'Captain Marvel's Gemma Chan says she should be able to play white characters

Ben Arnold
Contributor
Gemma Chan (Credit: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni)

British actress Gemma Chan has said that she should have every right to play white characters in movies, following her role as Bess of Hardwick in the forthcoming Mary Queen of Scots movie.

Chan plays Hardwick, a shrewd businesswoman, and key player in Elizabethan society, opposite Saoirse Ronan’s Mary Stuart and Margot Robbie’s Elizabeth I.

The Humans and Captain Marvel star, who grew up in Kent with parents from China and Hong Kong, was being interviewed by Allure magazine, when she was asked: ‘Why are actors of colour, who have fewer opportunities anyway, only allowed to play their own race?’

Gemma Chan as Elizabeth Hardwick (Credit: Universal)

She replied pointedly: “And sometimes they’re not even allowed to play their own race.

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“In the past, the role would be given to a white actor who would tape up their eyes and do the role in yellowface.

“John Wayne played Genghis Khan. If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick.”

In the movie, Adrian Lester plays Lord Thomas Randolph, casting she says could only have been made possible by projects like Broadway stage sensation Hamilton.

“I feel like Hamilton opened minds a lot. We have a black man playing George Washington. They describe it as ‘America then, told by America now.’ And I think our art should reflect life now,” Chan added.

Brie Larson and Gemma Chan in Captain Marvel (Credit: Marvel)

The star of Crazy Rich Asians star also speaks about a documentary project she worked on last year about the Chinese Labour Corps, a force of 140,000 Chinese labourers who were recruited to join the Allied Forces on the western front during World War I.

“I studied the First World War three times at school. And I never heard that there were 140,000 Chinese in the Allied effort,” she said.

“We would not have won the war without them.

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“If people understood that, my parents [might not] have been told, ‘Go home, go back to where you came from’ multiple times. If we portray a pure white past, people start to believe that’s how it was, and that’s not how it was.”

Chan comments come after a string of recent ‘white-washed’ roles in Hollywood, from Scarlett Johansson’s starring role in Ghost In The Shell, via Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One in Doctor Strange, to Netflix sci-fi horror Annihilation, in which Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh played roles described in the book it was based on as being Asian and half Native American.

But the issue stretches far back into Hollywood history, from Yul Brinner’s Oscar-winning role as the King of Siam in The King and I, and, in one of the ugliest instances, Mickey Rooney as Holly Golightly’s Japanese landlord in Breakfast At Tiffany’s.