Ed Skrein is not an A-lister. He’s a good actor who showed up in Deadpool and starred in Transporter Refueled, but he’s not a certified star. But now that he’s quit the Hellboy reboot, his is a name Hollywood likely won’t forget for a while. Yesterday, in an unprecedented move, the British actor gave up the role of Major Ben Daimio, saying that he didn’t realize when he took the job that the character in the comics was of mixed Asian heritage, and that he would be stepping down “so the role can be cast appropriately.” Citing the lack of diversity in the arts, he concluded that it was important to lend his voice to inclusivity and that if his decision led to a day when minority representation was a reality, “it is worth it.”
Skrein’s statement never used the word “whitewashing,” but it’s clearly what he’s talking about. In recent years, many roles that should have gone to minority actors have been cast with white players instead. Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange; Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell; Rooney Mara in Pan: all of them filled roles that, had filmmakers adhered to the source material, would have would have been played by non-white actors. And with each of those castings, there was an outcry—one usually met with some combination of awkwardness and rationalization, and mildly convincing explanations. (Mara, to her credit, later said she hated being “on that side of the whitewashing conversation.”) What Skrein did, swiftly and elegantly, is prove that such protestation isn’t necessary. If a studio makes a poor casting choice, it can be undone. If Hollywood wants to change, it can be done.
Granted, Skrein’s decision is one he never should have had to make in the first place. Television and movie studios have been called out for whitewashing enough times over the past few years for them to be aware of the problem. The fact that it happened yet again is a sign that those concerns don’t matter when massive budgets, and hopes for big opening weekends, are on the line. The onus shouldn’t be on actors to step down once they learn with what their casting means—it should be on filmmakers and casting directors not to hire them. Yet the fact that Skrein did what bigger names like Swinton and Johansson did not makes it harder for everyone to look the other way. Will it be as easy for another actor to take a role they might not fit, knowing another actor has shown it’s possible to walk away? Will it be as easy for a studio to offer one? (Lionsgate, the outfit behind the new Hellboy, has promised to recast the role “with an actor more consistent with the character in the source material.”)
Skrein’s message caught fire almost immediately after he posted it on Monday, garnering thousands of retweets and likes on Twitter and Instagram. And the hearts and hands-up emojis weren’t just coming from fans—they were coming from inside Hollywood, too. Lewis Tan, the actor who was almost cast as Iron Fist, posted a story about Skrein’s decision, thanking him both for stepping down and “for your words about representation.” Star Trek actor John Cho tweeted “I wanna work with @edskrein.” Director Ava DuVernay gave him a follow, and The Night Of‘s Riz Ahmed commended the actor for “setting the example and reminding us progress requires sacrifice.” Even Hellboy’s creator Mike Mignola praised Skrein’s move.
The social media support was backed by essays praising Skrein’s decision. Actor and writer Vera Chok noted in The Guardian that Skrein had “set an immense precedent for famous white actors who have tremendous social power to turn down roles they don’t need” and commended the fact he “used his privilege as a white, male, public figure to stand up for what he believes.” In so doing, Skrein proved that it’s possible to do the right thing and get kudos for it.
Two years ago, Matt Damon was cast in The Great Wall. Considering the movie was set in 11th century China, the fact that it was built around a white actor was odd. At the time of the film’s release, Damon, a seemingly decent guy who’s proven to be susceptible to foot-in-mouth disease, defended his casting by saying that he filled the part as it was written and “didn’t take a role away from a Chinese actor.” That’s true—the character is European—but it misses the point. The lack of diversity in Hollywood films isn’t a one-sided problem. It comes from, and can be addressed by, the properties optioned for movies, the characters written in the scripts, the directors hired to shoot them, and the actors hired to topline them. When something like The Great Wall or Hellboy comes along, a project that can offer prominent roles to actors of color, too often studios fill those roles with white actors because they think that’s what audiences want to see. (Note: This is false.) Maybe Damon didn’t “take” a role from a Chinese actor, but he filled one that could have been written for an Asian actor. Skrein, faced with a similar set of circumstances, chose not to do that. And his audience, the very people the studio was trying to court with his casting, applauded that decision. Soon enough, we’ll know if Hollywood hears those cheers.