Scene Analysis | The Comedic Tilda Swinton in Trainwreck

By Juan Ramirez

Trainwreck held a lot of surprises for the year 2015 – mainly that Amy Schumer could ditch fart jokes and command an audience’s attention longer than the length of a Hulu clip and that director Judd Apatow’s career wasn’t on a steady decline. Though those revelations were nothing short of incredible in a summer season filled with Pixels and Ted 2, neither compares to the one-two punch of casting Tilda Swinton, the Oscar and BAFTA-winning actress, and then using every trick in the cosmetology book to disguise her as thoroughly as possible.

Looking almost entirely unrecognizable as Dianna, a brutally honest editor at a GQ-esque magazine, Swinton traded her signature pale complexion and short hair for a spray tan and luscious blonde locks, with heavy makeup and contact lenses sealing the deal. The makeover created one of the greatests coups in recent comedy: an esteemed thespian’s face distorted so far past the uncanny valley that her very presence evokes both nervous laughter and compelling dizziness.

An actress who has long been at the receiving end of countless inquiries into her physicality (she once memorably referred to herself as “a freak who even looked a little like [David Bowie]”) Swinton here subverts her public persona to hilarious effect. While the real human – an immensely talented, consummate actor – is thought of as alien and detached because of her sharp looks, her Trainwreck counterpart, with her flowy clothes and plastered-on Julia Roberts smile, is the definition of a cold-hearted demon. Channeling a mix between Lisa Kudrow in Friends and a mid-30s devotee of Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, Swinton grits her teeth and focuses a blank stare on her employees as she belittles, fires and coerces them into accepting uncomfortable assignments – her joy in doing these awful things fully conveyed to a laughing audience. Through this reversal of appearance and personality, Apatow and Swinton challenge viewers to question their complicity in brushing the actor off as a sort of arthouse sideshow act.

Swinton’s involvement in the romantic comedy confused many when first announced, with the secrecy surrounding the details about her performance causing many to question just what she would be doing. The answer came in a brilliant performance which stole the show, if not for forcing audiences to wait until the credits to see just who was behind that evil smile, by proving Swinton’s versatility and knack for comedic timing. If her previous roles in such works as Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio and her Academy Award-winning turn in Michael Clayton established her a serious dramatic actress, her participation in – of all places – a Judd Apatow sex comedy solidified her reputation as a highly-skilled talent capable of utilizing all the tools in her shed to craft an intoxicating performance.

 

Juan Ramirez is a candidate for a degree in Media and Screen Studies from Northeastern University. He regularly contributes to The Huntington News as a correspondent and as a bi-weekly Arts & Entertainment columnist and can often be found manically attempting to convert friends and passersby into fellow film enthusiasts, to varying degrees of success.