“Doctor Strange,” the latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, follows eponymous hero Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) as he navigates his way through an unlikely origin story that heavily involves the teachings of an enlightened elder – known as The Ancient One – who sets him on the path to both righteousness and cape-clad ass-kicking. In the original comics, The Ancient One is portrayed as an older gentleman of Tibetan descent. In director Scott Derrickson’s film, the character is played by Tilda Swinton.
Unsurprisingly, the project has faced continued criticism for its casting of Swinton as the character, though Marvel brass and the film’s creative team have long maintained that their casting choice came after the character was already changed with the express purpose to avoid racist undertones. As Swinton explained to IndieWire in a recent interview, the “Doctor Strange” team aimed to circumvent the original character by radically changing many of his trademark attributes.
“Scott [Derrickson] will tell you that he made this very clear decision with Kevin Feige and the whole team to change The Ancient One from the rather, what they considered, offensive racial stereotype in the comic books,” Swinton explained. “This kind of Fu Manchu, ancient man sitting on top of a mountain called The Ancient One. They made this decision to not perpetuate those racial stereotypes.”
Those changes made it possible to cast someone like Swinton – a white woman – ostensibly in hopes that by radically changing the character, it would not be perceived as racist. That’s not what happened, though Swinton’s recollection of the controversy is different.
“As far as I understand it, and I wasn’t completely up to speed on it, but I’m told that when my casting was announced, everyone was pretty stoked about it and there wasn’t an outcry at all,” Swinton said. “And then there was the first trailer, which people were also supportive of.”
When Swinton’s casting as the Ancient One was announced back in May of 2015, fans were mostly excited about yet another talented performer joining the MCU fray, though there was some initial confusion about how she would play a role originally imagined as a male Tibetan mystic.
By the time Marvel revealed the film’s first teaser trailer in April of this year – including a first look at Swinton in character – the backlash had already kicked into high gear. Swinton, however, saw it a little differently.
“There was a moment, I think, when a couple of other films, ‘Ghost in the Shell’ and ‘The Great Wall,’ were announced when people became absolutely righteously and rightfully very motivated to speak out about what they thought about whitewashing,” she said. “We got kinda pulled into that, people not necessarily knowing what the thought processes were on ‘Dr. Strange.'”
The first “Doctor Strange” teaser actually dropped just one day after Paramount released an early image of Scarlett Johansson in character for “Ghost in the Shell,” a first look that was met with swift outcry over the presumed whitewashing of her character. And while Swinton points to films like “Ghost in the Shell” and “The Great Wall” for drawing more scrutiny to the subject long after her part in “Doctor Strange” had been announced and seemingly accepted, both films – and their white stars – were known to the public long before Swinton was cast as The Ancient One.
Swinton, however, isn’t wrong that all of the films have received massive backlash in recent months.
“Fresh Off the Boat” star Constance Wu spoke out against Johansson’s casting after the first look was released, and comedian and actress Margaret Cho followed suit, taking to Twitter in May to lead a discussion arranged the hashtag #whitewashedOUT, which pointed to both “Ghost” and “Doctor Strange” as examples of the erasure of Asian characters in mainstream American cinema. Wu continued to campaign against the practice in July, when the first “Great Wall” trailer arrived, again taking to Twitter to engage further discussion against the “white savior” myth she believes the film will perpetuate.
Creative teams behind all of the films have consistently defended their casting choices, including “Doctor Strange” director Derrickson, co-writer C. Robert Cargill and Marvel’s Kevin Feige, who have leaned on their motivation to “avoid racial stereotypes.” Producer Steve Paul has spoken out on the international flavor of his “Ghost in the Shell,” promising that fans will be “very happy” with the final product. “Great Wall” star Matt Damon publicly called whitewashing complaints “a bummer” at Comic-Con just last month. And it seems that even actual Chinese citizens aren’t ticked off that Damon stars in a film about their own heritage.
Swinton maintains that once people see her film, they will understand and embrace her casting. “There’s a kind of misunderstanding, which I hope the film will make clear when people see the film,” she said.
The actress is also excited about the possibilities the rest of the upcoming MCU slate, which includes films centered around both female and black superheroes, holds for movie-goers eager to see actual diversity reflected back to them on the big screen.
“I’m really looking forward to ‘Captain Marvel,’ and we’re all looking forward to more diverse superheroes,” Swinton said. “Marvel is doing an extraordinary job of actually doing that. Here comes ‘Black Panther.'”
When asked about her own interest in the topic of diversity in entertainment, Swinton held a firm line, albeit one that supports the very same sort of outcry and backlash her own film (and others) are facing.
“It’s very important for people to speak up for a more accurate representation and diversity, particularly in American mainstream cinema, because it’s kind of lagging badly certainly behind television and rest of the world,” the actress said. “It’s important that people speak out about this stuff. All strength to people, loud voices, for a more representative cinema.”
“Doctor Strange” opens in theaters on Friday, November 4.