Tilda Swinton has spend the entirely of her career doing the unexpected, so it should come as no surprise that she didn’t hesitate in taking the role of The Ancient One in the upcoming DOCTOR STRANGE (due November 4). The Marvel comic book iteration of the character had always been a elderly Asian man, which is about the only persona Swinton hasn’t attempted. The Marvel powers that be decided that The Ancient One wasn’t necessary a person but a title that could be given to anyone—male or female—of any race, including a bald female of Celtic origin.
The fact that Swinton is typically the strongest element of any film she’s in, only makes me that much more hopeful for DOCTOR STRANGE. A group of unworthy online writers (myself included) got to spend a bit of time with her earlier this year on the set outside of London, and it’s clear she’s give the film and this character a great deal of thought. I’ve interviewed Swinton a few times over the years, but I’ve never seen her actually work, shooting scenes, trying out line readings and moving around the set in a sorcerer’s costume as a teacher instructing a new student in the ways of inter-dimensional magic.
At one point during the set visit, we left the confines of our interview tent and got to walk around the immense set that was The Ancient One’s compound, where Swinton, Chiwetel Ejiofor (as Mordo) and Benedict Cumberbatch (Dr. Stephen Strange) were shooting a sequence in which Strange comes through a portal that brings him back from the side of a wind-swept, frigid mountainside. We stood only a few yards from the action, and you can’t help but feel you’re in the presence of acting royalty with all three of these artists. Alright, enough gushing. Please enjoy our talk with the great Tilda Swinton…
Question: Could you start by telling us about your approach to the character, and maybe the relationship that you have with Strange?
Tilda Swinton: I have to think what I can tell you. What it would be fun to tell you and what it wouldn’t be fun to tell you, because of course you’re all going to not say what I look like [she’s fully bald]. Let me think. Well, this is the launch of the DOCTOR STRANGE film interpretation, in my view a classic, which has been interpreted many times by other graphic artists, and this is just our graphic interpretation of The Ancient One. I would say the whole approach is about a kind of fluidity. There are many graphic artists who have interpreted The Ancient One as a Tibetan Buddhist Lama; we’re shifting that a bit. We’re trying not to be fixed, to any one thing, any one gender, any one spiritual discipline, and any one race even. We’re just trying to wing it beyond that. So it’s a new gesture really, just another interpretation.
Question: There’s obviously a physical transformation for you to get into this character.
TS: [Sarcastically] Well, how did you know? How do you know what I look like in the morning?
TS: Wait until you see my costume!
Question: How does that physical transformation help you find your take on The Ancient One?
TS: It certainly centers everything, because we’re making shapes, and these shapes are pretty rocking, they’re all pretty graphic. We’re filling a big universe, and so the look and the plasticity of us is really important when we’re striking poses here. It’s very important, it’s really great. It’s such fun to work on; I was really lucky that Jeremy Woodhead, who’s the hair and makeup designer on this, is someone I know very well, I worked with him very closely on a Bong Joon-ho film called SNOWPIERCER, and we worked on making that look. So we worked again on this, and that’s been really fun. And it took it’s time, that’s part of the fun, the development of all of it is a ride.
Question: We got to see a few snippets of what you were filming today…
TS: Did you?
Question: I’m assuming that both of you are looking at Stephen Strange as he’s trying to do something…
TS: Something, yeah. And you saw what Chiwetel [Ejiofor] and I were doing just now?
TS: Alright, yeah.
Question: So what is Strange’s relationship with The Ancient One, and how does that progress as he’s becoming involved?
TS: Well, The Ancient One, as you know, is the master, is the Sorcerer Supreme, and Strange comes to learn how to heal himself, and The Ancient One has got the knowledge. And so what you’re seeing today is a part of the whole training section, when he’s learning the moves and digging deep. So it’s all about that, it’s all about trying to push him to get there. What you’re seeing today or what we’re doing today is a section when he’s getting to touch and go whether he’s going to makes the grade, but as we know, he does. And how it progresses is, again, the story, it’s really important to The Ancient One that Doctor Strange does cut it because The Ancient One needs a successor, or certainly needs—you could say—a son. So The Ancient One is really invested in Doctor Strange, it’s a very primal relationship.
Question: In the conceptual art, we saw some pretty interesting things with The Ancient One with fans and in one of them, you’re flying. Can you talk about the physical and maybe even the action aspect of the film?
TS: It’s great, we’re all really at it all the time, and it’s great fun. But The Ancient One has got special powers, what can I tell you? And they’re called the stunt department [Laughs]. And the CG department. Yeah, very, very special powers and a weapon of choice, which is very fun to work with. The last time I did anything like this was with the Narnia film [THE LION, THE WITCH, AND THE WARDROBE] with two swords, the same but different.
Question: It’s not the first time you’ve played a timeless character, Narnia is an example, but also in ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE. Is there a link there between these characters?
TS: I’m just really old [Laughs]. Just really, really old. There is, I suppose, a theme, which I’m really interested in. I’m really interested in the idea of long, long life and transformation and immortality. So yeah, I’m very much drawn to these stories. This is a huge, great story about the possibility of living beyond everything, living beyond mortality, living beyond all the immortal confines, living beyond the planet as we know it. It’s mind-blowingly no limits, and I think this is going to be something else. I mean, even in terms of the Marvel universe, this is going on a side street into a major piazza that Marvel hasn’t even been to before, because it’s all about creation and not so much about destruction and forestalling destruction; it’s about your mind. So it’s a big, big trip, and that just is up my alley, I’m really into that stuff. Yeah, there is a link, I think.
Question: When I’ve talked to you before, you’ve said that you very often enjoy the conversations leading up to the filming as much as the filming itself. What are some of those conversations that you had with Scott [Derrickson, director and co-writer] about the bigger picture of this world?
TS: I’ve been really happy to be in that conversation with Scott for a few months now. We started chewing this cud a while ago. He is, as you probably know, an extremely erudite thinker in terms of religious philosophy and just thinking about a modern take on something really, really ancient, about how to imagine living beyond any physical bounds, which we’re on the verge of now.
I was just talking to Benedict [Cumberbatch] who’s got a little baby who knows his father lives in his phone. We as humans are evolving really fast, so everyday we’re hit with that. This film takes that everyday boring reality and really bursts it wide [open]. So we talked a lot about that. In many ways, there’s something very practical about this world, the Kamar-Taj. We all look like samurai warriors, but actually there are iPads everywhere, and there’s a feeling that it’s a practical possibility for this modern world that the DOCTOR STRANGE universe is functioning, and that we know it and it’s around the corner for all of us. So we talked about that. We talked about making it muscular and practical. Yeah it’s a fantasy, but what’s the difference between fantasy and reality really?
Question: Does it mean you almost don’t need the comics as much, because you’re changing the adaptation or evolving?
TS: No! The comics are the root, that’s the source. No, we will always… as I said, it’s just another interpretation. One of the wonderful things that I’ve always loved as an art student, what I’ve always loved about comics, was that they are interpreted differently by different graphic artists all the time. So now, film is doing that thanks to Marvel Studios. I’m a huge Marvel fan, and the fact that they take the liberties that they do in filmmaking I think, it dignifies the comics and it says, “Yeah. This is a strong enough, robust enough source. We can bend it, it’s elastic. It’s bouncy.”