In August of 2017, it was announced that Ed Skrien would be portraying Ben Daimio as part of a reboot of the Hellboy franchise. In the original comics, Daimio was portrayed as a man of Asian-American descent. Unfortunately, the casting of Skrein clearly pandered to an all too common occurrence in today’s Hollywood: whitewashing. This seems particularly common in instances where characters are intended for actors of Asian or part-Asian descent but the roles end up going to white actor after white actor. It is racism at its most stealthy and at its most dangerous. Skrien’s response to his casting was initially positive as he retweeted one Hollywood Reporter tweet announcing him as a new cast member on 21st August and then tweeting his own excitement at the news shortly the same day. However, a week later he then tweeted the image of a longer statement announcing that he would be withdrawing from the role, stating that he was ‘unaware that the character in the original comics had been of mixed-Asian heritage’ and that ‘it is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity’. Clearly, his withdrawal and then public statement made an impact on the casting directors for Hellboy as very recently it was announced that Daniel Dae Kim would be taking up the role instead.
More than anything, this change in casting has shown that eradicating white-washing and racism in Hollywood is just as much a responsibility of the actors that take up the role as it is of the casting directors that cast them. High-profile cases of white actors taking specifically Asian roles have been rampant these past few years, increasing the invisibility of Asian people in popular culture. In Aloha, Emma Stone played the role of Allison Ng, a character intended to be of one-quarter Chinese and one-quarter Hawaiian descent. Tilda Swinton took on the role of the Ancient One in Marvel’s Doctor Strange, portrayed as Celtic in the film but a Tibetan monk in the original comics. Scarlett Johansson played Ghost in the Shell’s heroine Motoko Kusanagi, a Japanese character from a highly successful Japanese anime film.
The case for these actors taking roles not meant for them is often that actors need all the work they can get and that they can’t afford to turn down a job. That seems almost hilarious in the light of Stone, Swinton, and Johansson being huge stars with big-money projects probably running into their open arms. If any of these high-profile actresses with incredibly established careers had considered their morality or the insidious racism that they were supporting and spoken out against their casting, then perhaps Hollywood would have been forced into making better decisions. Instead, the call came from Skrein whose star power was nowhere near as bright (his more famous projects include a brief 3-episode stint as Game of Thrones’ Daario Naharis and Deadpool’s bully-villain: Ajax.) Thankfully, Skrein valued more than the way his status would have soared in a big-budget reboot. However, we must remember that he is not noble or heroic for doing so: he simply did the right thing. Asian actors have been outspoken about this issue for years, if not decades, highlighting the fact that roles meant for them are snatched away by white actors and that often the roles they do manage to get are offensive stereotypes.
The overwhelmingly positive online response to Skrein’s decision may bode well for the future. At the time of writing Ed Skrien’s twitter account (@edskrein) has 64.1k followers but the image of his statement leaving the Hellboy role has over 160k likes. Countless articles (including this one) have been generated in favour of his judgement. However, white actors and white people working in the film industry must continually challenge and reject whitewashing and racism. A pat on the back for this one instance is simply not enough.