Tilda Swinton Blasts Putin at SXSW, Discusses ‘Only Lovers Left Alive’ and ‘My Cousin’ David Bowie

The Oscar winning actress sat down for a candid talk about her new vampire romance, gay Putin, her MoMA performance art piece, and her ‘cousin’ David Bowie.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

Would you like a coffee, love?

Those are the first words out of Tilda Swinton’s mouth when I meet her. It’s 10 a.m. and we’re in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel in Austin, Texas. The British actress is here to promote her latest film, Only Lovers Left Alive—a moody, elegiac vampire saga about two star-crossed, blood-sipping lovers in Detroit and Tangier. It stars Tom Hiddleston as Adam, a reclusive, suicidal vamp-rocker, and Swinton as Eve, his extroverted foil and the love of his life, and was directed by her pal, indie film legend Jim Jarmusch.

And Swinton, with her elegant coif of platinum blond hair and line-less skin, was seemingly born to play an ageless creature of the night. After pouring me a mug of coffee, we sat down to discuss the film, which is playing at SXSW, Russian president Vladimir Putin’s handling of the Sochi Olympics, and much more.

What attracted you to doing a vampire film? After seeing—and enjoying—Only Lovers Left Alive, it made me wonder how long it’s been since I’d actually seen a good vampire film.

I saw a great vampire film last night! Our friend Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi made a “documentary” about flat-sharing vampires in Wellington, New Zealand, called What We Do in the Shadows. We were talking last night about making a vampire film festival in Transylvania. Wouldn’t that be fantastic? Think of the films you could get. And we could get Christopher Lee, who I’m proud to say I know, Gary Oldman…

…Is Keanu Reeves allowed?

He’s totally allowed! Dracula was a great moment for Keanu, in my view, and I will take no prisoners on that.

There is a certain timelessness to the way you look that really pops onscreen and is fascinating to watch as a filmgoer.

It’s called “no-mascara.” That’s it! But I’m actually only semi-joking about no-mascara. I look like people in old paintings. I look more like people in old paintings than I do people in films. I suppose that’s always been my way onto screens—through people looking for images from old paintings.

Why do you think women are so often attracted to the “tortured artist?”

I don’t know if women are attracted to the tortured artist but if they are, maybe it’s the foreignness, and that feeling of foreignness is good for a relationship, and positive, and something that we need to un-demonize. Just “other.” But I think that’s also the same for same-sex relationships, it’s not just for men and women. In a companionship, it’s really a wonderful thing when people bring different things, and it’s so great to see someone stand back from their sweetheart and say, “Wow, you’re so different from me and I think you’re really cool.”

I work in the Chelsea area of New York City and see a lot of gay couples dining out and walking around, and they seem so much more engaged in one another than the straight couples, who are just fiddling their phones.

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Well, I think there’s something that gay people have. It is true that to pass through the transitions that gay people have to in order to come out to themselves, to their families when they’re quite young, it’s a grow-bag, isn’t it? And I think that very often, heterosexual people miss out on that. There’s a feeling of development and sometimes, heterosexual people have never had to go through that self-examination and just knowing themselves, and that sense of coming out, coming to your own defense, and being your own best advocate, and going, “No! I’m going to stand by myself and say this is who I am and you can all fuck off.” That is a wonderful transition to go through, and I suppose a lot of straight people miss out on that, and then maybe their relationship choices are potentially less examined. They could be lazier or less thoroughly thought-through.

I loved seeing that picture of you holding the rainbow flag in front of the Kremlin. The most interesting part of the Sochi games is that the Winter Olympics is, hands down, the gayest sporting event ever, so to hold it in one of the more anti-gay countries of the world was a nice middle finger to the host country.

Well, Russia has the gayest president ever. No, that’s an offensive thing to say—not to him, but to the gay community.

He is shirtless quite often. But back to Only Lovers. It deals with a long distance relationship from Detroit to Tangier. As an actress, how do you cope with being away from your lover or family? Do you Skype them?

For my sweetheart? Never. My children? Yes, unfortunately. But I travel with my band. I travel with my sweetheart permanently, and I’m never away from my children longer than 10 days, and I Skype with them every day. I’m not a solo artist. I rock with a band.

What fascinates you about the subject of vampirism?

Well, vampire films were certainly, if not the first films I ever saw, the first fantasy films I ever saw. I think Nosferatu was the first “fantasy” film I saw. I was quite young. It’s very creepy, but thrilling-creepy, and quite a good film to see young because it’s really Boogie Man-central. Properly frightening! And immortality, of course, as has been noticed by recent people who have made a lot of money from this, it’s a great trope for exploring sex-u-a-li-ty—teenage sexuality in particular—and people have done that … you might say to death. We were interested in looking at the other aspect of immortality, which is the length of it—having to keep yourself re-inspired constantly to keep going forever and ever, and why would it be worth it, and probing that question people are constantly asking themselves about immortality, which is: would we really like to live forever? Isn’t there something great about the cul-de-sac, and isn’t that what shapes us? And a long relationship—what is it to keep rebooting a long, long relationship.

Are you that romantic? Do you think it’s even possible to be in love for hundreds and hundreds of years with the same person?

I don’t see why not. There’s no statute of limitations. It’s interesting that you’d say that because I don’t think that’s romantic, I think that’s practical. That’s an actual fact. What I think the film takes issue with is the modern romantic notion about oneness—that you get together, you’re exactly the same as each other, you like doing the same things, and if there’s anything that doesn’t square with your united front, you’re just not going to do it. This film is really about what seems to be a fairly radical notion, which is that you don’t have to be like somebody to love them, and you can really love someone who’s very different to you, and who might even be antagonistic to you, and you can properly be there companion without trying to fuck with them or edit them in any way.

As an American, one of the first times I saw you was in The Beach with a very young Leonardo DiCaprio. There was this huge uproar after the Oscars that DiCaprio lost again and still hasn’t won an Oscar. Do you think Leo’s been given a hard time by the Academy?

I wouldn’t know! I don’t know who’s won what. I have no idea. I didn’t watch the Oscars. I don’t even have a television. I’m not even sure the Oscars is shown in the U.K. Is it?

Yup! It’s broadcast worldwide. Did you have favorite movies from the past year?

Actually, The Wolf of Wall Street was pretty much my favorite movie of the past year, but I didn’t see them all. I thought it was a major, major masterpiece, and so inspiring to see Scorsese making a film like that at this point in his work.

Scorsese seems to be an exception, as is Jim who’s a filmmaker that’s getting up in age but there’s still a great vitality to his work. There’s a quote, I believe by Tarantino, where he once said that directors tend to fall off when they get older because they can’t get it up anymore, so the films seem languid and listless.

Interesting. I would challenge that. Look at Alain Resnais, who died last week and whose latest film [Life of Riley] is a masterpiece. The movie won an award at the Berlin Film Festival this year for innovation, and he was 91! There are certain elements when it comes to being a director that must get tougher as you age, but I also might be a sucker for thinking that Fellini’s last film, Ginger and Fred, was a masterpiece as well. I think there are as many filmmakers who get better as there are filmmakers who don’t.

The last time I saw you, you did not see me—and it was because I was at MoMA where I took in your performance art piece “The Maybe.” I viewed it as a commentary on our voyeuristic culture and how we tend to fetishize celebrities. But what was your motivation behind the piece?

Not to ever offer any motivation, for a start! I can tell you how the piece was generated. It was generated 19 years ago and I first developed it in the Serpentine Gallery in London, and then in Rome, and it’s a piece that I intend to keep doing. But it’s part of the piece that I don’t talk about it. It’s entirely up for any interpretation, and there are people that will tell you I’m there today. It is as much about disappearance as it is about appearance. It’s now you see me, now you don’t. It has no schedule and has no artist statement other than it’s going to be random and unannounced.

You must have great bladder control.

[Laughs] It’s very interesting that the things people most often notice are bladder-related.

How cool was it to be in David Bowie’s music video for “The Stars (Are Out Tonight)?” I’m such a huge Bowie fan.

The moment happens when the phone rings and it’s someone who calls themself David Bowie, and you never stop pinching yourself. It was the easiest thing in the world. I was talking recently with a friend of mine who’s determined to never meet her heroes, and I have another friend who’s been horribly disillusioned a couple of times. But I’ve had a wonderful ride with meeting people who have been my North Stars, and Bowie’s definitely one of them. He feels like my cousin; like the cousin I never had.

You two actually do look a bit similar.

My whole relationship with Bowie started when I was 13, and I bought a copy of Aladdin Sane when I didn’t have a record player. I had this record for a year before I could play it, and it was the image—not the sound—that I was attracted to. I just saw this image and thought he was my cousin. He just looked like me, and looked like someone from the same planet as I did, and that was a great comfort to me at the time when I was 13 and 14 looking like that that someone not only looked like that, but felt proud enough to stick themselves on the front of an album with a zig-zag across their face and a dewy collarbone. He’s always felt like a cousin.

I saw pictures of you two hanging out at your birthday party in New York, and Lorde performed, too. Are you a Lorde fan? And what’s on Tilda Swinton’s iPod?

I was really honored that she came and played at my birthday party. This almost doesn’t count but we were listening to this wonderful German satirist called Helge Schneider and he has this very, very funny song called “Texas” which we put on this morning just to get us into the mood at 7 a.m. But what am I listening to at the moment? Alt-J, most recently.

Any upcoming film projects you’re excited about?

The only thing to mention there is the great Snowpiercer, which is coming out in the summer. Don’t worry. And it’s not getting cut. No, no. But we all need to shout about it because it’s sensational.