In a hotel room in Beverly Hills, we sat with Tilda Swinton who portrays “The Ancient One” in Marvel’s Doctor Strange. During our chat, she shared with us the most challenging part of her role, discussed the controversy that surrounded her casting, and why she thinks that Doctor Strange is unlike any other Marvel film.
“Where’s the Ancient One?” Tilda Swinton asks, obviously bummed at not seeing her Pop! Vinyl figure on the table where, instead, there stands a Pop! version of Doctor Strange. “There is an Ancient One,” she assures us. “There is one coming. It’s so cute. Have you seen a picture of it?”
We have; it’s on our wishlist of items that will soon take it’s place on our “geek shelves” as we call the sizable shelving unit around our television. It’s currently filled with Disney and Marvel memorabilia and other items.
Actress Tilda Swinton must be completing a similar wishlist; “That’s my Christmas present list, done,” she laughs.
Another deviation from the original comics is the clothing for The Ancient One. The comic book version includes a flowing cape-like robe, but costume designer Alexandra Byrne instead opted for Eastern-inspired simplicity.
“Oh it’s such a great costume,” Swinton said of her garb for the film. “It’s like pajamas. And those beautiful colors – really wonderful.”
Since her costume was simple, it was not part of the struggles for her role. Instead, Swinton said, casting spells as The Ancient One seemed to be the hardest part.
“The only real struggle was… learning all these amazing things with fingers, and then remembering what to say at the same time. And then they would say, ‘So you have to put your hands there, not there because of the light…’ but it was all good.”
In the Doctor Strange comics, The Ancient One is depicted as a male, and there was some controversy when casting revealed the gender swap in casting Swinton.
“Well you know, the comic strip… yeah, was an Asian man. In fact, a very ancient Tibetan man living on the top of a mountain,” she said. “But, the film script I was given wasn’t an Asian man at all; I wasn’t asked to play an Asian man. I was asked to play an ancient Celtic person. If I’d been asked to play an Asian man I would’ve shown them Benedict Wong, but Kevin and Scott were very, very clear about the reasons they wanted to shake up the stereotype. They felt that there were couple of kind of gnarly racial stereotypes around the two big Asian characters in the film. One was Benedict Wong’s character; he was a sort of servant. And the other was the Ancient One, who was a kind of old, wise Fu Manchu character. And Scott wanted to make it a woman, which – thank you, yes, the male overlord falls over when I said that,” she laughs.
Click below to hear Tilda Swinton talk about why she was cast as Sorcerer Supreme, The Ancient One!
“I did a lot of them, but there was an amazing stunt double who I worked with called Julia who became a friend. We all had stunt doubles; we always do, because they do the things that are really dangerous.”
Swinton has the uncanny ability to transform no matter which role she takes on. In Doctor Strange, her character is completely bald; she wears it well and in case you’re wondering, it was not a hairpiece.
“It was my decision – it was my suggestion, and we had this great several months of playing with options, all sorts of weird wig ideas, all sorts of long lobes. We went ‘round the houses with it but eventually, it felt like less was more and I loved it. I thought it looked really, really ancient, but also kind of modern and rad and it was a nice feeling, as well.”
As The Ancient One and mentor to Doctor Stephen Strange, there are profound moments of clarity and memorable speeches that will stick with the audience well after seeing the film.
“There were a couple of moments, I must say, when I really found [those lines] such a privilege to say,” Swinton said. “There’s a moment earlier, when I’m teaching Doctor Strange and looking straight into the camera, basically teaching the globe’s population of fifteen-year-olds about mindfulness. That was like, ‘WOW! This is such a great chance’ you know? To say, ‘Yes I’m a rad superhero myself, but I’m telling you, be authentic. You can control your mind; you have a choice of your reaction to obstacles in your life, and serve something greater than yourself!’”
“We were so happy!” she told us. “I don’t know about anybody else in Marvel movies, but for me, it was like being asked to join the circus. We all joined the circus and we were all given these incredible costumes and everybody in the Marvel universe that I’ve met so far is so psyched to be a part of it, even though there are some people who have been there for years… nobody’s jaded, everybody’s psyched.”
Click below to hear Tilda Swinton talk about what she really thought after seeing the final cut of Doctor Strange!
It’s no wonder that director Scott Derrickson wrote the role specifically for Swinton.
I mean, that’s what’s so moving, I think, about the film is that… this power that—that uh, Doctor Strange, uh, is taught to—to wield is a power for good. It’s—and it’s new, and it’s really new. I mean, I know that the um—that all Marvel superheroes eventually work for good, but there’s a lot of, you know, city-flattening that goes on. But we actually put a city together again. And he— when he described that to me, I remember thinking, ‘Oh wow I can’t wait to see this film, let alone be in it.’ I was in at that point.