Margaret Cho & Tilda Swinton Fought Over Doctor Strange Casting


After Marvel’s Doctor Strange made plenty of money at the box office this past November, most thought the Ancient One casting controversy was behind Tilda Swinton. That’s not entirely true, and the ‘whitewashing’ debate that surrounded the Phase 3 adventure is back in the news this morning. Comedian and icon Margaret Cho has revealed that Swinton approached her for advice once fans started to complain. And that conversation turned into a weird, long fight between them that left a really bad taste in Cho’s mouth.

When Tilda Swinton was cast as The Ancient One, many fans immediately complained. Marvel thought it was doing right by having a woman play a role traditionally portrayed by a Tibetan male in the comics. They did not factor in the fact that it is usually a male of Asian descent, and that became the problem. Marvel soon got tagged as whitewashers trying to deny important asian roles to actors from the Tibetan region.

Over the past year, Hollywood in general has had to face plenty of whitewashing accusations, with Aloha, Gods of Egypt, and Ghost in the Shell all coming under fire. Matt Damon felt a huge part of the brunt when he became the white hero in the otherwise asian led fantasy thriller The Great Wall. Actress Tilda Swinton was very concerned about the role she had taken on once she got wind of the whole WhiteWash controversy. So she decided to reach out to comedian Margaret Cho, who is Korean.

According to Cho, who is usually quite candid in her stand-up, this meeting of the minds, which transpired over the course of several emails, did not go well at all. Though Swinton disagrees with Margaret about what was said. According to Cho, the conversation went down like this.

“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. It was so weird. It was a long fight about why the part should not have gone to her.”

Margaret Cho revealed this fight on comedian and actor Bobby Lee’s podcast Tigerbelly. While Cho does not condemn Swinton for wanting to learn and understand why her latest role was turning out to be so controversial, she claims the tone of the conversation was off. And it turned ‘strange’ indeed. She goes onto claim that Swinton tried to defend herself by explaining how she’d recently produced a film by a major South Korean director, news the actress thought would appeal to Cho because of her own heritage. Swinton is said to have then tried to use that as leverage for Cho to demand that the Asian community back off all the criticism. Something Cho refused to do.

At the end of their heated debate, Swinton had Cho swear she wouldn’t recount any of what had just been said to anyone in the press, and demanded that Cho stay quiet about the whole conversation. Margaret goes onto explain what happened between the two.

“It was weird because I felt like a house Asian, like I’m her servant. 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.”

Cho and Lee were discussing the lack of roles for Asians in Hollywood movies, which spurned Cho to open up about this exchange months after it happened. Previously, Doctor Strange director Scott Derrickson had tried to defend the whole whitewashing controversy by claiming he was trying to avoid stereotypes in casting a white woman instead of an Asian man. His first decision was to make this character a woman, to turn it on its head. He says that he didn’t want to cast an Asian woman, because in trying to design that as a character, it came back looking like a ‘straight-up Dragon Lady.’ Something he definitely didn’t want, and also somoethnig he thought would cause even more controversy than what he got.

Most Asian fans, Cho included, didn’t buy his explanation. But that didn’t stop Doctor Strange from being another big hit for Marvel, with the movie taking in $224 million to date. As the movie opened wide around the globe, Swinton publicly talked about her role, saying this to 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…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.”

Late on Friday, following Cho’s admission, Swinton’s own representatives released the full email conversation had between Cho and Swinton, said to be much more ‘genial’ in tone. Cho countered a short while later with this statement.

“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.”

Doctor Strange is still in theaters this weekend. It will arrive on Blu-ray and VOD during the early half of 2017. Future Marvel movies such as Spider-Man: Homecoming and Black Panther have gone out of their way to diversify their casts, and it’s the studio’s hope to avoid another such controversy in the near future. You can read the entire email exchange here.


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