Tilda Swinton has said she’s “very grateful” for a renewed discourse around her casting as The Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” — a hot topic for representation in Hollywood that re-emerged last month when Marvel Studios president Kevin Feige expressed regret at casting her in a role that was portrayed by an elderly Tibetan man in the graphic novels, but written for a woman in the movie.
In May, Feige told Men’s Health magazine that the controversy over the 2016 film 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.”
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In a wide-ranging interview with Variety, Swinton said she wasn’t previously aware of Feige’s comments, but that she is “very, very grateful that he said that.”
“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.”
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Swinton became further entangled in the controversy surrounding the Marvel blockbuster after reaching out privately to comedian Margaret Cho, who is of Korean descent, to gain some understanding around the casting debate. Cho, who had never met Swinton previously, was offended by the ask and, during a 2016 guest appearance on the TigerBelly podcast, told host Bobby Lee that Swinton “wanted to get my take on why all the Asian people were so mad…and it was so weird.”
In response, Swinton released their full e-mail exchange to the website Jezebel (“I needed to step in and show what had really gone on,” she explained), which depicted what appeared to be an affable conversation between the two. Cho explained 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,” while Swinton confessed 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.”
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.
Reflecting on the exchange five years later, Swinton said: “I feel like we’re at the point now, where I can say it doesn’t matter anymore, and it was all worth it. 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.
“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,” said Swinton.
“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,” she later added.
Swinton will appear in five movies at the Cannes Film Festival next month: Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch,” Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s “Memoria,” Joanna Hogg’s “The Souvenir Part II” and “The Souvenir”; and Mark Cousins’ “The Storms of Jeremy Thomas.” Her 1987 movie “Friendship’s Death” will also screen at the festival.
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