Tilda Swinton on Working with Joanna Hogg, Pedro Almodovar

MARRAKECH  —  Tilda Swinton, translucent, beautifully elf-ish, wearing a striped, Chanel kaftan, decked in a glittering bib of flowers. The quirky, white shirt collar and boyish, blond hair-cut, add a touch of seriousness to the Scottish actress’s original sense of style, befitting of her intelligent flow of words that roll seamlessly from her mouth to describe her career.

Swinton is being interviewed at the Marrakech Film Festival (Nov. 11-19),  ahead of the closing night ceremony. Serving as the head of the festival’s  jury in 2019, she has returned, this year, with her oldest friend and first director, Joanna Hogg, to show their ghost story “The Eternal Daughter.” This year, she is also a recipient of one of the festival’s honorary Golden Star awards.

Swinton sits side by side with Hogg (“The Souvenir”), for whom she plays two roles in the film, their third, consecutive collaboration, following on from Hogg’s two “Souvenir”  films.

Set in a house-turned-hotel where an aging mother and daughter reunite, the film played at the festival in a Special Screening slot. It premiered in Venice in September before showing in Toronto. It’s scheduled to be released on Dec. 2 on VOD and in theaters by distributor A24.

Swinton is a big fan of the Marrakech Festival. 

“It’s such a special one. To be honored by this festival is quite humbling,” she said, adding when asked about what makes it special: “The curation. The fact that there are so many emerging filmmakers from territories where filmmaking itself is emerging. Filmmaking in Africa, in particular, is not really represented in other festivals in the way it is here.”

Swinton describes her own work in original terms, and suggests that real actors, which apparently is not her, be asked some of the questions posed. She’s alert and so eloquent that it’s quite surreal to hear Tilda Swinton speak about Tilda Swinton, and acting at large. Because it’s not that often that you hear things so beautifully said.

For Swinton, acting begins with relationships. 

“I learnt with Derek Jarman, who I worked with for nine years, and with Joanna, with whom I made my first film. That, for me, working with friends, is the only way to go,” said Swinton.

Swinton starred in “Caprice,” Hogg’s graduation film at the National Film and Television School in 1986. She made her feature debut in Jarman’s “Caravaggio” that same year. 

 “For years, I’ve worked in a similar way. I’ve made the relationship. The project will come out of a conversation that that relationship forms. Then, at a certain point, there will be a question of what will I do in it? But it’s very much down the pecking order. This film is a case in point. For a long time, I was going to play the younger woman. Then that whole thing spiralled. But the conversation with Joanna was the most important thing. Then the film. Then the material of the film. Then you would think for real actors, it (the role) was the most important thing, but for me it’s the least important thing.”

It would be difficult to choose a role in particular that she enjoyed playing, but, instead there are arcs in storytelling, and in life, that she enjoys. 

Her credits include “Orlando,” “The Chronicles of Narnia,” “The French Dispatch,” “The Budapest Hotel,” the list is long. She controversially played The Ancient One in Marvel Studio’s  “Doctor Strange.”

“It’s like asking people who is their favorite child,” she said. “In general, I’ve come to realize, I’m really interested in transformation. I don’t mean as a performer, but in people’s lives. The fact of transformation, or the way in which people do change. I’m very interested in stories in which a portrait of someone might be going along one way, and then they will come to some sort of precipice, and have to change, have to turn a corner. I’m particularly intrigued by those narratives and those sorts of predicaments.”

Making shapes is what Swinton does for a living, she says. She’s not into setting limitations.

“To work with energy and make shapes, and make new shapes that might be useful to people to see new shapes, I think, is sort of what we are involved in. Trying to open up little gaps, and pick up corners of the carpet that haven’t been seen before. I feel it’s not our business, as artists, to concern ourselves with limits. I feel it’s our business to try to behave as if they don’t exist, and then they will come and bang us on the nose, and we will realize they do exist. So concerning oneself with limits could be quite counterproductive because one could say: ‘Oh no that’s impossible.’”

“The Eternal Daughter” is an example of this.

“Maybe it takes friends as close as Joanna and I to dare to do what we dare to do with this,” she added. “Most people would say: ‘Don’t be ridiculous. How can you play someone who ends up being in their 90s?’ Two roles. How is that possible? But you dare when you are in this kind of relationship.”

For Swinton, to work with Hogg again was a homecoming.

“Going away and working out into the world, and making other connecti ons. Making experiments in other working relationships. For me, as a performer, making different shapes. Then, as it were, to come home, after all this time, to my oldest friend, which is really what it feels like, is so skinless. It’s so unperformative. Unpresented. It’s great. And in a way, it’s even better because we have had to wait for it.”

Next up for Swinton is a musical directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, “The End.”

“I have been working for the last year on a project with Oppenheimer, a musical about the end of the world that we are going to shoot next year, but various other seeds are in the ground and crops growing, but it’s too early to mention.”

Returning to work with Spain’s best-known helmer is another possibility. Pedro Almodóvar and Swinton collaborated on a short film based on Jean Cocteau’s play, “The Human Voice,” in 2020. It was the director’s English-language debut.  It premiered in Venice that year.

“There are filmmakers that I’ve worked with who I’m proud to call colleague, and who I’m continuing to talk about other projects with, and Pedro is one of them,” she said. 

Swinton has taken risks like this working with directors she could never imagine fitting in with.

“Almódovar I have admired for so long as a filmmaker. I really revere him, but I have considered his universe not being one I could ever be in. The same experience I had with Béla Tarr. (She acted in his 2007 film ‘The Man from London’). I worshiped Béla Tarr, but I couldn’t imagine ever being in his frame, but with Pedro I felt I knew the vernacular of his cinema so intimately. It felt so familiar to me, in terms of sensibility. But in terms of the shape of it, it felt quite foreign to me. “

She’s not quite his type.

“There’s no one in his films that looks anything like me,” she said. “I’m not Spanish. I’m sort of lanky and see-through and have pale eyelashes, and don’t speak Spanish. And I have a sort of quietness that isn’t readily available in many of his portraits. I had to perform a ‘Pedro woman’ when I worked with him. I had to step onto a Pedro stage. She’s an actress in a way I’m not. I found it like a masterclass working with him on that. Because I couldn’t really rely on my own instincts. I had to follow his. If you are going to follow someone’s instincts, they are good ones to follow. I felt like a session musician working on a score.”

Do the roles she plays stay with her? “I feel like saying you need to ask real actors that,” she said. “When I hear real actors talking about getting lost in roles. That’s not my experience. It’s not the way I work. I would worry, or rather have concerns, and questions for performers that feel that the only way they can make their work is to leave the anchor of themselves outside the role and get lost. I’ve never got lost.”

Hogg and Swinton imagine future collaborations.

“I think that, and one would like to think it’s true of all work, and maybe it is,  but one thing I can guarantee you, when Joanna and I work together, is that it is the work of two people that are so curious about what we are doing, but at the same time kind of don’t know what we are doing. And that must be quite interesting. We haven’t worked it out a month before, written it down and told our team, and then go in, in the morning, and say tick, tick, done. We don’t achieve things in that way. We are just throwing ourselves out the window every moment. The relationship is key to us. We are suggesting things that are interesting to us. We are very fortunate to have colleagues and the studio A24. It’s like a divining rod. We are both holding on to it and following our nose. I hope that’s what the audience can feel. Two people following their nose.”

With that, Swinton poses for a few photos. When I ask her what she’s wearing, she says with a gleeful smile, “It’s my Chanel.”  Then,  like a naughty elf that has fished out a stolen treasure and put it on when no one is looking, the Chanel ambassador is whisked away, her light outfit billowing through the inner chambers of the festival’s headquarters where the closing night ceremony is about to begin.