Audio/Q&A: Tilda Swinton is not your average vampire in 'Only Lovers Left Alive'

The Oscar-winning actress talks to RedEye's Matt Pais about Jim Jarmusch's vampire movie and lots more.

Many people think Tilda Swinton is strange.

By phone, the "Only Lovers Left Alive" star both saluted that perception ("It's ridiculous and hilarious ... it means I can pass unnoticed, and I'm thrilled") and offered three things she thinks are strange:

1. "The strangest part I ever played was that of a corporate lawyer [in "Michael Clayton," for which she won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar]. That was pretty exotic. That felt like a magical beast, and it's strange to imagine that those people actually do exist."

2. That people eat pork belly. "I've just never gone there. I've tried to go there, but I've always refused at that fence. One day someone will make pork belly in such a way that I will find it delicious. So far it's outside of my zone."

3. Willful cruelty and unkindness.

In other words, even if you think Swinton ("The Chronicles of Narnia," "We Need to Talk About Kevin") is odd, you also should think she's awesome. In director Jim Jarmusch's ("Broken Flowers") "Only Lovers Left Alive," opening Friday, the 53-year-old actress plays Eve, a several-thousand-years-old vampire married to Adam (Tom Hiddleston), a much-younger vampire. As in, he's only some 500 years old.

Do you have any sense of something you’d like to do in Chicago if you actually had time to spend here?
 
The last thing I did in Chicago was I went to the Chicago Art Institute. There’s a really great Sargent painting there of my great-grandmother. Isn’t that an amazing thing to be able to say? And the last time I was in Chicago I was in between two flights and I left the airport and came in and went to the Art Institute, saw the painting and then went back to the airport. It was kind of insane. That was the last thing I did in Chicago ... Anybody who feels like going to the Art Institute to see a painting of Mrs. George Swinton, who's a really great-looking woman in a fabulous dress, go and do it! You will not be cheated.
 
When you were there did you look around to the other people in the room and say, “That's my great-grandmother”?
 
I had a huge sign saying "That’s my great-grandmother" hung around my neck. Nobody noticed. Everybody else was doing the same with other paintings.
 
In “Only Lovers Left Alive,” Adam and Eve are both very old, but it seems like they're still excusive to each other. If everyone was immortal--or as close to immortal as they can get--what do you think would happen to monogamy?
 
Well, if you find someone that you really, really like and you really dig, who's really interesting to you, why would you ever go off them? Especially if they're really different from you. I think there's something really great in this film about the fact that Adam and Eve are just so different and so interested by each other. That's why it keeps going. And so of course they do live slightly in different places [Laughs] so they never get sick of each other. Maybe that's got something to do with it. Why would you ever run out of ideas if you like someone that much?
 
That sounds beautiful, but don't you think that's easier said than done? When couples get it right they get it right, but so many out there have trouble staying together a couple years, much less a thousand years.
 
Yeah, I suppose. I don't know. I think there's one thing that people are very often tricked into which is this idea that you get together and you have to edit yourself, so that if you like salsa dancing and your sweetheart doesn't like salsa dancing, then you give it up because they don't like it. Sooner or later you’re going to mind that thing; you're going to want to do it. I love the idea that people come together, they really like each other, they like each other for what they are and they don't try to edit each other. They just support each other and keep each other company while they are themselves. I know it sounds ideal, but it's a pretty good formula I would suggest. And if you do live forever there's no particular reason why that formula would ever run out of steam I don't think.
 
How do you imagine that they met? How did this relationship get started?
 
Oh, that's so great. I have no idea. I think we can all imagine all sorts of different scenarios. They’ve been married I think four times. In the photograph she finds in his apartment is their fourth wedding. I have no idea. Just fantasize away on how they met.
 
I was trying to find some corollary with now and how people perceive relationships between people of different ages. When you start to think of someone who is six times your age (500 vs. 3,000), I think that goes beyond cougar into some kind of animal that might not exist.
 
Oh, yeah. Way beyond unicorn I would say.
 
Both of them are to varying degrees depressed about human progress or lack thereof. What would impress a vampire? What would people have to do to make Adam and Eve turn that frown upside down?
 
I don't think she's depressed. He gets a bit down because he's just a little less evolved, but she's lived for so long that she doesn't sweat the small the medium or the large stuff. She’s so determined to look on the bright side and be grateful and I do think that's something that-- I had a grandmother who was 97 and she had this attitude to life. She’d lived for long enough to know that at the end of the day there’s so much to be grateful for, you just have to keep looking up. And I suppose what a vampire would want for humans is that they be that positive. That they just keep their hearts high and be kind to one another and take care of nature and be guided by nature. It’s a tall order because humans find it hard to do those things, but I think that’s certainly what Eve would want of humans. And she’s an optimist so she’s always hoping that humans will get that high.
 
Now I’m imagining a scene in the movie where they go see a children’s play where all the songs are about loving each other and being happy and being positive and them seeing a different viewpoint of humanity.
 
Yeah, yeah. That sounds like a DVD extra. Maybe children in that fantasy know more than adults do, but it’s certainly worth shooting for.
 
What did the blood really consist of in the film as you were consuming it?
 
Something that I thought was quite delicious and Tom Hiddleston found disgusting. I don’t know what it was. No, I know what it was: It was beetfruit juice. Some kind of beetfruit thing. He didn’t like it, but I thought it was really nice. We made popsicles out of it. Which was delicious.
 
Why did he think that was disgusting?
 
I don’t know. He didn’t like it. But I like it. I like beets.
 
The movie takes this vampire story that has become so common in mainstream film and takes a much different and more original approach to it. What’s another mainstream movie mainstay you’d like to see get an original twist from a filmmaker that actually has a vision?
 
Oh, wow. Zombie movies are getting quite a bit of play these days, and some people are having great fun with that. I don’t know; that’s a good question. I have to think about that. I think a love story between zombies would be nice.
 
Did you see “Warm Bodies”?
 
No, I’ve never seen “Warm Bodies.” Is that a love story between zombies?
 
Well, it’s between a human and an ex-human/current zombie.
 
Oh, no, but it has to be between two zombies. That’s one of the things that’s great about “Only Lovers.” There’s this idea that generally speaking vampires are lonely. That they’re having some tortured relationship with humans; they’re the only ones, or they’re Christopher Lee flying through the night or whatever. And one of the things that’s great about “Only Lovers” is it’s about the family of vampires all living together. By the way I just saw another fantastic vampire film here at South by Southwest which I want to tell you about. It’s this documentary about vampires [“What We Do in the Shadows”] made by Taika Waititi. It’s absolutely fantastic. About a bunch of vampires who live in a flat together in Wellington, New Zealand.
 
Oh, interesting.
 
With Jemaine Clement from “Flight of the Conchords.” It’s kind of ridiculous.
 
Are you more interested in things that scare you or things that don’t?
 
What an incredible question. I’m generally more interested in things that don’t scare me, Matt, if you must know. But what an amazing question. [Laughs] If I had a choice I would rather not be scared.
 
Even if something challenges you, then, is there no fear there?
 
I’m not big on fear. I’m big on comfort. I’m very idle. I like to be amongst my friends and do stuff that feels cozy. No, I’m not a masochist.
 
At the Oscars when you accepted your award you said that you were giving the trophy to your American agent, who looked like the statue. Is it really at his house right now?
 
Yeah! I gave it to him. He used to live in Los Angeles; he now lives in New York. I think it’s in his apartment in New York. It’s his.
 
Do you know of anyone else who has done that with an Oscar they’ve done?
 
I don’t know. I have no idea. I don’t know what they do with them. But I felt that he deserved it, so it felt like the right thing to do.
 
That was so nice of you.
 
He really, really likes it.
 
I’m sure he does. I’m going to give you three options, please feel free to take advantage of whichever one that you like. Can you either tell me a joke, rap part of a song you know the words to or sing part of your favorite TV theme song?
 
OK, I’ll tell you a joke. And it’s the first one that comes to mind and I’m apologizing in advance for it, OK?
 
OK.
 
OK. Three nuns sitting on a bench and a man jumps out of a bush and exposes himself. And two nuns immediately have a stroke, and the third one can’t reach.
 
(I pause for a minute, then laugh.)
 
Did you get it? Did it really take you that long to get it?
 
It did not take me that long. I was being patient and seeing if there was anything else to come. That was nicely done.
 
Let’s let everybody sit with that one and see if they find that funny. That was told to me by a 14-year-old girl and long may she reign.
 
Is there anything you haven’t gotten to do on screen that you’d still like to do?
 
No, I have a very dull imagination. I can never really imagine that I will do anything else on screen until I have some conversation with somebody who whips up some curiosity, so no, I have no desire to ever be onscreen again, Matt, [Laughs] to be honest with you. I always intend my last film to be my last one. So until next time, that’s it.
 
What’s a question that you would be happy to never get again, and a question you’d be thrilled if someone would ask you?
 
I would really like someone to ask me to never talk about making films again, to be honest. Which doesn’t mean that I don’t like talking about it, but it would be a relief if someone said, “Please do us a favor and never talk about making films again.” That would be great. What would I not like to be asked? I can’t think! I don’t think there’s anything particularly. I can’t think. Nothing particularly.
 
So you would prefer not to do any more interviews is what you’re saying?
 
Kinda. Kinda. Which I don’t mean to be mean-spirited. But I would rather listen to other people talking about it than talk about it myself, to be honest.
 
Well, I think that’s a great place to stop then. Thanks so much for your time, Tilda.
 
[Laughs] OK, Matt. Thanks a million.

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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