Entertainment Weekly: The Doctor Will See You Now

Entertainment Weekly
Published: October, 2016

When actors talk about playing superheroes, the conversation often revolves around the intense workout regimes and strict diets required to look suitably super. But on the U.K. set of Marvel Studios’ latest film, Doctor Strange (out Nov. 4), star Benedict Cumberbatch wants to chat about…electrons. “There’s a book I’ve been carry- ing around like a small Bible, Seven Brief Lessons on Physics,” says the Sherlock actor between takes, picking up the volume and reciting a passage. “ ‘It is not possible to predict where an electron will reappear,’ ” he reads, “‘but only to calculate the probability that it will pop up here and there.’ ”

If studying the writings of Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli doesn’t sound like typi- cal prep for a comic-book movie, that’s because Doctor Strange is arguably a little more cerebral than most adventures about a man in a cape. “It’s a peculiar one—Strange by name, strange by nature,” says Cumberbatch, 40. Directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister), the film charts Stephen Strange’s evolution from gifted New York neurosurgeon to spell-casting sorcerer. The story unfolds across multiple dimensions and prominently features Tilda Swinton as a bald, androgynous guru who serves as a nearly omniscient spiritual guide. So, yeah…strange just about covers it.

Stephen Strange encounters Swinton’s mystic, the Ancient One, after his hands are horribly injured in a car crash, and he journeys to Nepal in search of a cure. Instead, he acquires an array of mind-blowing magical abilities, a powerful amulet known as the Eye of Agamotto, a Cloak of Levitation, and some valuable allies in fellow sorcerers Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Wong (Benedict Wong). He also finds him- self at odds with a formidable enemy, Kaecilius, played by Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen.

Keeping Strange rooted in our reality is his former lover, ER doctor Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). To prepare for the role, McAdams spent time at a London hospital and was tutored by a surgeon who was on set to ensure the medical scenes looked real- istic. “Now, in a pinch, I could stitch somebody up on the sidewalk with a lighter and a needle and some thread,” she says. “So, that’s exciting!”

Astral projection, alternate realities, time travel, a West Village safe house called the Sanctum Sanctorum—it would all sound so much more far-fetched if the studio hadn’t already turned a machine-gun-wielding raccoon, a talking tree, and a man who can shrink to the size of an insect into movie stars. Yet even for the comic-book powerhouse behind Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man, Doctor Strange is something a bit different. The movie is the gateway into the cosmic corners of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where things can get pretty trippy (fitting if you con- sider the counterculture cred of a character who was referenced in the 1960s by both Tom Wolfe and Pink Floyd). But the ideas at the heart of Doctor Strange aren’t entirely out of this world, says Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige. Right now, on our real Earth, “CERN [the European Organization for Nuclear Research] is trying to prove that parallel universes exist,” Feige says. “That makes our lives very fun, to try and match that up in the form of a big blockbuster movie.”

Even before Marvel announced its plans for a Doctor Strange film back in 2005, other
filmmakers—Back to the Future scribe Bob Gale, Wes Craven, and Guillermo del Toro, among them—had sought to bring the character to the big screen (he was the subject of a 1978 TV movie). The task ultimately fell to Derrickson, a longtime fan whose dark hair and facial manscaping give him an eerie resemblance to the Sorcerer Supreme. “I certainly have personal feelings of affinity with Doctor Strange, a guy who struggles to overcome his own ego and goes through a lot of pain and suffering just to get past himself,” Derrickson says. “I think that personal connection to the character is one of the reasons I wanted to make the movie.” Drawing inspiration from Strange’s early psychedelic adven- tures, the director wrote the script with Jon Spaihts (Prometheus) and C. Robert Cargill. “The biggest influences by far are…the original comics drawn by Steve Ditko,” Derrickson says.

Cumberbatch, who was intrigued by the movie’s offbeat marriage of adventure and esoterica, officially signed on to star in December 2014, and production got under way nearly a year later with four days of location filming in Nepal last November. The cast and crew then relocated to Long- cross Film Studios outside of London, and it was there that Mikkelsen, a die-hard Bruce Lee fan, found his dreams coming true shooting a fight scene between Kaecilius and Strange. “The characters are circling around each other [in the film], but they have head-to-heads a couple of times,” he says. “One is a big dialogue scene, and the other one is a gigantic stunt scene. We shot that for three weeks or something. You got up every morning, you looked at each other, it was like, ‘Oh my God, not again!’ And within five minutes we were just kicking the s— out of each other! That’s a lovely memory.” Adds Cumber- batch: “He makes a masterly, dastardly villain, does Mads. He’s chilling and cool and funny and utterly committed to his cause, as all good villains are.”

Shooting concluded in April with a two-day stint in Manhattan, during which Cumberbatch dropped by local merchant JHU Comic Books in full costume. “That was right at the start of my last shot,” he says. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to go in and have a look.’ I said, ‘If this movie doesn’t work out, can I have a spot working here?’ They were like, ‘Sure! You good at stacking shelves?’”

Unfortunately, the goodwill Cumber- batch engendered from that visit was over- shadowed weeks later when the first trailer for the movie debuted. Controversy erupted over Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One, a character traditionally depicted as an Asian man in the comics, and Derrickson found himself under fire for “whitewashing” the role. “I was a little surprised by it,” he says. “Certainly our intentions were to subvert racial stereotypes and to create the best possible diversity within the cast. Wong and the Ancient One in the comics were pretty bad racial stereotypes. To avoid the stereotypical ‘magical Asian,’ we cast Tilda.” For Wong, Derrickson updated the character from Strange’s servant to a master sorcerer. “Instead of a sidekick, he’s Strange’s intellectual mentor,” says Benedict Wong (Netflix’s Marco Polo). “I think it’s a really positive step that this character is fighting alongside Strange, into the unknown multiverse.”

Whether the cultural concerns will impact the film’s box office is another unknown, but for Cumberbatch, Doctor Strange represents a real opportunity to transition from British superstar/internet heartthrob to bankable Holly- wood leading man—and to prove his facility with Strange’s East Coast Ameri- can accent. “There are always certain words which are harder than others,” he says. “God knows, I find that in [British] English as well, as you’ll know from my pronunciation of a certain animal that waddles from side to side.” (In his narration of a 2009 BBC nature series, Cumberbatch repeatedly mis- pronounces “penguins” as “pengwings.”)

No matter how this solo adventure fares, Feige has big plans for Stephen Strange, who plays “a very, very important role” in many upcoming films, including the next two Avengers movies (the first one is due in 2018). “I remember looking at Robert [Downey Jr.] and Benedict backstage at an event,” Feige says. “It was long before Benedict was officially cast as Doctor Strange, and it was something that we were dreaming about at that point. I was just sitting there quietly thinking, ‘One day, they’re both going to have goatees and be in one of our movies.’ ” Just like magic.

Calling The Night Nurse
Does Rachel McAdams’ Doctor Have Her Own Hidden Identity?

When news broke that Rachel McAdams would play Christine Palmer, fans began to wonder whether she might also adopt her own alter ego: Night Nurse.

Marvel scholars know that Palmer appeared in a 1970s comic book called Night Nurse, which followed three roommates working at a New York hospital. In 2004, Daredevil comic-book writer Brian Michael Bendis reintroduced Night Nurse using the name of Night Nurse lead character Linda Carter. She provided medi- cal assistance to super- heroes and later became romantically involved with Stephen Strange.

So is McAdams going to become Night Nurse? “Mum’s the word on that one,” McAdams says. Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige says there are no plans for Palmer to become Night Nurse—yet. “I will say that that story line does not play into the movie,” he says. “[But] it’s just as much
fun for us as it is for the fans to speculate about that.”

© 2016 Entertainment Weekly | Written by Clark Collis | No copyright infringment intended.