Interview: ‘Doctor Strange’ is About “Quantum Physics and Acid” says Tilda Swinton

Marvel’s latest outing, Doctor Strange, looks set to dazzle with visual spectacle and sizzle with great performances from Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen and many others. After scraping his brain back together following a mind-blowing first look at Doctor Strange on IMAX, Flicks Editor Steve Newall was joined by Swinton for a chat about the film – and how we can best measure her awesome career to date.


FLICKS: I was trying to quantify your filmography today before this interview, and best I could come up with, Tilda, was that you’ve made a metric fuck-ton of great films. Thinking about those performances, and what they add up to, I think that fuck-ton is a good measurement. Are you happy with that?

TILDA SWINTON: I like it. Say it again. I’m going to write it down.

Sure, the measurement is one metric fuck-ton.

Metric fuck-ton?

There we go.

There we go. Excellent. I like that. I like it very much. Good. I’m happy with that.

Even just looking at the last decade of said fuck-ton, it’s been a really interesting range of films. But nothing that really pulls you into the same sort of machinery that a Marvel film does, right? From the scale of the production to the corporation behind it, and I guess even to the press commitments you had to do.

Well, Narnia was not dissimilar and I’m still in the Disney universe. I don’t feel like I’ve been shot out into space, to be honest. There are two connections for me. One, I suppose, my Narnia experience. But the other is that it’s a pretty tight-knit group of people that make these films. And there’s this whole nerd aspect, which is so familiar to me.

It feels just like making films with Derek Jarman in the 80s. It doesn’t really feel that different, because the people are so enthusiastic and so out there, and geeks who are working the whole thing, and running onto the set, and saying, “Look at this amazing new technology that we just invented before lunch that’s going to make this, and that, and the other happen in the air in front of you.”

It feels like the spirit is very, very similar to when we were blowing Super 8 up to 35mm. Or shooting Pet Shop Boys videos in front of a blue screen. So the spirit is really similar, and that may sound like I’m having a laugh saying that, but it’s really true. I mean, Kevin Feige is just a mega-nerd. He’s just the biggest film nerd I’ve ever met, and I’ve met pretty much all of them [chuckles]. And it’s just a very, very similar spirit. The enthusiasm’s the same and yeah, there’s more gadgetry, but that’s all great.

But the reach of it, I would say, is like Narnia - I’m lying on a bed, looking out at Hong Kong Harbour right now and I kind of feel I was in a similar sort of situation with that. So I’m not freaked out [chuckles].

From the outside, looking at the whole run of Marvel’s stuff, and certainly the last few years, it seems that there’s a specific hiring process for directors. That, even more so than other films, they’re there to work closely with the company of actors in a way that’s really about making that tick on the most intimate levels and among all of these moving parts. Is that what the experience was like for you on this one?

That’s really perceptive, Steve. That’s exactly right. That’s kind of what I was trying to say, less eloquently. There’s something intimate and that’s, I think, the genius of Kevin Feige and his team. They know what can happen if you have something intimate, and something really hopping in the heart of something, a group of people who really get a kick out of each other. Look at Taika [Waititi], the fact that they asked Taika to make the film that he’s making right now [Thor: Ragnarok], they’re on to something. They know that that’s what makes the world go round. And yeah, that intimacy – it’s like a little glue in the heart of these projects.

So, out of left field came Guardians of the Galaxy. This film is going to come out of a different kind of left field, I have to tell you. It’s really, really something else. I saw it the other day and it’s exceeding even my expectations. It’s new, really new, and really tight, and sound. I have to say, unlike a lot of films these days, they haven’t packed all the good bits into the trailer. You get a little tiny sizzle off the trailers, but really, even the extract, maybe there was a 30-minute extract that you might have seen. Even that, they’ve left a lot of good stuff out. So, be prepared to enjoy it.

One of the things that jumped out from the footage I saw is that – alongside the visual spectacle – there are two really strong relationships that Benedict Cumberbatch has onscreen. One of the individuals was Rachel McAdams, you’re the other, and it seems like a lot of impetus has gone into really making those relationships tick, because there’s so much craziness happening around them.

Yeah, well, it’s a real story about a real human. He’s not actually a superhero. My character, The Ancient One is a sorcerer supreme, and whatever happens in this film, we know from the comic books, that eventually Doctor Strange ends up being the sorcerer supreme. So he’s a sorcerer. He’s not actually a superhero as such. He has a cloak, he doesn’t have a cape. And he’s not bitten by a spider, he’s taught teachable super powers.

So these are humans and it’s a human universe. And that really is brought out in the script, out of the relationships. And there’s a lot of what one might call drama. There’s a lot of conversation, quite sophisticated, intellectual conversation about quite out-there quantum physics [chuckles].

Oh yeah. I’m in, I’m SO in.

It’s about quantum physics, really. Quantum physics and acid [laughs], which is kind of the same thing. Yeah, it’s a trip, a real trip, a real trip. But, like I said, it’s rooted in this human world. And the other thing it is, which is very fresh, I think, for those who might be experiencing superhero fatigue, it’s about an adult situation. He is a grownup. He is of his age. He is experiencing the kind of obstacles that people in their late 30s, early 40s are experiencing. The nightmare that he experiences, when everything that he set all his store by – his material world, his incredible talent as a neurosurgeon, his wealth, everything just crashes because he has this car accident.

He has to be reborn. I mean, that’s a very adult thing.That is a thing, by the way, that 15-year-olds do encounter That’s what adolescence is all about. But it’s also something that an older audience is going to really understand. So I’m excited. This is an expansion for them, for sure.

I think it’s the most psychedelic thing I’ve ever seen. That’s the best way that I can describe some of the sequences that I saw at IMAX. And trust me, I’ve gone looking for those things.

Yeah, you wait. IMAX 3-D is going to blow your mind, I tell you.

How’s your capacity for mumbo jumbo? Because I’m guessing that there’s probably a lot resting on your shoulders in trying to convey some of these concepts., not just from one character to another, but from your character to the audience.

That’s such a fantastic question. I’d completely forgotten that. I was asked earlier, yesterday, what was the hardest thing, and I’d forgotten that that is the hardest thing. And so [chuckles], there were definitely moments. I remember a moment with Chiwetel [Ejiofor] when, I can’t remember the lines now, but we had to shout mumbo jumbo at each other for a day, and it was very, very funny. Because there’s a certain amount of mumbo jumbo that just won’t go into you. It’s like a stamp with no stick on the back, it just won’t adhere.

So, yeah, I can’t remember words like ‘norfex’. They come, they go, and if you manage to get them out, then you’re lucky. But, yeah, hilarious. There’s minimal mumbo jumbo, though in this film. I would say that it does make sense on a certain level, but there are these tiny corners when you think, I don’t understand this language. This might as well be Samoan.

I’d imagine, as an actor, it’s made a bit difficult because that’s not your sole responsibility in this casting. It’s not a case of , ‘hey you’re the person that does a great mumbo jumbo’ as opposed to being more relationship-focused with castmates. Does it make certain days harder when you’ve got to switch from one to the other?

Only because I’m very lazy about about learning lines, and mumbo jumbo is always more difficult to learn than, “could you pass the tea pot?” But, no, it’s all fine. It’s all good as long as you’re with pals that are having the same problems, then it’s all fine.

Thinking about those aforementioned, psychedelic trippy, aspects of the film, which permeate – I’m guessing – many corners of it, what experiences of your own did you draw upon as shooting was underway?

Well, tactically speaking, there was a fair bit of fighting, which was really good fun. And the fight designers had put together this extraordinary smorgasbord of different martial arts, a little bit of To-Shin Do, a little bit of Taekwondo, a little bit of Kung Fu, a little bit of, God knows what, Karate, I don’t know what.

And it’s a whole new vocabulary, a whole new landscape that they created,  and we all learned it in a slight boot-camp scenario, which was really great fun. It’s always nice to learn new things. And then the magic that we learned to operate.

And I think that you might even have seen moments, in the extract that you saw, of me casting spells with my hands. These movements are based on this tutting technique, which you may know about. Which we were taught by this fantastic guy, called JayFunk, who is a tutting magician and does crazy things with his fingers you can’t believe. And he taught us things like that. So that was really good fun as well.

That’s going to make knitting very much easier, for sure [chuckles].

That’s a really practical consideration. I think about the comic, and about when I was a kid. Copying ‘Doctor Strange’ was my first attempt of what drawing powers coming out of people’s hands looked like. But with comics being a static medium Scott [Dickerson, director] and his production team must’ve had to dig pretty deep to make these things make sense to the audience.

Yeah, and then the team, led by Scott, with Kevin as over-lord, are such dyed-in-the-wool Doctor Strange fanatics. It’s so classical in a sense. It’s really, really based, the aesthetics, really, really based in the [Doctor Strange creator] Steve Ditko aesthetics, in the comic strip. And that’s the root of all of it, mixed in with Escher and Dali, and anything else – a lot of, of course, psychedelic rock. If not in the soundtrack, then definitely in the DNA of the script. That’s the root of the whole thing, really, that sensation.

One other thing that I want to touch on before we wrap up is what you have coming up next year. There’s some really exciting projects. I’m super amped to see what happens with the ‘Suspiria’ remake, and Bong Joon-Ho’s ‘Okja’.

Suspiria, we’re going to be shooting next month, but Okja is already shot, and that is really worth getting excited about. Did Snowpiercer come to New Zealand?

At the International Film Festival. Some of us did get to see it on the big screen here, but that was it.

Well, Okja, I hope will get a release in New Zealand. It’s going to be phenomenal. I’m very, very excited about it. We’ve finished shooting that – we shot that in Korea, New York, and Vancouver over the summer. And I’m really excited about that. I love Bong, you know. He’s a great friend.

Will it be added to your metric fuck-ton of awesome films?

I love that. My metric fuck-ton. I’m going to tell my family about that now and they’re going to really appreciate it [chuckles]. And I look forward to coming to New Zealand. I haven’t been to New Zealand for too long, so I look forward to coming as soon as I can. I’ve got family there, so I’m longing to come.

Don’t worry, I’ll pick you up from the airport in my ’93 Suzuki Swift hatchback.

Please do, in that car, please [laughs].


Advance tix for ‘Doctor Strange’ on Oct 27th are on sale now