(Photos are from a more recent visit with Buddhist monks in January 2016).
On his interest in Buddhism: “I’d always been fascinated by the idea of meditation. Sensory awareness is heightened and more sharply focused, which is an essential part of acting.”
On learning about Buddhism while teaching English to Tibetan monks: “It was incredible. When you’ve been that still and contemplative, your sensory awareness is heightened and more sharply focused. Stillness is an essential part of acting, so I already had a certain amount of focus in that beforehand, and I’d always been fascinated by the idea of meditation and what it meant. A still point is a very, very hard place to find.”
On living with monks: “It was a very unfair exchange. Basically, they taught me reams, fathoms, more than I could possibly begin [to teach them]. I became interested the meeting point between Western logic and Eastern mysticism.”
On teaching monks: “They were amazingly warm, intelligent, humorous people. Hard to teach English to. I built a blackboard, which no other previous teachers seem to have done. With 12 monks in a room with an age-range of about eight to 40, that’s quite important – and the reward-punishment thing of sweets or no sweets, or game or no game, worked quite well. But they taught me a lot more than I could possibly ever teach them. They taught me about the simplicity of human nature, but also the humanity of it, and the ridiculous sense of humour you need to live a full spiritual life. There was a time when these two rabid dogs were all over each other, screwing in the back yard, and all of this laughter, ‘Sir, sir, quick, come, sir, sir, quick!’ and these two dogs were just stuck together, having sex, pulling like this, like a Pushmi-pullyu [the two-headed animal in Dr. Dolittle], and the monks were just on the floor laughing at these sentient beings’ pain and ridiculousness, two of them a conjoined couple. And it was so funny, they threw water all over them, but before they did, they were like, ‘Kodak moment, sir, Kodak moment!’ Brilliant! Then we watched Braveheart, which is a fucking violent film for Tibetan Buddhist monks to watch, and they were all going ‘wahey!’ They saw Scotland as being the oppressed Tibetans and the English as the Chinese.”
On using Buddhism in acting: “Sometimes as an actor you’re looking for the infinite. If you can hold that, if you can remember that in the chaos, it will anchor you and give you grace and ease.”
On going on retreat: “I also went on a retreat with a lama, several days of incantation to clear the mind and purify, along with a dozen other people. It was incredible, and I kind of floated out of there after two weeks. When you’ve been that still and contemplative, your sensory awareness is so heightened, sharper-focused, you’re taking in detail to the point where you have to pause a little bit, it was amazing.
On filming Doctor Strange: “It was like, okay, I’ve got to keep throwing these poses, these spells, these rune-casting things, everything he does physically. I’m thinking, there’s going to be a huge amount of speculation and intrigue over the positioning of that finger as opposed to it being there, or there. And I’m still working on that. We haven’t played any of those scenes yet. I felt really self-conscious. But, then, by the end, it was great. It’s like anything, you just have to experiment.”
On the character Doctor Strange: “[He is] a very strong presence in the world. His hands are no longer capable of the fine skill needed for delicate surgery but physically he’s still strong. There’s a lot of running. There’s a lot of craziness: falling, flying, jumping, fighting, punching, getting punched. It’s really rough and tumble.”
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