Swinton: Ancient One defies stereotypes
Tilda Swinton took on the part of the Ancient One in Doctor Strange because the role is radical
In a clever bit of self-censorship to appease the Chinese market, Disney transformed Doctor Strange's Ancient One, originally a Tibetan man in the Marvel comics, into a Celtic sorceress.
The task of bringing the character to life was given to Tilda Swinton, 55, who has made a career of portraying androgynous characters to great success.
We are at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills, and the Oscar winner is dressed in a dark pantsuit by French design house Palais. Her height and presence make her a compelling figure.
What is your reaction to the controversy surrounding your casting?
There was justified controversy around, and people need to speak loudly for a more accurate representation of the wide, various world we live in on Hollywood screens.
The decisions that (director) Scott Derrickson made to configure the Ancient One were interesting ones.
The Ancient One was written in the 60s, and operated a couple of slightly noxious racial stereotypes, to be honest.
Wong, the character Benedict Wong plays in our film, was a very servile cliche. And the Ancient One was a kind of similarly offensive stereotype of the ancient old Tibetan man on the hill, handing down wisdom to the white hero.
It was very important to Scott that that be uprooted and the Ancient One be re-coined.
So his first decision was to recast it as a woman. And then he thought of it being an Asian woman, and the more he tried that, he felt he was employing another noxious stereotype, the dragon lady, a trope that exists in Western cinema. So then he decided to write it for me, possibly because I am so ancient (laughs) and to make it a Celtic character. So that was the journey.
British actor Benedict Cumberbatch (R) and British actress Tilda Swinton pose for photographers upon arrival for the screening of the film Doctor Strange in Berlin, on Oct, 2016. PHOTO: AFP
What attracted you to this part?
One of the things that made me interested is that this is not an esoteric art-house film made for a small audience. This is a Marvel movie that is going to be seen by the planet's generation of 15-year-olds. And for them to see that the Sorceress Supreme is an ancient woman who accords all respect and gives Strange the secret of life - to live beyond ego and fear - it's kind of radical. There are generations that have not got the habit of respecting age. And I was really impressed by Marvel being up for this.
Describe the Ancient One's role.
I would say this film is not about a superhero, but about humans. And magic. The Ancient One is teaching humans a kind of magic we can all learn.
We may not end up casting spells and opening portals and flying through the multiverse, but we can learn to still our mind and understand that we have a choice about our reactions to things.
Most people have to reckon with a transformation. When Strange thinks he has nothing and has lost everything, what the Ancient One points out to him is that he still has the two most important things - his life and his mind. And with those two things, we can do everything to change our lives around.
I was taught that by various Ancient Ones in my life, and I am aware that whatever life throws at you, you do have a choice in how to react.