Last week, Ed Skrein—best known as Game of Thrones’ OG Daario Naharis and the “Posh Spice” badguy in Deadpool—was cast in the Hellboy reboot in the works with David Harbour. He was set to play Major Ben Daimio, an undead paranormal agent (comic books, yay!). There was just one problem: Ben Daimio is Japanese-American and Ed Skrein is white. Whitewashing has only ever been a problem the internet recognized, and not studios, as people like Emma Stone and Scarlett Johansson keep being cast in Asian roles, even though whitewashed movies often don’t perform well. (Doctor Strange got away with it on the strength of Marvel’s brand, but I don’t think it’s a coincidence they killed off Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One and made Benedict Wong’s character Stephen Strange’s partner.)
Well, yesterday Skrein took an unprecedented step: He gave up the role. Announcing via his Twitter that he is stepping down to make room for a more appropriate actor, Ed Skrein has just changed how actors will respond to whitewashing controversies going forward.
The burden previously was on producers and studios to go after the right talent to begin with, but with Skrein stepping out of a role like this, the burden now also includes actors. The next actor to perform a whitewashed role will be asked why they didn’t also step down, like Ed Skrein. They will have to defend not only the production’s decision to hire them, but their own decision to take the part. Scarlett Johansson fielded some questions in this vein during the Ghost in the Shell press tour—surely she, of all people, could afford not to do that movie—but now there is a specific example, a fellow actor to name, someone who has shifted the bar. The problem is no longer abstract to actors, no longer something to be shunted onto the ubiquitous “they”. Actors will have to own their choices now, personally, because Ed Skrein owned his choice.
But studios aren’t off the hook. Because Skrein specifically says that “it is clear that representing this character in a culturally accurate way holds significance for people,” and calls it a “moral decision”. Lionsgate, the studio behind Hellboy, now CANNOT allow the casting of another white guy. It’s not just that Skrein backed out, it’s that he made it public and frames it as a moral issue. Skrein is forcing actors into accountability, but he’s also putting Lionsgate and this production on blast. The subtext of his decision is: You should have done this right from the beginning, so now I am fixing your mistake. And if producers and studios realize that actors will walk away from roles in the future, they’ll be more attentive to these choices going forward, if for no other reason than to spare themselves getting this particular brand of egg on their face.
I don’t think you should get cookies for doing the basically decent thing, but Ed Skrein has demonstrated more class and integrity than actors with ten times his profile. I hope his next opportunity is a good one, just as I can’t wait to see who gets to take their shot in Hellboy.