The prospect of spending several months away from home in the far reaches of New Zealand may not appeal to everyone, but for Scottish actress, the perpetually glamorous Tilda Swinton, the chance to play the cooly evil White Witch in the first Narnia adventure, The Lion The Witch and the Wardrobe, was just too irresistible “for me to turn down I would say. On a scale of 1 – 100, I think it was 101 in terms of irresistibility. The long flight from Scotland to New Zealand is about the one thing that was tricky about this whole process, but anyway, who is complaining. It was great, thank you very much.”
Recovering from a cold in chilly New York, Swinton, known more for her participation in low budget Indie films, has no qualms about doing a big studio film if it’s the right project such as Constantine or Narnia and doesn’t see any huge change switching gears. “I honestly think that the real change is not in me it is in the studios, the fact that they asked Francis Lawrence and Andrew Adamson to make these films and that they were guided in what ever way to ask me to make their films with them. But in both cases I would have made Constantine and Andrew’s film with him if they had made them in a basement really” argues Swinton. “I mean I really like both of them so much, and the chats that we had when we first met about these films they wanted to make. I was just in it for the ride with them wherever they wanted to go and the fact that they were making them in these huge houses was just kind of an added joke really.”
Swinton says her priority in choosing a role is primarily determined by who is involved. “That is the only thing that really prevails and keeps you going through, especially when working in independent films. After all, you might be involved with people for 5 years before you actually get to shoot the thing and then you are going to be involved with them for another 10 or 15 years while you spread it around the world. So if you don’t want to hang out with them and if you don’t really enjoy the sort of conversation that you have with them then, I am just not interested in all the other stuff .” And that doesn’t necessarily mean Hollywood. “I don’t even know what that is to be honest.”
As to why Narnia in particular, this choice harks back to the relationship Swinton shares with her own children. “I am in the happy zone of my life were I have young children and I read them fairy stories and myths every night and eventually, I suppose, I would have come around to reading C S Lewis to them. But when I read this book to them last year it struck me that it is in the great tradition of real classic fairy stories and myths for a particular age group. It does that thing that all great fairy stories and myths do, which is it takes a child to the place that they are really dealing with in their own lives at the time, which is the idea of a parentless world where only they can prevail and where they encounter all the things they are frightened of and then encounter all of the things that they hope are going to happen to them.”
Avoiding the stereotypes associated with playing the White Witch in the frosted and grey mythical Narnia, Swinton says it was easy making the choices she did in playing this classic literary character. “In a way I don’t play a character at all because I am not a human but this epitome of all evil, which is really a free pass into all manner of nonsense,” she smilingly explains. “But there have been stereotypes of evil before now and very early on, Andrew Adamson and I shared a secret with each other that the sort of stereotype of evil, which involves shouting, screaming and getting all hot under the collar, has never really frightened us. So we wanted to look for something different and it occurred to me that not just in terms of my experience as a child but my experience with young children in my own life, that getting all hot under the collar doesn’t frighten them because if anything it makes them know that grown ups get hot too. So the thing that children find really unfathomable, is to be cold, emotionally disengaged and to be entirely sort of dominating and quiet.”
Swinton adds that her approach to a fantasy character is not dissimilar to the more realistic characters with which she is associated. “I mean the truth is there is no such thing as a real character, as it is all a construct whether you’re playing a suburban mother, an arc angel or witch, as they are all there to serve the story. You’re having to work very fast to put together an image of something, which moves the story along and it is actually very scientific.”
As for the attention being made to religion metaphor in Narnia, Swinton counters. “I think a lot of people know that C S Lewis was a very well known Christian apologist, and for a lot of people religious allegory will be important Yet there are many millions of other people for whom it is not important, yet it is all still there and I think that when people see the film they will see that, that what the film makers have done here is to make a genuinely faithful adaptation of C S Lewis’ children’s story, but you know the Christians are welcome,” Swinton adds laughingly.
The always busy actress actually concedes that for once she has nothing new on her plate. “I am working on trying to get home to sleep, but I made an independent film in up state New York in August and September.”