Tilda Swinton has established a career as an actress that is impossible to pin down. For decades, Swinton has taken on characters across the age and gender spectrum, bringing her otherworldliness to angels and vampires, and now a sorcerer. But not just any sorcerer, Swinton has stepped into the role of The Ancient One for Marvel’s Doctor Strange; a move that caused some outcry considering the character’s roots as a wizened Asian man. Swinton says they’re approaching the character with “fluidity,” and in talking to her about it, it becomes clear that she’s approaching the role from a philosophical and spiritual place with an unrestrained enthusiasm.
While on the set of Doctor Strange earlier this year, I joined a small group of journalist to chat with the cast and crew of Marvel’s latest addition to the roster of headlining heroes While we were there, we had a few minutes to speak with Swinton during a break in filming, and she was as lovely and luminous as one could ever hope, and being in full Ancient One costume; very, very bald.
Swinton talked about her approach to the iconic character, creating the look of The Ancient One with Jeremy Woodhead (who she previously worked with on Snowpiercer), the evolution of The Ancient One’s relationship with Stephen Strange, working with her weaponry, her fascination with immortal characters, and what she’s drawing from the comic books. Check out what she had to say in the interview below.
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…
SWINTON: Well, how did you know? How do you know what I look like in the morning?
SWINTON: Wait until you see my costume!
How does that physical transformation help you find your take on The Ancient One?
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…
SWINTON: Did you?
I’m kind of assuming that both are you are looking at Stephen Strange as he’s trying to do something…
SWINTON: Something, yeah. And you saw what Chiwetel [Ejiofor] and I were doing just now?
SWINTON: Alright, yeah.
So how is Strange’s relationship with The Ancient One and how does that progress as he’s becoming involved?
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 when he’s getting to touch and go whether he’s gonna makes the grave, 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 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?
SWINTON: 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.
SWINTON: 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 with two swords, the same but different.
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?
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?
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?
Does it mean you almost don’t need the comics as much, because you’re changing the adaptation or sort of evolving?
SWINTON: No! The comics are — I mean, that’s 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 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.”