Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige went on record in May saying he regrets whitewashing the role of The Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” by casting Tilda Swinton. In a new interview with Variety, Swinton said she is “very, very grateful” that Feige came forward to denounce her casting. Feige added at the time, “We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge. We’re not going to do the cliché of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the cliché and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”
Around the time “Doctor Strange” was opening in fall 2016, Swinton told IndieWire that once people saw her “Doctor Strange” performance they would 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, noting Feige and director Scott Derrickson “made this very clear decision” to cast Swinton so the role could be changed from “what they considered an offensive racial stereotype in the comic books. 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.”
Looking back at the controversy, Swinton now told Variety, “I remember at the time having a question mark in my own mind, and being attendant to the public response to the idea that a Scottish woman will be playing this character, and being aware that there was no resistance at all — there was widespread welcome — which shifted at a certain point, for very good reasons with which I had an enormous amount of sympathy.”
The whitewashed casting led to another controversy after Swinton reached out to comedian Margaret Cho seeking information on why starring as The Ancient One was problematic. Cho was offended because she had never met Swinton before. The comedian told fellow comic Bobby Lee on a podcast that Swinton “wanted to get my take on why all the Asian people were so mad…and it was so weird.” Swinton then published her whole exchange with Cho on Jezebel. Cho explained to Swinton in the exchange that Asian and Asian American stories “are told by white actors over and over again and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it.” Swinton told Cho that “diversity is pretty much my comfort zone” and the “idea of being caught on the wrong side of this debate is a bit of a nightmare to me.”
As noted by Variety: “Cho later said, however, that the interaction made her feel like a ‘house Asian’ because she had been asked to explain ‘whitewashing’ on behalf of all Asian Americans to someone she had never met — a request that, however well-intentioned, highlighted Swinton’s white privilege and fragility.”
What does Swinton have to say now about the Margaret Cho drama? “I feel like we’re at the point now, where I can say it doesn’t matter anymore, and it was all worth it,” the actress told Variety. “I think it was a hot spot [and] I was aware at the time of being caught in something that [was out of] my actual control. And that felt fine, because it wasn’t my voice that anybody needed to hear.
Swinton continued, “I made a questionable decision to reach out to somebody in a certain way, which was naïve and clearly confusing, because their misunderstanding came about because of it. I was embarrassed that I had maybe gone up a blind alley in starting the correspondence in the first place — maybe I had confused matters — but beyond that, I have zero regrets.”
Head over to Variety’s website to read Swinton’s interview in its entirety.