- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 13, 2004

Before illusionist David Blaine levitated in a box over the River Thames in London last year, Scottish actress Tilda Swinton pulled a similar stunt of her own.

At the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1995 and a year later in Rome, Miss Swinton displayed herself in a glass case eight hours a day for a week straight.

The concept, dubbed “The Maybe,” was to objectify herself, to make performance art of classical portraiture.

It was just the kind of thing Britain had come to expect from Miss Swinton, one of its most unpredictable actresses.

Miss Swinton, 43, had recently lost her most important artistic partner, the late Derek Jarman, who had directed her in seven films, including the controversial “Edward II,” before his AIDS-related death in 1994.

Since then, she has quietly slunk to and from the edges of the American mainstream with movies such as “The Beach,” “Vanilla Sky” and “Adaptation.” Her role as a taciturn mother who protects a son she suspects of murder in “The Deep End” won her broad critical acclaim.

Now she’s starring opposite Ewan McGregor in “Young Adam,” a small, noirish film from Scottish director David Mackenzie that opens today in the District.

Miss Swinton says the homeland project — the movie is set on the canals between Glasgow and Edinburgh — wasn’t calculated as a return to her roots.

“I’m not trying to do anything; it all feels like one to me,” she says in a recent interview. “The people that I’m working with are all doing the same thing.”

In fact, the character she plays in “Young Adam,” a working-class barge operator, is the polar opposite of Miss Swinton’s aristocratic lineage. Cambridge-educated and born to a prominent military family, she can trace her line back to early medieval Scotland.

At boarding school, one of her classmates was none other than the future Princess Diana.

“And many other people,” she hastens to add, smiling tolerantly but weary of being dogged by such trivia.

Adding to the minor embarrassment is the fact that Miss Swinton’s politics lean hard left. She’s married to socialist writer-painter John Byrne, with whom she has fraternal 6-year-old twins, Xavier and Honor.

Her long legs covered casually in blue jeans, Miss Swinton is lounging on a couch as Mr. Mackenzie discusses Scottish Beat writer Alexander Trocchi, from whose novel “Young Adam” is adapted.

She’s drinking Coke — the kind with sugar and caffeine, thank you — and explaining that on continent-hopping publicity tours like this, it’s a rare indulgence.

Her accent is more English than Scottish, and her train of thought skips easily between the Scottish literary establishment that shunned Mr. Trocchi, a drug-addled pornographer, and the themes of sexuality, religion and human nature about which he liked to write.

“I knew about Trocchi, but I’d never read ‘Young Adam,’” she says.

In the movie, Mr. McGregor plays an anarchic drifter who seduces Miss Swinton’s character, who is married and has a child.

The movie found a receptive audience in Scotland, Miss Swinton says, because the differences between iconic Catholicism and stern Protestantism aren’t hotly contested as they are in neighboring Northern Ireland,.

“There’s something particular in Scotland, a kind of schism between Calvinism and the Passion,” she says. “It’s such an open discussion, particularly on the west coast. You only have to go to a Celtics-Rangers game to know what I’m talking about. It’s out there. It makes for a very healthy, lyrical tradition.”

(She’s referring to soccer, by the way, when she mentions the Celtics and Rangers.)

Miss Swinton places Mr. Trocchi in the company of Scottish writers Robert Louis Stevenson and R.D. Laing on the topic of morality.

“They’re all writing about what Stevenson called the fundamental duality in man,” she says.

The frank depiction of sex in “Young Adam” earned the film an NC-17 rating, making it the second movie to break the taboo since Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Dreamers” did it last year. Both movies, coincidentally, were produced by Jeremy Thomas, prompting Miss Swinton to joke that he has “become like Larry Flynt.”

As is typical for her, Miss Swinton is undeterred.

“We’re not fussed by it,” she says, “but we just don’t want anybody else fussed by it. That’s all.”

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