“I can’t put into words how much I love playing Tilda Swinton,” says Tom Lenk, L.A.-based veteran of stage and screen. You may know his work from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel or the film The Cabin in the Woods. “This may be the most fun I’ve had performing whilst clad in bubble wrap.”
There’s a play currently being staged in Los Angeles that audiences and critics alike are recommending to anyone within earshot. And, yes, in it Lenk portrays Tilda Swinton, Hollywood’s favorite actress androgyne.
Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist is playing L.A.’s Celebration Theatre following a sold-out initial run and extension (it’s now on its second), through Oct. 18. Directed by Tom Detrinis and written by Byron Lane (who also stars), it’s the story of Walt, a down-on-his-luck, depressed guy who’s ready to end it all before an odd chain of events results in a certain A-lister barging into his apartment. With a little bit of Mary Poppins-reminiscent magic, Swinton leaves Walt better than she found him — and the audience rolling in laughter.
Where did Lane come up with the premise of his latest work? Oddly enough, inspiration for the one-act play came from a version of Tilda Swinton with four legs.
“My boyfriend and I adopted a rescue dog with shocking blonde hair who is beautiful and a bit quirky at the same time, and he suggested we name her Tildaswinton — which fits her perfectly!” Lane says. “Our little Tildaswinton is aloof and uninterested in us unless we’re giving her cookies, and that made me wonder what life would be like living with the real Tilda Swinton.”
In the play, Walt figures out rather quickly that while such a living situation might sound thrilling, life with this particular thespian is rather … taxing. Lenk’s Swinton is dead-set on turning their time together into a character study of Walt for her upcoming film. In her attempts to learn about the gay worrywart — and through arduous encounters with his ex-boyfriend and parents — the final result is a Walt who has learned a lot about himself.
But how does one portray Tilda Swinton without a firm grasp on how she acts and speaks off-camera? It’s a question Lenk had to ask himself. “Because of her ‘transformative’ performances, we rarely see the real her,” he says of the Oscar-winner.
In the end, Lenk’s embodiment of Swinton is both a campy impression of the Snowpiercer star and a heartfelt homage to an actress who has always seemed to pave her own path. As portrayed in Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist, she’s not so much who we believe the actress to be, but who every gay man wants her to be: a magical, fairy-like soothsayer who offers life-saving advice to those most in need.
“I’m not an impressionist, so my version of Tilda is very her, but also nothing like her at all, If that makes sense,” Lenk says. “My lack of thorough research is filled in by my imagination — which, to be honest, is the most fun part.”
It’s a performance Swinton should be honored by, and one Lenk should be proud of.
Just as inspired as Lenk’s performance: his Tilda Swinton getup. The actor has become quite the social media star of late thanks to his newfound fame as the centerpiece of #LenkLewkForLess. Via Instagram, Lenk brings his own frugal style to re-creations of popular celebrity red carpet looks, from Zayn Malik to Sarah Jessica Parker. Naturally he had to create his own Tilda Swinton look, hence the bubble wrap he was so proud to don.
“I did in fact create Tilda’s cape, gown and purse, as I thought it should be something fashun-forward and avant-garde similar to Tilda’s many out-of-the-box red carpet and editorial lewks,” Lenk says. “I mean, I’m a low-price hi-fashun icon. How could I not create the Tilda lewk?”
Despite the production’s rather obvious comedic value, it also gets a bit dark at times. The play addresses with the debilitating abjection that can be all too familiar for many gay men, particularly when a relationship goes sour. Walt is, after all, about to take his life moments before Tilda Swinton walks through his door.
One of the most powerful lines of the play, and one that has stuck with me long after leaving the theater, is spoken by Lenk’s Tilda Swinton: “Happiness isn’t a default setting. You have to work at it.”
“Tilda tells Walt not to take life so seriously, and that’s the thrust,” says Lane. “I love people who just go for it — like Tilda Swinton. She doesn’t give a fuck. And I think we all have a Tilda Swinton inside of us, guiding us to live a life of adventure — to wear the mismatched outfit, to get the wild haircut, to high-five the stranger who gave you their parking spot. Wouldn’t life be better if we trained our brains to think that interesting things are around the corner instead of having brains trained to look for danger and problems? I want a Tilda brain!”
“It’s so easy for me to get depressed, insecure, overwhelmed or anxious,” Lane says, “and it takes work or therapy or a magical visit from Tilda fucking Swinton to remind us to pause and question the underlying beliefs that make us unhappy.”
For the throngs of gay men who find themselves in need of a little pick-me-up, it’s doubtful a bubble wrap-clad Tilda Swinton is available for house calls. But Lane’s latest piece of stage magic could prove to be just what the epicene idol ordered.
Tilda Swinton Answers an Ad on Craigslist plays L.A.’s Celebration Theatre through Oct. 18. Head here for tickets.
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