Tilda Swinton on Playing a Vampire in ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’
WRITER’S NOTE: This article is in regards to a press day which took place back in 2014.
Scottish actress Tilda Swinton is not just an excellent actress but a unique one as well. She doesn’t invite easy comparisons amongst her peers because she stands out in a way few other actresses do. She is lovely in the way she portrays a character, lovely in the way she moves onscreen, and, as we learned when she appeared at the Four Seasons Hotel for the press conference on “Only Lovers Left Alive,” she speaks lovely about her work and of the vampire she portrays in this film.
Written and directed by acclaimed independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, “Only Lovers Left Alive” tells the tale of two vampires who have lived through countless centuries and, as the movie starts, have reunited after being apart on different continents. Swinton plays Eve who remains optimistic about the world’s future even after all she has seen, and her lover Adam is played by Tom Hiddleston (Loki of “Thor” fame) who is more pessimistic about where things are heading. You might mistakenly dismiss Jarmusch’s film as just another vampire film, but it proves to be much more than that as it deals with love and death in equal measure.
Everyone was understandably interested in what attracted Swinton to the role of Eve, and she went out of her to explain what her favorite characteristic of Eve was.
Tilda Swinton: She has this perspective, that she doesn’t sweat the small, the medium or the big stuff, and that she’s full of wonder. She’s always looking up which feels to me pretty much the prerogative of people who have lived that length of time.
This film also marks the third time collaboration between Swinton and Jarmusch. She previously appeared in “Broken Flowers” and “The Limits of Control,” and off-screen she is really good friends with the filmmaker as well. We all wondered what kind of direction Jarmusch gave Swinton on this particular movie. This led Swinton to discuss the number of years it took to get “Only Lovers Left Alive” made, and how this length of time benefited both her and Jarmusch.
TS: We talk all the time. Whether we talk about anything that’s pertinent to the making of the movie, I don’t know. We’re friends now and part of the reason that I love to work with him is it means that I get to hang out with my pal for longer than if I wasn’t shooting with him. This one was another long gestation. It was seven or eight years since now when he first rang me up and said, Hey there, let’s make a vampire film. So that means a lot of conjuring, many breakfasts when I was flying through New York saying so where are we, many moments on the phone and many conversations in dark corners about where we were going to go next over the years. When we came to shoot, the lovely thing about those long developments is that when you come to shoot, it’s just grace. You’re so relieved to finally be putting it down and you’ve also had that length of time to talk about it. You really don’t need to talk about that much.
One truly unforgettable thing about Swinton in this role, or in any other role she has played thus far, is how beautifully she moves. The physicality she shows off from moment to moment is incredible, and we all wanted to know how she came up with it. The fact she’s playing a vampire here makes her performance all the more fascinating as a result.
TS: We talked a lot about what it would be if you were that unsocialized because they’ve kind of been lifted out of human society, and very quickly we started to talk about them as lone wolves so we talked about them as animals. When we were putting together the look, we ended up filling those wigs with yaks’ hair and wolves’ hair, and there’s a heartbeat in the film that comes up and down in the soundtrack which is actually a wolf’s heart. So, I thought a lot about wolves when we were thinking about how Eve would walk about. If you’re not in the pack, if you’re alone at night, you can take your time. You can pick your rhythm. The music is very important life blood, but also the camera, the move and the feeling of the movement is always very important to Jim, and this one particularly because of this passage through these two different wildernesses.
After watching “Only Lovers Left Alive,” many wondered about the relationship between Adam and Eve and how they have lasted so long as a couple. At the start, they reside on different continents before they reunite. We asked Swinton what she did to create the really comfortable long-term bond between Eve and Adam. In the process, she brought up one of Jarmusch’s main inspirations.
TS: One of the first bits of sand in the oyster for Jim, which he immediately told me about on that telephone call eight years ago, was this book by Mark Twain, “The Diaries of Adam and Eve,” which is so delightful and playful. It’s sort of fictional or maybe not diaries of the original Adam and Eve which spells out very clearly that this is an enormous love affair between two opposites. That was a foundation in stone for us that they would be in it for the long haul, but completely different. That I find really enticing, to show two people really loving each other, but not being like each other at all. So, we talked a lot about that and that was fun because that feels really human, playing with that. Also, as you notice, we wanted it to be about a marriage in which they talk as long relationships do. There’s a sort of tradition of showing people coming together and then the end, and you never really see them actually living it out and living the ups and the downs and talking it through. We really spent a lot of time wanting to get that tone of two people who were family. It’s a long, long marriage. They are family, and that’s why they still dig each other even though they are so different and he is so tricky to live with and she is such a space cadet. They have this communication thing going and they really like talking about stuff. We really wanted to show that it felt like it was something we haven’t necessarily seen before.
Another big relationship Eve has is with playwright Christopher Marlowe, played here by John Hurt. In the universe this film takes place in, Marlowe has been proven to be the real writer of William Shakespeare’s plays, and he at one point ends up calling Shakespeare an illiterate at best. When Swinton asked about how she and Hurt established the rhythm of their characters’ relationship, she pointed how this relationship differed between the one Eve has with Adam.
TS: The relationship with Marlowe is a very precious part of the film for me. Honestly, partly because it felt very close to my own experience having a very close relationship with, in particular, Derek Jarman whose disappearance from the building I had to witness. But him being a partner, a different kind of partner for her, he’s her neighbor and he’s her companion in a way that Adam isn’t. It just felt completely alive and fresh. I just know that relationship inside out, and John does too and he was the perfect dance partner to play that out with. Our references are kind of similar. He feels like family and we just put that into the film.
One of the great joys of watching “Only Lovers Left Alive” is realizing it is not a “Twilight” wannabe. Then again, we should know Jarmusch is the last kind of filmmaker to follow current trends. The characters of Adam and Eve are unlike any vampires we have seen, and their love affair is proof of how opposites attract. While Eve is more optimistic and lives to celebrate each and every period of Earth’s history, Adam is far more cynical about the present day. We all wondered how Eve could stay so upbeat even when in Adam’s company, and her explanation of why was both fascinating and amusing.
TS: Well, he’s very young. He has yet to learn. He’s only 500 years old. She’s 3,000 years old. She seen it all and she knows that survival is possible if one keeps one’s eyes open and takes it all in. It’s not like she’s recommending a journey one space away. She talks about witnessing the Inquisition and the Middle Ages. She’s witnessed all the holocausts there have been, and yet she’s still seen humanity and spirit and nature survive those things. So, she knows that as long as one keeps looking up and as long as one keeps breathing and keeps one’s perspective, survival is possible. She’s got her priorities right. I love the fact that what Jim’s looking at here is how one goes on living, how one goes on loving, how one goes on renewing and, as they say, rebooting one’s sense of wonder and engagement. It feels strangely radical and unfashionable; the very fact that they are trying not to be young, but instead they are trying to survive youth.
Another thing that stood out to me is how the fact Adam and Eve were vampires really became secondary to the story. After a while, you don’t see them as vampires but more as a loving couple dealing with the trials and tribulations of life. Also, Adam has a heartbeat which is something we usually don’t expect vampires to have. Swinton explained this was done intentionally.
TS: We were slightly messing with the form. We’ve all seen a lot of vampire films and we like the idea of disconnecting some of the myths, some of the tropes and then also inventing some new ones. So, we’re hoping that all the vampire films from now on would involve these gloves that we actually put out there in the first place. I think we all felt the same that being vampires, very evolved vampires, very humane, virtually vegetarian vampires is secondary I would say to the idea of them being immortal and being lovers in a way that only lovers can really be immortal because they live on in each other’s spirits.
Another big question was why Detroit and Tangier were chosen as the main locations. Both prove to be major characters as they come to inform Adam’s and Eve’s individual worldviews. Detroit, which is better known these days for its problems more than anything else, suits Adam’s sensibilities perfectly while Tangier appeals to Eve in a whole other way.
TS: Detroit was always going to be a very important character in the film. My sense is that Detroit was like the Emerald City for Jim, so for him it’s really a love story to make a film there. Tangier was a kind of newer idea. There was a moment where we were going to make it Rome, and for all sorts of reasons Rome sort of detached. And then we wanted very much to making a home on the African continent, and then it became Tangier. Tangier seems to be such a natural home for her. It’s a different kind of wilderness. It’s packed full of people from all corners of this particular planet and probably others and from all particular centuries. It’s got that sense of all corners of time and space, end and start in Tangier, and you can also walk around Tangier at night and cause absolutely no ripples at all even with a massive, great wolf’s hair wig on and fantastic pants. It’s just a sort of hot spot of spirit, and it felt like a very nice partner to this relatively unpopulated Detroit where people are rare and relative to empty windows and grass and wolves. Once we settled on Tangier that really felt like the right place for her.
Tilda Swinton remains one of the best and most fascinating actresses working today, and she will continue to be as long as filmmakers are smart enough to give her free reign. She has been able to go from making independent films to studio movies with relative ease, and she still has an endless number of great performances to give. Some actors might get stifled when going from the indies to a film with an enormous budget, but this doesn’t look like it will happen to Swinton anytime soon.
TS: It’s all endlessly fascinating. It’s just a different caliber. It’s like getting a finer tooth to it. It’s only relatively rare because I come from a kind of cinema that grew out of the art world. Working with a sort of naturalistic grain is something I’ve rarely done, but when I have done it, I’ve really enjoyed it and found it just a special atmosphere. For example, in something like “Michael Clayton” or even “We Need to Talk about Kevin,” that sort of realism, just trying to spin the realism, has been really interesting. Maybe I’d always want to spin it, but to spin it with that kind of naturalistic grain like deep cover. It has been very interesting although I’ve done it very seldomly. It’s all fun to me. It’s all dressing up and playing whether it’s dressing up as a corporate lawyer or dressing up as someone of 96.
More power to you Tilda!
PLEASE CHECK OUT THE EXCLUSIVE VIDEO INTERVIEW I DID WITH TILDA SWINTON FOR WE GOT THIS COVERED DOWN BELOW:
WHILE WE ARE AT IT, CHECK OUT TILDA’S REACTION TO ME COMPLETING THE 2014 LOS ANGELES MARATHON THE DAY BEFORE THIS INTERVIEW: