At this point, none of Tilda Swinton’s acting choices should surprise her fans. The British actress loves roles that are rich, weird and diverse. Still, it was a bit of a shock when Swinton signed on for Marvel’s “Doctor Strange” last year as The Ancient One, the mystical teacher who helps Benedict Cumberbatch’s sorcerer superhero come to grips with his powers. Swinton chose to join the MCU because, she said, it would get movie-goers to do the thing she loves most: See films in the theater.
“I’m kind of a cinema nerd,” Swinton told IndieWire in a recent interview. “And anybody who is doing what Marvel’s doing to encourage people to get away from their large screens and their laptops and into big theaters and see cinema in a cinematic experience, it’s gonna have my vote.”
It didn’t hurt that Swinton already considered herself a fan of the MCU. “They’re really, really, really winning that game, it seems to me, and have been for quite a few years now,” she said. “When they asked me to do this particular film, which feels like it presses a whole range of new buttons and goes into new multiverse, literally, [my mind] was made up.”
“Doctor Strange” effectively functions as a standalone feature, with an origin story that takes place in the current MCU timeline. While shots of Avengers Tower pop up and the superhero team is mentioned, the majority of the action is independent. Swinton sparked to that, too.
“I think there’s something so rad about the way in which Marvel has allowed this film to be so different and to really go down different routes,” she said. “It’s so grown up, it’s sophisticated. It’s about a grown man having grown-up problems and learning how to cope with them in a rather grown-up way.”
Courtesy of Disney
The concept of an indie darling like Swinton taking a lead role in a Marvel movie could certainly feel incongruous to her core fanbase. (She cites films like Alain Guiraudie’s Cannes winner “Stranger by the Lake” and Kim Jee-woon’s “amazing” thriller “I Saw the Devil” as recent favorites, though no one needs Swinton to throw out cinema bona fides) Nevertheless, she said the choice aligns with her primary motivations: having fun, and not repeating herself while doing so.
“I’m in this game to dress up and play,” she said. “I’m in this game to amuse myself. I don’t know how interesting I would find it to repeat. I’m not really interested enough in any sense of craft to hoe a kind of defined row.”
If asked, most actors will say they’re compelled by the challenges of a multi-faceted career, but Swinton’s resume actually speaks to that desire. Here’s someone who starred in a bawdy rom-com, a Wes Anderson drama, a sexy rock star-centric thriller, a Coen Brothers period piece, and a Marvel film, and that’s all in the space of the last two years.
Also, let’s not forget that she’s also a multitalented performance artist whose career began in the ’80s by collaborating with experimental filmmaker Derek Jarman, who inspired the documentary “Derek,” which Swinton wrote, produced and starred in. (To get an idea of her roots, check out this clip from Jarman’s 1988 “The Last of England.”)
“It’s like a little puzzle I can figure out over the course of a shoot,” Swinton said of her roles. “I don’t think I would be interested in doing it if I didn’t have such a puzzle.”
“Dr. Strange” also differs from much of Swinton’s work, which often involves heavy lifting beyond her performances. “Occasionally I’m really lucky and something like ‘Doctor Strange’ lands at my door and I don’t have to develop it or produce it, or raise money for it, god forbid, or any of that,” she said.
It doesn’t hurt that the Oscar winner, who has been working steadily for the last three decades, has collected a reliable coterie of filmmakers to work alongside. For someone like Swinton, they’re just her friends.
“I tend to cook stuff up with my friends,” she explained. “The Coen Brothers occasionally knock on my door. Luca Guadagnino, who I made ‘A Bigger Splash’ and ‘I Am Love’ with, and I’m just about to start shooting ‘Suspiria’ with in a few weeks’ time. Joon Ho, who I made ‘Snowpiercer’ with and we’re just completing ‘Okja,’ or Jim Jarmusch. These are people who I kind of cook with.”
Swinton is hardly a populist, but being inspired by the possibilities of all different kinds of films isn’t off brand for her. “Doctor Strange” isn’t even her first superhero film – she appeared in the 2005 Keanu Reeves-starring “Constantine” – and she’s never shied away from large-scale franchises as a whole (hello, “Narnia”).
Swinton also sees a connection to her previous work. “Things do tend to roll on into each other, thematically,” she said when asked about how she plans out her roles. “Or there’s maybe something I approached in one film that I didn’t quite complete my interest, so I’ll kind of roll it on into the next one.”
Like any performer, Swinton wants to be seen by her audience while working out her craft (and, in her own words, “completing her interest”), and there’s no better way to get in front of eyeballs than to star in a the world’s most popular franchise. When someone signs on to star in a MCU movie – or, more plainly, a franchise that makes as much money as the MCU – you have to acknowledge the charm of the fat paycheck that comes with it, especially for someone like Swinton who has always managed to maintain her unique point of view.
If the money allows her to keep doing “Tilda Swinton things” as most people understand them, like directing a short film about author John Berger (her other big 2016 project), or sleeping in a glass box at a museum (she’s done that), or whatever else she can stir up, it’s hard to balk at her taking the sort of gig most people would perceive as a paycheck role.
And, after all, what’s more wild than Tilda Swinton as an ancient being who teaches packs of dedicated followers how to bend space and time at will? Seems like the sort of thing she’d do for fun anyway.
“Doctor Strange” opens in theaters on Friday, November 4.