Donald Clarke meets the impeccably posh, if impossibly named, Tilda Swinton, who appears in the film 'Thumbsucker' this month and as Narnia's White Witch come December
I've never been told off by Martine McCutcheon or Kathy Burke, but I imagine their approach to such a task would be very different to that of the impeccably posh Tilda Swinton. We have just been discussing the actor's early experiences collaborating with the late English director Derek Jarman. Woolly-headed oik that I am, I suggest that this was, what, the late 1970s or so?
In fact, her first film for Jarman - the fabulous Caravaggio - was released in 1986. Unveiling the aspect of amused umbrage that Princess Anne probably adopts when chastising a horse for treading on her wellingtons, Swinton ruminates icily on my mistake. "That is very sweet of you to say so," she says. "I would love to think that I might look this way in my 90s. Yes, I have been working since the early part of the century, since before the birth of cinema. I began my career in 1360, in fact." On balance, I'd rather have had a jellied eel thrown at me by McCutcheon or Burke.
Dressed in a gorgeously unfussy tweed jacket with a cross-of-St-Andrew badge pinned to its lapel, Swinton is haughty, confident and ever so slightly aquiline. No casual observer would be surprised to learn that she was raised among the Scottish gentry, but he or she might be taken aback at quite how high-born the actress is. "Yes, well, I would have thought that would be obvious," she deadpans, making me feel as if I must have been found in a handbag. Her father, General Sir John Swinton, was formerly head of the Queen's Household Division and, in the year 2000, retired as lord lieutenant of Berwickshire.
The family, which can trace its lineage back to Saxon times, has a crest depicting a boar chained to a tree. The clan's arms - a different thing altogether, apparently - represents two boars rampant Sable, armed, crined and unglued (sic). To put this in language we all understand, Swinton was at school with the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
It is difficult to avoid the assumption that Swinton's entire career might constitute a gesture of rebellion. She read social and political science at Cambridge before performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company for a spell. When that institution proved too mainstream for her, she drifted towards experimental performance, eventually winding up among Jarman's set in - let's get this straight - the mid-1980s. Statuesquely beautiful, with a cool, androgynous distance, Swinton illuminated such delightfully puzzling Jarman pictures as The Last of England, Edward II and Blue.
Her former schoolmate, meanwhile, was launching submarines and illicitly romancing Guards officers. Was Tilda consciously defying the expectations of her parents? "No. I think that's nonsense," she says. "I don't think I was rebelling. I never really felt any resistance. I had the advantage of being the only girl in a family of boys, though maybe my brothers might say they found very little resistance, too. Certainly nothing much was expected of me. There was perhaps a frisson when they realised I was never going to marry a duke, but I think my family are actually pretty laid back and undemanding."
For the first two decades of her career, Swinton continued to sidestep the mainstream. "Though I dislike that word," she says. "One man's mainstream might be Leigh Bowery performing a colonic irrigation on stage." In 1992 she scurried between genders as the lead in Sally Potter's adaptation of Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Six years later she fitted in nicely with the Bohemian demi-monde of John Maybury's Love Is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon.
But those idiosyncratic, low-budget Jarman films stand out as the most important work of her early years. "Meeting Derek was the biggest stroke of luck in my life," she says. "I literally cannot imagine not having met him. I don't know if it would be possible to meet him and not want to become a performer. I had just left the RSC and was beginning to think that maybe I didn't want to be on stage. I didn't like the life of the theatre, really, and decided maybe I would like to be in film. But, until I met Derek, I wasn't sure if it was possible to be a film actor in England at that time."
Jarman, who died in 1994, was one of many directors who have experimented with Swinton's perceived androgyny. As she has aged and the suggestions of boyishness about her figure have faded, she has, perhaps, seemed a little less gender-flexible. But, as recently as last year, she turned up opposite Keanu Reeves in the horror film Constantine as an Angel Gabriel of uncertain sex. Is this something she is comfortable with? Does she ever get offended when directors suggest she might wish to play male? "Look, this is my predilection," she replies.
So, she accepts some responsibility for the development of her ambiguous persona? "Of course. Well, it is just my experience. I am constantly being mistaken for a man. A waiter in this very hotel called me sir, today. But that's fine. People are just blind. It is perhaps to do with being this tall and not having big breasts. I don't know what it is. But I have been playing men throughout my career."
It is only within the past five years or so that Swinton has begun to sneak away from the art house and towards the multiplex. In 2001 she was the tense hub of the superb thriller The Deep End. Then she took roles of various sizes in such unlikely Hollywood projects as The Beach, Vanilla Sky and Constantine. This Christmas, she will become the face of a potential block-buster when she appears as the White Witch in the first part of Andrew Adamson's adaptation of CS Lewis's Narnia stories.
"I do these projects because I like the director," she says. "I can assure you it was Andrew Adamson's idea to cast me, not Disney's. I liked Andrew and I liked the project. As simple as that. It is certainly not part of any plan to move into the mainstream."
Before then, we will get to see her in an excellent project that occupies territory somewhere between the avant-garde and the populist. In Mike Mills's funny, touching Thumbsucker, an American independent flick that manages the impressive feat of not being too damn quirky, she plays the mother of a teenager who can't stop sucking his thumb. Mills's debut features a lovely dissection of the modern need to correct and perfect every aspect of our lives.
"I don't know if it's to do with modern life or with just good old life in general," she says, laughing. "As I said to Mike: being disappointed with life is not the problem any more; it's the appointment in the first place that causes the trouble. That great expectation people have leads towards the road to hell. The need for solutions. The manifestation of the sound bite. The idea that we might actually come of age. I mean, when do any of us really grow up?"
But surely Swinton has done all the things people do to prove themselves grown-up. She is married to the formidably left-wing playwright and artist John Byrne, whom she has been seeing for the past decade and a half. They have bought a house in the wilderness north of Inverness. They have two children, Xavier and Honor. It sounds as if she's an adult to me.
"I bought a house after I had children, and that felt far more grown-up than giving birth. Most people buy a house before they have children, but I am a very late developer. I found having children a sort of access-all-areas to childhood. It's a free pass to all that stuff you have been suppressing. I now have this beautiful licence. I have these seven-year-old twins who I can play with and then live in the seven-year-old mind for a while." She lowers her voice and adopts a mock serious aspect - a little like Captain Mainwaring addressing the men. "Now, that doesn't mean that I am not responsible at all times. I wouldn't like The Irish Times to get the wrong idea."
So I wonder if Byrne, once a member of the radical theatre company 7:84 and the author of the great TV series Tutti Frutti, enjoys making fun of his wife's staggering poshness. There is great material for domestic comedy there. "Oh, he's far too well-mannered for that," she laughs. "But, yes, it is true that I was brought up to talk in this way: like the Scottish land-owning classes." She turns all hoity-toity again. "Of course, I can't understand a bloody word he says anyway. I'm sure he can't understand a thing I say either." Then, just in case I might think she's serious, she unleashes an exquisitely aristocratic laugh.
Thumbsucker opens in cinemas on Friday