Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton speak from the Doctor Strange set
In a Kamar-Taj courtyard, Mordo stands next to the Ancient One and waits. They are in the middle of a lesson and Stephen Strange, a recent apprentice to the mystical arts, has been given a defining task. Teleported to the heights of Mount Everest, Strange must make use of a common Sorcerer’s tool – a sling ring – and use magic to open a portal back to warmth and safety. Strange will either pass the test or die.
Yesterday, in the first half of our report from the set of Marvel Studio’s Doctor Strange, we brought you insight from stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Benedict Wong as well as from director Scott Derrickson and Marvel Studios President Kevin Feige. Click here to read the first part and read on for conversations with Academy Award winner Tilda Swinton and nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor. In the November 4 release, they are playing The Ancient One and Mordo, respectively.
Before visiting journalists could see her in action on set, Swinton surprised the group by popping into our standby area for an interview and to show off her fully shaved head and the intricately-designed robe that signifies her standing as a master of the mystic arts
“Wait until you see my costume!’ she deadpans.
“We talked about the Ancient One being a title that has been held probably for hundreds and hundreds of years by individuals,” Feige says of the film’s take on the Marvel character. “There have been various ones and the one we meet in this movie happens to be a female of Celtic descent. Most people, even those who surround her, have forgotten exactly where she came from because she’s been around. I think we state in the movie hundreds and hundreds of years. They’re not sure exactly how long.”
Swinton is no stranger to playing otherworldly individuals, be it as the White Witch in the Chronicles of Narnia films or as an immortal vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive.
“I’m just really old,” the actress 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. 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. It’s all about creation and not so much about destruction and forestalling destruction. It’s about your mind. It’s a big, big trip. And that just is up my alley.”
Of course, Tilda Swinton may at first seem a substantial departure from the comic book’s elderly Chinese man, but the Doctor Strange filmmakers felt it was important throughout the casting process to embrace change.
“I would say the whole approach is about a kind of fluidity,” explains Swinton. “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.”
That same process holds true for every aspect of the Doctor Strange cast, not just physical characteristics. One of the biggest characters changes in the film may be to Ejiofor’s Mordo. Don’t expect the MCU version of the character to be a bad guy just because he’s one in the comics.
“In the case of Mordo in the comic books, that character was just really arch,” Derrickson explains. “Just really arch and he’s in the origin issue and, even in reading through — and I’ve read the entire body of ‘Doctor Strange’ now — [Mordo] was a very difficult character to adapt. Because of the very basic archness that he plays all the way through there. We wanted to keep what were the interesting aspects of him.”
In the film version, Mordo is one of the higher ranking mystics at the Kamar-Taj.
“We meet him in Nepal,” says Ejiofor. “We meet him in Kamar-Taj and he is one of the first allies to Strange. He wants to bring him into this community. This very special, knit community, and see if Strange can fit in and create a home for himself there. A place where he can learn the skills of Kamar-Taj and get in contact with these forms.”
Although it’s uncertain exactly how much of Mordo’s backstory we’ll get to explore, Ejiofor suggests that Mordo’s past arc is likely not all that far removed from what Strange is going through in the film.
“I think that Mordo is the first to recognize the potential in Strange,” he says, “and becomes his primary advocate, initially. Their relationship is complicated. In some ways they’re quite similar, but that lends itself to tension between them. But overall, he is the tutor that really brings him in… [W]hatever version of hell Mordo was blown in from probably isn’t a million miles away, psychologically, from Strange’s journey, as far as finding it impossible to continue. He had to find something else. Something new. Something radical, to restructure oneself.”
The mystical world isn’t just about one’s mental state, either. Magic requires more than just specific words and those who train at the Kamar-Taj train the body as well as the mind.
“There’s a lot of physicality in the film,” Ejiofor continues. “It’s a really important part of the story. When we bring in Strange to this world, the first thing we introduce him to is the physicality of the world, how we create these other dimensions and the magic that we do. And also the physicality of how we fight and what our combat stances are. So very immediately he’s introduced into a physical world and that affects all of the characters in the space, regardless of what we’re doing. All of that is fundamental. The physicality is fundamental to these characters and what Strange has to learn.”
“There’s definitely a martial arts influence on the movie,” adds Derrickson. “…Martial arts is the kind of action that does tie in well to the supernatural. There’s a whole subgenre within martial arts cinema of the supernatural martial arts movie, particularly within Asian cinema. I felt like when it came to fighting in the movie, that just made sense.”
Despite the aesthetic of the film’s fictional magic culture, however, those studying at the Kamar-Taj still exist in the modern world.
“In many ways there’s something very practical about this world, the Kamar-Taj,” Swinton explains. “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 in and that we know it and it’s around the corner for all of us. 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 hits the big screen November 4. We’ll have lots more coverage between now and then, so check back for updates!