TORONTO -- Assigned to inhabit a repressed shyster in Michael Clayton, Tilda Swinton embraces the task with such conviction that you might wonder if the Scottish actress isn't a little short in the happiness department.
Swinton has done soulless before. Witness her White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia. But that was fantasy. Her Karen in Michael Clayton is someone you might meet at the water cooler every morning: flabby in conscience and flesh, Karen is the company counsel who has abandoned sex, family and other personal fulfillment to clean up the dirty work of her agrochemical firm.
"It was a joy, I have to say," Swinton says, cackling. "A real joy. She's such a wreck. I think of her as a poor actress badly cast. She's not in the right job. She should be selling shoes or something. She should be happy. She's so miserable."
Working opposite George Clooney, the titular "fixer" trying to recover his decency, made the going bright. Swinton completed her tour de hunks by starring with Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008 release) and reuniting with both while filming Burn After Reading.
"I like things to be easy," she says. "Life is way too short. They're happy people. I like to hang around with them because I'm pretty happy and it's nice to be in good company. They carry it to their work. They know why they're there. They know they want to have a good time. It's just very straightforward."
Swinton was known as the muse of video artist Derek Jarman in the 1980s and as the star of such artsy ventures as Orlando in the 1990s. Early in this decade, she gained more attention stateside with the big-studio bomb The Beach (2000) and the sharp indie The Deep End (2001). A handful of years later, The Chronicles of Narnia (2005) materialized. Thanks to its nearly $745 million ticket-selling rampage, Swinton has achieved newfound popularity at an age (47 next month) when many actresses are praying for residuals, or their own reality show.
"It was not surprising at all," she says. "It was a self-fulfilling prophecy or exceptionally good planning. It's exactly what I always wanted. I really kind of kept my head down in my 20s. I know I'm in a minority, but I really believe that things are going to get better generally. It's a blessed thing and I know that's not true of all people and I certainly have heard many female performers say it's not the case for them."
Swinton hails from an upper-crust British family. Her father is Maj. Gen. John Swinton, whose home has carried the family deed since the ninth century. She attended school with Diana Spencer, the future Princess of Wales.
Privilege has not dulled her individuality. She and husband John Byrne and their twins, Xavier and Honor (born in 1997), live out of the show business loop, an hour north of Inverness, Scotland. She kept the lads out of school until age 7. "They just learned how to climb trees and build fires," she says. "They're pagan animals."
What began as an experiment in alternative living - Swinton has boasted that the family subsists on the produce from her garden - is now part of an integrated lifestyle. She left London 9 1/2 years ago and has spent maybe 10 nights there since, usually on the way to somewhere else.
"When people ask me about my career, it's really the wrong question," she says. "I don't really have a career. I have a life. ... Because I don't live in any industrial center and work in an industrial way, I'm a tourist in the industry and in a certain aspect I'm a spy as well. My real home is independent filmmaking and the work that goes into making independent films goes on and on and on for many years. The bulk of my life is putting together these small projects. I can do that in the north of Scotland."
Swinton had been accepting only supporting bits to be home more often - but that's changing. "I perceive it that the momentum is actually in my hands," she says, pointing out that she occupies every frame as an extortionist in Erick Zonca's Julia.
In other ventures, she is editing a film portrait of Jarman, who died of AIDS in 1994. And she can be seen mostly yelling in Bella Tarr's The Man From London, which made its debut at Cannes. She is dubbed in Hungarian.
She says she was attracted to Michael Clayton because it reminded her of the moral thrillers from the 1970s, "when we thought Hollywood might have a heart." The story teams the emerging conscience of Clooney's Clayton, a law-firm pit bull who makes sticky situations go away, with the dead-inside aura of Swinton's Karen, the in-house counsel defending her conglomerate from a class action suit. They near a deal to wash away the legal morass when a veteran in Clayton's firm (Tom Wilkinson) finds a document that reveals how deep the company's culpability goes.
Karen matches suits and earrings like Garanimals, all serving as armor to hide weakness and desperation. Who wouldn't love playing that? Swinton says, laughing.
"I'm really big on failure; it's fascinating," she says. "I'm really not that interested in success. But the idea of people really screwing it up is very fascinating to me."
Ron Dicker writes for the Hartford Courant.