‘Doctor Strange’: Marvel Considered Other Actors to Play Tilda Swinton’s The Ancient One But None Were Asian Americans

Of all the non-Avengers properties in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), one of the most unique had to be Doctor Strange. The 2016 film that starred Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular character provided the MCU with a new, mystical look that promised to change things irrevocably.

As with all characters who take the hero’s journey, Doctor Strange has a wise, old mentor known as The Ancient One. Tilda Swinton portrayed the character, which represented quite a change with the version most fans knew from the comics. 

Let’s take a closer look at the other actors Marvel considered for this role that’s traditionally depicted as an Asian man. 

Who is The Ancient One? 

According to the official Marvel website, the Ancient One was born over 500 years ago in the small village of Kamar-Taj. The character became what was known as Earth’s “Sorcerer Supreme,” eventually choosing Baron Mordo as his replacement.

Mordo unfortunately turned evil, and he choose a different protege: the surgeon turned practitioner of the mystical arts, Dr. Stephen Strange. 

The character is typically portrayed in the comics as a Tibetan man. This changed when Swinton was cast in the role for the 2016 film. Not everyone was okay with this decision. 

How Tilda Swinton’s casting shed light on Marvel’s diversity issue

Tilda Swinton at the Doctor Strange premiere.
Tilda Swinton | Anthony Harvey/Getty Images

In some respects, Marvel’s casting of Swinton as The Ancient One could be looked at as a progressive move. Marvel was swapping the role’s traditional gender.

And hardly anyone could argue with Swinton’s talent. She’s a wonderful actor and she did a fantastic job in the role. The problem is that it’s another unfortunate example of a character typically portrayed as a minority being whitewashed. 

Here’s what the site The Mary Sue had to say about the decision at the time: 

“This, in the end, is exactly what Hollywood’s problem is with Asian people: they continually allow Asian stories, characters, and experiences be reinterpreted by white lenses, then they call that progress.” 

It’s a fair and valid criticism. In fairness to director Scott Derrickson, he told USA Today the decision to cast Swinton came after he decided to make the character a woman. He felt that hiring an Asian woman would propagate the negative stereotype of the “Dragon Lady.” 

Who else was considered to play The Ancient One

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According to Screen Rant, Swinton wasn’t the only person up for the role originally. Two other actors Marvel looked at casting were Morgan Freeman and Bill Nighy. Both men would be fine choices for the role, but again, neither is of Asian descent. Screen Rant also reported that Ken Watanabe, an Asian actor who also portrayed Ra’s al Ghul’s double in Batman Begins, was up for the role. 

Marvel seems to be doing a better job introducing diversity into its MCU repertory, but they missed the mark here. The decision to cast Swinton was a risky one given the sensitivity surrounding the whitewashing of many roles in Hollywood.

While Swinton turned in a fine performance and having a woman in the role added a new angle to the character, The Ancient One could have just as easily been played by an Asian woman. 

Swinton appeared as the character in Avengers: Endgame. There’s no word on whether she’ll appear in the upcoming sequel, Doctor Strange: Multiverse of Madness, but the odds are good that she does. The presence of multiverses means the film could have multiple characters portraying the character as well.

The damage has been done in this particular franchise, however. Marvel should continue to try to make the strides it has with regard to diversity casting throughout the MCU and stop whitewashing traditionally minority characters.