Tilda Swinton releases e-mail exchange with Margaret Cho over Doctor Strange 'whitewashing' row

Tilda Swinton (left) approached Margaret Cho (right) about fan fury over her casting as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange.
Tilda Swinton (left) approached Margaret Cho (right) about fan fury over her casting as the Ancient One in Doctor Strange.PHOTOS: REUTERS, TODD V. WOLFSON

LOS ANGELES - Actress Tilda Swinton has released a bunch of e-mails between herself and comedian Margaret Cho amid a "whitewashing" debate over Swinton's role as the Ancient One in the movie Doctor Strange.

Fans have protested the casting of white British actress Swinton as the character, who was written in the original comic book series as a Tibetan man.

Swinton contacted Cho to find out what all the fuss was about.

Asian-American Cho told the podcast TigerBelly that Swinton - an army officer’s daughter who went to the same school as the late Princess Diana - had contacted her to say 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".

But Swinton's approach didn't go down too well with Cho who accused her of making her feel like a "servant".

“(She) was like, ‘Could you please tell them … ’” Cho told the podcast.

“I’m like, ‘B***h, I can’t tell them… I don’t have a yellow phone under a cake dome.’”

"I felt like her house Asian... like I'm her servant... like I was following her with an umbrella."

After an account of the interview was published on the website Jezebel, Swinton's representative sent the website the full e-mail exchange.

Swinton first contacted Cho on May 13 (2016), saying that while they had never met, “I’m a fan”, and she wanted to ask a favour.

“The diversity debate – ALL STRENGTH to it – has come knocking at the door of Marvel’s new movie DR STRANGE,” Swinton wrote, but said she was unaware of the debate since she didn’t use social media.

“I would really love to hear your thoughts and have a – private – conversation about it.”

In response, Cho declared herself in turn “a big fan of yours”, then wrote: “The character you played in Dr Strange was originally written as a Tibetan man and so there’s a frustrated population of Asian Americans who feel the role should have gone to a person of Asian descent.”

The broader debate, Cho wrote, was to do with the “whitewashing” of Asians in American films.

“Our stories are told by white actors over and over again and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it.”

Marvel has repeatedly been forced to defend Swinton’s casting, with the film’s screenwriter hinting the character’s race was changed from Tibetan to avoid upsetting China, said the Guardian.

Swinton responded to Cho by saying that Marvel had made an effort to challenge stereotpes by casting Chiwetel Ejiofor as a character who was originally white. She noted that she was pleased to have been offered a role, as a woman in her 50s, that was originally the "wise old Eastern Geezer Fu Manchu" part.

“Diversity is pretty much my comfort zone,” she wrote. “The idea of being caught on the wrong side of this debate is a bit of a nightmare to me.”

Cho responded by saying that she accepted that as an artist Swinton was “about diversity”, “but this particular case of the Ancient One is just another in a long list of ‘whitewashed’ Asian characters, and so you’re likely to feel the heat of history.”

She suggested that Swinton could help by producing more films with roles for Asian-Americans, to which the actor replied that she was currently developing a part Korean-language film with a number of Korean leads.

Cho has since released a statement responding to Swinton's publication of the e-mails.

She said she remained a "huge fan" of Swinton, and wrote: "Asian actors should play Asian roles. I believe my e-mails stand on their own and should be taken for the spirit in which they were intended."