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Why Tilda Swinton Will Always Be a Glorious, Meme-Friendly Mystery

Can you ever really figure out what makes somebody cool? New York magazine plumbs the depths of our favorite space-alien actress in “Tilda Swinton Is Not Quite of This World,” and Swinton, mostly, remains pretty cool. Swinton is an actor’s actor, the type of artist who’s not on the cover of magazines and not selling products, but rather picking and choosing interesting projects to give her time and her spirit. Perhaps the mystery is why her resemblance to the world’s best space alien, David Bowie, has been the subject of tribute blogs, Bowie videos, and leggings.

Not many actresses are able to jump between snooty high art and selective film work with visionary directors with Swinton’s aplomb, even winning an Oscar for her role in Michael Clayton. Perhaps, writer Carl Swanson argues, some of it is due to her very ordinary background as a well-heeled Cambridge grad from a military family who was destined to live a life of great (boring) privilege. The piece cites her as a “class rebel” living a life “unencumbered by frenetic middle-class striving.” It also mentions her unconventional partnership with her ex and her current “lover,” who are not, as rumors have it, a “thruple” in Scotland, raising children in harmony.

If you are of a certain temperament, perhaps these details explain Swinton’s potential pretentiousness, or her beautifully avant-garde, don’t-care way of dressing. Perhaps Swinton’s class background gave her a leg up in pursuing art. But little credit in the piece is given to Swinton’s taste, talent, and the fascinating way that her androgynous and powerful sexuality barely figures into her persona.

Drawing a thin line between her career and her art, she’s able to create the world in her own image. Everything she does is interesting. One of the last Romantics, she’s the sort of Cambridge rebel who does theatre and then creates a 16-year partnership with the late Derek Jarman. From that initial collaboration, she’s continued to work as the ultimate creative partner to artists: I Am Love took 11 years to get made, and Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, out this week, took eight years.

According to Swinton, her new role in Jarmusch’s film as a vampire:

“… expresses something very accurate about me, which is not the artist in me but the cheerleader of artists, the bird at the end of the phone, the dance partner, the ­appreciative reader of proofs, the bearer of the bucket, and the sponge in the ­corner, sometimes the jester with the balloon on a stick. This is, beyond ­anything I think, the part of my work that I treasure the most, my job, above all, as artist’s moll.”

There are people of great means who are able to devote themselves to art, but it’s clear that Swinton’s warmth and encouragement brings out the best in the people that she chooses to dream with. In her life devoted to dreaming — she even ran a film festival in remote Scotland called The Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams —  she’s able to bring something of the strange to the everyday, and being forever strange and above it all in her Swinton-y, art-goddess way will ensure that her coolness lasts as long as she wants.