The model is immediately recognizable: slicked-back copper hair, otherworldly cutting cheekbones. Back in 2003 Tilda Swinton became the muse for Amsterdam design house Viktor & Rolf's "One Woman Show." Not only did she walk down the runway, dressed in a loosely open-collared white shirt and a mannish black pantsuit, but the models were styled as Swinton clones. The actor also read one of her own poems.
On their website, Viktor & Rolf write, "The romantic use of the term 'muse' may carry connotations of passivity, but ours has played an active part in our creative process. We designed a collection for her alone as a tribute to her lively personality, her great beauty and her brilliant vision of our work. The soundtrack that played during the show is a text about the importance of staying true to one's own identity and vision, written and performed by Tilda."
From her avant-garde film beginnings and artistic sympathies (in 1995, as part of Cornelia Parker's installation at London's Serpentine Gallery, Swinton slept for seven days in a glass box), the actor has stayed true to her identity. Ironic, considering that one of Swinton's greatest talent is her chameleonic androgyny and intelligent versatility. In 1992's Orlando, directed by Sally Potter, Swinton plays one of Queen Elizabeth I's noblemen who turns into a woman overnight, and then lives for centuries. Not too many actors can successfully pull off gender-switching time-travel. For Luca Guadagnino's I Am Love, opening Friday, the Scottish actor learned how to speak Italian with a Russian accent.
Swinton plays Emma Recchi, the daughter of a Russian art dealer, who has married into a wealthy Italian textile family and later falls in love with a young chef. Emma holds onto her outsider status, made more apparent by her translucent milky skin and golden hair. During a restaurant scene in which Emma basically has mouth sex with a well-cooked prawn, the background sights and sounds dissolve and grow silent and we get a moment to gaze at Emma's pure ecstasy and beauty.
Surprisingly, Swinton's indie cred has translated to more mainstream Hollywood pictures. It's surprising because Hollywood is a shallow island inhabited by actors like Katherine Heigl: Life as We Know It, which also opens Friday, looks like it was shat out of the same diaper as Knocked Up, The Ugly Truth, Killers and 27 Dresses.
It's hard to imagine Swinton going for prosthetic ugly like Charlize Theron in Monster or playing any of Hilary Swank's gosh-darn great American heroes: She received her Best Supporting Actress Oscar for Michael Clayton as an unsympathetic lawyer who orders Clayton's assassination. Swinton's reserved coolness also gets her cast as upper-class or high-strung women, like the protective mother being blackmailed by handsome Goran Višnjic in the underrated thriller The Deep End, and as Katie Cox, John Malkovich's pissed-off wife in the Coen brothers' Burn After Reading. And there's her iciest role of all, brilliantly cast as the White Witch Jadis, in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
Off screen, Swinton pulls out charm. This June she led hundreds in an Edinburgh flash mob, performing a little soft-shoe shuffle from Laurel and Hardy. "Are you dancing?" she asked, a bouncing flash of red hair and a man's kilt.