with the queen of Cool herself, Ms Tilda Swinton, who is perfectly cast as a 3,000 year old vampire in Only Lovers Left Alive (and we mean that in the nicest possible way).
17 Apr 2014 - 4:42 PM  UPDATED 16 Oct 2019 - 11:45 AM

Tilda Swinton is keen to let her hair down with a glass of champagne, as she is nearing the end of her time at the Cannes Festival and this is her final interview. Unfortunately however the film she is promoting, Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers left Alive, was made on the smell of an oily rag and there will be no champagne let alone bottled water for the press. 

“That’s how it works”, admits the fiercely intelligent immaculately preserved 53 year-old, who seems tailor-made for her role as a stunning 3,000 year-old vampire called Eve in Jarmusch’s vampire love story. It comes as no surprise then that she had a considerable hand in her character’s creation.

Jarmusch, who had directed Swinton in The Limits of Control (2009) and Broken Flowers (2005), had come to her with the idea of melding a vampire story with Mark Twain’s satirical tome, The Diaries of Adam and Eve. Swinton, who is likely to steal the thunder from Hollywood men (like George Clooney in Michael Clayton, or Quentin Tarantino when they were on the 2004 Cannes jury) wanted to help her old friend, whom she considers a true artist, to get his film made. Swinton brought in Yorick Le Saux, her cinematographer on I Am Love, a film she had produced for another director buddy, Luca Guadagnino, and she was also keen on the casting of Tom Hiddleston as Adam.

Review: Only Lovers Left Alive

Swinton views the film as a work about artists, who like vampires are often invisible. Eve’s buddy Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe, who most likely wrote many of Shakespeare’s plays, pops up in the film, while Jarmusch makes Adam’s lack of recognition for his creations over the ages hilarious.

How do you feel about working invisibly with no public voyeurism? Writers and painters can do it, but can actors?

I am very interested in the notion of making work and disseminating it secretly and I have personally done that for many years. But people don't necessarily know that because it’s not as an actress. If you're working as a performer you’re working with your body and your appearance so it’s quite difficult to be invisible.

What is the secret work?

Some writing.

And you want to keep it hidden?

Yes, that’s part of the piece. I have a number of friends who have been working in this way. I think more and more it’s going to become a desirable outlet. It’s strangely nourishing because it means the work can remain what it is without any kind of backdraft.

"I know so many people for whom the word cool is really not to be spoken"

Adam and Eve are both artistic types though they are very different. He lives in a vapid Detroit of the near future while she thrives in Tangier.

They are really yin and yang. Where he sees decay, she sees nature everywhere. Where he sees black, she sees white. But then she is 3,000 years old, she is a Brooktary Druid, she has got an even higher perspective. Detroit is fascinating because of the whole build up of the city and its riches and then its decay have taken 100 years. For her that’s like somebody putting up a stall for a fair in the morning, selling a few loaves of bread, or cars, and then taking it down. It’s nothing to her, 100 years. He gets caught in the decay; she just keeps looking forward.

What makes something continue to be discussed after hundreds of years?

Somebody else getting it. One of the exciting things is that constantly there are these resurgences of artists who were completely unknown in their time and people discover them and take them up. You never know when your time is. There is this moment in the film where Jasmine (Lebanese singer Yasmine Hamdan) is singing and Eve says, “She is going to be very famous” and Adam says, “I hope not, she is so great”. It’s like this idea about Marlowe, that he wrote these incredible plays but never was credited with them. It doesn't really matter in my view, because being credited is not really the most important thing. It’s the work getting out there and then the work speaking to different people. The poems and plays by Shakespeare, for example, or so-called Shakespeare, speak to lots of people and really are meaningful to lots of people. You have to go a long way to hear people say that Shakespeare was shite.

On the subject of immortality, could you say some words about Derek Jarman?

For me he's very much in the film, which is as autobiographical for me as it is for Jim. Derek is a constant flame for me. He was the first artist I ever met and he was the first filmmaker I ever worked with. He was a great friend of mine, and then he died and his work goes on and on. Talking about immortality, it becomes more and more luminous and resonant as more generations of film students discover him and get their minds blown. I think about him more and more, not just personally but about his filmmaking because he predated digital media. It’s so funny because people talk about my recent [sleeping] installation at MoMA but I first made it in London at The Serpentine Gallery when people didn't have mobile telephones let alone Twitter. We live in a completely different age and Derek would have loved to make a film on something like a cellphone. In a way he foresaw it by working with Super 8. His spirit of making work with his own hands as a filmmaker was truly revolutionary. Of course people had done it before, people like Stan Brakhage, but he took it into a much wider audience and I think he will inspire always in that way.

Watch: Tilda Swinton, Jim Jarmusch and Tom Hiddleton at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival


Having a story about vampires offers a lot of creative freedom.

Yes there are all these different rules. Of course we made up the thing about the gloves. We had this whole etiquette around when you come into someone's house you have to be invited in in a very courtly way. Apart from everything else, we wanted these very rad mod characters to feel ancient so they carried with them all the 15th century and 18th century traditions, like we all do. We all wear a pair of shoes we've had for 30 years and our grandmother’s necklace--we all do that and that’s what life is. Not everybody's wearing things that were only made last week.

The film has a sense of nostalgia. Are you nostalgic?

You know it’s interesting, the short answer is yes, but also I try not to be. I have a kind of dance with nostalgia; I think we all do. I think it’s possible to get sucked into nostalgia like Adam, who tells you that everything is fucked. But what do you do then? Ok, you decided that it was better then, though it doesn't do you any good. (Pauses) Actually I am going to revise that. I don't think I am truly nostalgic. I have moments of playing with it, but no. It’s like Eve says to Adam in the film, which is something I put in the film, that happiness is a decision. I truly, truly stand by that and I am very proud to have put that in the film.

For lots of people, you are the personification of coolness, whatever you do, like napping in a glass box or shooting a video for David Bowie’s The Stars (Are Out Tonight). [Bowie is aware people think he and Swinton look alike, and he decided he may as well have some fun with it.] Can you enjoy that, this image of coolness or does it get in the way?

I know so many people for whom the word cool is really not to be spoken. I have a very healthy head about that. It’s kind of not my business. I suppose it’s better than people thinking one is completely impossible.

It doesn't get in the way of the art?

No, it really doesn't, because I am always able to see the other side. There will be just as many people who think it’s all nonsense, but you can't let that stop you.

Did Jarmusch look to rock’n’roll for references?

Yes, the film is a complete rock’n’roll homage, everybody from Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, it’s actually in the film, to White Hills, who are in the film, to Nick Cave. The film is about the usual suspects; it’s about wearing your heroes on your sleeve. That shrine wall that Adam has, that’s his company. He says he lives alone but truthfully he doesn't. He has the company of all these other vampires, these other spirits and we all live like that. All artists certainly need each other.

More than the public?

To make work, yes. They need the human connection. Of course there are some artists who are in a particular case of alienation and really alone. I am thinking of Henry Darger; he was obviously completely alone. But then he was drawing on something. I think we all draw on something, on other spirits.

You recently worked with Terry Gilliam on The Zero Theorem?

 Yes. I am an online psychiatrist called Dr. Shrink-Rom.

 Do you look weird?

 You could say that. It was such fun.

 Was he someone you wanted to work with?

Yes. I knew him personally and I’ve always adored him.

How do you keep it up?

Partly by just having good friends.  I do think that’s a real starting point for people like Mark and I. We don't do that much by ourselves, we do things in collaboration with other people and he and I work together all the time on new projects. We make film curatorships and we have film festivals and we also have The Eight and A Half Foundation where children can go on the website when they are eight and a half. They look at clips of films that they would never otherwise see, rare films, old films, subtitled films, and they choose something they like. They write to us and we send them a film and they have a party and from that moment on they are a film fan. 

You obviously have interests in many art forms, music and visual arts. What is about acting that makes you stick with it?

 It’s a question I ask myself all the time. Every time I make a film, it’s going to be the last film I make and then yeah, like this one, it’s the last one. I think the first answer is that I really enjoy the dance with the filmmaker. I really like the conversation. And I really like just making shapes but I don't know really, I haven't got a good answer for you because I don't have a good answer for myself. I constantly don't think I have enough interest in acting to really be an actor. But then I get somehow intrigued into doing it again and again.

Only Lovers Left Alive

9:55PM, Sun 27 Oct on SBS World Movies (at SBS On Demand after broadcast)

UK, France, Germany, USA, 2014
Genre: Drama
Language: English
Director: Jim Jarmusch
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Tilda Swinton, Anton Yelchin, Mia Wasikowska
What's it about?
Underground musician Adam (Hiddleston) reunites with his lover for centuries (Swinton) after he becomes depressed and tired with the direction human society has taken. Their love is interrupted and tested by her wild and uncontrollable little sister (Wasikowska). From cult director Jim Jarmusch (Dead Man, Down By Law).