Tilda Swinton has reflected on her decision to approach Margaret Cho, whom she had never previously met, when she became embroiled in a whitewashing controversy over her casting in Marvel’s Doctor Strange.
Speaking to Variety, Swinton said: “I made a questionable decision to reach out to somebody in a certain way, which was naive and clearly confusing, because their misunderstanding came about because of it.”
She added: “I was embarrassed that I had maybe gone up a blind alley in starting the correspondence in the first place – maybe I had confused matters – but beyond that, I have zero regrets.”
Swinton shaved her head for her role as the Ancient One, a character who had previously been portrayed as an Asian male. At the time of the film’s release in 2016, Marvel Studios said in a statement 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. We are very proud to have the enormously talented Tilda Swinton portray this unique and complex character alongside our richly diverse cast.”
However, in May this year Marvel Studios boss Kevin Feige told Men’s Health that he could understand the criticism of Swinton’s casting. "We thought we were being so smart, and so cutting-edge,” said Feige. “We’re not going to do the clicheÌ of the wizened, old, wise Asian man. But it was a wake-up call to say, ‘Well, wait a minute, is there any other way to figure it out? Is there any other way to both not fall into the clicheÌ and cast an Asian actor?’ And the answer to that, of course, is yes.”
Swinton told Variety that while she hadn’t been aware of Feige’s comments, she is “very, very grateful that he said that”.
“I remember at the time having a question mark in my own mind, and being attendant to the public response to the idea that a Scottish woman will be playing this character, and being aware that there was no resistance at all – there was widespread welcome – which shifted at a certain point, for very good reasons with which I had an enormous amount of sympathy,” she added.
In response to the initial criticism, Swinton contacted comedian Margaret Cho, who is an American of Korean descent, to ask her about the casting debate. Cho later said she had been offended to be called upon in that way. During a 2016 appearance on the TigerBelly podcast, she told host Bobby Lee that Swinton “wanted to get my take on why all the Asian people were so mad … and it was so weird”.
She added: “It was weird because I felt like a house Asian, like I’m her servant.”
Swinton reprised the role of the Ancient One in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame. It has not been confirmed whether the character will appear in the forthcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, which is set for release in 2022.