In a celebrity world where the personalities can be as fake as their breasts, Tilda Swinton is an anomaly.
Far from the glamour of Hollywood, the actress is speaking to me from her Scottish Highland home of Nairn. Just as far from Hollywood is her latest film, I Am Love, an independent European drama that featured in the New Zealand Film Festival this year, in which Swinton plays Emma Recchi, a Russian-born Italian married to a Milanese aristocrat.
"It's not a personal story for me, it's nothing I particularly know about," she says of her role as Recchi. "But it's a subject that both Luca [Guadagnino, director] and I care about – this idea of a milieu, this particular kind of slightly edited way of living that these people are involved in and placing in the heart of it the idea of the revolution of love."
Meaning? Well, the New York Times described the film as a "near-ethnographic scrutiny of a social class most of us only read about in glossy lifestyle magazines".
While Recchi – a role that required Swinton to learn Italian with a Russian accent – loves her husband, she isn't really in love with him, and so to fill that lusty void she takes up with her son's friend. The ensuing highly stylised sex scene has been both ridiculed and lauded by critics.
"The film is really a sense-ational experience," Swinton says. "It's important for people to just go into their own feelings and find whatever they want there." Watch the fleshy, naturist sequence filled with insects and make up your own mind.
To portray this "revolution of love", says Swinton, "We needed to find an environment, a world for [Recchi] to live in that was unbreakable, that would somehow be really ruptured by this transformation for her and so we started to think about this particular, very high bourgeois world in Milan, and looked at the way in which people live their lives there.
"Of course this is not a documentary, this is a fairy story, but there is a tendency in that world, I think, to really not know each other."
While Recchi may be the polar opposite of Swinton, the actress does not condemn her character. "She had to learn a very codified way of living so she's never really grown herself, but she's done an incredibly good job of walking the walk and talking the talk of this Milanese [life], but she hasn't ever actually really dug deep into herself and worked out who she is. So the film is, as much as anything, about growing up."
Love, Swinton believes, is all about knowledge – something missing from Recchi's world. "To live alongside one another, even with a loving theme tune going through your head, but not really know your mother, your husband, your children, and our idea is that to really love them is to really know them."
Swinton's own love life has often come under scrutiny. Separated from painter, writer and father of her twins, John Byrne, with whom she remains close friends, Swinton is now in a relationship with another artist, Sandro Kopp, who is of New Zealand and German descent.
The tabloids reported Swinton was in a menage a trois, an accusation she denies. "There are some people who got a bit over-excited and went up all sorts of gum trees shall we say – insanely hallucinogenic gum trees – and had to be educated," she told the Independent.
To the Star-Times she says, "Real company is what real love is. It's not a conditional business, not `I will love you as long as you do this, that or the other'."
Throughout her 30 year long career, Swinton, 49, has achieved the seemingly impossible – becoming a successful actress in both art house and mainstream films. Her big break came in 1992 with an award winning performance in Orlando, and her subsequent dips in the blockbuster pool have included solid performances in films that haven't always matched her talents – including The Beach alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, The Chronicles of Narnia – filmed in New Zealand – Burn After Reading with George Clooney and Brad Pitt and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, also with Pitt.
She seems to move in two worlds – something summed up by her appearance at the 2008 Oscars, her famously leggy, alabaster frame swathed in a Lanvin dress yet unadorned by the usual Hollywood makeup. As her close friend and stylist Jerry Stafford reportedly said, "this is skin born of the Scottish Highlands, so why hide it? Why the hell put foundation on it and all this garish lipstick?"
Indeed, there's little conventionally Hollywood about Swinton at all. In 1995 she took part in a performance work entitled The Maybe, where she lay sleeping for eight hours a day in a glass case for a week at the Serpentine Gallery in London, and then again at the Museo Barracco in Rome. More recently, she began staging film festivals, the first two years ago in Scotland.
"We made a film festival in a disused bingo hall which I rented in the village where I live and since then we have made two more.
"In Beijing, we made a film festival of Scottish cinema, and showed great Scottish films with Mandarin subtitles.
`Last summer we lost our bingo hall, so we decided to make homelessness our friend and go on the road with this mobile cinema, but we never intended to be reliable and so we are not doing it this year, partly because we are very tired and partly because no one expects us to do it."
A philanthropist on the side, she co-founded the 8 1/2 Foundation – "a foundation which seeks to set up a new birthday for children on their 8 1/2 birthday, [which] is their cinema birthday," Swinton explains.
"We hope one day that it will be a global concern and people all over the world will be able to go on to our website and look at clips of films they would never see in a multiplex or on the television and choose one and, on their eighth birthday, we will send them one in the post."
Swinton launched the foundation in style at the Edinburgh International Film Festival. "We did this flash mob dance... it was really to celebrate the spirit. [It was] all about a kind of community of randomness. It's about bringing people together who don't necessarily know each other, and celebrating."
With I Am Love she seems to be back where she prefers to be. It's her third collaboration with Guadagnino. Their artsy 1999 debut The Protagonists was followed three years later by The Love Factory, from which time I Am Love also dates. "He's like a cinema playmate," she says of her director. "We dream things up together and we dare each other to do them, then we do them. I love to work in this way with film-makers... it's a very precious thing because you kind of drum it up together and the film is pretty much what we intended to make, which is another rare thing."
Is there really no "actors" tag or did I miss it?
Mods, there is an LJ cut, but instead of "read more" I put a "+". Thanks!