The Deep End
Tilda Swinton Dives In 
interview by Paula Nechak, 17 August 2001

Tilda Swinton coolly dazzles. Her pale, translucent skin and strawberry  blonde hair contrast against a chic black dress. Not an imperfection or flaw  mar her skin. There is a Chinese symbol tattoo on her forearm - is it real or  has she been playing with her kid's stick-ons? She looks exactly the same,  except for short-shorn locks, as she did the first time I interviewed her in  1993. That talk was about Sally Potter's Orlando and there have been a  dozen projects (Female Perversions, Conceiving Ada, Love is the Devil,  The Beach and The War Zone among them) in between then and her being here  now for The Deep End, the second film - after a critically-heralded debut  with the surreal thriller Suture - from David Siegel and Scott McGehee.  Swinton also has another spate of pictures - including Cameron Crowe's  Vanilla Sky and Spike Jonze's Adaptation - in the can or in the planning  stage.

The Deep End surrounds Swinton in water, hot water, true, but symbolic  of her lonely character's isolated state. The mother of three, Swinton's  Margaret Hall opens the film, her extreme closeup bathed in blue artificial  light and cold steel as she prepares for a confrontation with her seventeen-year-old  son's thirty-year-old lover. That the lover is another man seems irrelevent until  Margaret is eventually confronted by a blackmailer's videotape. It reveals a  sexual act involving her child that skins this mother raw. The backdrop of  Margaret's own eruptive sexual and personal awakening is shadowed by a death,  a cover-up and a journey ending in a lover's meeting that rattles Margaret's  staid family foundation as well as her dormant, repressed lust.

The film is based upon the 1940's noir novel The Blank Wall by  Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and contemporarily mirrors the 1949 Max Ophuls  directed thriller, The Reckless Moment, which starred Joan Bennett in the  pivotal resourceful mother role and James Mason as her seductive blackmailer.

Swinton is a marvel as Margaret, deftly generous in her ability to  present the character's clock-like, internal thought process and ultimate  transformation to the audience. That Goran Visnjic plays Alek, her  blackmailer-turned-salvation doesn't hurt either. The pair share a final  scene that could go down in cinematic annals as both erotic and erratic.

Swinton's hard-working ethic roots from her collaborative "laboratory"  years with the late gay filmmaker, Derek Jarman, for whom she became "dearest  friend, surrogate wife, muse," according to Jarman biographer Tony Peake. It  was an education she savors and values, an ingrained way of life that gave  the Scottish, Cambridge scholar a strong base. Their "marriage" gave the film  world The Last of England, War Requiem, The Garden, Wittgenstein,  Blue and Swinton's award-winning role in Edward II.

She says she "can't imagine life without that time because "It's so  ingested."

"These days particularly, talking to people in your position I realize  more and more what an extraordinary piece of luck it was," she says. "It  suited me so well and I wonder if I would even be working in the cinema if I  hadn't met him. I think he made a filmmaker of me and I don't mean he made a  director of me but he made a filmmaker of everybody he worked with. He wanted  your sensibility. He wasn't interested in your skill, and certainly I am not  apprised of having any skill, he just wanted all of you so that's what I'm in  the habit of providing."     "I do the same with David Siegel and Scott McGehee even though I haven't  known them for eight years and we haven't drummed up this project around the  kitchen table together. This film was brought to me in a very orthodox way -  it was already funded, already written and it didn't need messing around  with. But I approached them in the same way as I have anybody else."

"I've also become knowledgeable about the process of filmmaking as well.  I'm aware, more than ever, of what an actor's life is like, though I've never  been very aware of an actor's life because I don't know any actors and I very  rarely work with them and I'm only learning more about it from people asking  me questions and realizing the kinds of answers they're used to getting."

She says she astonished by actors who don't want "involvement with the  process" and aren't "knowledgeable or interested in the science of it."     "I'm too much of a scientist to want to be kept away from the smoke and  mirrors aspect of it. I'm used to holding my own light," she reminds.

I note that she continues to work with people who enforce her credo -  John Maybury, Sally Potter, Lynn Hershman-Leeson - and she interrupts  excitedly, "Absolutely, absolutely. That's my constituency, that's where I  live. In fact, John Maybury and I are working together again now. We're  developing a "Medea" project together."

I ask if motherhood - Swinton  has three-and-a-half year-old twins with her  partner, writer John Byrne - has changed the way she gauges her roles. It's a  question that she ponders momentarily and says, "It's changed me on a  molecular basis as it couldn't fail to do."

"You can't join up the dots really. I work my way through my curiosities  very slowly. I don't choose roles, I choose people, that's always what I'm  going for; dialogue, the filmmakers and then we can decide on what the  projects are. Typically my interests determine the projects. For example, I'd  only just had my babies when I started to think about Medea, so I talked to  John Maybury and, you know that's pretty sick to think about Medea after  giving birth, but it's true."

"Tim Roth came to me with The War Zone and the reason it was of  interest to me at the time was because I knew I could take something  authentic to the film because I was on the verge of giving birth to twins and  had just given birth when we shot the film. It was like serendipity. So what  I'm interested in at the time affects absolutely what I do. I'm very lazy and  I have a low boredom threshold and I know myself well enough to know if I  involve myself in something that's not going to engage me for the duration of  the film, not to say three years later, then it's not for me."

Swinton enjoyed working with Siegel and McGehee because they had similar  values. "We worked very closely on how to build up the [visual] shorthand for  the audience, the signs and the signals. We worked closely on the calibration  of the aesthetic and the frame and therefore the calibration of the  performances. It was important to know what sort of weight was needed so,  yes, we struck deals on the language we were going to be talking."

Much of The Deep End represents a different kind of action picture.  Sure, the cerebral Swinton dives and runs but this is quintessentially  exhaustive, interiorized action that's antipodean to, say, the externally  physical thrashing about in Danny Boyle's more traditional adventure The  Beach, in which Swinton played a catalyst role as cult leader, Sal. Was The  Deep End, with its tense, internal coil, harder than traversing forests and  jungles and seducing the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio?      

It's a question that seems to delight Swinton.       

"Oh no, no, not at all, no. You know, it's no effort for me at all to  think."     

"In fact," she laughs, "this was really great."

Click here to read Cynthia Fuchs' review.  Copyright 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.