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GRAZIA: This is Marvel’s eighth year running of bringing comic book characters to award-winning cinema. Playing a much-loved character in the Marvel universe, were there ever any times during production where you were a little bit apprehensive about how your interpretation of Strange would compare to a die-hard fan’s expectations?
Benedict: “The person who runs Marvel studios, the father of the whole family is a die-hard super fan. He stopped the scheduling of this film and its release in order to make sure that I was available to play the part. So first and foremost, it’s green-lit this character for me. And [President of Marvel Studios] Kevin Fiege has got it so right in the past, I’ve had of producers saying that this is about these comics and bringing them to life and that they’re spectacular, relevant and in a beautiful way that they have done in the past with the films. That freed me to try and give him the unexpected and give them choices and just be free to play. We went after the visual look of this character very specifically, very certain artwork of the originals as well as so many of the other more recent origin story adaptations in the comics.”
What can fans expect?
“Like it was in the original comics, it’s a left turn for Marvel, it’s something really exciting to celebrate and really try to champion in. I just had a blast. It’s got everything you could possibly want as an actor. You’re doing really meaty scenes with the most extraordinary cast and the most fantastic director, who is very specific on character attention and detail. It’s a fantastic character. There’s a huge amount of humour and pathos as well. But massive amounts of humour and huge action sequences which I found great fun to do and you know it’s all going to be cloaked in the most, pun intended, incredible visual effects. It’s a really intoxicating complete package to be a part of and I relished every moment of it. And there were quite a few moments, where it’s long hours. But my God, they were very rewarding.”
I think intoxicating is a good adjective to describe this film. You hadn’t really heard of Strange when you were approached by the studio…
“Nope, I hadn’t. I grew up with Asterix novelettes when I did read the comics which were around when I was on holidays. But I really came into the comic books through movies, through the marvel studio route I guess. I started with Batman, that was a big one when I was a kid even though he wasn’t Marvel. A fantastic Tim Burton film, Batman, with Michael Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Kim Basinger really brightened all of our imaginations and those of us that were teenagers. We had posters, we danced to the soundtrack, we knew lines from the film, it was something I remember all of my friends celebrating and enjoying. The same for Ghostbusters. From then on, I paid my entrance fee, bought my popcorn and sat in the audience being floored like everyone else by what the Marvel studios had produced.”
“It’s never been on the bucket list to be a superhero.”
“I wasn’t completely hooked on the idea when it was first mentioned but then it just evolved, especially when I spoke to [director] Scott [Derrickson] and Kevin about what direction they waned to take this character in.”
Tilda Swinton’s character, the Ancient One, teaches dr Strange to expand his mind. Do you, Benedict, believe there are existences beyond what we scientifically know?
“I think the point is that science and mysticism meet in a place where there is no logical or at least any sensory perceivable reality in which to witness what those theories are suggesting. We live in a dualistic universe with three dimensions, and yet with string theory, with quantum mechanics, with a huge deal of modern science on the background, at a micro level, we are asked to understand things that are beyond our comprehensible experience. There is a leaping off point, there’s a point we have to just depart with faith and use your imagination and try and imagine something beyond your experience. That does drift into the realms of certain mysticism and spiritual traditions. It’s fascinating, as a teenager I had, and still have a massive interest in science. It started in my teens and especially when I was teaching English at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Darjeeling.”
Tell me about that experience.
“It’s surrounded by Chinese, Indian, Nepali and Tibetan people. It was an intoxicating cross multi-cultural experience. Also, for a white kid from a boarding school to be in the middle in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery was just mind blowing and that was my East meets West experience. I was reading books like Fritjof Capra’s The Tao of Physics, which was a very big book in the 70s. It’s fascinating. And I think we’re still doing that. Even if it’s just on the level of mindfulness and meditation we practice that across the world now.
“The thing about Strange is he’s not a superhero in the sense that he is born with powers or is bitten by something or is a God or has a fantastic suit.”
“He has to work incredibly hard to create something from within that is powerful and it’s about channelling them. If there’s anything to take away from it as much as our world, it’s that the power of the mind can reshape our reality. Not necessarily change it. You can change your perspective on reality and you can do that in the most powerful way no matter what your reality may be.”
That brings me to my next question. the Ancient One teaches dr Strange about reality warping and opening your mind to a different perspective. There’s some interesting issues going on in the world today and when watching the film, I couldn’t help but think how incredible it would be to have such a wise character like the Ancient One in real life, schooling figureheads and people on expanding their minds and perspectives. ARE THERE ANY ISSUES YOU WISH HUMANKIND WOULD GAIN SOME PERSPECTIVE ON? Where do you think that character would be best placed in our world at the moment?
“I think as far as world issues go, and this film, and my personal political perspective, I’m not going to get involved in a conversation about that now because I’ve said everything that I’ve had to say about those issues and it’s pretty obvious in the world what the problems are. I don’t need to list them to you to be honest. If you asked me a question like who my real heroes are, I’d tell you that they’re real doctors and nurses and people who actually do these things for a living. I have been lucky enough to do this. And while I have an opinion, I think it matters very little what my opinion is on something outside of the film and what we are talking about today. There are people who are working on the ground, or in broad rooms or in meetings, there are people who are fighting. People who are actually living their lives with these troubles and I wouldn’t like to comment on them.”
We’ll move onto another question. Tell me what it was like to work with Tilda Swinton on set.
“It was wonderful. She’s effortless. She’s just calm, relaxed, witty. She’s like an old friend. I never have any regrets, but if I had one it would be that this is only the first time we’ve worked together and not before. She’s remarkable to witness as an actress and she’s obviously a huge icon but when you’re working with her you forget it’s Tilda Swinton.”
“To go back to your previous question, yes, the world could benefit from someone of this wisdom, definitely, as we all know from the trouble that the world faces.”
“[Swinton] doesn’t sweat the small stuff and she saves all her energy for the big stuff. Even with that, she manages to do things with a very grounded humour that’s very colloquial and very contemporary. Even though she’s lived through centuries. That’s her gift as an actress, she has something very mysterious and ethereal about her, she has a great physical presence but she’s also got a lightness and touch of humour that makes her utterly relatable. That’s a very fine balance to get right and that teaches you a lot as an actor to watch someone bringing that character to life.”
Dr Strange is in Australian cinemas October 27