“The Great Wall” movie has kept Matt Damon very busy lately and not just trying to promote it. The actor has spent most of the time defending against criticism’s of the film being “whitewashed.”
As the film will begin opening in theaters Dec 16, he’s spending most of his interviews talking about why he was cast in the role that many feel should have gone to an Asian actor.
Matt Damon criticized “outrageous” stories in the era of fake news as he responded Tuesday to accusations that his role in the new China-Hollywood co-production “The Great Wall” should have gone to an Asian actor.
Some critics have said Damon’s casting as the lead character amounted to “whitewashing,” in which Caucasians are chosen for roles that actors of other ethnicities should play.
In an interview with media outlets, the American actor said he thinks of the term “whitewashing” as applying to Caucasian actors putting on makeup to appear to be of another race, as was common in the early days of film and television, when racism was 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, 46, plays an English mercenary in the upcoming $150 million adventure fantasy about a Chinese army battling monsters, helmed by acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou.
The movie’s 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. The furor came amid other accusations of a lack of diversity and opportunities for Asian actors in Hollywood.
Damon 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 headlines designed to make people click on them.
“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,” said the star of the “Bourne” franchise.
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,” Damon said.
“The Great Wall” is the first movie made by Legendary East, the Chinese venture of Legendary Entertainment, a Hollywood studio now owned by Chinese real estate and theater chain developer Wanda Group. Other companies behind the movie include the state-owned China Film Group Corp.; Le Vision Pictures, a private film company affiliated with Chinese tech firm LeEco; and Hollywood’s Universal Pictures.
The Great Wall is also the first English-language film by acclaimed Chinese director Zhang Yimou. It tells a fantastical story about the building of (you guessed it) China’s Great Wall, except in this case there are giant monsters attacking the soldiers who defend it. Damon stars in the lead role as a strong-willed Caucasian leader that helps to keep his fellow Chinese soldiers fighting. Since the film’s first trailer debuted that showed Damon leading the charge, the casting was seen as if he was the “white savior” of the film.
Damon and Zhang told the media that because of the demands of the story, Damon’s role – a mercenary who comes to China to steal gunpowder – was always intended to be European.
Damon said he thought the criticism over his casting 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.”
The film is the first Sino-Hollywood co-production and first English-language film for Zhang, the director of the romantic Kung Fu drama “House of Flying Daggers” and the opulent opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
It also stars Pedro Pascal of “Game of Thrones” as Damon’s sword-wielding partner in crime, Willem Dafoe and Hong Kong’s Andy Lau. Jing Tian plays the female lead warrior. Eddie Peng of the boxing drama “Unbeatable” and Lu Han, a former boy band sensation, also appear.
In the movie, China’s Great Wall has been built to keep out menacing, otherworldly creatures. The use of monsters and a hero saving the world are very much Hollywood techniques.
Zhang told the media that the script took Hollywood seven years to develop. “Although it was developed for commercial purposes, I felt there was room for me to play and put many elements of Chinese culture into it,” he said.
Most Chinese co-productions with the West have been box-office flops, but producers hope “The Great Wall” can show that big-budget Sino-Hollywood co-productions can work.
Hollywood is eager to work with Chinese actors and producers to appeal to the Chinese cinema-going market, which is expected to outgrow the current No. 1 market, North America, within the next two or three years. The Chinese government has long sought to project cultural influence abroad and hopes that “The Great Wall” will be an international blockbuster.
“This kind of cooperation is not an end, but a start,” Zhang said. “It is just like relations between countries; cooperation is always a good thing and confrontation is not.”
While promoting The Great Wall at the New York Comic-Con in October, Damon addressed the film’s heated whitewashing controversy. He first decided to lighten the mood by saying, “Yeah, it was a f**king bummer.” But, then he went on to discuss the situation in a more serious way.
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“I had a few reactions. I think I was surprised, I guess because it was based on a teaser. It wasn’t even a full trailer, let alone the movie. So, to get those charges levied against you…what bums me out actually is that I read The Atlantic religiously. And there was an article in The Atlantic, [so] I was like really guys? To me whitewashing, I think of Chuck Connors when he played Geronimo…there are far more nuanced versions of it, and I do try to be sensitive to that.”
What’s important to note is that the The Great Wall isn’t a film that’s trying to make some big statement to the world, it just wants be a fun blockbuster with monsters. Is whitewashing wrong? Yes, obviously. But that doesn’t mean all of the righteous anger of moviegoers should be directed towards a film like The Great Wall that is clearly very aware of its own absurdity. By adding the film to the list that includes Ghost in the Shell, the no-need-to-discuss Gods of Egypt, Cameron Crowe’s Aloha, Exodus: Gods and Kings, and so many more, what’s going to be the outcome? It’s hard to say at this juncture, but you probably already know that it won’t be a satisfying one. However, Damon went on to give a final comment out of respect for The Great Wall.
Damon also said:
“From a marketing perspective, like what’s the worst wipeout for a marketing team than to have that happen as a backlash against the teaser that you put out. They’re trying to establish a number of things within 30 seconds or to a minute. It’s not a full-length trailer. It’s a teaser, and they’re trying to tease the monster…Look it’s a visual filmmaker. You probably don’t know who this director is in middle America. [He’s the] Steven Spielberg of China right? Don’t worry; they speak English in this movie. They’re trying to establish all these things, and by the way, there’s monsters right. They’re trying to lay a lot of pipe in that 30 seconds. And I guess in retrospect like I watch that teaser a number of times to try to understand the criticism, but ultimately where I [sic] came down to was, if people see this movie and feel like there’s somehow whitewashing involved in a Creature Feature – I will listen to that with my whole heart. And I will think about that, and I will try to learn from that. But I will be surprised if people see this movie and have that reaction, I will genuinely [be] shocked. And it’s a perspective, that as a progressive person, I really do agree with and try to listen and try to be sensitive to, but ultimately I feel like you are undermining your own credibility when you attack something without seeing it. I think you have to educate yourself about what it is and then make your attack or your argument and then it is easier to listen to from my side.”
The film debuts in Chinese cinemas on Dec. 16 followed by other countries, including the United States on February 17.