Tilda Swinton: ‘I always felt I was queer – I was just looking for my queer circus’

Tilda Swinton is a poem. She poses in red, against an autumnal backdrop of burnt sienna, rust and goldenrod-shaded leaves, and she does it while holding a lovely hen, who is happy to be in the photo with Tilda. Tilda is a poem, but she can speak in prose if she so chooses. She chose to do so with British Vogue in an nice little feature about her career and what some of her performances mean within the queer cinematic canon. As it turns out, Tilda says that she’s “always felt queer.” Probably in the LGBTQ sense and in the British-descriptor sense for someone who strays from the beaten path. Some quotes:

No ambition as an artist: “I’ve never had any ambition as an artist. That may sound crazy and transgressive, but it’s a fact. If you’d asked me when I was 10 or 20, I would have said my only ambitions were to live in a family, to have friends that made me laugh and laughed at my jokes, and to live in the Highlands of Scotland, by the sea with a lot of dogs and a kitchen garden. Seriously. And I have been really blessed to be able to achieve them. Everything else is a bonus. Everything else is just icing and candles and flowers alongside.”

She had writer’s block at Cambridge as she tried to study Social and Political Sciences: “I just became overwhelmed, I think. A few years ago, I re-met one of my tutors when I went back to Cambridge to open the film and media school – I was so envious because there were no courses in cinema when I was at Cambridge – and I told her this in hushed tones. She said, ‘Oh, this happens to lots of people. You just dry up the second you start academia.’ Fortunately, I got back into my own pool nice and quickly. I didn’t have to spend too long with the red herrings.”

Her friendship with the late Karl Lagerfeld. “I did have this beautiful connection with Karl Largerfeld, which was kind of mysterious to me because I was a jumbo shrimp, as my friend once called me, and he was working in this whole different exotic empire. That’s what brought me into my relationship with Chanel, which continues to be really inspiring for me.”

Her friendship with the late Derek Jarman: “I’m very clear that queer is actually, for me anyway, to do with sensibility. I always felt I was queer – I was just looking for my queer circus, and I found it. And having found it, it’s my world. Now I have a family with Wes Anderson, I have a family with Bong Joon-ho, I have a family with Jim Jarmusch, I have a family with Luca Guadagnino, with Lynne Ramsay, with Joanna Hogg.”

[From British Vogue]

I don’t think that’s how the kids define queer these days, but I’ll keep my mouth shut – the last thing I need is to try to heterosplain how this kind of terminology is defined. My guess is that the larger point Tilda was trying to make was that she’s spent a chunk of her life collaborating with queer artists and playing important queer icons on film and she’s saying that she was drawn to those people and those projects because she has queer sensibilities. Sure.

"The Human Voice" and "Quo Vadis, Aida?" Red Carpet - The 77th V

Photos courtesy of Avalon Red.

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22 Responses to “Tilda Swinton: ‘I always felt I was queer – I was just looking for my queer circus’”

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  1. Levans says:

    She’s an enigma for sure. I don’t know many other actors that could pull off the hen photo and still make it high art and fashion.

    • local russian hill says:

      love tilda. she’s in two of my favorite movies of all time which happen to be from luca. ‘i am love’ and ‘a bigger splash’, if you haven’t seen them, watch them immediately.

      • Paige says:

        LOCAL RUSSIAN HILL! omg ‘I am Love” was the beginning of my love for this truly unique artist.. It is a major cinematic achievement in so many ways and the costuming is unbelievable..

  2. Ohlala says:

    Tilda forevah!###

  3. Belle says:

    I loved that she opened up her own alternative school. She has her own vibe that radiates strongly. It’s not just her looks, it’s in everything she does. If we all could be so lucky to know who we are and what we stand for and have those principles come through so strongly in what we do.

  4. hindulovegod says:

    This explanation excuses the overlap in her relationships. John Byrne’s public statements never indicated he was on board with her affair with Sandro Kopp. The way it played out made her claims that it was all very sane and happy ring hollow. Calling it queer doesn’t make it any nicer for Byrne or their children.

    • notasugarhere says:

      Byrne himself says they broke up in the late 90s, within a couple of years of the twins being born. She didn’t meet Kopp until 2004.

  5. Elizabeth says:

    It’s weird to hear her say she is queer in terms only of her sensibility (I’m a queer woman and it’s definitely not just in terms of my sensibility, in fact, I don’t think I have any artistic sensibility). It doesn’t make sense to me…

    • lucky says:

      this reminds me of the sex in the city episode where Charlotte is hanging out with a group of lesbians and says something kind of similar to one… the response is classic.

    • JK says:

      Perhaps she meant ‘queer’ as in odd, strange, weird….this appears to be one of the definitions in the dictionary.

      • Wilma says:

        That was not the context of the question though, as that was a lbgtqi context. And Tilda has always been sort of priding herself on her queer reading looks. I think it’s another case of Tilda wanting her cookie and eating it too.

  6. Janice Hill says:

    She’s never stopped being interesting.

  7. minx says:

    Love her, she’s so talented. One of my favorite roles was her irritable, unfaithful pediatrician in Burn After Reading.

  8. sally says:

    I think she means the “not-heteronormative” definition of queer. It’s how I understood it too at first, queer as an umbrella term that didn’t just include LGBT people but also straight people who refused certain gender norms or traditional family/relationship models.
    I think it’s why she follows this up with the comments about forming families with her artistic partners. I’m not a native English speaker, so I first heard the word “queer” in the feminist context who were/are trying to break up these models too. But yeah, the definition is hotly, viciously and dare I say toxically debated, so my simple bisexual a** won’t touch it with a ten-foot pole anymore and I’m sure she pissed off people all over the discourse spectrum with that comment.

    • outofthecloset says:

      I mean, some people in the queer community can be knee-jerk hostile to bisexuals and transpeople in cruel and dismissive ways, so hearing that term from Tilda will obviously touch a nerve. But I do think there’s a moment when people get all hot and bothered about who someone is having sex with, and forget that genderqueer people exist. I think Tilda’s a good example of someone whose gender isn’t particularly normative. I have no quarrel with her calling herself queer.

  9. Anna says:

    As a self-defined queer and long-time member of the LGBTQIA* community, I’ll say that “queer” has a much broader scope historically and culturally than perhaps is “allowed” by some these days. I choose to embrace that term in many of its positive and expansive iterations, and I agree with a poster above who mentioned Tilda’s statement in terms of not heteronormative. She lives as one whose life and art have largely been outside of those frameworks. But of course her statement will cause a ruckus…sigh…

    • Bendix says:

      Seeing her in “Orlando” as a kid definitely helped me along on my nonbinary/genderfluid journey, so I for one have zero issue with her calling herself queer!

  10. JK says:

    She used the word ‘circus’, and I don’t think Bong Joon Ho is queer so I think she meant ‘odd’ in this context… Any native UK English speakers here? Thoughts?

  11. EarlGreyHot says:

    Some folks hate how she used the word ‘queer’ without explicitly stating whether she’s non-heterosexual, maybe non-cis, but to be fair no-one except for her can know who she is and how she identifies.

  12. The Recluse says:

    Swinton would fit right in with the Bloomsbury set back in the day. They flowed wherever it suited them to flow.

  13. tsk says:

    As always, I am conflicted when it comes to Tilda. And, please, I know this site has a zealous mod team and sometimes (irrationally and unnecessarily , imo) won’t publish comments. But please, publish this comment. I am a bisexual non-binary person who loves Tilda, but this needs to be read by people who aren’t LGBT yet are allies and want to do better.

    Listen, I love her. I have followed her career since Orlando (watch it, or read the book, both is good!). But she’s a wealthy, out-of-touch white woman and she always puts her foot in her mouth when it comes to stuff like this.

    She’s the kind of cisgender heterosexual white woman who thinks herself radically queer for having a pixie cut and being in a mfm threesome with her husband. That’s not queer. Queer = LGBT. Period. If you’re not a lesbian, a gay man, a bisexual person, or transgender/non-binary then you are not queer in THAT context that she very well knows is the one used in the question.

    She’s as out-of-touch as Lily Rose Depp when she said the same thing about being “queer” and then backpedaled by saying she thought it meant she was “weird cool” and an ally to the LGBT community.

    This ambiguity is not welcome, sorry. You’re divorcing a VERY important word from it’s VERY important history and context.

    She wants to have the benefits of being seen as queer without any of the backlash, any of the death threats, and everything we, queer people, suffer daily.