Ed Skrein just put himself on the right side of Hollywood history. The actor, best known for supporting roles in Deadpool and Game of Thrones, announced on Monday that he's leaving the upcoming Hellboy reboot, Hellboy: Rise of the Blood Queen, due to the backlash his casting has caused. Skrein's announcement came just one week after it was revealed that the actor, who is white, would be bringing the role of Major Ben Daimio, originally written as a Japanese American, to the big screen. In a letter posted to Twitter, Skrein explained that he's stepping away because he didn't want to contribute to Hollywood's erasure of Asian characters. And, in making this choice, the actor is taking away any excuse for other white stars to take on whitewashed roles.
In his statement, Skrein said he was originally unaware that Daimio was a Japanese American character in the comics, but after learning the truth, is choosing to step away. "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 int he Arts," Skrein wrote, adding that he's stepping down "so the role can be cast appropriately."
Skrein's actions and statement are significant for both Hellboy and Hollywood in general. Already, the film's producers, Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin, have responded positively, telling Deadline that they would be recasting the role "with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material." Assuming the producers follow through on their promise, Skrein could have just single-handedly ensured that an Asian or Asian American actor will be cast as Ben Daimio. More than that, with one statement, the actor ensured that the next white performer who takes a role in any movie or TV show originally written as a person of color, specifically as Asian, will have no reasonable defense.
Major actors accused of playing whitewashed Asian roles have, in recent years, defended themselves by claiming ignorance or pivoting to other issues of representation. For example, both Scarlett Johansson and Tilda Swinton, accused of whitewashing in Ghost in the Shell and Doctor Strange, respectively, combatted accusations by pivoting to the importance of showing strong women on screen. In an interview with Marie Claire, Johansson swore that she "would never want to feel like I was playing a character that was offensive," before quickly shifting gears to talk about how she viewed the role as a feminist victory. "Also, having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity," she added.
Other actors and filmmakers, meanwhile, like Emma Stone, have rationalized whitewashing with plot points. Speaking of her decision to play the quarter Chinese and quarter native Hawaiian character Allison Ng in Aloha, Stone said, via Vanity Fair, "The character was not supposed to look like her background."
Thanks to Skrein, though, actors can no longer use plot points or misguided feminism as a shield to defend against accusations of whitewashing, because he has already proven that actors across the board have the power to walk away from a role people feel is being miscast or whitewashed. Not only that, but thanks to social media, actors can also help move Hollywood towards becoming more inclusive by publicly refusing those roles. People on Twitter are praising Skrein for his decision to leave Hellboy, including the film's own star David Harbour and Hellboy creator and writer Mike Mignola.
It's so impressive that Skrein took this step. The actor is on the rise, yes, but he is far from what Hollywood might recognize as a blockbuster leading man. And still, he had the courage to turn down a major role in a superhero movie because it was the right thing to do. So hopefully, the positive response to Skrein's announcement will encourage other white actors, both those famous and not, to think twice about accepting whitewashed roles. And maybe, just maybe, it will stop studios from using the "color-blind" casting excuse when it comes to whitewashing originally Asian roles.
Prior to Skrein leaving the film, Hellboy producer Christa Campbell defended the casting on Twitter, writing, via The Hollywood Reporter, "Someone comes and does a great audition to get the role. Stop projecting your own sh-t onto us. We are all one. We don't see colours or race." Well, as this entire drama shows: we, the fans, do. It's time for producers, casting directors, and white actors to recognize that changing the ethnicity of a character of color is never an acceptable option, and to take appropriate action when faced with a situation of miscasting.
So, thank you, Ed Skrein, for standing up for what is right and making sure that no white actor can realistically rationalize taking a whitewashed role in the future. Like Skrein, it's time actors do more than just talk the talk of supporting diversity. They need to walk the walk, even if that means walking away from a blockbuster.