Tilda Swinton: ‘I wasn’t asked to play an Asian character’ in ‘Doctor Strange’


Here are some assorted photos of Tilda Swinton in NYC on Thursday. She was in town to attend a screening for her film A Bigger Splash (the white coatdress photos), and she also got pap’d running errands in a fabulous grey coat. While her interviews this week are supposed to be about A Bigger Splash (a small European film), she’s ended up fielding questions about her role in Doctor Strange. A lot has been said and written about Tilda’s casting as “The Ancient One.” The Ancient One, in the original comic books, was a Tibetan man who trained Stephen Strange in the art of magic and sorcery. When Tilda was cast, some applauded the character’s gender change and some shaded the Hollywood whitewashing. Until now, Tilda hasn’t said much of anything about it. But she did say words to THR this week.

Before Marvel dropped the first teaser trailer for Doctor Strange, the film was praised not only for the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular neurosurgeon, but also for the re-characterization of the Ancient One, the powerful sorcerer who takes the superhero under his wing to teach him the mystic arts. In fact, that male character would be played by a woman — Tilda Swinton. However, the Ancient One is originally a Tibetan-born male and appears to be another instance of Hollywood’s cultural appropriation of Asian characters.

Yet Swinton — who was well aware of the backlash, and acknowledged it — hopes to reassure Marvel fans. “Well, it’s not actually an Asian character — that’s what I need to tell you about it,” she told The Hollywood Reporter at a Thursday night screening of A Bigger Splash at New York City’s Museum of Modern Art. “I wasn’t asked to play an Asian character, you can be very well assured of that.”

She added with a smile, “You just have to wait and see, because it’s not an Asian character.”

[From THR]

Et tu, Tilda? Sigh. I will see her point – sort of – that the SCRIPT version of the story never had The Ancient One as a Tibetan man. But she’s being too cute by half if she thinks that the Hollywood whitewashing controversy can be shrugged off that way. The original source material for the script had The Ancient One as a Tibetan man, and the screenwriters and producers decided to change the character from the source material. It’s like if someone wrote a script where Martin Luther King is a white frat bro and they cast Scott Eastwood to play MLK and he said, “Dude, that’s how the part was written!!!”


Photos courtesy of Fame/Flynet.

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43 Responses to “Tilda Swinton: ‘I wasn’t asked to play an Asian character’ in ‘Doctor Strange’”

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  1. Dolkite says:

    Nice coat.

  2. Dana says:

    Well, she supported Roman Polanski so of course she’s ignorant.

    • Paula says:

      Ugh I always forget about this Polanski thing. It’s a shame because I love her as an actress, but she seems really out of touch.

    • Snazzy says:

      Did she really? I was such a big fan … well, there’s my respect for another artist in the pooper

    • Miss Jupitero says:

      I still like Tilda, but I have come to conclusion that she is a bit overhyped. She is not the magical glowing spirit animal people want her to be, she just looks stunning on film. She has said an done plenty of truly clueless things.

      Man, I like that coat.

  3. Kaya says:

    So…the part of an Asian man has been recast as a white woman? I fail to see how this is supposed to be reassuring.

  4. Jenn4037 says:

    Maybe she wants credit for not Emma Stone-ing the role? And no one has CG’d her face?

  5. Odesa says:

    If they went with an Asian character it would probably be a “stereotype at best, orientalism at worst” situation, but it is sad to see another Asian character whitewashed. I guess Emma Stone wasn’t available for this one 😒

  6. The Eternal Side-Eye says:

    “No see, I’m just a talented and inspiring man who leads others in a quest for civil rights…I’m not MLK. The role isn’t that. It’s Bob Smith which makes me playing him as a white woman actually ground breaking!”

    Right. This is why I include actors in the backlash about whitewashing, they all know what they’re doing but they’re comfortable with it because their pockets are being filled and then later they can show up and wax poetic about the injustices of the world and all their deep thoughts about the cruelty of man.

    I actually liked Dr. Strange as a character but I refuse to see this film now. I’m not going to keep rewarding an industry that refuses to give roles to minority talent and then acts shocked when ‘Oscars So White’ rolls around every year.

    • JWQ says:

      Agreed with everything you said. You need to be a complete moron to not see the problem in taking a role designed for someone who is not white, and if you are not a complete moron and you still do it, then you are a selfish, greedy prick. There’ s nothing in between, there’ s no such a thing as “doing it for the art” when it comes to whitewashing!

  7. Marty says:

    I’m getting real tired of these actors and actresses feigning ignorance when it comes to the part they play in the the whitewashing of PoC characters. Either they are that dumb/clueless or they really don’t care.

  8. Sam says:

    What bugs me is that they’re trying to do a diversity swap – basically taking a male role and giving it to a woman and going, “Oh, how progressive” to cover up that they also took an Asian role and turned it into a white role. Maybe they were trying to avoid the “mystic Asian” trope by turning the Ancient One white? Maybe? Which is still kind of sad, since you can keep the character Asian without making them a stereotype. Could this also have something to do with the fact that they are banking on the film doing well in China and they don’t want to portray Tibetans in it due to the sensitive nature of the situation they have with China?

    It is sort of gratifying that more people are noticing this stuff now. My husband was the only person years ago who pointed out that Batman Begins did this as well, but nobody else noticed

    • Alexandra says:

      Be assured that it has everything to do with not pissing China off, as it’s a huge market and the movie would probably get banned there, losing tens of millions of dollars, if they would feature a Tibetan character or a Chinese actor playing a Tibetan character. So yeah, they changed the Ancient One for the sake of $$$, but couldn’t they have changed the character, by not making him Tibetan, but still of Asian descend in a way, if they really wanted to play nice with China?

      Of course, Ra’s was supposed to be an Arab, but I guess that if there would have been outrage, they would have justified themselves yet again, that an Arab villain and the white savior (Batman) were too stereotypical.

  9. Zapp Brannigan says:

    I would have more respect for her if she just said “well they waved a big fat wad of cash at me and I like fancy things!”

    She should stick to defending rapists.

  10. Talia says:

    “Cultural appropriation” is such a vague and tricky subject. Cast Asians to play martial arts geniuses – bad, racial stereotypes, cultural appropriation; adjust martial arts genius character who was in original material Asian and make him non-Asian – whitewashing. Can’t win.
    While there should be more diversity when possible (in some instances race is essential to the characters – Eastern European Jews in Holocaust cannot be played by non-whites, or in alternative a tv-show about slavery can’t have lead characters played by non-blacks), there shouldn’t be a hysteria every time the character’s background is reimagined.
    Either way it is not a reproach for an actor, but a question to the producers.
    Tilda is Goddess. Hands off 🙂

    • TheOtherMaria says:

      I’ll respectfully disagree.

      The Ancient One already has a background and they should have stayed true to it, Tilda is a fine actress, but choosing to be coy regarding a role that is well known is not a good look for her (or anyone for that matter).

      There’s a huge difference between playing up racial stereotypes and casting an established character, this isn’t rocket science.

    • Marty says:

      Ha, “reimagined”. Sure Jan.

    • The Eternal Side-Eye says:

      Do you ever think how interesting it is that when a character has a background and specific ethnicity that is often true to life (last I checked China and many parts of Asia had an honored and still revered relationship to their monks and priests) that Hollywood goes, “Well we don’t know how to do this respectfully so we’re just going to trash this character’s background and make a white person play it.”

      The fact that it is somehow impossible to find a way to have Asian characters respectfully embracing their heritage on screen is Hollywood’s new favorite excuse. It was never about, “Don’t let the Asian kid know Kung Fu, that’s stereotyping!”

      It was about not letting some one dimensional side character who barely speaks, knows perfect Kung fu, and is only there to make the white person into the hero be the only representation. Hollywod saw that, went, “too hard” and scrapped all Asian representation from the culture they know the best.

    • Sam says:

      Just no. Plenty of martial arts films have Asian characters and they’re not stereotypes. The point is to create fleshed out, well-rounded characters. If you have an Asian person in a film who is just there to do martial arts, then yes, you’ve created a stereotype character. If they have views, ideas, likes and dislikes, thoughts, and motivations, that’s not a stereotype, it’s a person. Nobody is arguing that PoC characters can’t do things traditionally portrayed by people of their own ethnicity. The point is to make them more than just those things.

    • Miss Jupitero says:

      I don’t see the stereotype. The Ancient One is a fully developed character and is Asian.

      I think the real reason they whitewashed this character is to avoid having an explicitly Tibetan character– the China market means $$$$$$ to Marvel.

      As for Tilda, I have no doubt that $$$$$$ made her rose-colored glasses and breezy dismissal so very easy.

      Someone has to call them on this.

  11. kinta07 says:

    I think this is a really interesting point. Under what circumstance is it allowed to change the ethnicity of a character for a movie?

    I think it is a really hard topic to discuss. For example it also just happened to “The dark tower” movie who will come out next year: In the book, the main character is a caucasian man with blue eyes. Evene in the comic books he is painted that way.

    Anyway, for the movies they cast Idris Elba as the main character. Without a question an outstanding actor, but he does not resemble the main character in the books. Is that ok?

    So when should it be allowed? I would be really interested in your opinion.

    • Miss Jupitero says:

      It would help to understand that when we talk about race, we are not just talking about how someone looks. It’s not just about skin color or hair or “resembling the character in the books”. POC experience erasure of their very existence every day. This is a case of the race of a character being changed for political reasons, which in the process erases the cultural background of that character.

      You might notice that this happens a lot in Hollywood– characters of color being recast as white– but then when we talk about casting a POC actor as a character who would otherwise default to white (because “white” is the default race setting of course), everyone gets soooooo very prickly.

    • JWQ says:

      I don’ t like it when characters change race, gender or sexual orientation when a movie adaptation is made. I think half the fun of watching an adaptation of a comic book or a book is to find an actor who looks like the description of the character, and you can’ t have it if you change important parts of him or her. However, I don’ t bitch about it when a white, straight and male character becomes black, gay or female, because the 98% of the characters in movies are white, straight and male, so having a little more diversity is more than fine by me. When you have a character that diverges from the standard even in only one category, though, you should keep it that way, and when the backlash comes, because it (thankfully) always comes, don’ t play the poor (artistic and clueless) victim part because it’ s infuriating.

      I agree with other posters with the fact that in this specific case it was money talking, and they simply decided to cast a woman in hope to lessen down the controversy and sell it as “see, the character is not asian, but we turned him into another discriminated category, so you can’ t whine about it”. Au contraire!

      • Alexandra says:

        It’s fun to a certain extent, but more than the physical traits, I like to find personality traits and actions that remind me of the character from the books. Like, when I see a scene and think: “Yeah, that smug look was spot-on!” or when scenes play out just how I envisioned them. It’s all about capturing the essence and the spirit of the work.

      • JWQ says:

        You’ re right that it’ s better when you feel it. But even if I wrote down “book” I was talking more about “comic books” to be honest. You have a visual depiction of the character in those, and I find it interesting to have a live action actor looking exactly like the papery form of the character he plays. Robert Downey Jr looks like Tony Stark, I think if they had hired someone like Ryan Gosling, people would’ ve started a riot like they did when Michael B. Jordan was cast as Johnny Storm.

        I would like for more original characters to be created as women, non heterosexual and non caucasians instead of watching established characters being changed, but as I said, if it brings diversity, I’ m not going to complain about it. I AM going to complain if they change someone who is already bringing diversity into a standard character, though.

      • Alexandra says:

        I see what you mean, although I never had an issue with Michael B. Jordan, because hey, more roles to PoC (although sadly, it was an awful movie) and his race wasn’t relevant to the plot. Too bad that that casting choice also showed the worst in people.

        I also think that the artist needs to take responsibility for the characters he’s drawing – like Asian characters looking more “American” instead of being true to their origin. Because then, you’ll clash with the fans on the debate of physicality vs. ethnicity, when some of them are crying, “She’s got the look, but not the race”, while others that she doesn’t have the look, but they nailed the race.

        Totally agree with the original characters – yay for Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Guilotine, Elektra, but honestly, I am not down with female characters who just are a lazy attempt at screaming: “WE DO CARE ABOUT WOMEN!”, simply by swapping the gender of the male superhero, like Jane Foster or Spider Gwen, who are just successors of the original male characters. Only She-Hulk is bad-ass and sassy to stand on her own.

      • JWQ says:

        I didn’ t mind Michael B. Jordan either, but I’ ll admit that I was never interested in that movie to begin with. I just heard about the outrage, and while I understand the “purist” branch of fans who wanted someone more similar to the original, I didn’ t mind mind the casting and I was appalled by the racist tones. I was way more outraged by the addition of Miles Teller, because I can’ t stand that little twerp!

        And I co-sign the entirety of your last paragraph. I got into a fight here a couple of months ago in which I said that while I would like to see more interesting female characters in movies and tv shows, I much prefer seeing something with no women IF the alternative is to watch characters like Jane Foster wasting screentime that could be used for far more interesting things and characters, and that are thrown there only to show that the writers and producers did spend time thinking about the depiction of women in the movie… two seconds to be generous. I hate being mocked like that by Hollywood.

      • delorb says:

        The problem with using comic books as the source material is that you won’t find many POC in them. And if you do, they’re racial/racist stereotypes. I’m told that the Ancient One from the comics would fit that bill. Maybe even the Mandarin. The white comic book fan-boys won’t see a problem perpetuating these characters, but I’m sure Asian audiences cringe.

        So that’s one consideration, the box office is another. And well, it is show BUSINESS. No one is making these movies hoping to make less. They want to make as much as possible. Anything to do with Tibet in China is a third rail conversation.

        I like her answer, which suggests that she’s not all that she seems. Fingers crossed that this is the case.

      • JWQ says:

        “The problem with using comic books as the source material is that you won’t find many POC in them.”
        That’ s why I said that I would prefer for more original characters to be created as female, non caucasian or non heterosexual. If you have one person of colour in your comic book, the temptation of writing it as a stereotype might be too strong to overcome, but if you have two and you need two completely different characters, maybe the writer will realize that they need to create people instead of cliche’. Same thing for women and gays and lesbians.

        As for the box office, yes, maybe it would be an issue, but I also think that spending 250 millions plus other millions of promotion on a movie is mental. Maybe if they lowered the budget, it wouldn’ t be so problematic to gain money back and they could dare to hire someone that deviates from the norm.

    • Alexandra says:

      My opinion is that you are allowed to change a character’s race from the original, as long as him being Asian, European, American, etc. wasn’t in any shape or form relevant to the plot. I remember making this argument when they cast Hermione as a PoC for the Harry Potter play and said that I wished though that JK wouldn’t have used the “but it’s never stated that she has white skin” argument, but instead emphasize on how because it’s a work of fiction, people are allowed to reinterpret it as they feel, as long as it keeps the essence of what made the source material so great. That’s why James Bond or Finn (From Star Wars) can be PoC – the color of their skin doesn’t alter the story in any shape or form and I embrace all these changes, including gender swaps, as long as gender/race isn’t a key factor in the work of fiction, like for instance in “To Kill a Mockingbird”.

      If you can’t give an answer to the question: “But why does X have to be PoC/man?” other than “Because that’s the source material!”, then it’s probably because X CAN in fact be. In this case, not so, because being a Tibetan comes with a whole baggage of mentalities, mysticism and way of life which has nothing to do with the Western culture.

      I know people defend Scarlett for the Ghost in the Shell adaptation, saying that the Asian character didn’t quite look Asian to begin with, because Asians I think, try to be more open to the Western culture, but the look is not the point. She is Japanese – born in Japan, raised in Japan, has a Japanese name. It’s part of her identity, of who she is, and the fact that she wasn’t drawn like a typical Asian doesn’t take that away from her.

      And even if the skin color isn’t relevant to the plot, I still side-eye the sh-t out of any project where they prefer changing a Poc or another minority to someone who is Caucasian, for no other reason than “just because we can”, as if the white privilege wasn’t strong enough already.

      While I wasn’t a fan of the idea of remaking the Magnificent Seven, which was already a remake of Seven Samurai, I applaud them for what they are doing with the diverse cast.

      Oh and if works of fiction like The Jungle Book or Peter Pan had racist undertones, you better make sure to remove that, because it’s 2016.

    • KHLBHL says:

      Great question. I grappled with this for a while because it seems like a fair question (like why would Danny Rand/Iron Fist – who is white in the source material – be cast as Asian? Shouldn’t we be true to source material?), then stumbled across this post. It is an absolutely WONDERFUL explanation for why something like casting Idris Elba in Dark Tower is something to be welcomed in Hollywood and why something like casting Scarlett Johansson as Motoko Kusanagi or Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One is regressive:


      Hope that helps!

      • Alexandra says:

        Iron Fist being Asian is something I can get behind, because as far as I know, Iron Fist is about the character getting immersed in the Asian culture and bringing all his teaching and learning back home, to become a white savior of sorts and get revenge for his father’s death. So why can’t an Asian, who already knows all these things and has been right in the heart of that culture, be the savior instead? Isn’t it offensive when you have this implication of a guy learning Kung Fu, Chi techniques and all that and BEHAVING like an Asian while saving the world, when you could just have had an Asian character to begin with? It’s like – look, you Asians had all that there, but it took an American to come and take advantage of it to become a hero.

      • kinta07 says:

        That is a really great explanation 🙂

    • Sam says:

      There is an interview with John Cho where he lays out what the issues with this are pretty brilliantly. He distinguished between two cases: when a character’s race/ethnicity is left ambiguous in the source material and when it isn’t. There’s a difference between having an ambiguous person and selecting a race for them vs. openly changing a character’s race. For example, people got pissed when Rue was black in the Hunger Games movie. However, in the book, Rue is racially ambiguous. Her race is never stated (some people argue that given her background, it makes most sense that she’s black, but that’s never stated outright). But it upset people that a character whose race was never stated in the source material was case with a black girl.

      Another example is the Martian, which cast a white woman to play a character named Mindy Park (Park is a common Korean surname, although white people do have it as well). The Mindy Park of the book never has her race discussed or mentioned (the author of the book stated later that he envisioned her as Asian, although the book never mentions this). Some people took exception to a white woman in that role, but in truth, it wasn’t “whitewashing” because nobody knew what Mindy Park was ‘supposed’ to be.

      Those examples are different than what is happening here – when a character was clearly a PoC and now is white. That’s whitewashing, and that’s really offensive. I get that they need to tread carefully when it comes to Tibet and China, but they had options beyond getting a white person. If they didn’t want to address the political issue, then don’t make a movie that will force you to be in that position.

      • delorb says:

        The director came out the other day admitting that this was a no win situation. Something I agree with him on. Can you imagine if they’d cast a black man? Or a black woman? The comic book geeks would be screaming even louder than they already are.

    • Starkiller says:

      Because in the particular case of The Dark Tower, nothing about Roland’s character hinges on him being white. If it were an historically based series, okay, but the bulk of the Dark Tower series is set in an alternate universe, with sorcerers and magic and people who are time travelers. If viewers can suspend their disbelief enough to allow for those items but draw a hard line at the main character being played by a black man, they’ve got issues.

      • kinta07 says:

        I am sorry Starkiller but I have to disagree. See, here is the thing (I guess you read the books, so I am explaining it more general for everybody else to understand):

        In the books of the Dark Tower is another main character,a kick-ass dark skinned women who has a mental disorder due to something that happened to her. Anyway, she really loathes the main character (Roland) for being white and also tries to murder him on multiple occasions because of it. This dynamic is important to the story and the developement.

        What I am saying is, there is already an awesome (female) character in the books that is really PoC and even more interesting. If you change the skincolor of the gunslinger (Roland) you also take away the uniqueness from that female character.

    • The Eternal Side-Eye says:

      Others have touched on the literary aspect well so I’m going to approach it from the political aspect.

      Media in our world doesn’t exist in a vacuum and when you transfer any piece of art from its original form to another form you’re going to have to reexamine the world and intentions of the piece.

      We have VERY VERY few minority stars reach cultural zenith whether it be art, movies, or literature. The absence of AA is more expected than their appearance whereas for better or worse there is an abundance of white characters in nearly every single genre.

      Like another poster said when you do replace a white character with an AA it becomes a form of political protest whereas when you remove an AA character and replace it with white it becomes whitewashing, a cultural assault.

  12. lower-case deb says:

    so they don’t want East Asian character to not upset the Tibet/China balance? what about a Nepali or Bhutanese? Some hunk like King Jigme or beautiful like Queen Jetsun or an older statesman like President Bidhya Devi Bhandari? (i did learn quite a bit of names from the William/Kate/Harry tour!)

    too difficult casting? but at this point the brand sells itself and using an unknown actor/actress would be nice…

    or Southeast Asian (Thailand/Philippines?), Japanese/Korean?

    or if they want a different race altogether, why is white the default? can they not be Maori? First Nation? Masai people? Berber? many ancient civilizations collide and create interesting back stories for the ancient one with cross cultural background 😀 (the Ancient One is mixed race?)

    or just… you know don’t explain. s/he is the Ancient One, ain’t no need for ha to explain haself to anyone!

    for example: so the Ancient One is Idris Elba? so freaking what? no need a backstory. or maybe a little explanation why the Ancient One also moonlights as Heimdall on occasion.

    “is that the Ouroboros in your pants or are we going karaoke?” asks Benedict Strangerbatch
    “kindly shut yer mouth, fool,” he said before smiting The Strange One to the ground.

    • lower-case deb says:

      actually, i remember the film with Reese Witherspoon about Sudanese refugees “The Good Life” and the guy playing Jeremiah would be a good stand in for Idris; or the girl, Abithal.

  13. Bridget says:

    They were never going to have The Ancient One be Tibetan. Chinese money is too important nowadays.

  14. So really then, the controversy is about them changing the source material. This one, for me, is a bit more ambiguous, and not just because I like Tilda Swinton. Yes, I suppose changing the character to a non-Asian is whitewashing…but equally, I personally have grown tired of the tired old “wise old asian man perched on a mountaintop stereotypical characterization as well. I don’t exactly blame them for wanting to do away with that either.

  15. Melanie says:

    Christ these British actors need to stop talking about race, yes I’m looking at you Tilda, Joseph Fiennes, Charlotte Rampling, even Benedict (even though I adore him).

    Seriously just stop.

    (For the record I’m a non white female Brit)