By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD— Chameleon-like actress Tilda Swinton continues to add to her repertoire of unusual characters with Mason, a ruthless enforcer for a mysterious tyrant in Bong Joon Ho’s futuristic thriller “Snowpiercer.”
Swinton, 53, nearly disappears in the role under grayish makeup, oversized false teeth, spectacles and a fur coat, in this story about class revolt set on a train. Survivors of some unspecified apocalypse are chugging along the tracks, arranged in their cars by class. Passengers in back are poor, barely fed and crowded together in deplorable conditions under armed guard. They know nothing about what lies ahead in the train other than it has been under the control of an unseen leader named Wilford for 17 years.
Swinton’s Mason, who works for Wilford, occasionally visits the back of the train to harass and threaten anyone who dares to act up. An odd and imposing presence, she leaves the dirty work to the guards.
“Snowpiercer” is Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s first English-language film following the well-received 2006 monster movie “ The Host,” and the family drama “Mother,” released three years later. Swinton says she was eager to work with him after seeing his earlier films. The two met in France in 2011 and began discussing the idea of working on a film together.
“Snowpiercer” is based on the French graphic novel “Transperceniege,” which Bong discovered while browsing a South Korea bookshop. He read the entire book at the store, and immediately saw the cinematic potential in the story.
Alongside Swinton, the film stars Chris Evans, best known for his recurring role as Captain America in Marvel’s Avengers films. He plays a young passenger named Curtis from the back of the train. He emerges as a leader who wants to liberate his people by forcing their way to the engine.
It’s a dangerous and deadly uprising but the oppressed passengers have had enough. Along the way, they run into obstacles like the dictatorial Minister Mason, who orders armed soldiers to kill and torture the unarmed rebels. But Evans’ Curtis and his committed group of fighters are determined to make it to the train’s front section and confront the mysterious Wilford (Oscar-winner Ed Harris).
Swinton, who earlier this year was also nearly unrecognizable as an elderly woman in Wes Anderson’s “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” spoke about her latest transformation and what attracted her to work with the Korean auteur.
Q: Can you talk about creating your character’s appearance? You really disappeared under the makeup.
Swinton: Thank you very much! It was very much a joint collaboration with director Bong. We dared each other, really, to make Mason. In the first instance, Mason is described in the screenplay as a mild-mannered man in a suit. It’s never been updated; it’s still written like that. When director Bong asked me to play with the look, it was like an invitation to amuse him. (She laughs.) We just started to play together and built it up quite quickly. There was very little he said “no” to. We kept throwing things into the pot, and it came very naturally, very organically, and Mason was born. It was like Frankenstein’s monster.
Q: Did you read the graphic novel on which the film is based?
Swinton: I remember director Bong saying that he found the graphic novel in a shop and stood there and finished reading it in one sitting, and I really understood why. It’s just such an amazing premise. It feels so compelling. It’s like an ancient tapestry that was found in a medieval church. This premise is like an allegory. It’s like (John Bunyan’s Christian allegory) “The Pilgrims Progress.” It’s ancient and yet, of course, it’s futuristic. I feel like there’s something really archetypal about it. You want to see the story of the dregs of humanity on a moving train in a frozen landscape. It’s what they call a no-brainer.
Q: The teeth, the mink coat and the wardrobe—she looked hilarious.
Swinton: I know it looks extreme but, honestly, if you look at the people that are constantly popping up on Fox News or wherever else making laws and pronouncements and hogging the limelight, they chew just as much scenery in just as ridiculous ways, I have to say. There’s something we wanted to show about a kind of politician that just loses the plot and is so morally corrupt. What I love about Mason—and this was absolutely in the screenplay—is that when the chips are down and things start going badly, she is a complete coward.
Q: For your research, did you watch a lot of Fox News?
Swinton: No. Neither Fox News nor research happened. I have a very vivid imagination, as does director Bong. We also have seen Charlie Chaplin’s “Great Dictator,” for example, and “Dr. Strangelove.” I was aware of (former British Prime Minister) Margaret Thatcher at a certain point in time. And there was a man called George W. Bush, that the public loved thinking of as rather a clown. There’s a tendency for us to look at leaders who are pretty sinister, frankly, as somehow clownish. It’s almost like we want to belittle them somehow, like saying, “Isn’t (former corrupt Italian Prime Minister Silvio) Berluscone ridiculous?” But, actually, Berlusconi is super-scary. Yes, ridiculous, (but also) super-scary. We almost try to make them kittenish. Director Bong said from the very beginning, however monstrous Minister Mason was, Minister Mason had to be cute. Mason’s so cute!
Q: How much does the costume help you develop a character?
Swinton: Oh, it’s all about the look, the script and the conversation (with the filmmaker). That’s all it is; it’s everything. If you put anybody in that wig, those teeth, those glasses, that (false) nose and that fur coat, they would look like that. It’s a construct.
Q: How did you like working with Chris Evans?
Swinton: The amazing thing about Chris for Curtis is that the film is so much about being the hero. What is it to be a leader? What does it take to be a leader? Chris is so ambivalent about being a hero. That’s why his Captain America (character) is so great; he has this kind of ambivalence about it. He really planted that seed in this film and let it bloom. I thought it was an inspired piece of casting.
Q: You knew John Hurt, who plays one of your adversaries in this, before you worked with him. Is it more fun to work with him as adversaries or would you rather play friends?
Swinton: Doesn’t matter. You’re all hanging out on the set together. It’s all dressing up and playing.
Q: What is the conversation like when the director says he’s got a great character for you but it’s written for a man?
Swinton: If the director is director Bong, then you thank your lucky stars. If he said, “There’s this character, but it’s a dog,” you say, “Great! What kind? Pomeranian?” It wasn’t insulting. He didn’t say, “I have a part and she has to have massive teeth, glasses and a fake wig.” He could’ve said, “I have a part, and it’s a bottle of water,” and I would be looking for the right cap.
Q: The false teeth you wear in this are practically a character in this.
Swinton: The teeth definitely are the stars, glinting away. Mason will not shut up. Mason is talking all the time, spouting this nonsense. (Spoiler alert!) Mason is finally shot in the mouth.
Q: Dustin Hoffman went out in public in drag when he was preparing for his role in “Tootsie.” Did you ever take Mason out for a walk in public while you were preparing to play her?
Swinton: (She laughs so hard she nearly upsets her tea.) That’s a great thought! The answer is “no,” well, at least not yet. There are bars where Mason would pass unnoticed. The wonderful furrier designer who made Mason’s amazing fur coat, I suppose she’s finally seen the film. I think she thought she was making some incredibly glamorous fur coat for me in some fabulous Schiaparelli dress, like I wore last night (to the Los Angeles Film Festival screening). I don’t think she was told she was making it for Minister Mason. But it’s great.
Q: What do you see as the message of the film?
Swinton: The message is buy a ticket! Buy an entire row.
Q: Are you doing another performance art piece anytime soon?
Swinton: No, not that I know. I haven’t decided quite yet.
Q: Could it be Mason?
Swinton: Yeah. Mason in a box.