Matt Damon became the center of controversy over the summer with the debut of the first U.S. trailer for "The Great Wall," the action-fantasy epic from Legendary Pictures, which was criticized for focusing on the white American star over the film's Chinese talent, including ingénue Jing Tian, boy band breakout Junkai Wang and renowned director Zhang Yimou ("House of Flying Daggers").
Is the American-Chinese co-production whitewashing Chinese culture for the sake of U.S. audiences? At New York Comic Con, Damon and co-star Pedro Pascal shared their thoughts on the hot-button issue.
At a press conference held following "The Great Wall" panel, where the first full trailer was revealed, the proudly progressive Damon said of the whitewashing accusations and subsequent backlash, "It was a fucking bummer."
"I had a few reactions," he continued. "I was surprised, I guess because it was based on a teaser. It wasn’t even a full trailer, let alone a movie. So, to get those charges levied against you ... What bummed me out really is I read The Atlantic religiously and there was an article in The Atlantic. I was like, ‘Really, guys?’ To me whitewashing, I think of Chuck Connors when he played Geronimo. Look there are far more nuanced versions of it and I do try to be sensitive to that. But Pedro Pascal called me, and goes, ‘Yeah, we are guilty of whitewashing. We all know only the Chinese defended the Wall against monsters when they attacked.'”
The assembled press laughed, and Pascal was quick to jump in with a joking, "I never said that! Don't quote me!"
“Look," Damon continued with a chuckle, "it was nice to react a little sarcastically because we were wounded by it. We do take that seriously. That's a serious thing."
Pascal added, "And we don’t want to be kept from work that they wouldn’t have the opportunity otherwise to see that is very, very specifically Chinese. It's through Zhang Yimou's lens. It is a creature feature. It’s a big, fantastical popcorn entertainment movie, but it has a visual style that is very, very Zhang Yimou’s and his only."
"And it's a giant co-production," Damon interjected, referring to how Hollywood and Chinese production companies came together to make this "Great Wall."
"And there are actors in it who are from China," Pedro noted. "There's a Chinese crew, and stars that some of the Western world knows, and not a lot."
"When you look at it from a marketing perspective," Damon continued, "what’s a worse wipeout for a marketing team than to have that happen, as a backlash against a teaser you put out? I thought of it from their perspective. Like, OK, they're trying to establish a number of things within 30 seconds or a minute, or however much they had. It’s not a full-length trailer; it's a teaser. They’re trying to tease a) the monster, right? They’re trying to say, 'Look, it’s a visionary filmmaker that you probably don't know.' They're trying to speak to a bigger audience, not like us," he said, gesturing to the press corps well aware of Yimou's films "Hero," "The House of Flying Daggers" and "Flowers of War." "But a bigger audience. 'They probably don't know who this director is in Middle America, right? He's the Steven Spielberg of China, right? Don’t worry! They speak English in this movie.' So you hear my voice speaking English. 'Don’t worry! Matt’s in the movie. You’ve seen this guy before!' So, they’re trying to establish all these things, and by the way, there are monsters. Then that's 30 seconds and you’re done, you know what I mean?"
"There’s a lot of pipe they’re trying to lay in 30 seconds," Damon concluded. "I guess, in retrospect ... I watched that teaser a number of times to try to understand the criticism, but ultimately where I came down was if people see this movie and feel like there is somehow whitewashing involved in a creature feature that we made up, I will listen to that with my whole heart. I will think about that and try to learn from that. I will be surprised if people see this movie and have that reaction. I will be genuinely shocked. It’s a perspective that as a progressive person I really do agree with and try to listen to and try to be sensitive to, but ultimately I think you are undermining your own credibility when you attack something without seeing it. You have to educate yourself about what it is before making your attack or your argument, and then it’s easier to listen to, just speaking from my side.”
"The Great Wall" arrives in theaters Feb. 17.