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Tilda Swinton releases full Margaret Cho emails

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 17/12/2016 Andrea Mandell
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Tilda Swinton wants you to decide for yourself about her conversation with Margaret Cho.

Cho revealed in a recent podcast that she had a "long fight" with Swinton over her decision to play The Ancient One, previously a Tibetan character, in Marvel's Doctor Strange

Cho termed their discussion "weird," said it left her feeling like Swinton's "house servant" and ended with the actress asking her not to "tell anybody." 

But USA TODAY has obtained what Swinton's rep Brian Swardstrom says is the "entire unedited and only conversation" between the two – and it appears largely friendly.

Tilda Swinton © Silverhub/REX/Shutterstock Tilda Swinton On May 13, Swinton begins: "We've never met, but you've been in my head for years - I'm a fan. I want to ask you a favour now which is sprung out of a truly important social conversation but may be heading for some crazy-making (crap). The diversity debate -  ALL STRENGTH to it - has come knocking at the door of Marvel's new movie DR STRANGE.

Swinton begins, not ends, her conversation requesting privacy, according to the email chain. "I would really love to hear your thoughts and have a - private - conversation about it. Are you up for this?  Can we e-mail? No wrong answer here,' she writes."Tell me to (screw) off if you feel like it."

Margaret Cho is speaking out about her private conversation with Tilda Swinton. © Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images, Mike Marsland/WireImage Margaret Cho is speaking out about her private conversation with Tilda Swinton. Cho responds the same day. "Sure! I'm a big fan of yours," she writes, detailing the crux of Doctor Strange's problem, writing that "the character you played in Dr Strange was originally written as a Tibetan man and so there's a frustrated population of Asian Americans who feel the role should have gone to a person of Asian descent.  The larger part of the debate has to do with the 'whitewashing' of Asian and Asian Americans in film.

Cho continues: "Our stories are told by white actors over and over again and we feel at a loss to know how to cope with it.  Protest seems to be the only solution- we just want more representative images of ourselves in film. TV is getting better in terms of diversity but film is lagging behind."

Cho signs off with this:  "Anyway - hope this helps! We can totally email and we can be private!"

The two actresses continue to email, with the tone remaining largely genial.

"So grateful to have a chance to chew this cud with you," says Swinton, explaining Marvel's since-public stance that they wanted to change the sex of The Ancient One, but"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," says Swinton.

(Critics would later severely condemn this rationale.)

Swinton continues: "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."

Swinton asks: "How best might we focus this thing?  To offer intelligent and empowered thinking..  And see something constructive coming out of this moment? Ducking the issue is not what I am about.  I want to meet it, but, if possible, move things forward by how I meet it...I would love to know what ideas you - or anyone you know -  have of something properly progressive to bring to this table. The debate is so important for all of us. It needs to build itself on strong ground."

On the podcast, Cho indicates she felt like Swinton was suggesting she ask the Asian community to back off of the criticism, though that's not spelled out in their email correspondence.

In her following email, Cho does plainly state that the studio's efforts to make the blockbuster more diverse "is unfortunately lost in the translation here."

"I believe very much that you as an artist are about diversity and your body of work shows that - but this particular case of the Ancient One is just another in a long list of 'whitewashed' Asian characters and so you're likely to feel the heat of history," writes Cho. "I am not sure what to say other than I am glad you want to meet the issue head on - it's a tough one I know." 

Cho praises opening such dialogue: "I think that talking about the issue frankly - as you have done with me is the right way to go. It's hard I know - people get very angry and it's difficult to know what to do to get around that anger."

But, she adds: "you should know that it's anger built up over many many years of invisibility within film/tv/media that's just exploded now with this film. And it's not just you - It's also directed at Scarlett Johansson for Ghost in the Shell. Maybe what's best is the highlight the diversity that you do see in the film and that being why you felt drawn to the project. Also acknowledge that you're all about diversity and how you want the films you make to be diverse and how film can benefit from that."

Cho then suggests Swinton try "getting into producing content that would give Asian American voices a platform...that's really what is being asked for."

Swinton responds that she's currently producing South Korean director Bong Joon Hoo's upcoming film, Okja. "Hey that's great about OKJA!" says Cho. 

But in this week's podcast, Cho suggests Swinton brought up Okja as a point of vindication. "We’d fight about it and basically it ended with her saying, ‘Well I’m producing a movie and Steven Yeun is starring," said Cho.

Vanity Fair has reprinted their entire exchange.

Cho released a statement through her publicist on Friday night following Swinton's email release. 

The statement read: "Asian actors should play Asian roles. 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. Now I'm going to go fall asleep at a museum." 

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