Screen

Tilda Swinton: Secret Scottish Samurai

One of the random questions on OkCupid dating profiles is whose closet you would like to raid, and one of the folks I chatted with recently gave the most excellent answer of Tilda Swinton. Somehow I imagine her closet leads to a hallway with many doors, through which she can travel through time to closets of the past and future and return with interesting outfits. Or maybe more of a magic wardrobe, a la the Chronicles of Narnia (in which she played the White Witch, incidentally). Perhaps it’s the experimental types of roles she chooses and how much she likes to blur lines, but it’s remarkably easy to imagine that Tilda Swinton actually is an alien samurai, or an ancient vampire, or a queen from another dimension pretending to be a film actor.  

Take, for instance, her role in Jim Jarmusch’s art house zombie apocalypse film, The Dead Don’t Die. She plays an eccentric coroner with a Scottish accent, which fooled me into thinking her character seemed very Tilda Swinton-ish, but then (spoiler alert) she goes into a secret room in her morgue where she practices the way of the samurai. This is amazing on its own, and when everyone in town starts coming up out of the ground as zombies due to the destabilization of the earth from polar fracking, I was so excited that she was going to save them with her secret samurai skills. Instead it turns out that she’s an alien scout who, very astutely, determines that earth is screwed and calls her people for a ride home, leaving the rest of the characters to their zombification. Apparently eccentric Scottish person was the perfect cover.  

Tilda Swinton is the kind of person you could totally write sci-fi fanfiction about. When I looked up her closet on the internet (just to make sure there weren’t actually any pictures of it out there before I started writing crazy things about it), the main stories were about her plans to tear down the dilapidated garage attached to her Scottish century home and put in a new kitchen and a room for her dogs, which horrified her neighbors. But I ask you, was that really what she was adding to her house, or does she now have a secret samurai dojo? Is she keeping vampire Christopher Marlowe in her basement? She says her family has lived there since the 9th century, so he could have been in there since his “death” in 1593, like in Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive. To quote Tom Waits, “What’s she building in there? We have a right to know!”

It also helps that she likes to blur the lines between life and art. The most entertaining example is around her role(s) in Luca Guadagnino’s 2018 remake of Dario Argento’s 1977 Italian occult horror film, Suspiria. It’s the tale of an American Mennonite woman who enrols at a Berlin dance academy, which turns out to be run by a coven of witches. Swinton played the role of the director and choreographer, Madame Blanc. She also plays the elderly male psychoanalyst, Dr. Klemperer, but she and Guadagnino told everyone that his role was played by a fictitious person called Professor Lutz Ebersdorf, who they said was a real psychoanalyst and had never been in a film before. They even took headshots of Swinton in her Klemperer prosthetics and created a fake IMDB page for him, and Swinton herself read out a letter from Ebersdorf that she had written at one of the press conferences. She said she had wanted Ebersdorf to “die” during post-production so that they could put up an in memorium note for him at the end of the film.  

She also plays a third role in Suspira, that of Helena Markos, the witch who is elected as the new coven leader rather than Madame Blanc, but it’s not the first time she’s played competing roles in the same movie. In the Coen Brothers’ McCarthy era Hollywood comedy, Hail, Caesar!, she played identical twin gossip columnists Thora and Thessaly Thacker, who can’t stand each other but are constantly mistaken for one another. No one in the film can tell them apart, and as I recall, the audience never knows which is which either due to all of the outfit changes. I bet Tilda Swinton has a door in her magic closet for one or both of the Thacker twins.   

One place that I did not see Tilda Swinton but kept expecting to, was in Neil Gaiman’s 2019 screen adaptation of Good Omens, the hilarious comedy of errors he and Terry Pratchett wrote about the birth of the Antichrist and the coming of the end times. The story centers around the angel Aziraphale and the demon Crowley, and their attempts to sabotage the apocalypse so they can continue the life they have become accustomed to on earth. The Angel Gabriel is played by Jon Hamm, but I realized that I kept thinking it should be Tilda Swinton. I hadn’t thought that her version of Gabriel in the 2005 movie, Constantine, based on the Hellblazer comics, had made such a big impression on me but apparently it did. I actually liked Jon Hamm’s Gabriel, who delivered an infuriating air of bureaucracy, along with a well of anger thinly veiled in joviality. When I think about it, the role I would really have liked to see Tilda Swinton in was one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse. Which one? Maybe all of them.   

All this is to say, if I arrive at the pearly gates and it turns out that Tilda Swinton actually is the Angel Gabriel, I won’t be nearly as surprised as I probably should be.

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alex MacFadyen once dreamed that he was secretly a tiny werewolf and now he is never entirely certain that he is not a tiny werewolf dreaming that it is alex MacFadyen.

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