Director defends casting actress Swinton as The Ancient One

Director Scott Derrickson cast Tilda Swinton (above left) as The Ancient One in Marvel's Doctor Strange to avoid the stereotype of an old coloured person using ancient wisdom to help a white man find greatness.
Director Scott Derrickson cast Tilda Swinton (above left) as The Ancient One in Marvel's Doctor Strange to avoid the stereotype of an old coloured person using ancient wisdom to help a white man find greatness.PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY
Director Scott Derrickson (above) cast Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Marvel's Doctor Strange to avoid the stereotype of an old coloured person using ancient wisdom to help a white man find greatness.
Director Scott Derrickson (above) cast Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in Marvel's Doctor Strange to avoid the stereotype of an old coloured person using ancient wisdom to help a white man find greatness.PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

Look up Doctor Strange online and the top news hits are likely to be related to the online uproar over the casting of a Caucasian woman, Tilda Swinton, as The Ancient One, who in Marvel's source comics is an old Tibetan man.

In the months leading up to the film's release, it seemed that the production could not be talked about without also mentioning the Hollywood practice of "whitewashing", in which non-white characters are replaced with ones played by Caucasians because the studios believe that white actors sell more tickets.

Japanese-American actor and activist George Takei was particularly angered.

In a Facebook post in May, he called the studio's move "dumb and out of touch".

In Hong Kong, both Swinton, 55, and director Scott Derrickson, 39, seemed eager to discuss the issue and tell their side of the story.

Swinton says the outcry, in its timing and its ferocity, blindsided her. "We were surprised. The truth is, my casting didn't provoke any backlash at all. Neither did the first trailer," says the British actress.

Anyone who has seen the film and its multiracial cast - which includes British actor Benedict Wong in a strong supporting part as the sorceror Wong - will see that the work "is dedicated to diversity", she says.

Derrickson agrees, adding that Wong's part was beefed up in response to the anger, as a way of taking responsibility.

He also admitted that Hollywood "has an abysmal record in Asian representation".

Earlier this year, after news broke that the lead role in the live-action remake of the classic science-fiction anime Ghost In The Shell would go to Scarlett Johansson instead of an Asian woman, the flame was lit.

"When that movie released its first images, it became a big issue and we sort of got dragged into the fire," Derrickson says.

From the beginning, he had seen The Ancient One as a problematic part, he says, because the old coloured person who uses ancient wisdom to help a white man find greatness is a stereotype, a trope common in the 1960s, when the comic was created.

Casting a woman was his way of reducing the harm, says Derrickson. He stands by his decision, but also thinks that activists are right to speak out.

"The only way this is going to change and get better is if people are outraged, and there is this kind of backlash again."

John Lui

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 26, 2016, with the headline 'Director defends casting actress Swinton as The Ancient One'. Print Edition | Subscribe