An Angel You Wouldn't Want to Be Touched By
by Hilary de Vries
SHE'S stubbing out a clandestine Marlboro and checking her messages on her beeping cellphone, but otherwise Tilda Swinton looks angelic sweeping around her Beverly Hills hotel suite in a floor-length white Yohji Yamamoto dress, her hair dyed white-blond and standing nearly six feet tall in her espadrilles. With her striking looks, her high, wide cheekbones and pale eyes that suggest an otherworldliness as much as her aristocratic British lineage (her family is one of the oldest in Scotland), Ms. Swinton, 44, has been largely known for her work in European art-house films. These include some half dozen by the British director Derek Jarman, who died of AIDS in 1994, and Sally Potter's adaptation of the Virginia Woolf novel "Orlando," in which she played an Elizabethan nobleman and a contemporary woman.
Four years ago, Ms. Swinton's career took a turn toward the mainstream. She left her home in the Scottish Highlands, where she lives with her companion, John Byrne, an artist, and their 7-year-old twins, chopped off her waist-length red hair and earned a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as a suburban American housewife in "The Deep End." Since then, she has appeared in several Hollywood films, including "Adaptation" and "Vanilla Sky." This year, Ms. Swinton will be seen in four movies, including the indie drama "Thumbsucker" and "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," a screen adaptation of C. S. Lewis's novel. This month, she tackles her first androgynous role since "Orlando," playing the angel Gabriel as a bespoke-suited executive in "Constantine," a $90-million apocalyptic fantasy-drama starring Keanu Reeves. Based on the DC Comics/Vertigo "Hellblazer" series of graphic novels, the Warner Brothers release is Ms. Swinton's most mainstream film to date, one that has all the earmarks of becoming the studio's new post-"Matrix" franchise.
HILARY DE VRIES: "Constantine" is quite a departure for you. What interested you in the film?
TILDA SWINTON: I loved the idea of a blockbuster film that talks about good and evil at a time when everyone is talking about good and evil and the "axis" thereof, and the rest of us are expected to just sort of swallow it. It felt like it had the capacity to be a radical political film.
Q. You're playing the angel Gabriel, who has traditionally been characterized as unremittingly good and as a man - neither of which is true in this film.
A. Gabriel is God's right-hand man, his messenger, his bouncer, and he's dedicated 1,000 percent to getting souls into heaven. I think there is something quite extraordinary in the story of this film that places the emissary of good as the one who tortures the world in God's name. It felt like the most radical thing for the film to do.
Q. It's a complete departure from the Bible.
A. Yes, but it is absolutely not a departure from real life as we are living it today, in the grip of people who are dressing themselves up as God's right hand and taking us into war. The challenge was to make sure Gabriel never turns into an evil demon, that we see how he engineers this extraordinarily violent apocalypse out of love. Which is sort of the situation we're all in now.
Q. You've played a number of men in your career, most notably in "Orlando." What does the idea of androgyny bring to your performance of Gabriel?
A. The director, Francis Lawrence, did the sensible thing by just presenting the idea to me and then letting it percolate through my brain. It felt like a little bit of a dangerous idea in a big Hollywood movie, and then I ended up thinking it was a good idea, because an angel is not immutable but fluid, and so his identity is amorphous and not strictly human.
Q. How much do you think your looks have to do with this protean quality you have?
A. Quite a lot. The other day, I was going through the airport security and I was searched by a male security guard. I'm very often referred to as "Sir" in elevators and such. I think it has to do with being this tall and not wearing much lipstick. I think people just can't imagine I'd be a woman if I look like this.
Q. Why does it interest you as a performer to play men?
A. I'm basically interested in identity, and I still find fascinating the question, "How do we identify ourselves, and how do we settle into other people's expectations for our identity?" This is not only true in stories like "Orlando," who spends the first half of his life as a boy and then becomes a woman, and, even though he's the same soul, there are all these different projections on him because he's now a woman. But even in a story about a suburban mother, like "The Deep End," you have an idea of yourself based on living your life, and then you feel something else coming up in you. Like you're quite used to being a soccer mom living in Lake Tahoe with a husband who is mostly absent, and then maybe you fall in love with a gambler. The moment when one realizes one might not be fixed, that one's story might not be over. This is the transformation we all go through all the time.
Q. Gabriel goes through a rather startling transformation, and it involves two rather singularly different costumes. How important were the clothes?
A. Louise Frogley, the costume designer, and I talked about Gabriel being a sort of deific emissary working in the consulate in some far-off country where he is getting impatient with the natives, and he decides to take things into his own hands rather than serve God's plan. He's like some junior executive who comes up with a brilliant plan to take over the company.
Q. Hence the bespoke suit and his use of profanity in addition to the feathery wings?
A. Well, it was very important that this great icon be seen as very modern, very contemporary.
Q. But then he changes into an iconographic warrior with leggings and a tunic.
A. Yes, we really drive into the icon of the classical, warlike angel. In fact, we did look at a lot of statues of Gabriel for that costume. Interestingly, Christianity doesn't have a monopoly on Gabriel. He figures in the Koran as well as the Bible, and also in Mormonism. Gabriel is the angel sent by God to reveal the Lord to Moses in ancient Jewish scripture, he was sent to Muhammad, and he was also sent to reveal the birth of Christ in the New Testament.
Q. How difficult is it to play a mythic figure like Gabriel as opposed to, say, a soccer mom?
A. They're exactly the same, because no one you play is "real." Every character is a construct, even if you're playing a suburban mother. You're looking for a construct in the way you look and talk, and you have either the mythic information about Gabriel, or what we know about suburban mothers, and then you just try to make it real. It's exactly the same. So, you start with what we know about Gabriel as God's messenger.
Q. But in this film, he winds up behaving in ways that cause Keanu's character to call him "insane."
A. Yes, but Gabriel is not a baddy. He becomes insane because he starts to think that if you wrap yourself in God's clothes you can do anything you want, and it ain't true. There is something insane about a lack of doubt. Doubt, to me anyway, is what makes you human, and without doubt even the righteous lose their grip not only on reality but also on their humanity. The idea that Gabriel takes things into his own hands, decides that the way to get the most souls into heaven is to torch the place, is extremely modern.
Q. How so?
A. In that the attitude of righteousness is a reason for pretty much anything now. What's shocking is how easily that's peddled today. It's like Gabriel's rationale. I don't remember the exact lines, but it's essentially, "My job is to get as many souls as possible to heaven, and I have noticed that you are at your most spiritually open when the place is in flames, so I'm going to torch the joint." It's a beautiful piece of reasoning, and it's a righteous argument, but it's terrifying.
Q. Religious absolutism can be found in many places.
A. True, there is all sorts of religious extremism all over the place, but the reason for this partly has to do with the fascist attitudes and language of absolutism coming from Washington. It's challenging for people outside of America that Bush was re-elected. It means we're all going to have to work a lot harder to understand what so many more Americans than we thought really want. It's an identity shift in our minds about America and maybe for many Americans as well.
Q. And you think this film will resonate along those lines? It's not overtly political.
A. I don't think there is any way that it won't. Actually, there were a couple of moments in my speeches that were more politically on the nose, and they were cut, and I'm actually glad they were. We don't want to date the film, but also we don't want to alienate people who need to do new thinking about this. We're not only preaching to the converted, but we also want to speak to those people who think they know what righteousness is.