Tilda Swinton
Photo: Magnolia Pictures
Before she had an Oscar®, before she starred alongside the likes of Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, George Clooney in Michael Clayton, or, lucky girl, both of them together in Burn After Reading, Tilda Swinton had 20 years of performing under her belt. She was especially admired for her acting and performance art in the independent sphere (she once slept, fully clothed, in a glass case for seven straight days for an art installation). Today, however, she's perhaps best known for her striking features, unique fashion sense and refusal to conform to the industry standard. She called the Oprah.com Screening Room from her home in Scotland to talk about her recent film, her new foundation and what it means to be authentic. 
Rachel Bertsche: Here at Oprah.com, we're all about living your best life and staying true to yourself. It seems like that's something you've mastered. You don't compromise your values for a role, you don't end up in the tabloids, even your fashion sense feels authentic. How do you maintain your best self in an industry that can pull you in so many different directions?

Tilda Swinton: I've always been really privileged to know that my life is more important than my industry. I'm not really even aware of being involved in an industry, to be honest with you. My work tends to spill out of my life and be linked into my life, and I always look for friendship in my work. I like to feel as if I'm always at home. That has to do with being very spoiled very young. I was spoiled to learn how good it could be to work with people you feel really comfortable with, so that's what I look for. Having a joyful sense of not wanting to be anywhere else is so important to living your best life.

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RB: You have done more mainstream Hollywood films lately, and I read you quoted somewhere that even after winning an Oscar you are still doing the projects you would have done without it. Is it hard to keep the mainstream accolades from impacting your choices? If you had one life rule that you live by, in terms of making sure you don't let the outside world dictate what you do and not losing yourself in the business, what would it be?

TS: Golly. What works for one person may not work for all, but I would say stick with your friends. The fact that I have been more visible in recent years and have made more mainstream work is not actually anything to do with me. It has to do with the filmmakers who have approached me. It's more the mountain coming to Mohammad than me going out and looking for anything elsewhere. The great advantage of working for as long as I've worked is that people have a general idea of what they might be getting. So if they invite me to their parties, I imagine it's because they think I might fit in, and generally they're right. I'm a European and I live here and make most of my work here, but I love to travel. So there's something wonderful for me in going to America and making movies and finding such good comrades. Look for friends everywhere, and trust that you will find good company. That's probably as good a rule of thumb as I can think of. It has always served me very well.

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RB: You play the title character in Julia, which comes out on DVD on August 18. She's an alcoholic who kidnaps a young boy. Is it true that you don't drink or smoke, but threw yourself into both for the role?

TS: Well, I can't drink. It might have helped if I'd been able to, but I can't function. I fall asleep if I drink, so I'm a useless drunk. Julia's ability to be functional at any rate when she's as fired up as she is is quite awe-inspiring for me. And I certainly couldn't imagine putting another cigarette in my mouth after playing that role, so that was great aversion therapy. But I knew [director] Erick Zonca's work, I knew he worked with a kind of very documentary kind of feel, and that means everything has to be as real as it possibly can be. That doesn't mean that one necessarily becomes a suicidal drunk, but it means one has to look like one has been drinking very heavily for the last 20 years. So the more work I could do beforehand to build a certain kind of body and ravaged look, than the less fake it would be. I always like to do the work beforehand so when we get to the shoot I can just play and not think about anything else. That did mean that most of my work took place before we started. I ate a lot of pasta and stayed up a lot. Those were real undereye bags.

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RB: Julia goes through a real transformation during the film. Though she's an alcoholic from beginning to end, she seems to pull herself together once she has Tom. What do you think was the catalyst there?

TS: My sense is that people's unconscious does really interesting stuff to allow them to play scenarios out. There's something about her decision to engage with this child, admittedly through the auspices of a kidnapping, and isolate herself with him. At the beginning, she's an addict who is hellbent on destroying herself and being her own worst enemy. But when she puts herself into the frame with Tom, even though she treats him like a bag of oats, it becomes evident against her will that he needs looking after. She doesn't know anything about feeding a child or keeping a child warm. She has no idea how important it might be to not frighten a child. But in some way, her unconscious arranges it so that she is forced to start to look after him, and if she can start to look after him, maybe she can start to look after herself. It's very much an open-ended question, and I don't know the answer. It may very well be that after the last scene in the film she just goes into a bar and starts drinking again and gets him run over. None of us will ever know. But there is at least a crack of a possibility that she has seen something new, which is the possibility of preserving something and acknowledging how vulnerable that thing might be. That, to me, feels very profound in her, that she has chosen this. Nobody forced her into this relationship with the child. She went after him against all the odds, even though it was the most crackpot scheme anybody had ever heard.

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RB: What's up next for you?

TS: Well, I have just finished doing the third in a series of film festivals as a part of a foundation I am starting. My friend Mark Cousins and I have started a foundation called the 8 1/2 foundation. We want to inaugurate a cinema birthday for children because we believe that 8 1/2 is the most perfect age to fall in love with cinema. I mean the really wide cinema that is possible to find in the age of DVD, so that one is not only dependent on going to the multiplex and seeing the latest films of Pixar or Disney. One can see, as we showed this week to sellout crowds, extraordinary films from India and from Iran, France and East Germany and Russia. Films that children of 8 1/2, and around that age, are completely inspired by. So these festivals are an offshoot of our foundation. When we have global support, we're going to make a website where children can look at a menu of films that we have curated—rare and certainly international films that they may never have heard of—and they tell us when their 81/2½ birthday is and we'll send them a birthday present, the film of their choice. 

RB: Was this inspired by your twins?

TS: I was inspired to do it by my son in particular. One evening when he was 8 1/2, I was putting him to bed, and I was "giving him a dream" by stroking his forehead. He asked me what people's dreams were like before the birth of cinema. It made me realize that at that age you are so open to the idea of cinema being varied and all-encompassing. If you're dependent on the multiplex and you're unlucky enough to not, at that age, see how wide cinema can be, you end up thinking that films are only fast-cut and noisy, usually with a shoot-out in them and with some kind of competition. But the truth is there's a huge wealth of cinema for children to see. I'm a mother, and parents know how frustrating it is when a child is coming to an age and looking for stories, looking for worlds, and learning what it is to feel a little bit alone in the world. If you have at your fingertips the kind of cinema stories that we have, it can open your children's eyes a bit to what's out there.

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