Matt Damon Says His ‘Great Wall’ Character Was ‘Always Intended to Be European’
From the time that the first images of Zhang Yimou’s upcoming historical epic The Great Wall came to light, the thorny matter of identity politics has hounded the film. In the period piece, confirmed white man Matt Damon portrays a heroic warrior who protects the Middle Kingdom’s greatest architectural and strategic achievement from an encroaching menace, and many frustrated online commentators have questioned the place of a non-Asian actor in a wholly Asian film. The term “whitewashing” cropped up all over, referring to the continued practice in the film industry of casting Caucasian actors in roles that could (or should) have otherwise gone to non-white performers. With a problematic pall still cast over the production and the Feb. 17 release fast approaching, Damon spoke out on the issue again (he first addressed it in October) in a new interview with The Associated Press, via The Hollywood Reporter, and attempted to assuage some of the public’s misgivings.
THR noted that for his key soundbite, Damon explained that his character “was always intended to be European” in the interview. Laying out his understanding of whitewashing as the application of race-aping makeup to white actors, Damon stated that he “take[s] that very seriously,” and made reference to Irish-American actor Chuck Connors’ portrayal of Geronimo in the 1962 biopic about the Apache legend. (It has, to put it mildly, aged poorly.) Damon went on to add that the fuss would probably die down “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 also attributed a lot of the hubbub raised over The Great Wall to the rise of the Internet and what he sees as its many kangaroos courts of public opinion: “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. “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.
Those who originally objected to Damon’s appearance in the film might suggest that the problem lies not so much with Damon “stealing” a role from an Asian actor, but that the role was written for a white actor in the first place. But hey, that’s what those photos of Kermit the Frog drinking tea by the windowsill are for.