Doctor Strange: Tilda Swinton Discusses Immortality & Sourcing Marvel Comics

Doctor Strange - Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) Interview

Doctor Strange not only represents Marvel Studios' first real dive in to the ideas of magic, mysticism, and alternate dimensions, but it's also the production company's most diverse film yet. That reality of course, and the updating and altering of certain characters from the comics into live-action was the source of some controversy in casting but there's are many reasons to cast Tilda Swinton as the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Sorcerer Supreme in addition to the fact that she's an Oscar winner.

Upon visiting the set of London's Longcross Film Studios, much of what we saw in the production's war room - comprised of concept art, costumes, and props - focused on The Ancient One. Tilda's version of The Ancient One is hundreds of years old, Celtic in descent, bald in appearance, and has a crucial role in protecting the world from what it cannot even seen. Similar to fellow magic user Wong from Marvel Comics, The Ancient One is not written as an Asian stereotype.

Later that day, we sat in a tent beside the misty and damp set of the Kamar-Taj training grounds where The Ancient One and fellow masters school others in magic, joined us for a conversation. She was completely bald, something we were prepared for from the conceptual art earlier in the day, and was enthused to be able to partake in this outlandish kind of superhero movie for Marvel.

The scenes being shot that day involved Doctor Strange in the early days of training, teleporting back to Kamar-Taj training temple from the snowcapped heights of Mount Everest. He appears, falling before The Ancient One and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor)'s feet with ice in his hair and beard.

Doctor Strange - Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) Interview

Could you start by telling us about your approach to the character, and maybe the relationship that you’re gonna 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 gonna not say what I look like and all that. Let me think…Well, this is the launch of the Doctor Strange film interpretation, of – 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 kind of shifting that a bit. We’re trying not to be fixed, 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.

There’s obviously a physical transformation for you to get into this character…

Tilda Swinton: (Sarcastically) Well, how did you know? How do you know what I look like in the morning?


Tilda Swinton: Wait until you see my costume! [Laughs]

Doctor Strange Still - Ancient One and Karl Mordo
The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor)

How does that physical transformation help you find your take on The Ancient One?

Tilda Swinton: 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 sort of plasticity of us is really important to us 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, and 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.

We got to see a few snippets of what you were filming today.

Tilda Swinton: Did you?

I’m kind of assuming that both are you are looking at Stephen Strange as he’s trying to do something…

Tilda Swinton: Something, yeah. And you saw what Chiwetel [Ejiofor] and I were doing just now?


Tilda Swinton: Alright, yeah.

Doctor Strange and the Ancient One

So how is Strange’s relationship with The Ancient One and how does that progress as he’s becoming involved?

Tilda Swinton: 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 where it's touch and go on whether or not he's gonna make the grade, but as we know, he does! And how it progresses is, again, you know 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 kind of primal relationship.

In the conceptual art we saw some pretty interesting things with The Ancient One with fans and in one of them flying. Can you talk about the physical and maybe even the action aspect of the film?

Tilda Swinton: It’s great, we’re all really at it all the time and it’s great fun. The Ancient One has got special powers, what can I tell you? And they’re called the stunt department [Laughs].


Tilda Swinton: And the CG department. Yeah, very, very special powers and a weapon of choice, which is great fun to work with. The last time I did anything like this was with the Narnia film with two swords, the same but different.

Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams at Marvel Studios Hall H Panel
Actresses Tilda Swinton (L) and Rachel McAdams from Marvel Studios’ "Doctor Strange” attend the San Diego Comic-Con International 2016 Marvel Panel in Hall H on July 23, 2016 in San Diego, California.

It’s not the first time you’ve played a timeless character, Narnia is an example, but also Only Lovers Left Alive, is there a link there between these characters?

Tilda Swinton: I’m just really old [Laughs]. Just really, really old. There is I suppose a sort of theme tune 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.

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. What are some of those conversations that you had with Scott [Derrickson] about the bigger picture of this world?

Tilda Swinton: 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 mean, I was just talking to Benedict [Cumberbatch] who’s got a little baby and knows his father lives in his phone. We as humans are evolving really fast, so everyday we’re hit with that. This film kind of takes that everyday boring reality and really bursts it wide. So we talked a lot about that. In many ways there’s something very practical about this world, the Kamar-Taj. It’s –You know, 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 kind of muscular and practical. Yeah it’s a fantasy but what’s the difference between fantasy and reality really?

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch is transported by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton)

Does it mean you almost don’t need the comics as much, because you’re changing the adaptation or sort of evolving?

Tilda Swinton: No! The comics are -- I mean, that’s the root, that’s the source. No, we will always –As I say, it’s just another interpretation. One of the wonderful things that I’ve always loved as an art student, what I 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, if anything, that 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.”

Check out all of the Doctor Strange photos and art here:

[vn_gallery name="Doctor Strange (2016) Photos and Art" id="807377"]

Next: Benedict Cumberbatch Interview From Doctor Strange Set

Marvel Studios’ Doctor Strange follows the story of world-famous neurosurgeon Dr. Stephen Strange who, in his quest for healing after a horrific car accident, discovers powerful magic in a mysterious place known as Kamar-Taj—the front line of a battle against unseen dark forces bent on destroying our reality.

Doctor Strange is directed by Scott Derrickson, produced by Louis D’Esposito, Stephen Broussard, Victoria Alonso, Charles Newirth, Stan Lee, and Kevin Feige, and stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stuhlbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, with Mads Mikkelsen and Tilda Swinton.

Doctor Strange opens November 4, 2016, followed by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – May 5, 2017; Spider-Man: Homecoming – July 7, 2017; Thor: Ragnarok – November 3, 2017; Black Panther – February 16, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War Part 1 – May 4, 2018; Ant-Man and the Wasp – July 6, 2018; Captain Marvel – March 8, 2019; Avengers: Infinity War Part 2 – May 3, 2019; and as-yet untitled Marvel movies on July 12, 2019, and on May 1, July 10, and November 6 in 2020.

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