In Wes Anderson's latest fairy tale, "The Grand Budapest Hotel," the 53-year-old Scottish actress is virtually unrecognizable under droopy skin and wrinkles as octogenarian Madame D. In the just-released drama "Only Lovers Left Alive," directed by Jim Jarmusch, she portrays Eve, a chic-looking (if 3,000-year-old) vampire. And in June, she'll be seen Stateside in Bong Joon-ho's futuristic "Snowpiercer" as a terrifying political leader whose inspiration draws from equal parts Kim Jong-un and Marilyn Manson.
Along with a prolific screen career highlighted by an Oscar win in 2008 for her portrayal of an unraveling lawyer in "Michael Clayton," Swinton also performs spoken-word pieces, has founded a film festival (Scotland's Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams in 2008), and inspired a collection from Chanel.
Her best-known work might be "The Maybe," a live performance-art piece in which she sleeps inside a glass box wearing nondescript clothes and muddy sneakers, which she has been staging for 19 years in galleries and art museums around the globe, including MoMa in New York.
"Tilda is an artist, an activist, a film historian, an instigator and a writer," says Jarmusch, who has collaborated with the actress on three movies. "What isn't she? There is nothing she can't do, nothing she can't play."
Though she spent the first nine years of her career making experimental films with mentor Derek Jarman, Swinton has occasionally branched out into more mainstream Hollywood fare, portraying the evil White Witch in "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" and a surreal saleswoman in Cameron Crowe's 2001 thriller "Vanilla Sky." She's essayed everything from a nobleman who switches genders in "Orlando" to the archangel Gabriel in "Constantine." Directors including the Coen brothers and Spike Jonze have lined up to work with her.
Yet Swinton says she doesn't consider herself an actor. "I don't know what it would take for me to feel like one," she says. "I understand it's a strange thing to say because I do keep saying, 'Yes, I'll dress up and be in your film.' But when I hear proper actors talking about their lives and how they approach their work, I feel like I'm up another tree."
Swinton doesn't lead an actor's life. She spends most of her time in the Highlands of Scotland, far from the lights of Hollywood. She claims to not know how to talk about her craft. "When people ask about how I approach a character -- well, I wouldn't know how to approach a character if I tried," she says. "People will ask about choosing a role; I don't choose roles. People will talk to me about preparation. Aside from putting together a disguise, I'm not aware of any preparation at all."
Swinton is the first to acknowledge she didn't grow up immersed in movies. She was born in England, daughter of Maj.-Gen. Sir John Swinton, the former head of the Queen's Household Division -- the men on guard at Buckingham Palace. She attended several boarding schools, including West Heath, where she was a classmate of Diana Spencer, who one day would become Princess Diana. While attending Cambridge U., where she planned to focus on writing, Swinton began to get involved in plays. But still, she says, "I had a very ambivalent relationship with the theater."
She did audition for and get accepted into the prestigious Royal Shakespeare Company. "It was after a year there that I decided I didn't want to be an actor," she says. "Which was a really good piece of information to have. It's a good thing when you're a young person to find out what you don't want to do."
But shortly after leaving the RSC, she was introduced to Jarman, an English film director and stage designer, through mutual friends. "He met me at a door with a videocamera and we started talking, and we never stopped," recalls Swinton. The two became fast friends and would, over the course of eight years, collaborate on seven features, beginning with 1986's "Caravaggio." Swinton has said it was Jarman's death in 1994 from AIDS that was the impetus for "The Maybe," since she wasn't sure she'd continue making films, and wanted to find "a gesture" between live performance and what she loved about working onscreen.
The association with Jarman set the tone for a career that hasn't followed the route of the typical actor. "Most people don't develop work the way I customarily do," she notes. "They'll wait for someone to place them into their universe with proper craftsÂpeople. Whereas I spend most of my time sitting around my kitchen table with friends, chewing on ideas and building things that take years."
She spent five years with director Sally Potter on 1992's "Orlando," adapting Virginia Woolf's story of an eternally youthful nobleman who at one point changes gender. After so much time developing the project, Swinton concedes there was one drawback: She hated the movie at first. "Because it was like a trailer for my fantasies," she explains. "You work on something for five years, you fantasize it will be five hours long and occupy all your wildest dreams. Then it goes by in 90 minutes. I love the film now, but it took me a long time to appreciate it."
Swinton has learned to separate the experience from the final product; a healthy perspective, as she regularly spends years working on a picture. In the case of Luca Guadagnino's Italian romance "I Am Love," it was 11 years.