On the cusp of her new stand-up tour, Margaret Cho is rekindling an old flame, so to speak — one that seemingly burned a bridge with Oscar-winning actress Tilda Swinton and ignited a flurry of online discussion about Asian representation in the media.
As she prepares to hit the road with Fresh off the Bloat — the latest in the 48-year-old’s long line of well-received traveling comedy shows — Cho tells EW the upcoming performances will delve deep into her personal past, covering everything from her struggles with substance abuse to her now-public email exchange with Swinton regarding the Doctor Strange whitewashing controversy.
“She got really mad because she didn’t want it to be public, but I think it’s funny. I don’t know why white people get so upset. They get so upset,” Cho tells EW, noting she hasn’t spoken to Swinton (who played the Ancient One — a Tibetan in the original comic book series, written for the 2016 film as a Celtic woman) since their emails made headlines in December 2016.
Swinton had contacted Cho in May of last year to discuss the Doctor Strange casting backlash. “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,” Swinton explained in one of her emails to Cho (read the full exchange here). “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.”
While the emails read as cordial in nature, Cho later characterized the conversation as contentious during an appearance on Bobby Lee’s TigerBelly podcast. (Swinton ultimately released the full chain of emails to the public.)
“Her reps were demanding I apologize,” Cho tells EW, recounting the aftermath of her decision to speak about the interaction. “Apologize for what? I don’t have anything to apologize for. She was just asking me questions. I told her what I thought, and in her talking to me, I felt like a house Asian, like I’m up in her bedroom brushing her hair saying, ‘Yes, madam,’ like real colonial, and to me, that’s really funny. The thing is, whenever you talk to me, you take your life into your own hands. I’m a f—ing bitch. It was interesting and funny because you can’t justify taking the role of an Asian person and trying to pretend to look Asian. People try to hide behind feminism. Scarlett Johansson did the same thing; the [team behind Ghost in the Shell] was like, ‘Oh, we just want to show that women can kick ass.’ Yeah, you can do that, but you don’t have to [whitewash].”
As a pioneer for Asian people in movies and on television (her 1994 sitcom All American Girl is often credited as the first TV comedy to focus on an Asian-American family), Cho has dedicated large portions of her comedy routines to advancing issues of equality, with a particular focus on race and sexuality. While bringing issues of Hollywood hiring practices to the forefront of her act, Cho landed a part in a major industry production herself, starring opposite Will Smith in a supporting role in the upcoming Netflix actioner Bright, directed by David Ayer.
“I get really starstruck when I’m around him. It’s like, ‘Holy s—.’ It was so hard to act, because I was like, ‘Oh my god, I’m in a f—ing scene with Fresh Prince,’ so it’s shocking and he’s great to work with. He’s a great, very down-to-earth person; he has a Blackberry!” Cho says of working with Smith. “It’s weird, because we were making the movie, and of course I didn’t see any of the special effects, and I also never saw Joel Edgerton. I always just saw that orc [he’s playing]. He was in makeup three hours before any of us would get there, so I didn’t even know I was in a movie with him, I just knew I was in a movie with this orc.”
When asked about comments previously made by the film’s writer, Max Landis, about Asian women in Hollywood (“There are no A-list female Asian celebrities right now, on an international level, it’s infuriating,” he said in a 2016 video), Cho admitted she didn’t meet Landis on the set of the film, but disagrees with the logic behind his argument that the film industry is not to blame for underrepresentation.
“You’d never defend something by saying there’s nobody who could get a green light when movies are greenlit with unknown white stars all the time. People want somebody new in a movie,” Cho says. “People want somebody they haven’t seen before. That’s not a valid argument. You can say it’s true to some extent… but that’s no justification for trying to whitewash an iconic Asian character and story.”
The first leg of Fresh off the Bloat kicks off Aug. 3 in Hunstville, Alabama and continues through Dec. 12 in Oslo, Norway. Tickets are available now here.