Tilda Swinton sits on a sofa in a New York hotel suite, next to a glass table covered with carafes of juice and a tray of croissants. She’s wearing a cream-colored, ankle-length thawb and a pair of sandals.
“Just say I’m dressed like an Arab man,” the 49-year-old actress quips during an interview to promote “I Am Love,” where she plays the unhappy wife of a Milanese industrialist. The movie opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
There’s nothing conventional about Swinton’s look -- or her career.
She’s almost 6-feet tall and rail thin, with a ghostly complexion and glowing green eyes. On this day, her natural red hair is dyed dark and cut short for her role as the mother of a mass murderer in “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” which she was filming in Connecticut.
Swinton’s androgynous look has been called “otherworldly,” “enigmatic” and “extraterrestrial.” She’s puzzled by the descriptions.
“I look like other people in my family,” says Swinton, who won an Oscar for best supporting actress in “Michael Clayton.” “Maybe everyone in Scotland is extraterrestrial.”
Swinton lives in Nairn, a small coastal town in the Scottish Highlands where Charlie Chaplin used to vacation. Asked if she intentionally lives far away from Hollywood, Swinton shakes her head.
“I go to Hollywood as a tourist, but I work mostly in Europe,” she says. “It’s like asking someone who goes to a party why they don’t live there.”
Swinton’s resume, which includes many art-house movies, has an international flavor. She’s worked with directors from the U.S., Italy, New Zealand, England, Austria, France and Canada. She speaks Italian and a little Russian in “I Am Love,” though she doesn’t claim fluency in either language.
“I play a woman who grew up in Russia and lives in Italy, so I had to learn Italian with a Russian accent,” she says.
Swinton co-produced the film with director Luca Guadagnino. The project took almost a decade from start to finish.
“I’ve worked on a lot of movies that have taken a long time,” Swinton says. “It took five years to make ‘Orlando’ and that was from a great novel. When you’re doing something that’s very personal, it can’t be rushed.”
Swinton’s personal life has been the subject of much scrutiny and speculation. She has 12-year-old twins from her relationship with painter/playwright John Byrne, but now is involved with artist Sandro Kopp, who is 17 years her junior. Swinton laughs at tabloid reports that she’s engaged in a menage a trois with the two men.
“I hate to disappoint people, but it’s much duller than you think,” she says. “John and I are bringing up our children together, but we haven’t been a couple for years. He’s in a relationship with someone else and we don’t live together, though we’re all close friends.”
While Swinton comes from a military family that can trace its roots to the ninth century, her artistic tastes are anything but traditional. Early in her career, she made several films with avant-garde director Derek Jarman. She also spent a week sleeping in a glass case at a London art gallery.
In “We Need to Talk About Kevin,” based on a novel by Lionel Shriver, she plays a mother who tries to figure out why her son went on a killing spree at school.
“These kind of incidents are usually attributed to things like violent movies, music and video games,” she says. “But the book is more concerned with the role of parenting. We live in a violent, brutal universe and it’s impossible to hide that from your children.”
A few years ago, Swinton held a film festival in Nairn. The town has no movie theaters, so she rented an old bingo hall.
“I didn’t have enough money to pay a year’s rent,” Swinton says. “Fortunately, I won the Oscar the next week and the studio gave me a very generous bonus, which turned out to be the exact amount I needed.”