Tilda Swinton, Scott Derrickson on ‘Dr Strange’ whitewash casting

Wyatt Ong
Tilda Swinton, Scott Derrickson on ‘Dr Strange’ whitewash casting
Film director Scott Derrickson says the cast and team behind 'Dr Strange' take diversity very seriously and take many factors into consideration when casting

HONG KONG – Kicking off the Doctor Strange press tour in Hong Kong, star Tilda Swinton and director Scott Derrickson once more addressed criticism of Hollywood whitewashing of Tilda’s casting as the Ancient One.

The original Ancient One was an old Tibetan man, but according to a statement sent to Mashable by Marvel Studios back in April, the Ancient One in the upcoming superhero movie is a Celtic embodiment of the role. “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,” read the statement. 

In a round table interview with Asian media, Scott said that the cast and the team behind Dr Strange took diversity very seriously and that they took many factors into consideration when casting. 

WHITEWASHING? Tilda Swinton and 'Doctor Strange' director Scott Derrickson speak up on criticism that the casting of Tilda for The Ancient One is whitewashing. Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios

He said they were aware that they were essentially taking a space for an Asian character, but also aware that retaining this character meant potentially playing into stereotypical portrayal of the role – something that is also often under scrutiny when it comes to Asian characters in Hollywood films. 

“Hollywood movies have an abysmal record when it comes to Asian representation, both in the international sense of the characters and Asian Americans,” he said.

“I’m so sensitive to that issue… I just don’t think there is a way to create this character without falling into racial stereotypes. Casting a woman got me halfway there, and not just a woman, but a woman Tilda’s age – very proud of that. But I don’t like the fact that we got rid of an Asian role. I wasn’t comfortable with that, I’m still not comfortable with that. I did my best to compensate for that by bringing [Doctor Strange’s friend] Wong into the movie in a huge way, because his character I could completely rewrite.”

The need for better Asian representation and improved diversity in casting, he said, was top of mind – and Scott said he could not fault critics for the intense scrutiny. 

“But it doesn’t mean that we didn’t still erase an Asian character from the source material, we did, and people who are activists for this cause are going to be upset about that and I’m not gonna say that they shouldn’t be,” said Scott. 

“Because the only way this is gonna change, the only way it’s gonna get better is if people who are activists, people who are outraged about it continue to be outraged about it. I don’t think I could have made better choices. I made the best choices I could, and I’ve thought about it more than I probably should at this point, I still think I made the right choice, I think the movie will show that.”

“But things have got to change when it comes to Hollywood’s representation of Asians, and the only way that’s gonna happen is by this kind of backlash existing at every possible turn. Otherwise, it just won’t. Otherwise, it will stay the same. So I don’t criticize my own critics for that.”

Screengrab from YouTube/Marvel Entertainment

In an earlier press conference for the film in Hong Kong, Scott, who also has writing credits, said that the role in the movie was written specifically for Tilda. 

He explained: “With Tilda, it was primarily a need to find somebody who could embody the intrigue of the Ancient One, who was very complex character, enigmatic, ethereal, androgynous, I mean all these things that we had done with the script, we wanted an actress who could come in and bring the complexity of that character. And I specifically wrote the role for Tilda. In fact… I told Kevin [Feige, Marvel Studios president] if she turned the role down we’d have to rewrite the script, because it was so tapered to her, I couldn’t write the character well until I imagined Tilda doing it.”


At the roundtable interview, Tilda also pointed out that her casting did not initially make waves. 

“We were suprised because the truth is my casting did not provoke any backlash at all, right? And neither did the first trailer.”

Scott added that they were dragged into the issue when Ghost in the Shell started to release images of Scarlett Johansson cast as a Japanese character: “When Ghost in the Shell starts to release images, then it became a big issue and it got dragged into the fire, I think, a bit. So yeah, we were all surprised.”

Screengrab from YouTube/Marvel Entertainment

Tilda’s casting was announced in August 2015 and its first trailer was released in June 2016. The first photos of Scarlett in Ghost in the Shell was released in April 2016.

Tilda added: “And what we know, which still you don’t know because you haven’t seen the whole film, is that we feel so confident that the film is so clearly a film that’s dedicated to a diverse universe in every aspect. And so it was surprising, but at the same time, we are so up for that outrage – I mean, it’s uncomfortable that it might be remotely attached to our film – but we’re so up for that – not even debate, but that outcry that there should be a greater representation of diversity in cinema. So it’s kind of ironic for us, and ironic for Marvel, because Marvel is so dedicated.”

Scott, meanwhile, pointed to the role of Benedict Wong as Wong, Dr Strange’s friend and fellow warrior, saying that his role was critical to the film and was carefully approached.

Scott told Screenrant about Wong, who served Doctor Strange in the comic books: “He was loyal in the books, and certainly fulfilled a purpose… a stereotype going back to any number of white hero-Asian driver, servant. That is not his role in this movie at all. Everyone in this movie knows more in Strange. Everyone is more talented when it comes – for 90% of the movie, to the magical abilities and the mastery of the mystic arts than Strange is, and Wong is a fellow warrior who has been a master in his own right. As we meet him in this movie, he’s tasked with protecting some of the most valuable relics and book Kamar-Taj has.”

In Doctor Strange, the titular doctor-turned-sorcerer finds his way to the Ancient One after a car crash ruins his career as an in-demand surgeon. The Ancient One guides him on his new path to become Sorcerer Supreme.

Doctor Strange opens in the Philippines October 26. – Rappler.com 

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