STRANGE AS SHE MAY BE
As concerns of whitewashing whirl about Hollywood, Tilda Swinton’s casting in Doctor Strange lends yet another angle to the debate
hen it came to casting the role of the mysterious, mystical Ancient One in Marvel’s new superhero film Doctor Strange, director Scott Derrickson had a list of one: Tilda Swinton.
Never mind that the character was written in the original 1960s comic books by Steve Ditko as an inscrutable, ancient, Asian man. And that Oscar-winning actor and sometime model Swinton is, in fact, a 55-year-old, pale, angular Celtic woman.
Derrickson, and Marvel Cinematic Universe uberproducer Kevin Feige were so determined to get their choice that the role was specifically written to fit Swinton – and would have been completely changed had she not said yes. No pressure then. “Scott explained to me all the reasons that he and Kevin Feige had for wanting to reorient this character – no pun intended,” Swinton says, in her precise, cutglass accent over the phone from Hong Kong, where Doctor Strange had its world premiere last week. “And they were very sound reasons that I understood and they presented me with a character that was written very much as something that felt like I was good casting for it. And that’s why I was able to say yes.”
Inevitably, Swinton’s casting as the bald martial arts mystic who helps heal Benedict Cumberbatch’s arrogant, crippled neurosurgeon and teaches him to become the Sorcerer Supreme ruffled feathers.
When the first Doctor Strange trailer dropped the same week another studio released the first image of Scarlett Johansson in The Ghost in the Shell – another role originally written as Asian – the accusations of “whitewashing” came thick and fast.
Derrickson, in addition to loving the idea of “a major female character that’s not a 27-year-old fanboy dream-girl in tight leather” says that by casting Swinton he was actually trying to get away from racial stereotyping of the kind of inscrutable Asian characters depicted by Hollywood for decades.
Swinton agrees there is a need for Hollywood to more accurately reflect the multicultural world we live in, but believes the studio was damned either way.
After all, the casting of black actor Idris Elba as Norse god Heimdall in the Thor movies – as well as having Chiwetel Ejiofor in an originally white role in Doctor Strange – also put noses out of joint, further proving that you just can’t please everyone.
“When (Derrickson) asked me to play the Ancient One, ironically what they were actively trying to do is to reduce the perpetuation of a racist stereotype which was a kind of Fu Manchu, ancient Asian man handing down wisdom to the white hero,” Swinton says. “Or, if they flipped the gender, the Dragon Lady. So they were actually trying to create a more diverse universe. Having said that, it can be both, as I am always saying to my children – it is also true that we need to be very vocal in asking for a more diverse panoply in American mainstream cinema. So it’s all good as far as I am concerned.”
The casting of Swinton – not to mention Cumberbatch in the title role, Rachel McAdams as his love interest, and Ejiofor as Baron Murdo – is testament to the clout of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, 13 films and more than $12 billion after it kicked off in 2008 with Iron Man.
All are respected actors – Swinton won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Michael Clayton in 2007, and the other three have all been nominated for Academy Awards in the past few years.
Swinton, a confessed film nerd and an “avowed amateur” says there’s no secret to attracting such a quality cast.
“It’s such fun,” she says of making Doctor Strange.
“They are such nice people. They are really intelligent films being made by very intelligent filmmakers and it’s a complete ball from start to finish.”
Although there is a perception that Swinton is an art house darling, her passion and enthusiasm for a huge budget project such as Doctor Strange is unchanged from her early, low-budget work.
“It’s no different because the essential ingredient is a complete nerdy passion and that persists – only there are a few more nerds on this one,” she says with a laugh. Doctor Strange opens today
Swinton and Ejiofor’s casting in Doctor Strange has challenged notions of representation in cinema.