Gemma Chan on Race, Playing a Historically White Character in “Mary Queen of Scots”

Actress Gemma Chan, who plays Madam Ya Zhou in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, has recently spoken out about the casting decision that led to her portrayal of Bess of Hardwick in Mary Queen of Scots. (Chan is of Chinese descent, while Bess of Hardwick, a historical figure, was white.) In her cover interview for Allure magazine, Chan problematized the idea that actors of color, such as herself, should play only characters of their own racial background.

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.

Chan referenced the practice of yellowface, in which a non-Asian actor is made to look Asian with makeup or prostheses.

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.

Citing the musical Hamilton as another example of how casting has moved beyond certain racial lines, Chan expressed how these decisions have led to a greater understanding of how diverse people were in other time periods.

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.

Chan experienced this for herself last year while working on Britain’s Forgotten Army, a documentary on the Chinese Labour Corps.

I studied the First World War three times at school. And I never heard that there were 140,000 Chinese in the Allied effort. We would not have won the war without them.

Still, it remains that a whitewashed image of the past is often what gets told, as Chan also expressed.

If people understood that, my parents [might not] have been told, ‘Go home, go back to where you came from’ multiple times. If we portray a pure white past, people start to believe that’s how it was, and that’s not how it was.

From her Allure interview, it is clear that Asian representation isn’t the only representation that matters to Chan. She cited the films BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther, both of which have predominantly black casts, as examples of positive media representation. Captain Marvel, in which she stars, was another example that Chan gave, for its representation of women both behind and in front of the camera. Complimenting designer Prabal Gurung in particular, Chan stated that she is pleased to see more diversity, including plus-size and transgender runway models.

I love opening up a magazine and seeing a whole mixture of body types, gray hair, dark skin, wrinkles — we’re saying that we find these things beautiful.

For more on Gemma Chan’s thoughts, you can read her full interview with Allure here. Are you, like her, excited to see more diversity in the media? Let us know in the comments below!