They became friends, and in 2001 the designers themed their autumn/winter collection around her, sending her down the runway in a black trouser suit, followed by a whole procession of models made to look like her – pale, severe, red-headed. Swinton remembers her catwalk experience as “short and very bright, and then the thing built [upl like an unfolding joke". She likes intellectual designers, people who make clothes that aren't about sex or romance or looking wealthy, and who aren't afraid of ideas or a bit of tailoring- Westwood, Chalayan, Haider Ackerman, Hedi Slimane, Rifat Ozbek. "There are people I like who are very much rowing their own boats," she says. "I have some friends who work in big fashion houses, and I see that as infiltration, in much the same way that I've just made a film for Disney." She shrugs. "Everyone's got to swing it, you know? And some of my friends are courageously operating in big [fashion] houses.” She says this with thrilling drama, as if she were a Cold War spymaster commending a couple of her top operatives.
Of course, being a successful fashion muse and film actress isn’t just about being fearless and hardworking: Swinton also happens to have one of the most extraordinary faces in the business, with her high round cheekbones, wide mouth and long oval eyes, which can look green, brown or navy depending on the light. She is often described as Pre-Raphaelite, but in fact she is less cosy-looking, more like someone painted by Holbein or van Eyck, with her very pale lashes and brows, and her bloodless skin. On screen she has a capacity not so much for reinvention as for total transformation: she can look male, female, beautiful, ugly, young or old – and sometimes all at once, as in Orlando. Sally Potter once said, “There’s a sort of stillness in her, in the way she works, that draws you in to her centre of gravity There’s an intelligence and a kind of radiance that comes out of her.’ She is self-aware, of course, but apparently without vanity -10 years ago she put herself in a glass box for a week and let crowds peer at her every pore, first at the Serpentine Gallery in London, and then in Rome. “I wanted to allow the audience to get really close,” she says, “the way you can in film, to be able to scrutinise.”
And yet for years Swinton couldn’t stand being photographed. “There are no photographs of me between the ages of nine and 25, when I made my first film. The way I look now is not the way I wanted to look then. I am still not somebody who looms into a lens and pulls a face. In social situations, when someone brings out a camera, it’s never my favourite moment.” She does not see herself as a great beauty, and describes herself as “a proper marmalade, like my father” and a “peely-wally”, Scots for “a bit of a milksop”. If she has any beauty advice, she says, it’s never wear make-up, only products from gnet company – and it’s true that lipstick and eyeliner don’t do much for her: she appeared at the US premiere of The Beach in 2000 in thick foundation and heavy black eye make-up, and was completely unrecognisable. She was striking, of course, but striking in an anonymous way – you might have mistaken her for any number of handsome, angular women -Anjelica Huston, Demi Moore, Leah Wood.
So she has her moments of wanting or trying to fit in – red-carpet appearances, press conferences with Keanu Reeves (with whom she has made, besides Constantine, Thumbsucker). At the Cannes film festival last year, for which she was a judge, Swinton disagreed with jury president Quentin Tarantino when he said that a film industry needs stars and blockbusters to survive, and that Britain is currently successful at producing neither. “No film culture can be based only on Hollywood imports,” she said. At the same time, she is frustrated by what she sees as the UK film industry’s lack of vision, its emphasis on “success” and “product” (both dirty words in the Swinton vocabulary). Lately, she has had a better time making independent films in Europe and the US – most recently with Jim Jarmusch, who cast her as Bill Murray’s violent, redneck ex in Broken Flowers. “It is the one advantage in my mind of advanced capitalism,” she says, “that film-makers seem to be able to get it done themselves in America. The atmosphere there reminds me of the atmosphere in the Eighties here, when I was working with the British Film Institute, which supported and encouraged and enabled Derek Jarman, Peter Greenaway, Sally Potter, Terence Davies, Ken Loach…” She reels off the names like a list of fallen comrades. “At the moment, that’s not a possibility. The Film Council recently has become such a bastion, this one Emerald City you have to get into to get work made.”
She says she is still evolving as an actress – still learning to pay more attention to her “bit”. What she is aiming for, she says, is a kind of not-acting: “The effect should be one of real people, looking unwatched.” When she goes home to the far north of Scotland, where she is genuinely unwatched, far from casting agents and film crews and celebrity-spotters, Swinton likes to go cross-country running. She was good at it at school, and I suspect that the cold and the wet, the sheer slog of it, appeal to the battler and ascetic in her. She didn’t get into this to have an easy time of it, to put her feet up and drink martinis in Malibu. For every Disney film she makes, there will be a commitment to a European co-production that founders in development hell for a decade. And for every first-class return airfare to New Zealand, a 30K run.