Interview: Tilda Swinton on Only Lovers Left Alive

She suggests a cosmic force manifest as she ruminates on immorality, fears and secrets, even fish and the Darkness.

Interview: Tilda Swinton on Only Lovers Left Alive
Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

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.

So you work only with directors who are friends?

I honestly don’t know. I’m pretty limited. When have I ever worked with someone I did not know? [long pause] I’ll remember tonight in the bath. Usually with me the project is always the second thing. The filmmaker comes first. Films grow out of the relationship.

Eve, the vampire heroine you play, has this comic air about her. I’m surprised not many directors, maybe apart from friends, like Jarmusch and Wes Anderson, see the humor you’re capable of. Why do you think that is?

Well, it is strange, isn’t it? I think I’ve been very good at being serious. I don’t know…these are people who know me very well, so maybe that’s what it is. Maybe people who don’t know me that well think if you have straight eyes and a straight nose you have to be quite straight? Plus, these are very intimate films. They always draw on your own intimate rhythm. This one is a very intimate film for us, kind of a home movie.

I had a feeling there were many personal references throughout the film.

Many. Many, many many, maaany. I mean, it’s a very personal film—to Jim, but also to me. There are things in the film we developed. I think we started talking about it eight years ago. So for a long time we’ve been kind of mixing the soup, putting in a little of this, a little of that, and on it goes, on it goes. So there are many little personal references. Our favorite books, music, favorite people on the wall.

Eternal life as portrayed in the film seems dark and painful at times.

It could be. I think that’s something really tender in the film; it can be a real curse. For me, it’s interesting because on one hand the film is about immortality, but for me, and this is a personal issue, it’s really about mortality, about dying. How do you die, how do you bare the death of your loved ones? While we were making this film, my mother was dying. Which is another reason why it’s about dying to me. Both Eve and Adam lose their best friends. Adam is really shocked to discover how much he minds the dying of his friend. He didn’t really realize that that was a friendship, so he treated him like dirt and didn’t really value him, but when he dies he says to Eve: “He was my friend.” He suddenly realizes what that is and how important this relationship was.


Many scenes were shot during the night. Do you feel comfortable working in the darkness?

It was amazing. Particularly in the streets of Detroit and the streets of Tangiers, particularly Tangiers. Because it’s quiet in the streets of Detroit, but in the streets of Tangiers it’s impossible. And we were there during Ramadan as well, which was incredible. We’d go to work, you know, at six at night and once we got onto the set it was just like fiesta, every single time. That was really funny. I love shooting at night. Have you ever been on a night shoot? It’s so [exotic, like being in] another world. And Jim is very nocturnal anyway, so he’s suited to that.

In the movie there seems to be a very clear distinction between the East and the West. Detroit serves as a symbol of declining power, while the East—represented by Tangiers—stands for old wisdom fading away.

What you see is what you see. I’d put it differently. It’s a completely personal thing which is what I love about it. Even within the film we see that. For Adam, Detroit is decaying, it’s destroyed, and he loves it, seeing it chiming with his melancholic mood. Then Eve arrives and sees it as a completely abundant wilderness, which is truly how I see it [as well]. It’s exactly how I felt about it when I first arrived there. For a half a day you notice that all the buildings are crumbling and empty, with their roofs caved in, and then, after about four hours, you start to notice that the grass is all up to your waist and there are incredible plants you don’t find anywhere else. You slowly start noticing there are people inaugurating urban farms and they’re starting to barter with each other. This person has chickens, this person is growing wheat. I find it already exciting, really inspiring and [alive]. One man’s meat is another man’s poison, right? One man’s decay is another man’s life.

Your vampires are individualists, originals. Was it exciting to bring something new to the vampire demeanor?

Yes, because with vampires, we can decide absolutely what they do, we can decide now on a whole new range of expressions. This whole thing with the gloves—we just made it up one day. If you think about it, they’re so old. I mean, he’s very young, like 500 years, but she’s 3,000 years old, a druid who’s been around and around. Like all of us, they carry with them the elements of their past. We’re all wearing things. I don’t know how long I’ve been wearing this, I think for years [pointing to a necklace], and we all have that. You’re probably wearing a bracelet that your mother had. We’re all wearing and having things from the previous centuries. And we wanted them to carry [little traces of the centuries] with themselves, with their gestures, their language, their references. So we wanted to find those modern, goth vampires, wanted them to have little rituals that they’ve invented in the 14th century, which they didn’t even think were strange, they just did it. So we decided that they’d wear gloves, and that it was traditional that when you come to a vampire house the vampire has to ask you in, and when you come in, very courtly, you have to take your gloves off. So when Ava doesn’t do that it’s really taboo. This feeling of them being strange, arcane, totally ancient rituals was really exiting to us.

Eve’s wild, long hair somehow reminded me of your long ruby locks from ages ago.

I used to have very long hair, for years and years. I always used to wear it up. And here…yes! The power of a great wig! We wanted them to look like animals, we wanted them to look like…you know, it’s too much for Eve to cut to her hair like this [touches her hair], because it means you look in a mirror. They don’t look in mirrors, they don’t have hairbrushes, they’re like wolves, they’re animals, they don’t eat or drink.

Tom Hiddleston admitted to watching Twilight. Have you had any contact with this pop-cultural phenomenon?


He’s not as lazy as me, so he has, but I haven’t, I’m afraid. My kids haven’t seen it either. We’re very…we live in another world.

Was this alternative reality where you met David Bowie?

I met him years and years ago in London.

How long in advance did you know about his album The Next Day coming out? It was such a surprise for everyone.

I know. I don’t think I can say. I’m a big believer in secrets. It was so wonderful. Making work and bringing it to bare, sort of in a fresh birth, is really a luxury, and I’m a big believer in it. I think it’s a secret that has to be preserved.

Hard to believe it was successfully kept secret in the media-driven craze we live in.

One can. You just have to avoid certain things and do the work. What’s interesting to me is how appreciative people are of it. In this case, I think people were taken by surprise of how much fatigue they had with all this endless information and build up, and expectation. And, actually, to just get something fresh with nothing ahead of it was delicious in an old way—and I hope it has an impact.

You and John Hurt, who plays Marlowe, Eva’s friend in the film, had quite a year together, isn’t that right?

We had a lovely year last year cause we made two films together: the Bong Joon-ho film [Snowpiercer], which, by the way, if you’re talking about me being serious you should see that one, and this one. So it was great. And the irony, of course, poor John, is that in the Bong Joon-ho he had crutches, which he hated, but his character had them. And then on our film he actually broke his ankle so he had to have crutches for real! It was a horrible déjà vu. John is one of my heroes, John Hurt. He played, very iconically, Quentin Crisp, and twice. And Crisp was my Queen Elizabeth in Orlando, a film in which I played an immortal being. And here John plays Marlowe as an immortal. And Derek Jarman and I made a film of Edward II by Christopher Marlowe. Jarman was my great friend who died, and John plays Christopher Marlowe, who died. You know, it’s like [gesticulates with her hand the sign of infinity].


Do you actually believe that Marlowe was in fact Shakespeare?

I have a very open mind. There are very convincing arguments that I think are fascinating. But again, you see, it relates to this idea of the public face of something. Following this analysis, it was a political issue that the lord of Essex, because he was the son and the lover of Elizabeth I—Quentin Crisp again!—couldn’t put his name to the work because it was politically impossible, so he picked Shakespeare, who was an actor. Shakespeare was apparently illiterate, never read a book, but managed to write all those plays? I don’t know. I have an open mind to that as well.

Does art help you to keep it that way?

It’s my roots—it’s where I started. I come from the art world in a way. I certainly don’t come from industrial cinema. I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to play in industrial cinema, which I don’t consider this film to be an example of, a few times. Not that many, and I’ve been asked to go to big parties as it were and play with the big boys. “Maybe” is a piece I made 18 years ago in Serpentine Gallery in London, and then again the following year in Rome. That’s been in my life for a very long time, so it’s not a departure. I can see that if people first saw me in the Chronicles of Narnia they might find that intriguing, but those who know me or for those who knew my work, those first films with Derek Jarman, it’s actually all part of the same atmosphere.

You also collaborate with other artists, such as Hussein Chaylan and Mark Cousins, just to name a few.

Yes, [with Hussein] we were in the Venice Biennale with his project. We don’t have any specific projects coming, but we’re constantly in touch, he’s a wonderful artist. Mark is a filmmaker and historian, and we have a film foundation for children called the 8½ Foundation. He and I have many constant pots boiling, or simmering along…actually simmering at the moment, but sooner or later we’ll bring them up.

Do you agree that Los Angeles is a zombie center, as the film claims?


I believe we all have power to claim our vampire spirit. And even zombies have the power to choose to wake up.

You seem to work nonstop. Do you still feel charged or is your power ever low?

All of us get kind of fatigued. We’re all very excited in our teens and 20s, then there’s this moment when we go, “I could get a second wind.” Then you get through your 30s and somehow get to your 40s and then need anther wind. And on it goes, if you’re lucky.

Eve is a druid, Jim a vampire. And you?

Me? I’m 5,000 years old. All going great [laughs]. No, one needs to reboot themselves constantly and the two things I find most nourishing, actually, are beyond the kind of practice of love, loving people, really doing the business of loving, is friendship, which is slightly different, because it has to do with exchange, and nature. That will keep you going. It’s really close to what Eve is drawing on.

Anna Tatarska

Anna Tatarska is a film and cultural journalist with a career spanning almost a decade. She lives in Warsaw, Poland.

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