TORONTO—Maybe it’s the military lineage (she comes from a long line of generals), but Tilda Swinton is probably one of the few actresses working today who can slip guy-rope into her conversation and get away with it.
As in, “It’s like when a project has a kind of guy-rope down into the culture, when you feel it tapping on a tradition. It may spin off and become incredibly modern or experimental in some way, but if it has a reference point in the culture, and really respects that reference point, then it has a particular vibration.”
George Clooney, Sean Cullen, Tom Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, Sydney Pollack
(Warner Bros.; US theatrical: 5 Oct 2007 (General release); UK theatrical: 28 Sep 2007 (General release); 2007)
Swinton, of regal mien and Scottish heritage (all those generals, up to and including her dad, were in the Scots Guard), is a key player in “Michael Clayton,” the astonishingly good legal thriller (and then some) starring George Clooney in the title role.
Written and directed by Tony Gilroy, and set in the world of high-powered corporate law, and in sleazier precincts patrolled by a firm’s “fixer” (Clooney), “Michael Clayton” is smart, suspenseful, almost Shakespearean in its study of ruined souls in search of redemption.
“This film is very classical, and that makes it ambitious,” says Swinton, up in Toronto for “Michael Clayton’s” film-festival premiere. The film also stars Tom Wilkinson and Sydney Pollack.
“It sits within a tradition, with the cinema of the `70s, that looks at this moral, political-thriller kind of trope,” she says, thinking of “The Verdict,” of “The Parallax View.”
For Swinton, 46, the role of Karen Crowder, the in-house counsel for a giant agro-chemical concern that’s been fighting off a potentially devastating lawsuit, was in some ways familiar, in some ways not. After all, she’s played evil before—you can’t get much more evil than the White Witch in “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe.”
But a lawyer? This actress, with her art-house pedigree and chic, trendy couture, with a ticket to a Bjork concert happening later in the day, knew next to nothing about legal culture before signing on.
“I think more than anybody on the entire production, I needed to be convinced that this world really existed,” she says with a laugh. “I realized that, generally speaking, the United States is much more clued-up. Maybe it’s to do with Court TV, I don’t know. But the man on the street seems to know more, and understand the jargon, in a way that I still don’t understand, even if I had to spout it in the film.
“I still don’t know what discovery means.”
But with the part in hand, Swinton went on “spying missions” to New York firms. “I saw the suits. I checked the limited choice of jewelry and the choices of hairdo. I kind of got it down from there.”
Gilroy films Swinton, as Karen Crowder, alone in her apartment, rehearsing her legal spiels, trying on the blouses, the suits.
“They’re soldiers, and they follow flags and they have to wear uniforms, and they have to rise to the uniform and also suppress their resistance to the uniform,” Swinton observes about these women. “I find it really fascinating and a blessing to just explore that, to think about that question which I see at the heart of the film, which is: How is it that inhuman acts may be perpetrated by human beings?
“And there’s no answer. Tony Gilroy is too sophisticated a writer and director to give you any answers. But just to ask the question seems to be a really pertinent thing to do.”
Swinton has been keeping exceptionally busy of late. She filmed “The Man from London,” for Bela Tarr. She filmed “Julia” (although the title may change), “about an alcoholic woman who abducts a child,” for Erick Zonca, the man behind “The Dream Life of Angels.” She made “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” with Cate Blanchett and Brad Pitt, for director David Fincher. Right now, she’s in the middle of “Burn After Reading,” with Clooney and Pitt again, and John Malkovich and Frances McDormand.
“I’m very spoiled,” she says. “Very spoiled, and very lucky.”