FROM a distance, Tilda Swinton is a refugee from "The Matrix" or the third member of the Eurythmics in her black trench coat and stylish red bob swept behind her ears. She is tall, slender and commanding as she gracefully strides into L'Ermitage restaurant. She has played a gender-switching pseudo-immortal, a housewife scrambling to cover up a murder her son may have committed and is now stirring award buzz as an overwhelmed corporate attorney sailing into uncharted moral darkness in "Michael Clayton."
She has made a career of not caring how she looks or how likable her characters may be, by turns beautiful and brutish. So somehow, in person, the elegant Swinton, the Marilyn Manson fan whose family can be traced through more than 1,000 years of English and Scottish history, is just what you'd expect.
Were you deeply affected by the punk movement?
The one thing I really have no sense of humor about, about my upbringing, is that when I was a teenager I was in a boarding school and we weren't allowed music. Which I really do think is criminal abuse of young minds and hearts. And so when I eventually left school, my innate punk sensibility had missed out on the punk movement in the late '70s in London. But I made up for lost time quite quickly.
Is it true that you bet on horses semi-professionally for a while?
Absolutely true. Only professionally in the sense that I kept myself alive for two years on the winnings I managed to scrape together. . . . It's not just about form and it's not just about instinct; it's about looking at those horses on that particular day in that particular weather, and what they're doing to each other, and how they're making each other react.
You've discussed Karen Crowder, your character in "Michael Clayton," as being personally inspired by Condoleezza Rice and laying out her clothes for the day like a samurai laying out armor. How else would you describe her?
I describe her as a poor actress, badly cast. She really should get out before Scene 1. And somewhere, she knows it. That's what I find very interesting. The idea that someone would be that misaligned and still persist. I find it very moving.
Where's the hero, actually? Let's face it. Even the person who ends up pushing the hero button could so easily have pushed the villain button, and vice versa. The difference between her and Michael Clayton and Arthur Edens, the character Tom Wilkinson plays, is that they have the grace of having lost everything. She's got it all to play for. Somewhere in her wiring she cannot admit that she doesn't know what she's doing. She's from that currently fashionable leadership school that doubtlessness is the only way to go.
[Writer-director] Tony Gilroy did this really interesting thing: [Usually "villains"] kind of twirl their mustaches and say what fun it is being bad. But with Karen Crowder, right up front, he showed her virtually naked. And it occurred to me that what we needed to see there was a body, was a weak body. That there should be a difference between what she dresses herself in and what she looks like undressed.
There was a scene where she was on a treadmill late at night, reading her notes. And I only ever saw that image of this woman with a paunch. Because there's a schism between what she wants to be and what she is. . . . She's not a samurai.
Guess we won't be seeing you as a Bond villain any time soon.
God no, I'd rather be James Bond. I'll never understand why I wasn't cast as James Bond.
In your career, you've demonstrated a convincing lack of vanity. I don't mean just the physical, but some of your characters have souls that are . . . not beautiful.
The sense in which we're using "vanity" here is that there's something that one wants to protect, that you could not want to show. For some reason, I was born without that gene. Actually, that's what the story of Karen is; it's about Karen showing you her mask and Tony Gilroy showing you what's behind it. It's about vanity, to a certain extent. She would hate to think that anyone had been in that bathroom with her [a scene in which she has a private freakout in a public bathroom stall]; that would be like her living nightmare. But I don't mind people in the bathroom with me. That's my task. To show people when they're at their most unwatched. And unwashed. [Laughs.]
Can you tell me any juicy secrets about George Clooney?
I have a compromising photograph of him, which I'm waiting for my moment to auction and send all the proceeds to Darfur. I'm going to Photoshop it a little bit, but it's compromising.