For many actresses, the role of self-absorbed glamour tyrant would be just another archetype to check off. For Tilda Swinton, it may be the biggest transformation of her career. In "Trainwreck," the new romantic comedy directed by Judd Apatow and written by Amy Schumer, the actress is almost unrecognizable as Dianna, the editor of a sleazy men's magazine called S'nuff. Dianna assigns stories like Does Garlic Make Semen Taste Different? and 10 Ugliest Celebrity Kids Under 6. She also sends a sports-averse writer (Schumer) to profile a doctor (Bill Hader) who treats athletes like LeBron James, thus igniting the film's central courtship.
At this point, the dictatorial publishing executive is almost a cliché in pop culture -- until you cast an ethereal enigma like Swinton, who is best known for eccentric, often gloomy character parts. That's part of what makes "Trainwreck" fun, and it's refreshing to know that Swinton is in on the joke, too. The Huffington Post asked the 54-year-old actress about going incognito for the role, hanging out with Kanye West and massaging the gender of the Ancient One in next year's "Doctor Strange."
This isn't the sort of Tilda Swinton role we're used to seeing. How was the character pitched to you?
I’m trying to remember whether anything was really pitched to me. I think Judd and Amy just told me about this magazine, and that was really the start of it. The idea of this insane magazine, which of course we know is not that far off from magazines that people are buying right now, and the idea of who might be the founder and editor of that magazine was just really tantalizing. I don’t know, it was just like a rocket. We had that initial idea of that magazine and who that woman might be, and it just went from there. It mushroomed really fast.
Dianna is relentless in the extremes the magazine will go to for a bawdy story. She's another take on the Miranda Priestly type. What did you guys want to say about her and the type of publication she runs?
This is a different generation, certainly of women, but also of magazines. The significance of the magazine in the film is this is the sort of culture that Amy’s character is not only brought up in, but is also aspiring to perpetuate. This kind of cynical, unshockable, intimacy-free advice is really hip for a lot of people, and there are people out there who are spinning it. The idea of who this woman might be who actually started this magazine and named it S’nuff and employed these people to build this thing up, and as she said when she’s referring to the Ezra Miller character -- “We created this boy. This is our responsibility, to create the youth of today" -- and that’s kind of off the wall. That’s super loopy. So the idea that this women is really not all there, on a deep level, was really amusing to us. We really went with that.
It's interesting to see how society approaches a magazine like that ...
... Or how a magazine like that approaches society, because that’s what it’s really about. Sorry to interrupt you. But magazines like that -- and of course this is a film here; this is fiction, but, as we know, there are films out there that are not that far off -- really they seem to have, in their remit, the idea of creating society and making young people, particularly, feel a certain way or not feel a certain way. All the things you’re likely to want to buy or desire or the way in which you want to be is really kind of actively promoted by those magazines, and it’s pretty intense. Anybody at the head of something, particularly Dianna, who starts the magazine -- she’s the founder -- is going to be slightly fascistic, I would say. It’s not very humane.
It's certainly not very feminist.
But she would call herself a feminist with a capital F. But then she’d call herself everything. I think there’s nothing that you would suggest and she wouldn’t claim it and say she is the No. 1 fan. Every belief system out there.
What did you think was the most appalling story Dianna assigned?
We shot so much more, and of course, as usual, there’s only a very small percentage of what we shot in the movie. I’m trying remember, to be honest. I’m trying to remember what’s actually in the movie or what’s on DVD extras. I’m not clear. I have to try and remember this, Matthew. There was a moment about “What’s the hottest Asian country you can be from? Would it maybe be even hotter to be North Korean than South?” I can’t remember, but it was ridiculous. It was all about trying to make each other laugh, really.
Many of your roles have elaborate costumes -- "Snowpiercer," "Chronicles of Narnia," Wes Anderson's projects. Yet you've probably never been more disguised than in this film, even though all you did was cake on makeup. Is it weird to elicit that reaction?
I’m delighted to say that I’m unrecognizable. I don’t know whether one would really want to be recognizable in this role. It’s a lot of makeup and a kind of tandoori tan and a wig, and that’s all it takes. You know, Matthew, if you put that lot on, you’d look like that. I hadn’t thought of this, but it’s interesting that you say I’m more disguised in this than in the other things that you mentioned, but the other things you mentioned are not necessarily very realistic garb. You don’t necessarily walk down the street and see someone dressed as Madame D. from “Grand Budapest Hotel.” Certainly not in every neighborhood. I’m in a neighborhood here at the moment where there are quite a few people who look like that, but not everywhere do you see people who look like that. Or, for example, that monster in “Snowpiercer.” But the truth is there are a lot of women walking around rocking Dianna’s look, and I suppose you maybe didn’t ever expect to see me in it. [laughs] But here we are, and it’s available for everybody. You just have to go to a big makeup counter in a big department store and you, too, can get that look.
Did you get to spend any time with LeBron James?
I didn’t get any time with LeBron James. It was a terrible, terrible oversight. We were in the funeral scene together, which was a moment, but no, we did not get any time together. That’s for the sequel.
You hung out with Kanye West at Paris Fashion Week. What does a Tilda/Kanye conversation entail?
We were seated near each other at the dinner of my great friend Haider Ackermann, and that is literally all I can tell you. I had never met him before and I sat in between him and Haider and we had dinner. It was a very delicious dinner. He showed me his Apple Watch, which didn’t seem to work. And what else? Now I can’t remember what we discussed. I can’t exactly say it was a very in-depth encounter. I sat next to him for dinner.
Most reports have indicated you're in talks for "Doctor Strange." Is that official yet?
Yes, I’m going to be in "Doctor Strange" at some point later on this year.
Some people may not know your "Snowpiercer" role was originally written for a man. But with "Doctor Strange," you're dealing with an established franchise. Knowing that so many comic-book fans are purists, how do you plan to play around with the gender of the character, who's traditionally male?
To be honest, there’s very little that I can tell you right now because there’s very little that I know yet. We haven’t really started working on it yet, but for sure there’s something interesting to me about being given this opportunity to play a character called the Ancient One, who, as we know in the comic books, is male. I have yet to decide exactly where I’m going to place the gender of this character. It’s not that I know and I’m not telling you -- I have yet to decide that. Presumably by the end of the year I will have worked it out. It’s a really interesting opportunity and I’m really grateful to Marvel for giving it to me because it’s going to be an interesting one.
Fascinating that it's something you can discover as you go along.
Sure. That’s my understanding. They may ring me up and tell me that I’m wrong about this, but that’s the grounds on which I’ve gone into this agreement, that we are going to completely whip this thing up together. And I think, and I may be wrong, but I think that’s why they asked me to do it, because they know that that’s what I’m interested in doing. I’ve never worked with Marvel before, but my sense is that they want to work with people. They’re not necessarily interested in telling people what to do anyway. I’ll let you know in a few months.
Thinking back to "Snowpiercer," what in a character would prompt you to emphasize typically masculine qualities over feminine ones, or vice versa?
I think it depends on the grand state of the whole picture. What we worked with in “Snowpiercer” was really a quite extreme surrealism, so, for example, when we say that the character I play, Minister Mason, was originally written as a man, Minister Mason was never rewritten as a woman. As far as I’m concerned, yes, Minister Mason looked kind of like a woman, but I’m not going to say that Minister Mason really was a woman. Who knows? Maybe Minister Mason was a man dressed in a women’s suit and a really crap wig. I don’t know. But then that was possible with “Snowpiercer” because “Snowpiercer” was a very heightened reality. Let’s see what happens with “Doctor Strange.” Let’s see what the tenor and what the feeling is. If it’s kind of naturalistic, then who knows. If we decide we’re dealing with a male Ancient One, then we’re going to have to deal with a naturalistic disguise. If we’re not and we decide the Ancient One is not gender specific, then we can play a different game. But it always depends on the whole picture: What’s the caliber that we’re dealing with? Are we dealing with a kind of realism, or is it something more heightened and more burlesque? It’s like a toothcomb. How fat are the teeth going to be on your comb? We’ll see when we get there.
Now that you've dabbled in rom-com territory with "Tranwreck," are you itching to play a romantic lead at all?
I came to play with Judd Apatow and Amy Schumer. I really love both of them, and I would do anything, really, if it meant playing with them. Let’s see. I have no idea. It’s a dream to play with both of them. I don’t know, I’m not particularly going into another drawer. But it depends who my playmates are. If Judd Apatow wants to do a screaming tragedy, then I’d probably be up for it.
"Trainwreck" opens July 17.
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