Controversy over Hollywood 'whitewashing' hits Tilda Swinton in spat with actress Margaret Cho

Last updated 19:36 17/12/2016

Doctor Strange is now screening in New Zealand cinemas.

Tilda Swinton's representative has released emails between the actress and comedian Margaret Cho discussing her casting in Doctor Strange.
Jay Maidment/Marvel
Marvel's Doctor Strange characters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).
Frederick M. Brown
Margaret Cho says her discussion by email with Tilda Swinton made her feel like a 'servant'.

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The casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Marvel's Doctor Strange was mired in controversy and seen by critics as another example of Hollywood "whitewashing" roles specifically designed for minorities.

In the comic books from which Doctor Strange is based, The Ancient One is portrayed as a Tibetan man.

Historically, Hollywood has been a frequent offender in casting white actors in minority roles, including recent fare like Aloha, Gods of Egypt and the upcoming Japanese sci-fi flick Ghost in the Shell, headlined by Scarlett Johansson and filmed in New Zealand.

So in response to heat rising on Doctor Strange, Swinton reached out to a vocal critic, comedian and actress Margaret Cho.

According to Cho, the conversation did not go well, although that has since been disputed by Swinton.

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"Tilda eventually emailed me and she said that she didn't understand why people were so mad about Doctor Strange and she wanted to talk about it, and wanted to get my take on why all the Asian people were mad," Cho told actor Bobby Lee on his podcast TigerBelly. "It was so weird."

It's hard to fault Swinton for wanting to become more educated on why her casting was deemed offensive. But the tone, indicates Cho, was off.

"It was a long fight about why the part should not have gone to her," said Cho, adding that Swinton defended herself by saying she recently produced a film by a famous South Korean director. Cho said Swinton seemed to suggest telling the Asian community to back off the criticism.

At the conclusion of a "long discussion," Cho says Swinton told her not to "tell anybody" about their discussion.

"It was weird because I felt like a house Asian, like I'm her servant," said Cho. "Like the ones when they have in the (British) raj, they would have the house servant who was your confidante ... The servant that was close to you. That's sort of what I felt like, like I was following her with an umbrella. I had a weird feeling about the entire exchange, especially the part of Don't tell anybody."

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The reveal was part of Cho and Lee discussing a lack of roles available to Asian actors in Hollywood. "The fact is we're not given roles that are worthy of us," said Cho. "We're constantly having to wade through and do what we can."

Previously, Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson said he was trying not to play into stereotypes with Swinton's casting. "The first decision that I made was to make it a woman," Derrickson said, adding, "but when I envisioned that character being played by an Asian actress, it was a straight-up Dragon Lady."

Critics didn't buy it, but the film still proved to be a massive hit, pulling in US$224 million (NZ$322 million) to date.

Swinton reacted to the pushback in the November issue of Out magazine.

"There is little for me to add except to say that anyone speaking up for a greater accuracy in the representation of the diversity of the world we live in has me right beside them," she said.

Swinton also defended Doctor Strange, adding: "At the same time, the film Marvel has made - in which they created a part for which I was not bad casting, in actual fact - is a departure from the source material in more ways than one. Ironically, their casting is positively diverse in this case: The Ancient One in this film was never written as the bearded old Tibetan man portrayed in the comics," she said, adding that Chiwetel Ejiofor's character was a white Transylvanian in the graphic novels, and Benedict Wong's role had been significantly expanded from the source material.

Late Friday, Swinton's representative released their full email conversation, which seemed to strike a more genial tone.

Cho released a statement through her publicist on Friday night following Swinton's email release.

The statement read: "Asian actors should play Asian roles. I believe my emails stand on their own and should be taken for the spirit in which they were intended. I am grateful that the debate has now entered the national discussion and remain a huge fan of Tilda's. Now I'm going to go fall asleep at a museum."


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