Whitewashing—where white actors are brought on to play the role of non-white characters—is still a common practice in Hollywood. It is, however, far less common to see these white actors turn down these roles. Until now that is.
British actor Ed Skrein (known for his role in Deadpool) announced last Tuesday (Aug 22) that he would be playing a role in the upcoming reboot of Hellboy. Skrein was set to play Major Ben Daimio (a Japanese american)—a decision that sparked backlash. Soon after making his announcement, one twitter user asked Skrein: “You’re a talented actor; why would you take away a role from an Asian colleague?” Simu Liu, known for his roles in Taken and Kim’s Convenience, and Stephanie Sheh, an American voice actress, had also criticized the casting.
Following the backlash, Skrein quickly made a second announcement to say he would be backing out of the role. In a statement released on Twitter and Instagram yesterday (Aug 28), Skrein wrote, “I accepted the role unaware that the character in the original comics was of mixed Asian heritage.” He wrote: “It is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people and to neglect this responsibility would continue a worrying tendency to obscure ethnic minority stories and voices in the arts,” adding, “I feel it is important to honor and respect that.” He ended his statement with “I hope it makes a difference.”
Hellboy’s whitewashing scandal is one of many in the last 18 months where white actors have been brought in to portray characters of Asian heritage. Tilda Swinton and Scarlett Johansson are the most notable examples. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans heavily criticized the decision to cast Swinton as “The Ancient One,” —who is portrayed as a Tibetan male in the original comic book—in Doctor Strange. While Johansson was criticized for playing the lead, Motoku Kusanagi, in a live-action version of Japanese anime Ghost in the Shell.
Skrein decision to step down from the role has been widely commended. Actors that had previously criticized him— Liu and Sheh—were quick to praise him for stepping down. Skrein has also earned the respect of British Asian actor Riz Ahmed, who praised Skrein for setting the example others should follow. Some were keen to point out the difference between Skrein’s response and Johansson’s (the latter of which said she “would never attempt to play a person of a different race,” even though she did.)
In a joint statement, Hellboy producers Larry Gordon backed Skrein’s decision to quit. “Ed came to us and felt very strongly about this. We fully support his unselfish decision. It was not our intent to be insensitive to issues of authenticity and ethnicity, and we will look to recast the part with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material,” they wrote.