Tilda Swinton and Eugene Hernandez at the SXSW Film Festival this weekend. Photo by Brian Brooks.

In Jim Jarmusch's New York Film Festival 51 selection, Only Lovers Left Alive, Tilda Swinton stars as a Tangiers-based vampire who travels to Detroit to reunite with her fellow undead lover (played by Tom Hiddleston). Throughout her nearly three-decade career, Swinton has taken on roles as diverse as a nurse (War Requiem), a gender-bending Elizabethan nobleman (Orlando), the mother of a troubled teen (We Need to Talk About Kevin), an octogenarian (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and a witch (The Chronicles of Narnia series). But Swinton gave perhaps a surprising answer to a packed house at the SXSW Film Festival Saturday afternoon when asked what her strangest role has been so far.

“The strangest role for me was playing a corporate lawyer,” Swinton revealed during the hour-long conversation hosted by Film Society Deputy Director Eugene Hernandez. “It's naturalistic, but for me it was very strange. I was a really proper actor for that one.”

That film, of course, is Tony Gilroy's Michael Clayton, in which Swinton stars with George Clooney, Tom Wilkinson, and Sydney Pollack as Karen, the in-house attorney for an agrichemical company. While “strange” for Swinton, whose real-life persona is rather antithetical to a would-be boardroom denizen, the role won over the Academy in 2008. She was awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar, as well as the Golden Globe.

Swinton, who is paying her first visit to Austin and SXSW, where Only Lovers Left Alive and The Grand Budapest Hotel are screening, said that her earliest movie memory is seeing Herbie Rides Again (1974) as a child. Both she and the audience chuckled at this disclosure, but she said that seeing the movie helped her realize at an early age that she wanted to be a part of movies. “I wanted to be in the fantasy,” she said, adding, “I used to think I'd be a writer of film or about films. I never thought of myself as an actor.”

That changed after she met Derek Jarman, who cast her in Caravaggio in 1986. She went on to star in seven of his film before he died in 1994. Swinton said that growing up she became acquainted with her artistic side after meeting a painter her father invited to the family home. Now with kids of her own, she re-examines cinema when introducing movies to them.

“My guides in this inquiry are my children, who are now 16—they’re twins. They’re like lab rats really, they’re very grateful. When I first started thinking about cinema for them, I started to really examine my own desires about cinema for myself… It was really to do with the children and seeing their eyes opening. And I started thinking about why cinema is good for the soul, and what it gives us. In a nutshell, what it is for me is this amazingly humane opportunity to put yourselves in the shoes of someone else. It’s no more complicated and no less powerful than that. You go in, it all goes dark, and you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and see through their eyes. That’s just mega, it’s so powerful.”

[Only Lovers Left Alive opens April 11 at Film Society of Lincoln Center.]