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Whitewashing? Matt Damon defends 'Great Wall' casting.

Matt Damon stars in the upcoming movie as a British soldier who helps the Chinese fight against strange creatures. 'That whole idea of whitewashing, I take that very seriously,' the actor said.

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Actor Matt Damon (r.) and Hong Kong movie star Andy Lau (l.) speak to the press about 'The Great Wall' in Beijing, July 2, 2015.

Andy Wong/AP/File

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In a recent interview, actor Matt Damon discussed the casting controversy around the upcoming film “The Great Wall,” following criticism of a white American actor being cast as the lead in a film set in China.

Mr. Damon stars in the upcoming film as a British soldier who helps the Chinese fight strange creatures. The movie co-stars Tian Jing, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, and Willem Dafoe and is directed by Zhang Yimou.

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The movie is being released by Legendary East, which is part of Legendary Entertainment, the American studio that was purchased by Chinese company Wanda Group. Companies such as American-owned Universal Pictures and Chinese-owned China Film Group Corp. are also involved.

Some have criticized the decision to cast Mr. Damon in the lead role in the upcoming film. David Sims of The Atlantic wrote, “'The Great Wall’ is now the most dramatic example of whitewashing: Though it’s rooted in Chinese history and culture, and is made by a Chinese director and studio, the film is already relying solely on the face of a well-known white American actor to sell its story.”

Actress Constance Wu, who stars on the ABC sitcom “Fresh Off the Boat,” wrote on Twitter about the film, “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that … only [a] white man can save the world.” 

In an interview with the Associated Press, Damon said he connected the word “whitewashing” to actors who pretend to be of another race, mentioning actor Chuck Connors, an Irish-American who portrayed the title character in the movie “Geronimo.”

“That whole idea of whitewashing, I take that very seriously,” he said. 

Damon and director Zhang said that the part played by Damon was always going to be a white character. The actor said he believes people will be mollified “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,” he said. “It wasn’t altered because of me in any way.”

Diversity continues to be a topic of discussion in Hollywood following the controversy over #OscarsSoWhite, the internet outrage surrounding the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominating only white actors for the acting Oscars for two years in a row. 

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That may have contributed to Disney's choice to hire African-American director Ava DuVernay, best known as the director of "Selma," to helm an adaptation of "A Wrinkle in Time," Madeleine L’Engle’s classic science fiction novel.

Ms. Duvernay has cast actors Storm Reid and Deric McCabe as characters Meg and Charles Wallace Murray after deciding to make the Murry family mixed-race, with parents Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. Oprah Winfrey and Mindy Kaling also star in the movie. 

Meanwhile, Disney is reportedly looking for a Chinese actress to portray the title character in its live-action adaptation of “Mulan.” And the recent release “Moonlight,” which centers on the life of a young gay African-American man, is being regarded as a possible Oscars contender, with actor Mahershala Ali in particular earning praise.