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Interview: Tilda Swinton Talks About Cynicism and Comedy in Trainwreck

I’ll be honest, there aren’t a lot of people I get really nervous about interviewing. But there have been a few, and Tilda Swinton is definitely one of them. She’s a great actress, unbelievably cool, and I’ve seen her be pretty darn scary and intimidating in more than a few things (after all, she played played Mason in Snowpiercer). But it should be no surprise that in real life, she is a total sweetheart to talk who very quickly put me at ease … the complete opposite of her character in the new film Trainwreck.

(And she recently confirmed she’s joining the MCU as Doctor Strange‘s Ancient One!)

Out this week, she plays Diana, Amy Schumer’s boss at S’nuff Magazine.

Lesley Coffin (TMS): Were you familiar with Amy Schumer’s comedy before being approached about this role?

Tilda Swinton: I was, and I’d managed to rip and steal as much from her as I could before meeting her. I was already a fan of her, so when I heard that she wanted to meet with me for a role in her film, I was thrilled.

TMS: Did Amy approach you personally, or did you first meet with Judd Apatow?

Swinton: It was actually Judd, who I had met before. He was the one to reach out, but I knew who he meant when he said “Amy’s film,” and it was a very happy call to get.

TMS: Are you at the point in your career that if there is a director you like or think you would work well with, you can approach them about working together in the future?

Swinton: I’m really lucky these days. It’s been like a magic trick, because I just keep bumping into the people I want to work with, and it seems to be working. There’s some good system which seems to be working for me, but at the same time, if there were someone I hadn’t bumped into yet, sure, I would drop them a line or write to them. But so far, I’ve been very lucky.

TMS: You’ve played a lot of tough women before, but one of the differences I noticed in this movie is the fact that you play her as almost having an animosity towards her female employees. What did you think of her relationship with other women at the workplace?

Swinton: We started by thinking about the magazine. The whole engine the magazine is in the film is really interesting, because the magazine was founded by Diana. And let’s face it … there are a lot of magazines just like this one, and there are a lot of magazine offices like it planning their next issue right now, and they are probably running similar stories to what we’re lampooning in the film. Imagine who it might be that founded that type of magazine, especially if the founder were a woman—a magazine that’s called S’nuff and says the types of things this magazine says and does the type of things this magazine does.

I think it’s true what Diana says about the young man played by Ezra Miller, “We’re creating these guys. We’re making this youth be the way they are. We’re teaching them everything they know about how to live in the modern world.” It’s pretty intense. So thinking about what the magazine is and what their attitude to life is was key to how to work out how Diana is. And I would say, she’s basically kind of numb. The idea of being humane or vulnerable or even enthusiastic about anything is kind of beyond her. We can only imagine what her life would have been like up until that point, but she’s kind of not all there, and I found that really interesting.

I’m happy to say I’ve never met anyone like her; it was a work of imagination, but you only have to pick up a magazine like the one in the film to see that kind of attitude at work. We tweaked it a bit, but not that much. That attitude of cynicism, the idea that “nothing can impress or inspire me,” is really out there. And if we were to be serious about it, it is really worrying. Amy’s character in the film manages to overcome that cynicism, so there is hope. It isn’t a deadly infection.

tilda swinton

TMS: It’s interesting that you mention that quote about Ezra’s character, because it gets into the debate about how much the media effects the consumers’ demands. Did you consider how responsible the media is for developing the personalities and preferences of consumers when selecting projects?

Swinton: Well, Ezra’s character is very young and very influenceable, that is true. If you’re asking, “Does art have to concern itself with the power to influence people?” I think it innately does influence people and the artists involved will only get involved if they feel in line with it—if they feel it’s something they can put themselves behind. It’s a self-selecting thing. I don’t feel like there is a big decision time when you have to say, “I’m attracted to this, but it’s putting across something I don’t like.” I personally am unlikely to be attracted to it if it’s something that’s barking up a tree I’m disinterested in.

TMS: When you do a comedy, and part of the goal is to get laughs from the audience, do you approach the character any differently, or how you prepare?

Swinton: Not at all. It’s exactly the same, because it’s all just dressing up and playing. It’s always going to be a different story and different atmosphere, because you’re working with different people, but my attitude and the way I approach the work is completely the same.

TMS: You’re known for taking on roles which require you to wear a lot of make up and put on elaborate costumes. Diana isn’t as extreme as some of your characters, but the look is very specific. Did the nails and high heels help you develop the character of Diana?

Swinton: As I say, I’m just dressing up and playing, and that is a large part of the reason I’m interested in acting. It’s just fun to dress as someone different, and this woman looks frankly like a lot of women I pass on the street every day—the women who go for that particular tandoori tan and the eye make-up and hair. But for me, that look is pretty extreme. It’s just as much a burlesque as playing the character I played in Snowpiercer, and both are deep disguises, which is such fun. It was fun to imagine what it would be like to walk down the street dressed like Diana.

TMS: Amy and Judd both encourage improvisation from actors. Did you throw anything in while shooting that wasn’t in the script that made it into the movie?

Swinton: Yeah, yeah. I just can’t remember what was in the script and what we threw in. We shot so much and improvised a lot of it. Judd was just throwing us lines while filming, it’s just the way he works. And Amy was incredibly encouraging of us to improvise, even though her script was brilliant. She was constantly encouraging us to improvise and just make each other laugh. Which happily, we managed to do a lot on this film.

Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.

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