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Asian Actors in Comic Book Films Respond to ‘Doctor Strange’ Whitewashing Controversy

With “Doctor Strange” opening this weekend, the “whitewashing” controversy surrounding the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One in “Doctor Strange” has resurfaced.

Both director Scott Derrickson and writer Jon Spaihts have defended Swinton, rationalizing that casting a woman in the role of a man was already a diversity choice.

But some Asian visibility groups, notably the Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA), have rejected these rationalizations, arguing that an Asian woman could have been cast instead of the British actress. As MANAA’s former president Guy Aoki noted, “whitewashing” of Asian comic book characters has happened before, citing The Mandarin (Guy Pearce) in “Iron Man” and Talia al Ghul (Marion Cotillard) in “The Dark Knight Rises” as examples.

Variety spoke to several Asian actors who have appeared in comic book films and TV shows to discuss “whitewashing” in the genre.

Benedict Wong, who plays Wong in “Doctor Strange,” defended his costar’s casting. “Let’s champion this as a real piece of diversity,” the actor explained, echoing the writers’ sentiments. “We have two strong females leads in Tilda and Rachel [McAdams]. We have Chiwetel [Ejiofor], Mads [Mikkelsen], posh Benedict [Cumberbatch] and not-so-posh Benedict [Wong].”

Wong further explained how Derrickson and Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige dispelled stereotypes around his own character. “The idea of a man servant and tea-making sidekick isn’t that appealing,” the British Chinese actor said. “Scott and Kevin said vehemently ‘we’re not doing this.’ And I said, ‘Fantastic, because neither am I.'”

Kelly Hu has had the fortune of playing comic book characters true to their Asian origins. (Michael Buckner/Variety/REX/Shutterstock)

Kelly Hu has been fortunate to be cast in roles true to their source material, including Japanese cyborg Lady Deathstrike in “X2” and supervillain China White on “Arrow.” “I think it’s a shame,” the Chinese-American actress said of “whitewashing.” “From what I’ve been told and what I’ve read, it’s because [studio executives] think that Asian actors and actresses don’t pull in the numbers — that people aren’t going to pay to see Asians on screen. With all these borders opening up and movies going global these days, Asians make up a huge part of the population in the world, and I hope that will start reflecting in Hollywood.

Lewis Tan, who stars as villain Zhou Cheng in the upcoming Netflix series “Iron Fist,” had his own experience with “whitewashing.”

Although “Iron Fist” is Caucasian in the comic books, fans pressed Marvel for an Asian lead.

“I originally auditioned for the lead and was highly considered for it, but they went a different way,” Tan explained. “In the original comic, he was a Caucasian guy with blue eyes, blonde hair. I think Finn Jones fits that character very well, so I have no issues with that.”

“I think there is a large, multicultural, diverse group of people who aren’t seeing themselves represented the right way, as far as being heroes and love interests. That’s what I do stand for.”

When asked about Swinton, Tan responded, “I’m not the biggest fan of that casting choice. I can see why they wanted to switch it up. Producers, studios, directors, writers — there’s a lot of voices. I think that an Asian woman would’ve been fantastic cast in that. They said she would be too much of a ‘Dragon Lady’ or too stereotypical, but I disagree.”

Lewis Tan says he was considered for the titular role of “Iron Fist,” but was cast as villain Zhou Cheng instead. (Katie Jones/Variety/REX/Shutterstock)

Asian actors have played Asian comic book characters in other comic book films: Olivia Munn (who is half-Chinese) portrayed Psylocke in “X-Men: Apocalypse.” Vietnamese-American actress Lana Condor portrayed Jubilee in the same film. Over in the D.C. Universe, Japanese-American actress Karen Fukuhara portrayed Katana in “Suicide Squad.” None of these would be considered major roles.

The one exception is Marvel’s “The Wolverine,” which featured Japanese actors in major roles, including Rila Fukushima as Yukio, a female ninja and Wolverine’s sidekick, and Hal Yamanouchi as Silver Samurai. However, since the story took place primarily in Japan, the use of an Asian supporting cast was a necessity.

By whitewashing the role of “The Ancient One” in “Doctor Strange” — a film that’s going to dominate the box office — is a major blow to diversity and visibility, critics argue.

“Doctor Strange” is in theaters now.

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