Margaret Cho has responded to Tilda Swinton’s release of their email exchange about the Doctor Strange whitewashing controversy — a discussion that appeared cordial on paper despite Cho previously characterizing it as “weird” and “kind of a fight.”
“Asian actors should play Asian roles,” Cho said in a statement to EW on Friday evening. “I believe my emails stand on their own and should be taken for the spirit in which they were intended. I am grateful that the debate has now entered the national discussion and remain a huge fan of Tilda’s.”
In recent days, Cho and Swinton offered two very different accounts of their dialogue, which took place earlier this year and centered on Marvel’s contentious decision to cast Swinton, a white British actress, as the Ancient One, a character who is Tibetan in the original comic books.
On the latest episode of comedian Bobby Lee’s TigerBelly podcast, Cho said she and Swinton had a long, awkward conversation about the controversy. After a mutual acquaintance put them in touch, Cho said, “Tilda eventually emailed me and she said that 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.”
Cho added, “It was so weird … I was like, ‘B‑‑‑‑, I can’t tell them …. I don’t have a yellow phone under a cake dome.” The conversation made Cho feel “like a house Asian,” she said. “Like I’m her servant … like I was following her with an umbrella.”
In response to Cho’s remarks, Swinton (via her publicist) provided a series of emails to EW and other outlets representing “the entire unedited and only conversation she has ever had with Margaret”; the correspondence suggested a much more friendly and nuanced exchange than the version Cho described.
In Swinton’s first email to Cho, she introduced herself as a longtime fan of the comedian and asked to discuss “a truly important social conversation.”
Swinton wrote, “The diversity debate – ALL STRENGTH to it – has come knocking at the door of Marvel’s new movie DR STRANGE. 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. I would really love to hear your thoughts and have a – private – conversation about it. Are you up for this?”
Cho obliged and explained that many Asian-Americans thought the Ancient One should have been played by an actor of Asian descent, in keeping with the source material.
Over the course of the exchange, Cho stressed that Asian-Americans would like to see themselves better represented on the big screen and suggested that Swinton consider producing content that would help give them voice.
Swinton wrote in the emails that Marvel’s decision to alter its portrayal of the Ancient One had to do with avoiding stereotypes such as the “wise old Eastern geezer” and the “dragon lady trope.” She added, “I am as sick as anybody at the lack of a properly diverse cinematic universe.”
In her TigerBelly appearance, Cho had said her conversation with Swinton ended with the latter saying, “Well, I’m producing a movie with [Korean-American actor] Steven Yeun.”
“Oh like, ‘I have a black friend, I can do this,'” Lee chimed in.
The emails painted a slightly different picture. Referring to Okja, a film she is starring in and producing with her Snowpiercer director, Bong Joon-ho, Swinton described it as “to my knowledge the first ever half Korean/half English speaking film … 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.”
Read Swinton and Cho’s full email exchange (reproduced with their permission) below.