CANNES – Having been lucky enough to sit down with Tilda Swinton many times over the years I shouldn’t be surprised that she’s reached yet another pinnacle in her career. The Oscar winner for “Michael Clayton” rarely makes a bad choice and that’s often because she’s in high demand by some of the greatest filmmakers of the modern era. This past October she reunited with Luca Guadagnino for “Suspiria.” At Cannes she’s celebrating the premiere of Jim Jarmusch’s “The Dead Don’t Die” and either later this year or early next she’ll once again join a Wes Anderson ensemble for “The French Dispatch.” And all this comes off the critically acclaimed Sundance drama “The Souvenir” and a pivotal role in a little movie you might have heard of, “Avengers: Endgame.” In many ways, Swinton has become auteur cinema’s Meryl Streep meaning she keeps hitting one great performance out of the park again and again and again.
In “Dead” Swinton portrays Zelda Winston, a corner who’s “strange” behavior has made the residents of the small town of Centerville, U.S.A., increasingly wary of her. When zombies begin to walk the earth after man causes the polar axis to shift, Winston uses her expert skills with a samurai sword to unique effect (and it turns out she has her own secret up her sleeve). In a comedy that could use some zany fun, Swinton more than delivers and Jarmusch was smart to write the role to her iconic talents.
Swinton also recently sort of reprised her role as a vampire from Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive” alongside other famous bloodsuckers on the FX comedy series “What We Do In The Shadows” which is where our conversation yesterday started.
The Playlist: Before we get to “The Dead Don’t Die,” you were just on an episode of “What We Do in the Shadows.”
Tilda Swinton: I haven’t seen it! I’ve been busy. Tell me.
O.K., so it’s hilarious.
Well, I love it. I love the whole series, I love those guys.
But my question is: Did you ask Jim if you could reprise the character before you did it? You’re credited as playing yourself, but clearly…
I am wearing my wig [from the movie] for most of it! But I’m wearing my wig. Totally in it! I’m only in it because I’m a vampire.
And by the way, not sure if you know this, but Jermaine Clement basically says the concept for the episode was basically your idea.
Oh really? That’s nice. I was once very happily at SXSW with “Only Lovers Left Alive” and Jemaine was there with “What We Do in the Shadows,” the film. And we were having a drink and hanging out and I said, “We should all, all the vampires should get together!” And then they gave me a call.
Fantastic it all eventually came together but let’s talk about this movie. At the press conference today, Jim revealed that he wrote the characters for Adam Driver, Chloe Sevigny, Bill Murray and yourself with each of you in mind. I know you’ve collaborated with many incredible directors over your career, but does it’s got to feel good when you get a phone call from one of them saying they’ve written a part just for you.
Oh yeah, really. Actually what he said to me was, “We’re doing a zombie movie and it’s going to be, I think I’m going to set it in a small American town. What do you want your part to be?” So, I said, pretty randomly, “Well, what about a funeral director who’s put out because the dead don’t die?” That was it, and off he went. And probably two or three years later he sent me the script. When I saw it I said, “Who’s your character?” And he said, “Your character’s called Zelda Winston.” He calls me [sounds similar to Zelda Winston] I’m like, “Right.” It’s a little bit customized, and she’s Scottish, and she’s a foreigner, alien. And she’s a martial artist. So, It felt pretty easy.
The accent you use in the movie though…
It’s a Scottish accent, but it’s actually an alien’s version of a Scottish accent and it’s purposely built so people in Centerville can’t really understand it.
What did you feel the purpose of your character was in the context of what Jim is trying to say in the movie?
I think to be on the nose about it, this is a small American town much like many small American towns, and by the way, small English or French towns, and there’s a foreigner there who talks funny and people are a bit suspicious. She looks funny, she talks funny, and people kind of keep their distance, so there’s that. But then there’s also, I think Jim quite shamelessly going, “I want Zelda Hinston in this and what do I do with her?” Just like he goes, “I got Bill, and what do I do with him?” It’s like “It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.” We’re all playing to – it’s like those cartoonists on street corners who’ll do a 5-minute portrait of you and make your nose even bigger or your hair even madder or your chin whatever. They’ll exaggerate. It’s sort of that, really.
Speaking of that when you’re doing a Jim Jarmusch film, how do you get the specific tone he’s known for on set?
You just keep going until he says “We’ve got it” because you don’t always know yourself. He is a musician and he works as a director like a musician. He’s listening for it. And sometimes, it’s quite easy to feel it and to sort of know how it has to be, and it really is, because it’s really, like, jamming. It’s like a musical session when you shoot because he comes with the script and the script is really good, he’s a really fine writer. It’s like bringing the sheet music into the session and [going], “Right, we’re going to play this and then let’s see where we go, and I need you with your trombone and I need you with your violin and I need it all so let’s make it…” And sometimes it’s actually really quite difficult to hear it and he’ll go, “Trust me, it has to go like that.” And you think, “That’s really slow” or “Really?” But you do it and it makes him happy and you do it like that. Sometimes he goes, “Do it really slowly” and you do it really fast and he goes, “It’s much better that way, yeah. Keep doing it the way you’re doing it. I was wrong.” So I don’t know, you just piece it together. But yeah, I think the musical analogy is really a good one.
You’ve worked with so many acclaimed directors, do you like a director who comes up to you on set and says, “Hey, I want to talk to you about the motivation in this scene,” sort of the stereotypical idea of what people think directors say or do you prefer a director who’s much more, “Go out, do it and let’s see what happens?”
I like everything. I mean, everybody’s different and everybody works differently. The thing that I’m very privileged to say is that I am very spoiled and I bounce from Wes Anderson to Bong Joon-Ho to Jim Jarmusch to Joanna Hogg to Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and all of them are masters and they all work completely differently but with a combination of sureness and receptiveness. So you just trust each other and you just figure it out together. One thing I think that all the filmmakers that I work with have in common, and I include myself, is that we’re all interested in the frame. I work with filmmakers in general who are interested in the frame and I’m not really an actor, as you know, I’m not really one of those actors who talks about motivation. I would much rather know what the shape of the frame is and then fill it with a performance rather than do something as a performer that would fit this room and a stadium. I mean, I think you need to know what the frame is because I’m more interested in that than I am in performance.