Heads turn when Tilda Swinton walks into a room but it's hard to pinpoint why, exactly. Is it because she's tall? Is it because she has wide shoulders? Or is it because she is, in her own words, 'pretty white'? Perhaps it's a combination of the three. She's the first to admit hers is not a typical beauty; in truth, there isn't much that is typical about her - from her unorthodox lifestyle to the film roles she has taken, Swinton has consistently defied convention. The heads turning in her direction on this occasion belong to those who have gathered for a Pringle of Scotland cocktail party at the Saatchi Gallery, in London. Dressed in a white dinner jacket, a pair of slim-cut trousers and heels that exaggerate those already wide shoulders, with her startlingly platinum blond hair gelled back, the 1.79-metres-tall Oscar winner looks remarkably like David Bowie. She is here for the presentation of Pringle's spring/summer 2010 collection and to be introduced as the face of both the men's and women's lines. 'I'm a menswear model; how cool is that?' Swinton will remark later. Although her father is Scottish, Swinton's new role comes as a surprise. Her atypical looks hardly sit with Pringle's image of heavy knits and the actress herself has expressed a liking for deconstructed brands such as Maison Martin Margiela and Jean Paul Gaultier. And, for years, she's been a muse for Viktor & Rolf, a brand that likes to think of its fashion as 'an antidote to reality'. One of the factors that drew Swinton to the project was the opportunity to work with American artist and photographer Ryan McGinley, who made a short film and shot the stills for the Pringle campaign, which will be launched next month. 'It's only ever the people,' she says of her reasons for accepting a project. It is past midnight and Swinton wants to leave for a reunion with a brother she's not seen for a while. Nevertheless, she's courteous and friendly. 'I come from an art-world background and whether I am working with artists, filmmakers or writers, I always go in for the people first. It's the relationship that gets you through. The relationship is more important than any project.' She appears excited about the Pringle collaboration - 'we did a very beautiful campaign'. 'It's not a brand that I imagined myself with,' she says, 'but I think the Pringle that's coming into being is something that none of us could have imagined. The fact that they are coming up with Ryan as an idea, or even me as an idea, made me think they were kind of pretty cool. It showed me the people in charge there are really quite inspired; that they are art-savvy and international-savvy and youth-savvy and they have an edge that has not always been associated with the brand. And being [the face of] both men's and women's [wear] was very easy for me.' That should be no surprise coming from an actress who found international stardom with her portrayal of Virginia Woolf's ageless man-woman Orlando in Sally Potter's film of the same name. Androgyny seems to have come naturally to the star, who grew up with three brothers in a military family; her grandfather, her father and one of her younger brothers served in the Scots Guards. Her height, build and looks made her stand out even as a child. 'It's not anything that takes much effort or is anything self-conscious. It's just the way I'm built and the way I am wide; it comes quite naturally to me to wear jackets and trousers. It's more difficult to think of myself as a womenswear model than a men's model,' says Swinton, who recalls buying a copy of Bowie's Aladdin Sane because she saw a resemblance between her and the singer as pictured on the record cover. She is no fashionista, she says, but she sees this step into the fashion world as an extension of her career. She doesn't consider herself an actress, either. 'I don't act,' she says emphatically, her cool slipping ever so slightly. 'If your readers know me as an actress, then they know something very limited about my life. I don't generally work as an actress. I am an artist's model and I was always an artist's model and here I am again.' She may not think of herself as an actress but others have. Director Derek Jarman plucked the Cambridge graduate from boredom and a half-hearted career with the Royal Shakespeare Company and cast her in Caravaggio, in 1985. Although Swinton rarely played the lead in their seven collaborations, which also included The Last of England (1988) and War Requiem (1989), working with Jarman, who died in 1994, turned her into an underground film star. Swinton spent the 1990s building a reputation in European art films that gave her a chance to take centre stage. Her exposure grew with groundbreaking female roles in increasingly mainstream pictures. Small parts in The Beach (2000), Vanilla Sky (2001) and Adaptation (2002) provided a springboard to meatier roles such as Gabriel the fallen angel in Constantine and the icy White Witch in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, both in 2005. She became a bona fide Hollywood star with Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, in 2007, for which she won a best supporting actress Oscar for her role as scheming attorney Karen Crowder. Attention-grabbing roles there may have been but it is Swinton's unusual living arrangements that have raised the most eyebrows. Although she lives with her two children and their father, playwright and artist John Byrne, the 49-year-old is in a steady relationship with 31-year-old painter Sandro Kopp, who she met on the set of Narnia. Kopp 'comes and goes' from the family home and travels with her when she's on the road. However, the public speculation hasn't bothered her or her family, she says, and the suggestions of debauchery are no more than public fantasy. The tabloids will be kept guessing, though, because, she says, she's embarking on a 'slight sabbatical', to spend time with Byrne and her children, 11-year-old twins Xavier and Honor, at home in Nairn, in northern Scotland. 'I've been travelling a lot and I want to not travel so much. I want to go home and stay there for a while. But generally I'm always devising new work. And [I'm] a little bit like a farmer. You plant your seeds and they come up some time. At the moment, I've seeded a lot and they've come up a lot. I'm kind of going back to the seeding time and trying not to think so much. 'Since I started working with Derek Jarman and Sally Potter in the 80s, I have always been involved in the making of films - that is to say, the nuts and bolts of getting them made, from their inception to their post production - over and above my, maybe better known, work as a performer. These home-grown projects tend to take many years to bring to light - my most recent collaboration with Luca Guadagnino - I Am Love - which we premiered at Venice this year, has taken us 11 years to get this far. 'What was different for me in the previous few years is that I accepted a number of what I describe as invitations to other people's parties - films made in America with which I was not involved as anything other than a performer. This period has been brought to a close now by the need for me to concentrate on bringing to light the projects - generally European - which I have been working on: I Am Love, Erick Zonca's Julia, a film with Lynne Ramsay and further collaborations with Luca Guadagnino.' In August last year, Swinton held a 'party' of her own. She rented a disused bingo hall in Nairn and hosted The Ballerina Ballroom Cinema of Dreams film festival over 81/2 days. 'We showed a selection of our favourite DVDs, sat on deckchairs and bean bags and charged home-baked cakes for admission. Despite having no PR prior to the event outside of a Facebook page, we became an international phenomenon during the space of time we ran,' she says. 'We showed [Sergei] Paradjanov and [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder and [Scottish director] Bill Douglas to the good people of Nairn and they loved it.' Impressed, the Scottish government asked Swinton and her festival partner, Mark Cousins, ex-director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival, to produce a Scottish film festival in Beijing, which was staged in March. 'You could say we have already taken our festival on the road. This summer, we expanded the roaming begun in China by taking a mobile cinema from the west coast of the Highlands of Scotland and pulling it back to Nairn: a pilgrimage, we called it. It was pure magic. By putting the cinema - literally - in the hands of the cinema enthusiasts who came to pull with us - our fellow travellers, we called them; our pilgrims - we discovered an extraordinary energy. Pulling Au Hasard Balthazar or Sullivan's Travels or The Night of the Hunter or M. Hulot's Holiday into a village where there's never been a public screen before was a privilege few of us will ever forget.' Such guerilla tactics were born partly out of frustration. 'I know very little about filmmaking in the UK any more, except that most of my filmmaker friends are making their work for art galleries now, having given up trying to find money in the UK to make cultural films for the cinema,' says Swinton. 'Most of the smaller, popular and art cinemas across Europe have been systematically dissolved in the era of the multiplex. 'With this dissolution, [there is a] dire need for really passionate and committed distribu- tors to challenge the bullying market that concentrates on only two big studio film releases a week - and to encourage the cinema audi- ence to have confidence in the elasticity of its cinematic taste buds, to try a wider and wider menu and to discover a richer palate of inter- national and independently produced cinema as well as the blockbusters so readily hyped and sold. 'The state of cinema is open to all, rejects no one, provides endless company for every person, of every description, who goes there with an open eye and heart.' Will the festival return? Swinton is sure it will but 'almost certainly never in the same form. Our aim is to remain curious and unexpected and once-in-a-lifetime: like Brigadoon [a fictional Scottish village that appears once every 100 years].' A typical answer from a most atypical celebrity.