Not many things about the enigmatic Tilda Swinton are cut and dried, but her career does neatly divide at the turn of the millennium.
Before then, she was barely known to moviegoers and was reluctant to consider herself an actor. She often said she felt like she’d been pulled into art projects by her friend, the late Derek Jarman. She was his muse in eight films, beginning with her 1986 debut, “Caravaggio,” and peaking with the vituperative “The Last of England,” one of many Swinton performances (see also “Snowpiercer”) that channel Margaret Thatcher.
Now the Scottish Swinton has more than 90 credits on her IMDb page. But most audiences didn’t learn of her until Sally Potter’s “Orlando” in 1992. It wasn’t until “The Beach” in 2000 and “The Deep End” in 2001 that she made movies that played at multiplexes. She won an Oscar for “Michael Clayton,” finally making her a fixture in what she calls “industrial cinema” at 47.
The cliche that age is just a number becomes the simple truth with Swinton. She can pass for 30 years younger, or play a centenarian in “The Grand Budapest Hotel.” Maybe because her pale, etched-cheekbone appearance is so distinctive, she embraces transformation, whether it’s shaving her head to become the Ancient One in Marvel movies, portraying a man (among other roles) in “Suspiria” or donning ill-fitting teeth and huge glasses for a society matron in “Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon.”
Her showiest transformations are the two times she has played sets of twins, in Joel and Ethan Coen’s “Hail, Caesar!” and Bong Joon-ho’s “Okja,” where neither platinum-blond sister she takes on looks much like her. But even when she barely changes her appearance, it’s clear that there’s a huge gap between Tilda Swinton (whoever that is) and her character. The actor has mastered the art of revealing a lot about her characters while preserving a sense of mystery. Shaping and reshaping her singular presence, she is like nobody (well, maybe David Bowie) but can play almost anybody.
It’s hard to think of a contemporary actor who has freaked out on screen more than Swinton, but as Indiewire’s David Ehrlich has pointed out, “She has a way of making big performances seem almost life-sized.” However cool or weird or brilliant her characters are, they’re still probably not as cool or weird or brilliant as she is.
Swinton has at least three titles on the way, including the short film “The Human Voice,” opening in theaters March 26 (paired with “Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown”), and she’s working with trailblazers including George Miller (“Mad Max: Fury Road”) and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Some of those future titles are bound to turn up alongside these examples of Swinton’s thrilling best.
“I Am Love” (2010). Her most scintillating performance is in Italian with a Russian accent (try that, Meryl Streep!). Directed by a pre-”Call Me by Your Name” Luca Guadagnino, it’s a slow-burning drama about a wealthy woman whose life is crumbling. A dazzling, wordless sequence in which she walks around Milan while the soundtrack blares John Adams’ “Lollapalooza” spills some of her secrets in the first of three films in which her daughter, Honor, has played her daughter. (The other two are “The Souvenir” and the upcoming “The Souvenir II.”)
“The Deep End” (2001). Swinton projects steely determination in every frame of this thriller, playing an average mom whose son gets involved with a dangerous criminal and who demonstrates how far she’ll go to keep him safe.
“Michael Clayton” (2007). Do you like to guess which scene in a film persuaded Oscar voters to check the winner’s name? Here, it feels like a tossup between insecure moments when Swinton’s corporate bigwig tries to psych herself up for presentations and the finale, when all her defenses fail after George Clooney’s Clayton confronts her with the deception that will send her to jail.
“Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon” (1998). Some remember it as the offbeat drama that launched the frequently naked Daniel Craig’s career, but I think of it as the best in a long line of Swinton gorgons: closed-minded women who dismiss art, religion or justice with casual remarks. Her Muriel Belcher, a real arts patron once called the rudest woman in England, is one of the actor’s most vicious caricatures.
“Hail, Caesar!” (2016). Only Swinton could find a way not to be outacted by the bizarre hats she wears as twin gossip columnists modeled on Hollywood terrors Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons. The feather-bedecked creations are funny, but her Mid-Atlantic-accented outrage is funnier.
“Orlando” (1992). “There can be no doubt about his sex” it’s said of the title character, who establishes a lot of the elements that will recur throughout Swinton’s career: multiple roles, androgyny, daring acting choices, timelessness and, in direct-address scenes, an intimate bond between actor and audience.
“We Need to Talk About Kevin” (2011). What do you do if you’re a mom and you can’t stand your kid? The exhaustion, ambivalence and terror in Swinton’s performance, under the direction of Lynne Ramsay, sell this adaptation of Lionel Shriver’s novel, where we’re not always sure if the mother is unhinged or frighteningly sane. Musician Billie Eilish, who often calls it one of her favorite movies, has helped create a new life for a psychodrama that originally bombed.