[The following story contains spoilers from Suspiria.]
During the filming of Luca Guadagnino’s Suspiria, a remake of the classic 1977 Dario Argento horror film, photos were leaked to the press of one of the main characters, psychoanalyst Lutz Ebersdorf. People were quick to notice that Ebersdorf and Tilda Swinton, who stars in the film as Madame Blanc, had very similar faces and immediately concluded the character was Swinton in heavy disguise.
The 57-year old actress is a Hollywood shape-shifter, so it was perfectly natural that she would also take on the role of an 82-year-old German man. Many critics who saw the film even thought she was playing a third role, that of the ancient witch Markos.
Both Guadagnino and Swinton denied everything though. A fake biography was released for Ebersdorf, and at the film’s Venice premiere, Swinton read a letter "written" by Ebersdorf to explain his not being there. The gathered press appeared to be in on the joke, laughing at the over-the-top message from this mystery actor. And other Suspiria collaborators, including actress Jessica Harper and composer Thom Yorke, spoke of the influence Ebersdorf had on them throughout the filmmaking in interviews.
Prior to the premiere, Guadagnino told The Hollywood Reporter, “I always like to cast people that are not necessarily actors. If you think of Call Me by Your Name, I asked this lady that I saw bicycling in the countryside, Vanda Capriolo, to play Mafalda, and now she plays a role in Suspiria. I like to think out of the box.”
When pushed again on whether there was going to be some surprise announcement coming about the character, Guadagnino said, “No, no. It’s Lutz Ebersdorf. There was all this talk about Tilda playing the role, and it came out of nowhere and I don’t know why.”
Now Swinton has finally come clean as awards season is in full swing, telling the New York Times that she had not been asked the right question. “The answer to the question to me, ‘Are you playing Dr. Klemperer in Suspiria?’ is always that Dr. Klemperer is played by Lutz Ebersdorf,” said Swinton. But the answer to “Are you playing Lutz Ebersdorf?” is “an unequivocal yes.”
As to why she chose to play the character, Swinton told the Times, “Undeniably, I would have to say, for the sheer sake of fun above all. As my grandmother would have it — a motto to live and die by — ‘Dull Not To'.”
Guadagnino says the decision to have a woman play the one main male role was to stay true to the film’s core message about female identity.
Klemperer is consumed by grief from the loss of his wife, so in effect he is "played" by a woman. “She dictates the rhythm of his life in the everyday texture of his bereaved loneliness,” added Swinton, who also confirmed that she plays the role of Markos, under even more prosthetics.
Oscar-winning makeup artist Mark Coulier, the same one who transformed Swinton in The Grand Budapest Hotel, transformed her into Ebersdorf. She endured four hours in the makeup chair each day, and even had a set of prosthetic male genitalia she wore to get into character.
One scene in particular seemed to reveal the character could not have been an 82-year-old man, as Ebersdorf is unclothed, and while his face is visibly aged, his body is not.
But even at an interview in Venice with The Hollywood Reporter, Guadagnino again refused to give up the ruse. “The character of Mr. Klemperer was a conscious decision to be played by someone who would be born as a new face for this film, and the new face was that of Mr. Ebersdorf,” said the director.
When The Hollywood Reporter questioned him again about why the body is not aged, Guadagnino replied, “it’s an 82- year-old man. I’m telling you, I can promise you.”
And he added: “I’m telling you. My father is 86, and if you see my father naked, his skin is very soft and translucent. But I’m telling you, I’m really being very straightforward, that is the body of an 82-year-old person."
When asked who plays Markos, he replied, “Marcos is a fantastic lady that I found.” Asking further if the Markos actress was Italian or German, Guadagnino refused to answer, saying only, “It is a great woman that I found that was keen to be funny in the scene. There is a lot of makeup there though.” And with that he abruptly ended the interview.
“The intention was never to fool anybody," Swinton wrote to the NYT. "The genius of Mark Coulier notwithstanding, it was always our design that there would be something unresolved about the identity of the performance of Klemperer.”