Tilda Swinton on Playing a Vampire in ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’

This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Tilda Swinton in a scene from “Only Lovers Left Alive.” (AP Photo/Sony Pictures Classics, Sandro Kopp)

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:

Before ‘The Hurt Locker,’ Kathryn Bigelow Gave Us These Movies

Kathryn Bigelow photo

You only need to see one film directed by Kathryn Bigelow to know that few, if any, other directors can create such an unrelentingly intense movie going experience the way she can. Bigelow didn’t win the Best Director Oscar for “The Hurt Locker” because she is a woman. She won it because she made a war movie which was unlike many we saw at the time. She gave us yet another intense war movie with “Zero Dark Thirty” which looks at the decade long manhunt for Osama Bin Laden. It won the New York Film Critics’ Awards for Best Film and Best Director, and it maintains a strong level of intensity from start to finish.

But the truth is Bigelow has always been a great director, and her talent behind the camera has never been in doubt. Whether it’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Hurt Locker,” “Point Break” or “Detroit,” her films keep us on the edge of our seats throughout and barely give us a moment to breathe. If you enjoyed these movies, here are some of her other efforts which deserve your attention.

The Loveless movie poster

“The Loveless”

This 1982 film marked Bigelow’s feature film directorial debut, and she co-directed it with Monty Montgomery, the actor who played the Cowboy in David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive.” “The Loveless” stars Willem Dafoe and tells the story of a motorcycle gang that makes a pit stop in a small southern town while on their way to Daytona. Once they arrive, however, trouble starts brewing when the gang starts fancying the female locals.

Blue Underground, which released a special edition of “The Loveless” on DVD, called it “the thinking man’s biker movie.” Whether you agree with this assessment or not, Bigelow does give us many beautiful images of leather and chrome, and she does show a love for the look of neon lights as well.

Blue Steel movie poster

“Blue Steel”

Bigelow’s 1989 action thriller next because was the first movie of hers which I watched, and I was absolutely stunned by her unflinching style of direction. The always terrific Jamie Lee Curtis stars as Megan Turner, a rookie New York City police officer who shoots and kills a grocery store robber (played by Tom Sizemore) on her first day. But while staring in shock at what she has done, New York Stock Exchange trader Eugene Hunt (the late Ron Silver) grabs the suspect’s gun and uses it to go on a psychotic killing spree.

What looks like your average police thriller ends up turning out to be a far more violent and unsettling movie than you might expect. Silver gives us one of the craziest and most unhinged psychopaths ever to appear on the silver screen, and Bigelow gives the action sequences a thrill as vicious as it is visceral. Regardless of “Blue Steel” having a plot which has been used over and over, it still stays with me years after having seen it as Bigelow doesn’t shy away from the violent natures of Curtis’ and Silver’s characters.

Near Dark movie poster

“Near Dark”

Forget the “Twilight” films, this is a real vampire movie! Caleb Colton (Adrian Pasdar) gets up close and personal with the beautiful Mae (Jenny Wright) only to be bitten on the neck by her. It soon turns out Mae is a bloodsucking vampire who travels from town to town with her extended vampire family which includes actors Lance Henriksen, Jenette Goldstein, Bill Paxton and Joshua John Miller. They end up taking Caleb in once he has become one of them, and this forces him to make some tough decisions which he may not be able to live with.

“Near Dark” was a box office disappointment upon its release, but it has since gained a large and deserved cult following. Bigelow, along with cinematographer Adam Greenberg, gives the film such a beautiful look which is aided by one of the many great Tangerine Dream film scores of the 1980s. Its best scene comes when the vampire gang visits a bar in the middle of nowhere, and Bigelow does a literally bloody good job in how she stages it.

Strange Days movie poster

“Strange Days”

Like “Near Dark,” “Strange Days” was a box office failure which has since gained a cult following over the years. Co-written by Bigelow’s ex-husband James Cameron, it stars Ralph Fiennes as a former cop who deals in SQUID equipment, devices which record images taken directly from an individual’s cerebral cortex. When those images are played back, it allows the user to experience a person’s memory as if they are living it themselves.

This concept allows Bigelow to stage some exhilarating point of view action sequences which must have been insanely difficult to choreograph and put together. While it may be tempting to compare “Strange Days” to other futuristic movies which show a major city in peril, this film really has its own unique look. And like your typical Bigelow movie, you don’t watch it as much as you experience it.

K19 The Widowmaker movie poster

“K-19: The Widowmaker”

Okay, I know many had issues with Harrison Ford’s and Liam Neeson’s accents and of the liberties taken with the movie’s true story, but I still think “K-19: The Widowmaker” is a far better movie than people give it credit for. It’s no “Das Boot,” but Bigelow mines a lot of raw emotion out of the story of Russia’s first nuclear submarine. This comes about when the ship’s reactor malfunctions to where it will explode if the temperature to continues to climb, and members of the crew are dispatched to work on the reactor while wearing chemical suits which do far too little to protect them from severe radiation sickness (“they might as well wear raincoats,” says Neeson’s character).

Watching these young men essentially sacrifice their own lives in order to prevent World War III is devastating to witness, and Bigelow makes you respect their selfless act to where you cannot help but be on the verge of tears while watching them go into a room they will not come out of in one piece.

Kathryn Bigelow

‘Gran Torino’ is a Movie Only Clint Eastwood Could Pull Off

Gran Torino movie poster

At its core, “Gran Torino” is a familiar story as it deals with a man in contact with people he does not fully understand but comes to respect and even love by the movie’s end. But it brings out the brilliance of Clint Eastwood the director as his handling of the material makes it anything but familiar. Many of his best movies have a very down to earth feeling which brings you closer to the story and the characters involved in it, and he doesn’t rely on casting picture-perfect actors who would unintentionally suck away all the reality inherent in the screenplay. Eastwood gives us a close-knit Hmong family that is anything but average, and he gets deep into their culture and the traditions they keep. It’s a great family that breaks through whatever stereotypes we have of them, and seeing him hang around them gives the movie some of its best moments.

Eastwood portrays Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War veteran who is as cantankerous a man as they come. He is alienated from his family who are becoming increasingly eager to put him into a retirement home, and his granddaughter is keen for him to donate his prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino to her when he dies. His neighborhood of Highland Park in Detroit, Michigan used to be filled with working class white families, but now it is dominated poor Asian families and gangs whose violence seems never ending. Like many, Walt is resistant to change, but change is inevitable and something he cannot possibly stop.

The Hmong Vang Lor family lives next door to Walt, and neither are keen to know one another. This is especially the case after the teenage Thao Vang Lor (Bee Vang) attempts to steal Walt’s Gran Torino after being pressured by the local gang to do so. Upon failing to steal it, the gang beats up on Thao until Walt confronts them with his rifle, and they run off. From there, Walt earns the family’s respect and is determined to thank him endlessly for what he has done.

The fact the Vang Lor family lets Walt hang out with them is astonishing when you take into account the vile crap which comes out of his mouth. As an actor, Eastwood never tries to hide from the ugly racist Walt is, and the name calling he does makes it seem insane that any family member would keep him around for five minutes. Watching “Gran Torino,” I tried to think of another actor other than Eastwood who could play such a politically incorrect character and still make you sympathize with and follow him wherever he goes. Eastwood gives Walt Kowalski a toughness and a vulnerability which is not so easy to pull off. To say this is a part which Eastwood could just walk through would be an insult to what he accomplishes here.

In the youth obsessed place that is Hollywood, it’s nice to see an actor of Eastwood’s age show us how it is really done. A part like his in “Gran Torino” cannot be played by some Clearasil clean face actor that adorns many of the shows on the CW network, but by one whose face and body is etched with the marks of a life lived long and hard. One of my favorite scenes has Clint driving up to a trio of African-American men who are messing with Sue (Ahney Her), Thao’s older sister, and her white boyfriend. Eastwood comes in and breaks up the party, going out of his way to insult everyone around him. He calls Sue’s boyfriend a pussy and busts his chops for trying to pretend he’s black (this got one of the biggest laughs in the theater the night I saw it in). He then delivers a line which would have sounded ridiculous coming out of any other actor’s mouth:

“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have messed with? That’s me.”

Watching this, I felt more than convinced only Eastwood could sell a line like that. I like to believe I could, but a lot of people who know me seem to have a huge misunderstanding of the kind of guy I am.

The more I think of Eastwood’s role in “Gran Torino,” the more multi-dimensional it is, and he nails every part of it perfectly. We see the pain in his face of memories from long past which still haunt him, of the despair he experiences when members of the Vang Lor suffer the worst kind of abuse, and we can clearly see the regret in his face that he was not closer to his children throughout their lives. Even though Walt can seem like a hateful person, Eastwood gives him a strong humanity which comes across from start to finish.

By casting unknown actors as the members of the Vang Lor family, Eastwood the director gives this movie an even stronger authenticity to where you feel like you have known these people forever. One of my favorite performances in the movie was by Ahney Her who plays Sue Lor. She is a real kick to watch throughout as she comes through Walt’s casual insults unphased and even convincingly manages to get him to attend the family barbecue. It takes her a bit, but she manages to draw him in when she mentions there is beer. Her gives us a jaded teenager with a good sense of humor who is no pushover. She’s the kind of girl we knew from high school regardless of race, and Her steals every scene she is in.

As dark as “Gran Torino” seems, the movie has a quirky sense of humor which makes it all the more enjoyable. Another great moment is when Walt teaches Thao how to talk like a man to get what he wants. The scene in the local barbershop of Walt getting Thao to do this is a hilarious moment in how he gets the teenager to talk, and he playfully messes with Thao’s head to get him to realize a few things. This leads to one of the movie’s most gut busting moments when Walt helps Thao get a construction job and lets Thao do all the talking. I almost passed out because I was laughing so hard.

The last half turns bleak as the Vang Lor family deals with devastating events which threaten not only them, but Walt as well. It almost seems like the movie will have a “Death Wish” kind of ending, but Eastwood is much too smart to let things become unforgivably manipulative or sentimental. You may think you know where things are heading, and while you may be right, the terrific screenplay by Dave Johannson and Nick Schenk keeps you on the edge of your seat and has you guessing what will happen all the way to the end. It’s very clear “Gran Torino” is a redemption piece, but the way Walt achieves his redemption is both unexpected and shocking.

“Gran Torino” is the kind of movie which I think really brings out the best in Eastwood as an actor and a director. I am convinced that if this script landed in the hands of another director, it would have ended up being your average anti-racism parable with loads of clichéd characters and predictable situations. But with Eastwood in the director’s chair, he gives the movie a genuine humanity, and he lets the characters propel the plot of the movie. He also gives what we see a strong sense of reality which draws you into the story right away, and a freshness which almost makes you forget you have seen this kind of movie before. I really enjoyed “Gran Torino” a lot more than I thought I would. I figured it would be a decent movie at best, but Eastwood continues to challenge himself and his audience with each project he does. I also have to say that I’m really glad I didn’t have to sit through another ending like the one he gave us in “Million Dollar Baby.” I don’t think I could handle such an ending again.

* * * ½ out of * * * *