The version of The Ancient One played by Tilda Swinton in writer/director Scott Derrickson's Doctor Strange isn't exactly what you would call a perfectly accurate representation of the character of the same name from the comics. In the source material, the Ancient One is an old Asian man who does a whole lot of sitting and meditating -- and Swinton's incarnation is not only a woman, but also far more spritely and active. It's something that the die-hard Marvel purists may take issue with, but there is a very smart explanation for the change: in order for The Ancient One to properly reach and teach Doctor Strange, Tilda Swinton decided that the best approach would be for her to have a personality that mirrors the hero's.
I had the wonderful opportunity to discuss this very topic with Tilda Swinton last week during the Los Angeles press day for Doctor Strange. At the start of my interview, I wondered if stepping into the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an actor was an experience similar to the titular hero's journey into the world of magic -- and what she discussed with director Scott Derrickson when first wrapping her mind around the role. Swinton mentioned that one of her key pathways into the character was actually understanding the personality of Dr. Stephen Strange, and flipping it as a means of provoking the surgeon-turned-magician as his teacher. Said the Academy Award-winning actress,
The Ancient One, because this is -- don't tell him -- all about Stephen Strange, whoever is in the film needs to be someone who means something to Doctor Strange. The Ancient One, as his... I don't want to say his antagonist, but his provoker, she's his teacher she provokes him into changing his attitude and starting his life afresh. She has to be something very different to him, so he's all tight and furious and bitter and cynical and material, and invested in a kind of material world. So that means she has to be loose, and flexible, and traveling light, and very relaxed, and full of light!
This is something that very much comes across in Tilda Swinton's performance in Doctor Strange, particularly when Benedict Cumberbatch's character comes knocking at the doors of Kamar-Taj in Nepal. Strange is a man who purely believes in science and believes that he has a full understanding of our universe, but in having an open mind and a more up-beat, optimistic attitude, The Ancient One is able to poke Strange in all the proper places until he himself can open his mind as well. It's a wonderful interpretation of the character, and Swinton is really excellent in the blockbuster.
You can watch Tilda Swinton talk about her portrayal of The Ancient One reflected the characterization of Doctor Strange in the video below: