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Matt Damon said Tuesday that his role in the new China-Hollywood production The Great Wall “was always intended to be European,” responding to criticism that an Asian actor should have been picked for the part.
Some critics have said Damon’s casting amounted to “whitewashing,” when Caucasians are chosen for roles that should have gone to actors from other ethnicities.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the American actor said he thinks of “whitewashing” as applying to Caucasian actors applying makeup to appear to be of another race, as was common in the early days of film and television, when racism was much more overt.
“That whole idea of whitewashing, I take that very seriously,” Damon said, using the example of the Irish-American actor Chuck Connors, who played the lead character in the 1962 film Geronimo, about the famed Apache chief.
Damon was in China Tuesday with the cast of The Great Wall for a major press event in central Beijing. The film’s stars and director, Zhang Yimou, walked the red carpet and interacted with fans before taking the stage to introduce their characters and discuss the experience of making the film, believed to be the most expensive Chinese-Hollywood co-production ever, with a budget of more than $150 million. The event was live-streamed across China by LeEco, the tech conglomerate whose film subsidiary, Le Vision Pictures, co-produced the movie.
“Everybody on the crew from all over the world felt lucky to be going to work with Zhang Yimou every day — it was a dream come true for all of us,” Damon said. He was joined onstage by Willem Dafoe, Pedro Pascal and Chinese stars Lu Han and Jing Tian, Hong Kong’s Andy Lau and Taiwan’s Eddie Peng.
In the film, Damon plays a British mercenary in the Middle Kingdom. The Great Wall‘s first trailer sparked criticism in the U.S. that a white man had been chosen to play the lead in a film set in China meant to showcase Chinese culture.
Constance Wu, who stars in the U.S. comedy series Fresh off the Boat, which is centered on Taiwanese immigrants, posted on Twitter, “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that a only (sic) white man can save the world.”
The furor also came amid other accusations of a lack of diversity and opportunities for Asian actors in Hollywood.
Damon and Zhang told the AP that because of the demands of the story, Damon’s role was never envisaged for a Chinese actor.
Damon said he thought the controversy would subside “once people see that it’s a monster movie and it’s a historical fantasy and I didn’t take a role away from a Chinese actor…it wasn’t altered because of me in any way.”
Damon, star of the Bourne franchise and Interstellar, also questioned whether the critical stories on online news sites based on “a 30-second teaser trailer” would have existed before the era of fake news and social media.
“It suddenly becomes a story because people click on it, versus the traditional ways that a story would get vetted before it would get to that point,” Damon said.
People fall for outrageous headlines, but “eventually you stop clicking on some of those more outrageous things because you just realize there is nothing to the story when you get to it,” he said.
The Great Wall debuts in Chinese cinemas on Dec. 16 followed by other countries, including the United States in February.
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Sterling K. Brown