TILDA SWINTON FEATURE
from an international patchwork of British. French. Dutch. Italian and Russian financing. the end result is a surprising. eccentric and witty vision of the title character‘s myriad experiences across a remarkably full life. Tilda starts off playing Orlando as a nobleman (yes. that‘s nobleman) at the Elizabethan court. who‘s granted the deeds to a family ancestral seat by Quentin Crisp‘s ageing Queen Bess on the condition that the youngster never grows any older. Over the next 400 years. he falls in love with a Russian princess visiting the Jacobean court. turns into a she in the midst of a ﬁerce battle in Central Asia. faces sexual discrimination in 18th century London. falls for Billy Zane‘s dashing Victorian poet and enters the 20th century as a penniless but finally liberated young woman. Three score ‘n‘ ten and one genderjust aren‘t enough for Orlando. it would seem.
Evocatively designed by the Dutch team who are best known for their work with Peter Greenaway and shot amidst a variety of diverse backdrops in St Petersburg. Uzbekhistan and rural England. Potter‘s film catches the eye as stylishly as it engages the mind. although Swinton‘s one-of—a-kind performance still manages to dominate the attractions of the surrounding visual frippery. Ask her what it‘s like to see yourself on film as a man. however. and the answer you get isn‘t as straightforward as you might expect: ‘I can‘t tell you about the craft. the preparation. the agony and all that. because it was easy.‘ she says of the whole experience. ‘My attention was not to think of myself as female or male because in the ﬁlm we have a youth who becomes a woman. in effect a woman played by a man. When Orlando goes to a tea party and experiences misogyny for the ﬁrst time. for instance. it‘s only as a man that she could experience such a shock. At every stage we have Orlando being both sexes. so maybe we have Orlando being neither — a person who develops due to the external inﬂuences but whose essential nature remains the same. All it took was a little imagination and an attempt not to act.‘
Ah yes. but if Dustin Hoffman puts on a dress for Tootsie or William Hurt slips into an effete turban for Kiss of the Spidemoman. this is
classed as the pinnacle of what acting should be — an ability to become someone completely other from yourself. In Orlando. in the ﬁgure of Man To Man‘s Max Gericke and even as Edward I] ‘s killer Queen Isabella to some extent. she has effected a similar transformation and yet. so far as she‘s concerned. that‘s not acting. Isn‘t there a contradiction here?
‘No. because those films are about performance in a way that something like My
‘First and foremost I am a Scot,’ she affirms, quickly adding a self-conscious ‘she says in a perfect English accent.’
Left Foot isn‘t. If you're going to be really interested in acting. then don‘t expose it as acting. l have no sense of myself as a craftsperson because I didn‘t go through the training. Of course I‘m not a man. of course I‘m not an alien or a character from Marlowe. of course I play other people and so on and so on. But I‘m not really interested in character. I‘m interested in behaviour.‘
So in that case. the Jarman films like The Garden or the little segment in Aria where it‘s just Swinton. Derek and his super-8 camera are just as unaffected as the pieces where she‘s under heavy make—up or costume. or a man even?
‘It‘s always me.‘ she maintains. ‘and the more “me” it is. the happier I am. The transformation is the medium through which my interest is sustained. because it seems to me that the way you find the irreducible something at the centre of human experience is to do all sorts of tests on it. to try to reduce it by attacking it with contradictions. The masks. like Orlando or Max or Isabella. are a way of trying to get to that essence.’
An essentially private individual. she‘s careful not to give too much away beyond what‘s already exposed on screen. but in the case of Orlando — the story of an aristo who only finds him/herself when he/she has lost everything — she‘s opened up a little on the subject of her own privileged upbringing. both to declare her hand and to offer ‘survivors of owning class
backgrounds‘ all the help and advice she can give them. And we are talking ‘owning class’ in a major way here: the family estate is in Berwickshire — heck. it might even be Berwickshire — while the portraits on the walls trace the Swinton lineage back to the l7th century. All of which makes our Tilda a very posh lassie indeed. and one certainly conscious of contradictions inherent in her awkward identity.
‘First and foremost I am a Scot.‘ she afﬁrms. quickly adding a self-conscious ‘she says in a perfect English accent. I actually feel foreign in England because it represents boarding school to me and I‘ve never understood the English at all. Orlando for me has a subtext in the way that it allows owning class people to own up that they too are oppressed — everyone knows they‘re guilty. everyone knows they‘re going to be ﬁrst up against the wall because they‘ve been killing. literally killing. the working classes for centuries. Any antagonism between working class Scots and owning class Scots who haven‘t had the inclination or been allowed to mix with them is pretty much justiﬁed really.’
Asked by John Byrne to play the part of Cissie in Your Cheatin' Heart (he‘d designed Dead Men. the ﬁrst show she‘d done at the Traverse during a mid-80s tenure working with university chums Jenny Killick and Stephen Unwin). she actually had to go and learn the Glaswegian patter for the role. ‘It was a rigmarole. but I felt that I had to try to do something really Scottish. I mean, if you‘re going to call yourself Scottish. you should give Scottish people an opportunity to tell you that you‘re not.‘
Although her immediate plans are to rest for a while after the rigours of shooting both Orlando and Derek Jarman‘s philosophical newie Wittgenstein. her sedulously acquired ‘Scottishness‘ in Your Cheatin' Heart has certainly worked on its target area. ‘You know. I was in Glasgow last year and someone held a door open for me. I said “thank you“ and he came back at me with “Och. you‘ve lost your accent. then“ as if he was a bit offended. I felt quite good actually.‘
Orlando opens at the Edinburgh Cameo on Friday I 9 March and at the Glasgow Film Theatre on Sunday 2 I . A special preview t screening for List readers takes place at the Cameo on Saturday 13 at noon. and a Scotsman celebrity lecture with Tilda S winton and Sally Potter follows a screening ofthe ﬁlm I at the Cameo on Monday [5.
The List ll —25 March 1993 9