Ed Skrein had been on deck to be the next actor to play a “whitewashed” Asian character, but on Monday, less than a week after he joined the Hellboy reboot as Major Ben Daimio, a half-Japanese character in the comics, Skrein chose to leave the project. Skrein had watched as his casting drew a wave of online protest, he explained in a statement, and he understood why accepting the role would take an opportunity away from an Asian actor.
“It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people, and that to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the Arts,” Skrein tweeted. “It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity.”
The decision caught Hollywood by surprise and drew praise from Skrein’s colleagues. “My gut reaction when I read [his statement] was, ‘Wow, that’s a brave move,’ because I’m sure that was a role he really wanted and fought for,” says casting director Lucinda Syson, who cast Skrein in 2015’s The Transporter Refueled and most recently worked on films like Wonder Woman. “Now, I think everyone’s had a wake-up call… This discussion is an incredibly healthy one, and I think it’s long overdue.”
“He’s going to be remembered for authentic representation on screen,” says casting director Russell Boast (Hulu’s Chance), who heads the Casting Society of America’s diversity committee. “I think [his decision] will resonate with many actors who have never thought about standing up and saying they don’t want to be a part of this whitewashing game that’s being played.”
That game has gone on for some time. Whitewashing has been a Hollywood habit for decades, but it’s sparked more waves of online protests over the past two years as the Asian-American community rallied to push for more inclusive casting. The most egregious examples of recent whitewashing: Emma Stone playing a character of Hawaiian and Chinese descent in 2015’s Aloha, Tilda Swinton playing a character traditionally portrayed as Asian in the comic books in 2016’s Doctor Strange, and Scarlett Johansson playing the lead in this year’s Ghost in the Shell, an adaptation of a Japanese anime classic rooted in Eastern culture. (To make matters worse, the film’s plot twist explained Johansson’s casting by revealing that she had been a Japanese woman who had been placed inside a white woman’s body, literally erasing her identity.)
Yet, up until Skrein, not a single actor has backed away from such a role, and filmmakers have stood by their choices, arguing most often that Hollywood lacks Asian movie stars to carry their films. So what does Skrein’s decision mean for the industry?
As far as talent goes, indie casting director Julia Kim (But I’m a Cheerleader) says the positive response to his statement should be proof to any actor who lands in hot water that defending their casting is the worse move, image-wise. “I think it’s remarkable [he chose to leave],” she says, pointing out that Skrein isn’t exactly an A-list, household name, but an actor whose star has just begun to rise after his villainous role in Deadpool. “He could have really benefitted from a big role like this in a big film. But it would have been negative attention [if he stayed], and this is positive attention… In a way, he shifted the responsibility to the actors themselves and fixed the problem from inside out. That sets a platform for other actors to either follow or not follow.”
Skrein’s statement, along with his thorough explanation of his choice, makes it harder for actors in the future to claim ignorance of the issue or deflect questions about their casting. It’s one thing for fans to sign petitions and create campaigns for Asian-American representation; it’s another when a member of the industry sets an example. “It makes me feel good that there’s sort of a brotherhood of arms with that, that they’re being respectful of each other,” Kim says. “It’s an actor’s job to play something that they’re not, but the conversation is growing even louder now that actors are stepping up and being responsible to the role and to other actors.”
That goes for studios as well, especially ones behind franchises and tentpole films that could now lose fans for failing to consider and appreciate the origins of Asian characters — and, perhaps more importantly, cause behind-the-scenes drama. “The diversity blame goes around,” Boast says, describing the aftermath of whitewashing controversies. “The studios blame the writers, the casting directors get blamed for not talking to the showrunners, and it goes around, and so it’s nice for an actor to slip into this and go, ‘Alright, I’m also going to be a part of the solution and not just the problem.’ It’s exciting for the industry.”
Adds Kim: “There’s more of a chance to do good with a project of [Hellboy‘s] scope. It could bring them a lot of positive press versus the press they’ve been getting for whitewashing some of these roles.”
After all, playing defense usually attracts more negative attention. More often than not, filmmakers apply the second coat of Hollywood whitewashing, in which they argue why it makes sense for a white actor to play the role instead of taking a closer look at the issue. Responding to accusations of whitewashing Egyptian characters in Exodus: Gods and Kings with actors like Christian Bale, director Ridley Scott told Variety, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such… I’m just not going to get it financed.” In an interview with Marie Claire, Johansson defended her casting in Ghost in the Shell by acknowledging the need for diversity but then emphasizing the positive aspects of the role, without intersecting the issues: She told the magazine she would “never presume to play another race of a person,” before pivoting to add that “having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity.” Netflix’s Death Note, based on a Japanese manga, also drew controversy for casting white actor Nat Wolff as the lead, but producer Roy Lee told Buzzfeed he “could understand the criticism… if our version of Death Note was set in Japan and [featured] characters that were Japanese-named or of Japanese ancestry.” Instead, he said, their adaptation “is an interpretation of that story in a different culture, so there are going to be some obvious changes. Some people will like them, some people may not.” (The film relocated the story from Japan to Seattle, but failed to erase every Japanese aspect of the original story: It retained the character of Ryuk, a shinigami, or spirit grounded in Japanese culture, with white actor Willem Dafoe voicing the part.)
The cycle has been a chronic one — until Skrein’s decision, that is. His move drew support from Hellboy producers Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin, who released a joint statement saying they would commit to finding an Asian actor to tackle the role. “It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity,” they said, “and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.”
Still, Syson points out that it’s not as if the industry suddenly realized whitewashing was an issue because of Skrein. “The majority of casting directors and filmmakers I know are aware of the kind of effort that has to be made nowadays,” she says. “As professionals, we should know what we’re doing, and we should talk these things through and not get to a point where we’re advising someone to pull out… Obviously I don’t know all the facts [with Hellboy‘s process]. Maybe they hadn’t looked [for Japanese actors] and maybe they had. But most casting directors I know, especially these days, look into diverse options.”
In the end, Skrein’s example may not have a lasting impact, because even though it seems simple enough now for an actor to decline a whitewashed role, there are often too many moving parts to building a Hollywood project. “There’s more to casting than meets the eye,” Syson says. “It’s a lot more involved. Ultimately you have to make professional opinions with the filmmakers and the style and what they want to make, which is different from the opinions of everyone scattered around the world.”
But, she adds, “If messages are coming across that are very important, I think you have to listen to it.”
Skrein certainly heard the message — and responded with one of his own that is equally loud and clear.