Brow Beat

Tilda Swinton Emailed Margaret Cho, Whom She’d Never Met, to Ask Why Asians Were Mad at Her

Margaret Cho at the TCA Summer Tour in 2016.

Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

On Wednesday, actress Margaret Cho appeared on an episode of Mad TV star Bobby Lee’s podcast TigerBelly, and the conversation turned to whitewashing, the practice of casting white actors to play minority roles. Cho relayed the story of an email exchange she had with actress Tilda Swinton during the runup to Doctor Strange, a film in which Swinton, who is Scottish, played the Ancient One, a character who was Asian (and male) in the comic books.

Cho’s account of their correspondence was not a positive one: She described it as a “fight” in which, Cho said, “I felt like a house Asian, like I’m her servant.” Cho and Swinton had never met; Swinton got in touch through their mutual friend Alex Borstein, who played the racially stereotyped character Ms. Swan on Mad TV. Cho was unclear what Swinton wanted her to do about about the criticism she was receiving:

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It was like, “Could you please tell them not to be so … ” I was like, I can’t tell them. … I don’t have a yellow phone under a cake dome, like “Hello? Don’t be mad! It’s just Tilda!”

When asked for comment, Swinton’s representatives released their entire correspondence, as Vulture reported. Though Cho’s characterization of the exchange as a fight seems like an overstatement, it does look like a textbook example of a white person asking a person of color—a stranger, no less—for some sort of racial absolution, the sort of thing Jamelle Bouie, Gene Demby, Aisha Harris, and Tressie McMillan Cottom discussed on Slate earlier this month.

When Cho gamely explains why people were unhappy Swinton had been cast as the Ancient One, Swinton, who opened the conversation saying she was “much more interested in listening than saying anything much,” justified the casting decision on the grounds, essentially, that she was not personally racist, that there were other Asian and minority parts that had been written into the film, and that casting an older white woman, even one with an aristocratic pedigree going back to the 11th century, was a pro-diversity move that was being lost in the shuffle.

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Cho seemed baffled as to what response Swinton—again, not someone she knew prior to this email exchange—was looking for, telling her, “I am not sure what to say other than I am glad you want to meet the issue head on—it’s a tough one I know,” before giving her general advice as to how to manage the PR surrounding her casting. When Cho suggested that Swinton get involved with “producing content that would give Asian American voices a platform,” Swinton replied that she was producing Bong Joon-ho’s Okja, a film featuring Korean-American actor Steven Yuen. To Cho, as she explained to Bobby Lee, the entire exchange felt like being the house servant in a Merchant Ivory film, “following her with an umbrella.”

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Here is their complete email exchange, beginning with Swinton:

Dear Margaret,

We’ve never met, but you’ve been in my head for years—I’m a fan.

I want to ask you a favour now which is sprung out of a truly important social conversation but may be heading for some crazy-making shit.

The diversity debate—ALL STRENGTH to it—has come knocking at the door of Marvel’s new movie DR STRANGE.

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I am told that you are aware of this. But since I am that extinct beast that does no social media, I am unaware of what exactly anybody has said about any of it. I believe there are some ironies about this particular film being a target, but I’m frankly much more interested in listening than saying anything much.

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I would really love to hear your thoughts and have a—private—conversation about it. Are you up for this? Can we e-mail?

No wrong answer here. Tell me to fuck off if you feel like it. In any and every case,

Much love to you,

Tilda

Cho’s first reply:

From: Margaret Cho
To: Tilda Swinton
Sent: Fri, 13 May 2016 13:32
Subject: Re: Strange matters

Sure! I’m a big fan of yours—since orlando!

Well, what do you know so far? I can tell you from my perspective what’s happening!

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.

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The larger part of the debate has to do with the ‘whitewashing’ of Asian and Asian Americans in film. Our stories are told by white actors over and over again and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it.

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Protest seems to be the only solution—we just want more representative images of ourselves in film. TV is getting better in terms of diversity but film is lagging behind.

Anyway—hope this helps! We can totally email and we can be private! Best, m

Swinton’s response:

Thank you so much for your reply! So grateful to have a chance to chew this cud with you. Super clear.

Here’s the situation I reckon Marvel was in. The old comic books from way back when are stuffed with stereotypes that we could all find offensive for any number of reasons.

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The film—like any film adaptation—is a riff on the books. The Ancient One may have been written as a Tibetan man in the comics, but Marvel, in a conscious effort to shake up stereotypes, wanted to avoid tired cliché. They cast Chiwetel Ejiofor as the second lead—a white Transylvanian in the books. And wrote a significant Asian character to be played by Benedict Wong.

With The Ancient One (the ‘wise old Eastern geezer’ Fu Manchu type in the book), wanting to switch up the gender (another diversity department) and not wanting to engage with the old ‘Dragon Lady’ trope, they chose to write the character as being of (ancient) Celtic origin and offered that role to me. Presumably on Ancient grounds. I accepted happily, impressed that, for once, they aimed to disrupt the ‘wisdom must be male’ never-ending story - and, by the way, for once, wanting to feature a woman who’s a badass, over 26 and not simply bursting out of a bikini.

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The biggest irony about this righteous protest targeting this particular film is the pains the makers went to to avoid it.

A—personal—irony to my being even remotely involved in this controversy is what I stand up for and always have. Whether it is challenging the idea of what women look like, or how any of us live our lives, or how we educate our children, diversity is pretty much my comfort zone. The idea of being caught on the wrong side of this debate is a bit of a nightmare to me.

I am as sick as anybody at the lack of a properly diverse cinematic universe. Pretty much sick of the Anglophone world in general, sick of all the men’s stories, sick of all the symmetrical features and Mattel-inspired limbs..

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I’m a Scottish woman of 55 who lives in the Highlands. There’s precious little projected on contemporary cinema screens that means a great deal to my life, if truth be told.

So

How best might we focus this thing? To offer intelligent and empowered thinking.. And see something constructive coming out of this moment?

Ducking the issue is not what I am about. I want to meet it, but, if possible, move things forward by how I meet it.

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I realise, as far as I am concerned, this possibly means saying nothing: so far I have attempted to correct the notion that I accepted an offer to play an Asian.. (!!) the most significant and damaging misunderstanding out there, it seems. Beyond that, I don’t feel it appropriate for me to add anything, certainly at this point.

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But I would love to know what ideas you—or anyone you know—have of something properly progressive to bring to this table. The debate is so important for all of us. It needs to build itself on strong ground.

love

Tilda

Cho’s reply:

From: Margaret Cho
To: Tilda Swinton
Sent: Fri, 13 May 2016 20:44
Subject: Re: Strange matters

I’m totally unfamiliar with all the comic books so I can’t speak on anything about that—and the efforts to make this film more diverse is unfortunately lost in the translation here. Hopefully that comes up more when the film comes out and is finally brought to audiences!

I think that it’s just a timing thing—Asian Americans are fed up with not being given roles even if the part called for someone of Asian descent—and that the Ancient One role was being used as another example of ‘whitewashing’. Social media has grown to the point where we can use it effectively to express—well whatever.

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I believe very much that you as an artist are about diversity and your body of work shows that—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.

I am not sure what to say other than I am glad you want to meet the issue head on—it’s a tough one I know.

I think that talking about the issue frankly—as you have done with me is the right way to go. It’s hard I know—people get very angry and it’s difficult to know what to do to get around that anger. But you should know that it’s anger built up over many many years of invisibility within film/tv/media that’s just exploded now with this film. And it’s not just you—It’s also directed at Scarlett Johanssen for Ghost in the Shell.

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Maybe what’s best is the highlight the diversity that you do see in the film and that being why you felt drawn to the project.

Also acknowledge that you’re all about diversity and how you want the films you make to be diverse and how film can benefit from that.

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I’d even suggest getting into producing content that would give Asian American voices a platform? That’s really what is being asked for. Asian Americans feel as if we have no place in film and so we want one to be created. Whether that is found in supporting projects that would bring Asians into the foreground or even just discussing what it would take to do such a thing would help.

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Swinton’s final email:

I can’t thank you enough for this.

It really helps me sort out the lay of the land. To be continued.

x

By the way, the project I have been developing as a producer over the past two years is with Bong Joon Ho—my colleague from SNOWPIERCER—a film called OKJA shooting this summer in Korea, NYC and Vancouver—to my knowledge the first ever half Korean/half English speaking film, which we are making with Plan B and Netflix, in which the lead is a 14 year old girl from Korea and which stars Steven Yeun, amongst others … fingers crossed it will be a big deal and help the landscape somewhat … I hope and believe it will …

And Cho’s reply:

From: Margaret Cho
To: Tilda Swinton
Sent: Fri, 13 May 2016 22:30
Subject: Re: Strange matters

Hey that’s great about OKJA!

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