Tilda Swinton feels ‘collateral damage’ of Doctor Strange ‘whitewashing’ controversy

White star of Marvel comic-book adaptation, who plays The Ancient One - a Tibetan man in the original story – thinks critics of her casting have misunderstood production team’s intentions

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 13 October, 2016, 5:56pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 13 October, 2016, 5:56pm

Doctor Strange star Tilda Swinton believes the controversy over her casting as The Ancient One, a male Tibetan character in the Marvel comic book on which the film is based, is born of a misunderstanding. The British actress told SCMP.com the film’s production team had been surprised by the row, which had left them feeling like “collateral damage”.

Swinton, 55, is in Hong Kong to promote the superhero movie alongside co-star Benedict Cumberbatch, director Scott Derrickson and Marvel Studios executive producer Kevin Feige.

“I really want people to see the film to understand why we were surprised by it, because it all felt a little like a misunderstanding about the film that we’ve made,” she said. “It felt like we were slightly collateral damage.”

Hong Kong is one of three cities (the others being London and New York) involved in a key plot detail of the film, and features in a climatic scene late on.

Actor Benedict Cumberbatch in Hong Kong to kick off global promotion of film Doctor Strange

The film tells the story of neurosurgeon Doctor Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) who, after losing the use of his hands in a car accident, discovers a hidden world of sorcery. Swinton is cast as Strange’s mentor, the Ancient One.

Derrickson, who also co-scripted the film, echoes Swinton’s bewilderment at the criticism of her casting. “I was surprised by it, because when the first trailer came out, there was no talk about that at all.”

“Or even [at] the casting [stage],” Swinton chimes in.

“Even the casting wasn’t an issue until the controversy surrounding Ghost in the Shell started. Then people started bringing up this movie,” says the director, referring to the casting of Scarlett Johansson as Major Motoko Kusanagi – commonly regarded a Japanese character – in that live-action adaptation.

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Derrickson is adamant that he sees the casting decisions in Marvel films as “an important issue”, and that the producers and directors are “responsible for all representations, for all diversity and for all the racial and ethnic representations in the movie. I feel very strongly about that issue.”

The director feels that the perception the production has “whitewashed” an Asian role has arisen because of his rewrite of the comic-book story, which was done with the best of intentions. “In the comics, if we’re honest, The Ancient One and [sidekick] Wong are both somewhat offensive, if not very offensive, racial stereotypes: [they are] 1960s American views of what Asians are like.

“I was very committed to not bringing any of that to the screen at all. In the case of Wong, it was great because I could really reinvent that character. I could overturn all of the stereotypes and all the clichés of that character and give him a whole new life beyond the comics.”

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In the case of The Ancient One, however, Derrickson found himself “stuck with” certain aspects of the original role. “The character had to be a mystical, magical, martial arts mentor to a white lead character. And every time I tried to imagine any version of that character played by an Asian actor, it felt like a racial stereotype.”

The director then decided to turn the character into a woman. “[But] then it felt like a ‘dragon lady’, which is a very bad American stereotype that has existed through the history of cinema,” he says.

“So our intention was to not play into the stereotypes, but to subvert them. And that was why Tilda got the role. But as a result of that also, we made the role of Wong much bigger than it was before we cast Tilda.”

In April, Marvel released a statement highlighting its “very strong record of diversity in its casting of films”. Regarding Swinton’s character, the studio explained that, “The Ancient One is a title that is not exclusively held by any one character, but rather a moniker passed down through time, and in this particular film the embodiment is Celtic.”

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Doctor Strange opens in cinemas worldwide later this month, and Swinton is staying positive in spite of the controversy. “I’m all for people speaking vociferously for a more diverse representation of the world we live in, and my desire to see that voice out there will never change. And I hope that the representation will change,” she said.

Doctor Strange opens in Hong Kong on October 27 – a week before its American release on November 4. Look out for SCMP.com’s extensive interview with Benedict Cumberbatch in late October.

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