Gemma Chan Talks Color-Blind Role in 'Mary Queen of Scots': "Art Should Reflect Life Now"

Gemma Chan-Mary Queen of Scots-Publicity Still-H 2019
Liam Daniel/Focus Features

The 'Crazy Rich Asians' star played Bess of Hardwick, a historically Caucasian adviser to Queen Elizabeth I, in Josie Rourke's adaptation of the relationship between the English queen and Mary Stewart.

Gemma Chan opens up about her color-blind casting as Bess of Hardwick in last year's Mary Queen of Scots in a new Allure cover story, saying that she believes "art should reflect life now."

In the profile, published online Tuesday, the English actress said that she noticed her casting as Queen Elizabeth I adviser Bess of Hardwick, a Caucasian woman, in the Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie-headlined film had provoked some controversy among internet trolls. "Why are actors of color, who have fewer opportunities anyway, only allowed to play their own race? And sometimes they’re not even allowed to play their own race,” she said. “In the past, the role would be given to a white actor who would tape up their eyes and do the role in yellowface. John Wayne played Genghis Khan. If John Wayne can play Genghis Khan, I can play Bess of Hardwick.”

The colorblind casting in Mary Queen of Scots was spearheaded by director Josie Rourke, a film and theater helmer who previously headed up the all-female production of Julius Caesar at London's Donmar Warehouse in 2012. She told Refinery29 in December that her casting choices on the period film drew from her theater experience, where colorblind casting is far more common than in Hollywood: "When I sat down with [the studio] early, before we got down to a lot of stuff, I said to them, ‘Just so you know, I’m not doing to direct an all-white period drama. That’s not something I’m going to do.’ And they were really hugely supportive of that," Rourke said.

In addition to Chan's casting as Bess of Hardwick, Adrian Derrick-Palmer portrayed English courier George Dalgleish and Ismael Cruz-Cordova played David Rizzio, the secretary to Mary Stewart (Ronan). 

In the Allure piece, Chan also mentions the effect that theater has had on diversifying casts for historical stories set in Europe or North America, which traditionally predominately highlight white characters. "I feel like Hamilton opened minds a lot. We have a black man playing George Washington. They describe it as ‘America then, told by America now.’ And I think our art should reflect life now,” she said.

Chan, who is of Chinese heritage but was born and raised in Britain, said herself that she feels her racial identity is "compound." "I feel British, and European, and English, and Chinese, and Asian," she asserted.

Using the example of the 140,000 Chinese Labour Corps members who joined Allied forces in World War I, which she only learned about while working on a documentary about the Corps last year, Chan said, "If we portray a pure white past, people start to believe that’s how it was, and that’s not how it was.”

Chan is currently in theaters as Minn-Erva in Marvel Studios and Disney's Captain Marvel, a character who is Kree and has blue skin.