Finn Jones Addresses Show’s White-Washing Controversy

It’s been been a year since Finn Jones found out he was cast as the titular character in Marvel’s Iron Fist on Netflix, and he remembers that day very clearly. Jones, who had felt pressure to “get the breakout role now when it’s hot” after leaving Game of Thrones, had gone to spend the day at Venice Beach with a friend. “We were just chilling out, the sun was setting, and … we watched these two dolphins jump up as the sun was setting,” he said. “Like, ‘life is good right now,’” he remembered telling his friend before returning to his car and realizing he had a “million voicemails.”

When Jones finally dialed his agent to hear, “Congratulations, you got the role!” he admitted that he “lost [his] shit.” “I started crying. I, like, got out of the car. I was, like, jumping around,” the actor said. He even woke up his mom in England with a call to tell her the news. “It was a moment of complete just relief that, like, finally, after years and years and years of, like, auditioning and wanting to get the lead in something, and especially something as cool as this, just relief of, like, it finally happened,” the now-28 year old said. “The dream had come true. Something I had worked my whole life for had just happened.”

But as Jones celebrated, a vocal contingent of Marvel fans were doing quite the opposite.

Danny Rand, who has always been white in the comics, was introduced in Marvel Premiere #15 in 1974, a time when after being at war with different parts of Asia, America was ready to accept martial arts, but not ready to accept an Asian protagonist. Many feel the origins of Danny Rand and Iron Fist reek of cultural appropriation and Orientalism, and that casting an Asian-American actor to play Danny Rand would have been a major step toward amending that, as well as increasing Asian-American visibility in entertainment. Soon after the casting announcement about Jones, #AAIronFist was trending on Twitter.

It wasn’t long after Jones was happy-crying about landing his first lead role that he learned about the criticism of Iron Fist, which he’s continued to hear over the course of the year. Though Jones did not cast the role of Danny Rand, he did accept it — and soon, he became the face of the controversy. “It’s up to the writers to address thematic and narrative choices,” Jones told BuzzFeed News diplomatically of how he approached the character in the wake of the backlash. “And it’s up to us as actors to try and breathe life into these characters as truthfully and as honestly and with [as much] genuine passion as possible.”

When asked directly about his thoughts on the controversy, Jones paused and finally said, “You know, here is what I’m going to say about it. I get where that frustration comes from. I get the need for diversity and equality in television and film… well, actually in every aspect of life. Right now we live in a culture and a world where we are very unequal in politics, in economics, and in culture. We are being fucked over massively by the top dudes. I stand up for people, I stand up for people across all borders.”

Marvel Comics / Via 8bitsoul.com

Jones went on to stress that “there needs to be more diversity in television and film, especially for Asian actors.” He explained, “With this instance in particular, what I struggle with and what frustrates me is that people are commenting on the headline without understanding the full picture, without understanding the full story. What you’ll find with the way that we’re telling this story is we’re addressing the issues that people are very concerned about in a very intelligent and modern way.

“Danny Rand is not a white savior. Danny Rand can hardly save himself, let alone an entire race of people. He is a very complicated, vulnerable individual. He doesn’t just show up, like, ‘Hey dudes, I’ve just learned martial arts! I’m going to save the world,’” Jones said in a surfer voice. “Actually, it’s the complete opposite. He’s gone through and suffered immense trauma and he is struggling to claim his own sanity and identity back.”

While Danny Rand has always been white, K’un Lun — the mystic city where Iron Fist lives in the comics, that materializes in the heart of the Himalayas once a decade — has always been presented as a part of Asia. Its inhabitants in the comic books are characters like Shou-Lao and Master Khan, and on the Netflix series, Danny, having only lived in K’un Lun and New York City, shows he is fluent in Mandarin Chinese in the first episode. According to Jones, the creators of Iron Fist took steps to right some of those wrongs that linger from the sort of American kung fu B-movie scene that the Iron Fist comic was borne out of.

“In the comic books, that place is essentially an Asian culture,” Jones said of K’un Lun. “Now K’un Lun in our version, it is a very diverse place. It’s a mystical kingdom in an alternate dimension, but it is populated by people from all over the map. You’ve got South Americans there, you’ve got Europeans there, you’ve got of course Asians there. It’s a diverse space, and we address Danny’s inability to honor and hold responsible the Iron Fist — like, that is part of the story, the fact he has this title, but is unable to harness the responsibility of what that means. And Danny is on a journey to hopefully better himself and hopefully learn to earn the right to hold the Iron Fist… and hopefully in that journey, we address the issues which people are concerned about.”

The show plays with the perception of Danny early on in one of his first scenes opposite Colleen Wing (Jessica Henwick), dojo owner, master martial artist, and Danny’s eventual partner in crime fighting. When trying to get a job at Wing’s dojo, Rand begins speaking Mandarin to her as a way to impress her, and she tries to respond as best she can before stopping him to say she’s only fluent in English and Japanese.

“Just because we have this color skin, it doesn’t mean we have to conform to preconceived notions of our culture,” Jones said of the scene. “We are human beings on this planet, and we all individually have different attributes. We’re not stereotypes, and hopefully, that’s what the show does. Hopefully the show doesn’t — I don’t think it does — deal in stereotypes, which I think people are worried about.”

If Iron Fist viewers continue to find Netflix’s origin story of Danny Rand problematic, Jones urged them to stick around, saying the show only gets better and better at exploring Danny’s place in the world. “It’s not until [Episode 8] where you have other characters come in from other places that we really start playing around with the idea of Danny being the Iron Fist and addressing those issues,” Jones said. “Then you’re really like, Oh shit, now we’re getting into those philosophical ideas of identity and culture.’”

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[IRON FIST] Finn Jones on Characters, Casting, and more

Finn Jones was interviewed on set of Marvel’s Iron Fist and read bellow and visit Gadgets 360 for more.

“I think what makes Danny stand out from the other three is that he has an optimism, and a youthful inspiration, which the other characters don’t have,” Jones said. “All the other characters are quite dark; they have been through the mill quite a lot. Danny is fresh, and I think he brings a lot of that to the show.”

Even visually, he added, their locations set them apart. “It’s also very elegant. Look where we are filming today,” he said, pointing to the fountain behind us. “It’s beautiful. And the whole show is beautiful. Daredevil, Jessica Jones, it takes place in like Hell’s Kitchen, it’s quite gritty. We shoot in Wall Street, [and] Gramercy Park. We’re in these big, gorgeous, [luxurious] sets.”

Jones wasn’t alone in Central Park that night. He shot with three other cast members, including Jessica Henwick, a good friend of his through their mutual work on HBO’s Game of Thrones. Loras Tyrell and Nymeria Sand – the characters played by Jones and Henwick respectively – may have never met on screen, but thanks to Comic Cons, press tours, and table reads, the two have known each other for a while.

Henwick believed they were “so lucky” to have access to such iconic places as the Bethesda Fountain. “We have access to a place that is normally flooded with tourists,” she said. “We have it here, and we are filming with a rain machine. Like it looks so epic, and that’s always the appeal of these bigger productions, is the scale of it is insane.”

The fame of Star Wars, and chasing after Iron Fist
On Iron Fist, Henwick plays Colleen Wing, a Japanese-American martial arts sensei who owns a small dōjō in New York’s Chinatown neighbourhood. Henwick is of East Asian descent. “Colleen is interesting, in that she’s had a very troubled childhood,” Henwick told us on set. “Her mother died when she was very young, [and] she wasn’t raised by her father. She was sent to her grandparents in Japan, and moved back to America.”

Owing to that, Henwick remarked, Wing “doesn’t feel at home anywhere”, adding, “she doesn’t know which culture she belongs to. She’s kind of a chameleon, and so I tried to infuse that in the series, that she shifts when she’s with different people. You know, the same way when you’re talking to your boss, you speak in one tone of voice, and when you’re talking to your friend, you speak in another tone of voice. She does that, but in terms of how New York she gets versus how traditional Japanese she gets.”

 

Unlike Rand, Wing has no superpowers. “I like that she’s ordinary,” Henwick said. “It’s nice to see a strong woman, and there’s no reason to it. She’s just strong. It’s not because she was hit by a radioactive bomb, or something.” The 24-year-old English actress seems to gravitate towards such roles, it seems. Her best known role is as a skilled, cunning warrior on Game of Thrones, and now she plays a martial arts expert and talented swordswoman on Marvel’s Iron Fist.

Back when Marvel announced Iron Fist for Netflix, Henwick looked up the list of characters, and spotted Wing. She immediately emailed her agent, gave her Wing’s character traits – since production houses use aliases to prevent leaks; for example, Jessica Jones was called Violet – and told her to keep an eye on auditions that would come in.

“And lo and behold, in December when I made a self-tape, it came in under a false project name, and the character was called ‘Christine’,” Henwick remarked. “And [my agent] was like ‘I think this is the character you were telling me about.’ And I said ‘100%. I have no doubt, that, that is Colleen Wing.'”

A lucky death, and the dolphin story
Jones sent in a self-tape around the same time, though he was introduced to the project in an entirely different fashion. He was at the airport after his last day of filming for Game of Thrones – [spoiler alert] the character died in the fifth season finale – and started wondering what would be next for him. “And I get this email for a television show, and I open it,” he said. “I realise it’s a Marvel superhero, and I’m like ‘Whoa, this is pretty cool. [But] yeah, I’m never going to be a superhero. C’mon, it’s like a million miles away.’”

He travelled to Los Angeles a couple of months later, to take part in auditions during the pilot season, hoping to land a new show. Incidentally, Iron Fist ended up being his first audition, Jones revealed. He described the casting process to be quite elongated – having to do multiple screen tests, auditioning in front of various people, which comes with the Marvel territory, and jumping through “lots of hoops”.

 

Jones vividly recalled the day he got the nod, last February. “I was on Venice Beach with a friend of mine, and the sun was just setting,” he said. “This sounds ridiculous, but it’s completely true. As the sun was setting, these dolphins started like jumping up out of the sea, and I was like ‘This is a good omen.’” As he got back to his car, he received a voicemail telling him the Iron Fist role was his. “I lost my mind,” he said, with excitement in his voice. “I called my mum up straight away, I was jumping up and down, I just couldn’t believe it.”

For Henwick, a call came in the week after Jones was cast. “I got a phone call saying they want to fly you to LA for 24 hours,” she said. The two, being good friends, had spoken in the meantime. So when she heard from Netflix, Henwick rang up the man who would play Rand. Jones added: “Jess called me and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a screen test for Iron Fist. I’m coming to LA tomorrow.’ And I was like ‘No f—— way. Come to my house the night before.’ She landed, came straight to my place, [and] we ran through the scenes together.”

Even though Jones auditioned with other actresses for the same role, he noted that they “had a good thing going on”. “We went there as a team together, and we got the job, so it was great,” he added. “It’s good to kind of stand by your friends in moments like that, and help each other out.”

When Henwick landed back in England, she got a phone call from Marvel Television executive VP Jeph Loeb: “And he said ‘Just wanted to check you got home safe’. And I was like, ‘Yeah, yeah, I’m home safe, I’m fine’, thinking this is a bit weird the head of Marvel TV called me. And then, he said ‘Oh, I’ve a very small thing, and it’s four words that are going to change your life: Welcome to Marvel, Jess’.”

Martial arts, and gritty realism
After that, things began to pick up steam. Marvel’s Iron Fist went on the floors at the end of March, but both Jones and Henwick had a lot to do before that – studying their characters, dialect and accent practice, and training in martial arts, and with weapons.

“People train years, [even] all their life. I had two months,” Jones said, to laughter. “So it was a lot of work. Before we started shooting, I was working in the dōjō. I was doing two hours of martial arts, and two hours of weight training. I didn’t want to bulk up; he’s meant to be slender, toned, kind of more agile, and athletic, rather than a muscle-bound gym rat.”

Henwick was assigned to aikido classes in England, straightaway. And when she flew into New York, she worked with series stunt coordinator Brett Chan, and his assistants, who taught her other martial arts styles – including kick-boxing, and Krav Maga – and how to use a katana, a traditional Japanese sword that’s the weapon of choice for Colleen Wing. “It was intense,” she noted. “I’ve transformed my body over these past five months. I’ve never felt so physically capable, as I do now.”

For Jones, one of the best things about his character, he thought, was that he’s full of contradictions. “He’s a corporate, wealthy, materialist billionaire, who has also studied Buddhism, and martial arts,” he added. “And it’s in these contradictions, that I think the character excels, really becomes interesting.”

Henwick, for her part, was initially worried that it’d turn out to be a “2D book” performance, seeing as Wing was a comic book character. “But thankfully with Colleen,” she added, “there was so much to draw upon, and the writers put so much in her that I had so many things. I think that’s what I liked about her, she’s very layered.”

When it came to playing the character, Jones relied as much on the script, as on himself. “With characters, I like them to be much a part of me, as they are the character,” he said. “So I bring a lot of myself into the role, as well as what is written.” He added that even though the showrunner, Scott Buck, had his own vision of Danny Rand, he also left a lot of it up to Jones. “I’m very grateful to Scott, and Marvel and Netflix, because it allows me as an artist to breathe, and put my own stamp on the character,” he said.

Jones continued to sing the praises of Netflix and Marvel’s approach, and remarked on how they are taking out “that Hollywood aspect of the superhero”. “There are so many superhero films coming out, and I think a majority of the audience are pretty fed up with how generic they are,” he said.

While it’s easy to place a larger portion of the blame on Warner Bros/ DC productions, Marvel’s own big-screen fare has threatened to turn into risk-free boilerplate. On the other hand, the Netflix offerings have never shied away from its gritty realism. Daredevil’s two seasons have been brutal, and unforgiving; Jessica Jones dealt with abusive relationships, and was pushed beyond the cliff edge; and Luke Cage couldn’t outrun his past forever.

“More than anything, Iron Fist is about character development and story,” Jones noted, echoing the words of Buck. “And to get that kind of storytelling with the superhero genre, it’s a winner. It’s intelligent, it’s interesting, it’s what the audience want.”

When we visited in late September, both Jones and Henwick had another two weeks before wrap-up. The two are now busy filming for the mini-series Marvel’s The Defenders, which will bring all four superheroes – Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist – together with other cast members. Like a TV version of The Avengers, but just once.

That’s not due until the summer though; before that, Iron Fist arrives mid-next month. Could we see Luke Cage on the show, and give fans a glimpse at Heroes for Hire? Jones wouldn’t be held down on an answer, and simply said: “It’s possible, anything is possible.”

Marvel’s Iron Fist hits Netflix on March 17. To catch future entries in our Iron Fist on-the-sets mini-series, follow us on Facebook/ Twitter, or keep an eye on our Entertainment section.

Disclosure: Netflix sponsored the correspondent’s travel and accommodation for the duration of the visit.