Tilda Swinton: We need to talk about eccentricity | Observer profile

Derek Jarman's former muse is the hottest property at Cannes with her tour de force performance in the film of Lionel Shriver's bestseller

The word last week in Cannes was that Tilda Swinton is perfectly cast in We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lynne Ramsay's film of Lionel Shriver's novel that is one of the favourites to win the Palme d'Or. The news comes as no surprise because Swinton is one of those rare actresses who never leaves an audience wondering what another actor might have been like in a part she has played. As soon as you see her, it's impossible to imagine anyone else taking her place.

This is due in part to the way she looks – like no one else. A whole thesaurus of adjectives – haunting, androgynous, ethereal – has failed to describe her singular appearance. Better to imagine the offspring that would result if David Bowie's alien in The Man Who Fell to Earth mated with Elizabeth I.

But it's also due to the exceptional character she is. Never one to walk in fear of the epithet "pretentious", she has consistently placed herself in positions of artistic vulnerability. How many successful actresses would risk public ridicule by displaying themselves in a glass case for a week, as Swinton did in 1995 at the Serpentine Gallery for an installation she called The Maybe? How many would play a foul-mouthed Soho hostess when deeply pregnant with twins (in Love Is the Devil)? And how many would then appear naked on screen (The War Zone) just four weeks after giving birth to those twins.

All of those performances took place in the 90s, when Swinton's reputation as the artiest of artistes was at its peak. In the last decade, she has enjoyed mainstream recognition and success, playing the White Witch in the Narnia films – creating an iciness that entered the bones of a generation of small children – and even winning an Oscar for her role in Michael Clayton.

On the surface, a familiar narrative takes shape – edgy early years among the avant garde replaced by financially lucrative middle age in the celebrity centre. But in this case it would be a particularly unfair misrepresentation. For a start, she hasn't abandoned her eccentric interests. In 2008, she founded her own film festival in Nairn in Scotland, entitled the Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams.

And a couple of summers ago, she and writer Mark Cousins dragged a portable cinema showing Iranian and Indian films around the Highlands – by hand – dressed in kilts. No matter how hard one might try, that's not a scenario in which it's possible to envisage, say, Kate Winslet or Helen Mirren.

"Hollywood," Swinton has said, "is not a place where I've taken more than a small overnight bag to." She points out that the "industrial" big-budget films by which she is now most widely known are no basis on which to judge her interests, much less her personality. "It's like trying to assess somebody by a hotel room they stay in on a holiday."

It's a good point, eloquently made. The only problem is that there's no straightforward means of assessing her. She flouts too many conventions and, more tellingly, has done so for too long to enable any swift or easy conclusions.

She grew up in a renowned military family that was a cornerstone of the Scottish landed gentry. Her great-uncle, Sir Ernest Swinton, helped develop the tank. Her father is Major-General Sir John Swinton, one-time head of the Queen's Household Division and lord-lieutenant of Berwickshire. She was sent to the same boarding school, West Heath Girls – indeed she was in the same class – as Princess Diana. "I was very shy and solitary," she said of her time at the school. "I can't remember saying much for about five years."

She also briefly attended Tony Blair's alma mater, Fettes, though Blair had long departed. Her parents, she has said, expected her to marry a duke. Her ambition was to become a poet, but instead she studied social and political sciences at Cambridge. One of the few university traditions for members of her privileged class that she did obey was in joining the Communist party. In her second year, she caused a stir among her fellow students by performing a whole play in the nude.

After university, she landed a much-sought-after position with the Royal Shakespeare Company, but in a characteristic display of independence, she quickly quit. "I got out of the RSC as soon as I could," she later explained, "and life has only got better since."

In 1985, she found herself at the Traverse theatre in Edinburgh, where she met and fell in love with John Byrne, author of the TV series Tutti Frutti and Your Cheatin' Heart. Although he was 21 years her senior, the couple remained together for two decades, setting up home with their twin children in the remote area of Easter Ross, an hour from Inverness.

The relationship generated a great deal of media attention a few years ago when an unusual romantic arrangement came to light. While still sharing parental duties and the same house with Byrne, Swinton took up with a painter, Sandro Kopp, who is 17 years her junior. By all accounts, everyone, including Byrne, was happy with the arrangement. As hard as the tabloid press tried to create a scandal, Swinton responded with beatific and disarming pride. "I'm very fortunate," she said. "It takes some extraordinary men to make a situation like that work." Although she and Byrne now occupy different homes, they live close by each other with their new partners in Nairn. She doesn't have a TV.

The other big meeting of her life in the 80s was with film-maker Derek Jarman. A composer of rich, subversive tableaux, Jarman recognised Swinton's distinctive and almost distracting appeal. Seldom the lead in the seven Jarman films in which she appeared, she was none the less the character to whom the audience was drawn. She became a cult figure; cool, mysterious.

Jump forward a couple of decades and she's appearing alongside George Clooney in Michael Clayton, playing an unscrupulous lawyer, for which she won an Oscar. Then, next thing, she's Clooney's lover in the Coen brothers' comedy, Burn After Reading. How did that transition happen?

The path from Caravaggio to Clooney was far from direct, not least because it wasn't one that Swinton intended to travel. As she used to say: "That's the whole point. There isn't a career." A small but notable role in The Beach, in 2000, undoubtedly got her noticed, but it was probably her performance as a well-to-do American wife caught up in blackmail and murder in Burn After Reading that catapulted the relatively small film to critical acclaim.

She had a similar effect in the 2009 film by director Luca Guadagnino, I Am Love, in which she played another upper-class mother, but this time a Russian who speaks Italian and falls in love with her son's best friend. It was a mesmerising piece of acting – subtle, restrained and yet overpowering. It harked back to an earlier, postwar era of Italian film-making and demonstrated Swinton's passion for cinema as art form rather than box office.

She met Guadagnino after he cornered her in a Rome museum, where she was giving a talk on experimental film-making. He had sent her a fan letter requesting that she narrate a short film he'd made and she threw the script he enclosed in the bin. "He laid this fantastically elegant guilt on me," she said. The strategy obviously worked.According to Chiara Menage, who produced Love Is the Devil, Swinton has always had an affinity with young film-makers. "She's loyal and generous. She uses what power she has in a really positive way." As that shrewd critic David Thomson predicted some years ago in The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: "I'll be surprised if the later Ms Swinton ever abandons her loyalty to experimental projects done for the love of the thing."

In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Swinton is once again a mother, although none of her roles can be reduced to that noun – has there ever been a less maternal-looking mother? Perhaps it's no coincidence that she tends to play a mother to sons, because there's often a hint of Oedipal intrigue in the relationships.

In Kevin, there's a different kind of anxiety surrounding her son. At a press conference in Cannes, Swinton said: "It is a bloody business being in a family; a bloody business having a child and a really bloody business, as we know, being a child. It is a murderous business giving birth: it is a violent place to go."

It's a typical Swinton statement: impassioned, thoughtful and just a tad pretentious. She won't mind that charge. She doesn't seem to mind what the world thinks of her. She'll do the promotion, then retreat to the wild shores of Invernes-shire, with her children, their father, her boyfriend, and no TV, where she can just be herself – like nobody else can.


Andrew Anthony

The GuardianTramp

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