TILDA Swinton is at the centre of a racism row after being cast as an Asian character in a new Hollywood blockbuster.

The Oscar-winning actress, 55, plays the Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange, which also stars Benedict Cumberbatch.

The character is a Tibetan High Lama who mentors the surgeon turned sorcerer in the movie, which was shot in Nepal and is due for release in November.

But critics have accused the American studio of "whitewashing" the Ancient One’s race out of the plot.

It comes after the director of Gerard Butler’s Gods of Egypt apologised for a lack of racial diversity among the cast. And Janette Tough, better known as Wee Jimmy Krankie, found herself at the centre of a storm last month after images emerged of her dressed as a Japanese fashion designer for the upcoming film of Absolutely Fabulous.

Speaking about Swinton's role, Marvel Studios's president Kevin Feige explained how the Ancient One went from a powerful Asian mystic to an androgynous white woman.

“We’re never afraid to change," he said. “We are always looking for ways to change. I think if you look at some of the early incarnations of the Ancient One in the comics, they are what we would consider today to be quite, sort of, stereotypical.

“They don’t hold up to what would work today. Also, within the storyline of the comics, and our movie, ‘the Ancient One’ is a title that many people have had.

“We hit very early on on, What if the Ancient One was a woman? What if the title had been passed and the current Ancient One is a woman?

“Oh, that’s an interesting idea. Tilda Swinton! Whoah! And it just hit.”

He added: "She [Swinton] is a chameleon in everything she does. She has this amazing [ability to] harness of this androgynous sense. So, we use the term 'her' and 'she' in the film but, other than that, it's very androgynous. Because it doesn't matter.”

However, critics have criticised the decision to change the role.

Donna Dickens, of hitflix.com, wrote: “The choice is particularly jarring.

“To say the only way to remove the stereotype of 'otherness' from the Ancient One is to make him white is just whitewashing under the guise of progressiveness, that actors of Asian descent are inherently 'othered' regardless of how a role is written.

“Casting Swinton in the role also opens the floodgates of appropriation. Doctor Strange will still be travelling to Asia after his accident to gain his powers.

“But now instead of at least a tentative link to Tibetan culture — you’ve got a white woman teaching a white man the secret mysteries of an Asian culture. That’s … not okay.”

Colin Fredericson, of Inquisitr.com, added: “It’s not the first time Marvel Studios didn’t keep an Asian character in a role designed for one, as Iron Man 3‘s Mandarin shows, but Tilda Swinton’s casting also tips the scales in a bolder, gender-switched direction for Marvel’s on screen efforts.”

Last month Korean actress Margaret Cho accused the makers of Absolutely Fabulous of "yellowface" - the practice of using white actors in Asia roles - after Ms Tough was hired to appear as the comedy character Huki Muki alongside Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley.

Ms Cho, who starred in the film Face/Off with John Travolta and Nicolas Cage, branded the decision to cast a western actor in the role “unacceptable”.