Fakirs beware, Tilda Swinton could easily charm the pants off your snakes. On the penultimate day of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, where Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive had its international premiere, Swinton cast a spell on a roomful of press that I still haven’t managed to shake off. Given the iconic actress’s outstanding taste, interdisciplinary artistic endeavors, and impressive résumé, which includes collaborations with Derek Jarman, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze, Terry Gilliam, and the Coen brothers, she’s been often regarded as no ordinary human being. In many ways, the actress’s hunger for risk and quintessential weirdness fuels this “gold-label Jarmusch” production in which she plays a 3,000-year-old vampire who carries the past very much on her shoulders. Regal but approachable, disarming in her eloquent candor, she suggests a cosmic force manifest as she ruminates on immorality, lost loves and unsatisfied longings, fears and secrets, even fish and the Darkness.
Do you remember what vampires were to you as a child?
I suppose my first instinct is to say pictures of Vincent Price or Christopher Lee, not even a film, nothing really sophisticated. Images from ’70s films. Always the idea that vampires are very frightening, dark, and they would kill you. But slowly I worked out that they’re not gonna kill you, but actually make you immortal, so I was never very frightened of them. I thought they were very powerful, I always thought of them as related to witches, which I’ve always been very fond of. Even since I was a tiny child, I’ve never had problems with witches. I always felt they were powerful, but what’s wrong with that? So, vampires and witches felt magical. They were never a bad thing when I was a child. Apart from Nosferatu, that is.
There have been so many varied interpretations of the vampire figure, in film and on TV, of late. What do you think vampires represent in this particular film?
I hesitate to say what they represent, because I want you to work out what they represent for you. But for me they’re about the lives of a particular sensibility of artists, artists who work in a kind of interior way, who work in the backwaters of society, who aren’t committed to their work being kind of fronted up, who don’t lead, but work from within. Traditionally called outsider artists. Such tendency feels very familiar and home to me, because it’s sort of where I came from and my artistic shrine wall, like Adam’s, is full of them—artists who I’m sure no one’s ever heard of here, and on whose shoulders I personally stand on. The through line, the feeling of immortality of the line, is a baton I see them passing on.
When did you realize you were part of this relay?
In my own life that’s something that I learned early on when I started working with Derek Jarman, who was very clear that he was only carrying the baton that had been passed on to him by people like William Burroughs, Stan Brakhage, or William Blake. This feeling of being sort of in a stream of sensibility—that’s always been something I felt very familiar with, and it’s the way in which I feel about being an artist. You’re part of something bigger than you. It’s not exactly a part of being a movement, but it’s part of being a family, a line, a bloodline. [laughs]
When Jarman died, did you feel the responsibility to carry the torch?
Not a responsibility, but definitely a desire. As I say, I cleaved to that stream, because I’m that kind of a fish; that’s my home, it’s natural to me. But I draw on companionship. Not just the people who’re still walking and talking, but those who aren’t. All of the time. Not just, you know, one’s favorite renaissance poets, but one’s friends. It’s really important.
In Only Lovers Left Alive, the characters have seen many centuries, and in Orlando you traveled through the ages. Is there something in the passing of time that intrigues you?
It feels pretty familiar somehow. I don’t know about you, but I already feel like I’ve lived for several centuries, even for the short span of life I’ve been alive. Life’s long. Even if it’s short, it’s long. And it’s a pretty fascinating ride. It doesn’t feel like a long stretch for me. But at the same time, of course, these immortals, they know they’re not gonna die. I’m pretty clear that I am. But then there’s an element in which all artists feel [they will never die], so that felt familiar—that feeling of being tapped to this idea of an immortal vein.
And what is it about transgression, from vampirism to fluid gender, that speaks to you?
It’s very adolescent, but it’s a question about how to be human, how to behave. I still don’t know. I’m always curious to see the choices that the exterior world gives you. You can do this, this, or this, and then you feel this impulse coming from you, saying, “I’d actually like to do that.” Just the balance between the two is what I find really interesting. I suppose if there’s one, some sort of iconic, gesture that I’m always looking for in cinema that I’m looking at, or in a piece that I’m making, it’s the human face going, “Huh? Don’t quite know what to do next.” [making a surprised, curious face] I like that “huh” [because it forces one to] dig deep.
Apart from acting in Only Lovers Left Alive, how else were you involved in the evolution of the film?
The way Jim works is that when we shoot on a certain day, we take the pages that have been approved for fundraising and we kind of chew them up. It was very important to make the language as sort of eatable as possible. He’s very open about that, he wants you to say words you want to say, so we did kind of work on it in that way.
Jim is such a mysterious man. What is he to you?
He’s a vampire. I made a joke this morning, which I realize went live on French television, that if we made Jim blush, maybe his hair would go pink. This is one of the reasons why I feel like I speak as a film fan, as a Jarmusch fan. For my money this feels like a great Jarmusch film: It’s red-label, gold-label Jim Jarmusch. This theme of vampires is so natural for him. Mystery Train feels to me like a vampire film, and Ghost Dog...isn’t that a vampire film? It feels like he’s actually been making vampire films all the time.
I imagine there’s a strong friendship there.
I love him, he feels like family to me. I’ve known him for so long, and even before I knew him he felt so familiar. I was a student when I first saw Stranger Than Paradise, and it was the first American independent film that I saw that felt like it was showing America from a stranger’s point of view. This morning, when we were talking about nationality of cinema, John Hurt said that he’d never really thought of Jim as American. And Jim is very grateful for this comment. It’s true. He feels like he’s always got this alien view. I’ve always cleaved to that. I thought, “Yeah, I recognize that, you’re a brother.” It was only a matter of time when we met. And it happened backstage at a Darkness concert in Los Angeles. This is the third time we’ve worked together. He’s kin.