In Scotland, tourists scan loch ness in vain for a flash of silvered scale. Thirty miles northeast, in the coastal town of Nairn, a near mythical creature turns up reliably at the appointed hour. Tilda Swinton has proposed a tramp through the moorland that abuts Nairn (or Brigadoon, as she calls her hometown). She drives a mud-splashed Land Rover, and soon she's left tarmac behind and heads on to rutted country lanes. At each switchback, pheasants are startled into clumsy flight, but Swinton looks at her passenger almost as often as the road ahead. "Are we not extraordinarily lucky?" she exclaims as the sun pierces the clouds above a gorgeous wilderness of heather-strewn ridges and mysterious valleys. Later there will be lunch at a tavern in nearby Cawdor, the thanage promised to Macbeth by the second of the three witches.
Academy Award winner, muse to indie auteurs and fashion designers, Narnia's White Witch, Swinton has a spectral, almost alien beauty; at 51, she conspicuously lacks the gnarls and folds of the human aging process. She talks about her 14-year-old twins (son Xavier and daughter Honor, who recently declared she'd like to grow a beard and smoke a cigar) and her parents (her father lost a leg in World War II, but "you'll often find him up a ladder"). She's intensely engaged--with her passenger, with every question--even if you occasionally get the sense that she's acting.
You never get that sense watching her movies--whether she's the immortal, gender-blending hero/heroine of Orlando (1992), the protective mother entangled with a blackmail plot in The Deep End (2001) or Karen Crowder, her Oscar-winning role as a corrupt lawyer whose carapace of perfect control trembles under pressure from George Clooney's fixer in Michael Clayton (2007). Her performances are visceral: Crowder sweats and flinches and quivers. Of Swinton, few visible traces remain. Now Oscar buzz is swelling around her pitch-perfect turn in the indie drama We Need to Talk About Kevin as Eva Khatchadourian, the conflicted mother of a teenager whose monstrous killing spree may partly reflect Eva's failings. The Academy often rewards actors for the gap between the role and their real-life selves. As Eva, the ethereal Swinton is messily, painfully human.
"In character she can be incredibly intense or even scary, and she can be light and effervescent and radiant," says director Jim Jarmusch, who has made two films with Swinton and has cast her as a vampire in his next project. "She is an amazing creature." The C word crops up frequently in interviews with Swinton's colleagues. "She's an unusual creature," says the British actor Tim Roth, who cast Swinton in his 1999 directorial debut, The War Zone, as a fragile, fallible mother. "She's an odd thing. She's a mermaid. There's only one of her, and the few that make it through--the Meryl Streeps, the Glenn Closes--there's only one of them too. These are not people who come out of the cookie cutter."