Benedict Cumberbatch and Tilda Swinton bring their unique talents to the characters of ‘Doctor Strange’

by George Hadley-Garcia

Special To The Japan Times

Chris Evans, Chris Pratt, Chris Hemsworth — all of them look like naturals when it comes to playing superheroes. Benedict Cumberbatch? Not as much. Though audiences love him as the new Sherlock Holmes, that iconic role has never been described as a superhero.

The titular character of Marvel’s latest comic-to-screen adaptation “Doctor Strange” isn’t like the brawny heroes of other blockbusters in its universe, so it makes sense that the actor who landed the role stands out from the pack as well.

“He’s more serious, not an everyday sort of guy, just as Benedict is not an everyday or Hollywood sort of actor,” director and co-writer Scott Derrickson tells The Japan Times, adding that he believes “Doctor Strange” is going to convince audiences to see Cumberbatch in a new light. “This is the big one that will put Benedict’s face on the map. Everyone knows he’s a first-rate performer who has already delivered an impressive body of work, but he has now proven he can carry a very commercial movie.”

In addition to the critical praise he has received for “Sherlock,” for which he won an Emmy in 2014, Cumberbatch, 40, has been lauded for his portrayals of Alan Turing in “The Imitation Game” (2014) and Stephen Hawking in “Hawking” (2004). Those kinds of roles are more indicative of Cumberbatch’s resume — and a far cry from Stephen Strange. Still, the actor maintains the Marvel doctor was interesting enough to draw him to the film.

“I chose to become Doctor Strange because of him, not as much the plot,” Cumberbatch says. “These comics-derived pictures are often well done but the basic plots don’t vary much.”

In “Doctor Strange,” an accident results in the nerves of a neurosurgeon’s hands being destroyed, which ends his career. Speaking of the plot, Cumberbatch recalls a film with a similar premise.

“There was a completely unique 1930s horror picture out of Hollywood with German influence (“Mad Love,” 1935). When the character of Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange was described to me, I had deja-vu because in the film a musician loses the use of his hands after an accident — loses his hands, in fact, and therefore his career. The star was Peter Lorre. It’s unforgettable once you’ve seen it.”

Strange isn’t the only striking character in the film; arguably the role Tilda Swinton plays has had more of an impact on discussion leading up to the film’s release.

“I’ve had more than my share of offbeat characters come my way,” says Swinton, 56. “I’ve normally accepted them. However, this one did take me by surprise. More so when I was told it was tailored for me!”

After Strange loses the use of his hands, he seeks out the help of a character known as the Ancient One, played by Swinton who describes the role as “specifically Celtic but also timeless, ageless, sexless and, if need be, remorseless.”

The comic-book character Swinton’s is based on was originally a Tibetan man, but the filmmakers said they wanted to avoid “Fu Manchu” stereotypes in their version. When the public caught wind of the casting, there was a considerable outcry over what looked to be a case of whitewashing, having a white actor play a nonwhite role. However, some critics believe the elimination of the Tibetan aspect was an attempt to appeal to the Chinese market — now the second-biggest in the world.

The movie maintains a link to Eastern mysticism by way of Nepal, where part of it was filmed.

“In view of the partly Tibetan background, I thought it should retain what the media insist on calling an Eastern flavor. Because when they say ‘Asian religion,’ they forget that all five world religions began in Asia, be it western Asia or southern Asia,” he says. “Some of the visuals and colors are influenced by Chinese culture, and Tibetan and Nepalese Buddhism play their part in the background. That might not be apparent to, say, American audiences, but it’s there.”

Swinton echoes her co-star’s appreciation of the film’s Asian aesthetic.

“The color palette and the sets and costumes, some simply blew me away,” she says. “It’s so alien to the usual comic-strip universe. Of course not everything planned or shot was included in the final cut, but as someone with a keen aesthetic eye I’m quite proud of ‘Doctor Strange.’ “

The look of the film, in particular the visual effects, also impressed the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — the film received an Oscar nomination in that category.

Director Derrickson, 50, is no stranger to films with impressive visual effects. He helmed the 2008 remake of 1950s sci-fi classic “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” which starred Keanu Reeves.

“I wanted to make it visually stunning,” he says. “It’s hard to stand out now, with all the special effects, but I think we’ve accomplished it.”

Aside from the praise for its visuals, “Doctor Strange” has been a definite hit at the box office. Both Cumberbatch and Swinton have thought about where they stand in the Hollywood universe in the wake of joining Marvel’s.

“I suppose I’ll be offered more than a few witches, sorcerers and other psychic characters, who at least may be a blend of good and maleficent,” says Swinton. “I wouldn’t care to be automatically thought of for villain roles — how depressing. But a character is always in context. So, who is my character for and against? What does she, or he, stand for? And who’s making the picture?”

Cumberbatch points out that the “global market for this sort of entertainment seems insatiable.”

“It’s as if every comic-book hero you ever and never heard of is getting their own movie,” he says. “And franchises? That’s a money trap abetted by studios who want constant and enormous streams of income. From a conscientious actor’s point of view, one has to be wary about the quality involved. The artistic vision has to be there … the filmmakers must have integrity, which you judge by their past record.

“I can’t say about the future. This type of commercial success is very heady. But it won’t turn my head. My home base remains Britain and my preference is films about people.”

Having said that, the actor also says this kind of genre is fun even if the filming wasn’t always easy because so much went into it.

“I think in life it’s best to keep an open mind and not choose ‘yes’ over ‘no’ — or vice versa,” he says. “Variety and moderation seldom fail you, and rather than speculating about the future or dwelling on the past, I prefer being mindful of the present. Whether working or at leisure, in private or in public, living in the now is more fulfilling.”

“Doctor Strange” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.marvel.com/doctorstrange.