In this year’s Marvel flick Doctor Strange, Tilda Swinton plays the Ancient One, a character that was originally Tibetan in the movie’s comic-book source material. Changing the race of the character was reportedly a politically-motivated decision “in large part over fears of offending the Chinese government and people — and of losing access to one of the world’s most lucrative film markets,” according to the New York Times. Of course, anyone with any familiarity with American pop culture knows that there is a dearth of Asian faces on screen, which made Swinton’s response to the controversy that resulted from her casting—“I wasn’t asked to play an Asian character”—come of as tone deaf. Like, sure, exactly. That she was asked at all is in stride with Hollywood’s overall apathy regarding diversity.
On his TigerBelly podcast this week, comedian/actor Bobby Lee discussed this tendency to rewrite characters that were once Asian as white (which also happened with 21) with his guest Margaret Cho. Cho, in turn, spilled tea on an argument she had over the phone with Tilda Swinton regarding the Doctor Strange dust-up.
“She said 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,” recalls Cho, who said a preliminary email from Swinton led to a long conversation that was “so weird.”
“[She] was like, ‘Could you please tell them...’” says Cho. “I’m like, ‘Bitch, I can’t tell them...I don’t have a yellow phone under a cake dome.’”
Cho describes their ensuing conversation “kind of a fight about why the part should not have gone to her.”
“Basically, it ended with her saying, ‘Well, I’m producing a movie with Steven Yeun starring.”
“Oh, like I have a black friend, I can do this...” is how Lee interpreted that.
Cho says she ended up feeling like Swinton’s “house Asian...like I’m her servant...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.’”
Naturally, Cho told everybody.
I reached out to Swinton’s rep for comment and will update this post if and when I hear back.