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Ed Skrein in Transporter, and Major Ben Daimio in a Hellboy comic image.

Reactions to Ed Skrein quitting Hellboy role over ‘whitewashing’ claim, and how his response compares to other actors’

Film industry observers, fellow actors and Hellboy comics creator welcome white British actor’s decision not to play Asian-American and his explanation for withdrawal

Ed Skrein responded to the backlash against his casting in the movie Hellboy by relinquishing the role, saying: “ I must do what I feel is right.”

A week ago the 34-year-old British actor tweeted that he would be playing Major Ben Daimio, a character that was Asian-American in Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics. The news was met with complaints that Hollywood was once again “whitewashing” an Asian character.

In a message posted to Twitter and Instagram, Skrein, whose credits include last year’s Deadpool and Game of Thrones, said he had been unaware of the character’s heritage in the comics when he accepted the role.

“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 in the Arts. I feel it is important to honour and respect that.”

Leaving the Hellboy role was about making “moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity”, Ed Skrein said. Photo: EPA

Nancy Yuen, who has written about the barriers minorities face in Hollywood, said “most of the actors who have been in the crossfires of these whitewashing uproars usually give excuses”.

Skrein appears to be “listening and reading what people are complaining about so it was definitely beyond a ‘yay diversity’ kind of a message”.

The movie was scheduled to begin filming in October, according to Variety.

The movie’s producers said in a statement to Hollywood Reporter that Skrein had approached them about leaving.

Jessica Henwick, who plays Colleen Wing in Iron Fist, and Claire Temple (Rosario Dawson) in a scene from The Defenders. Henwick called Ed Skrein’s decision on the Hellboy role “immense”. Photo: Sarah Shatz/Netflix

“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.”

The response has been largely positive.

Actress Jessica Henwick of Iron Fist called the decision “immense”. Ming-Na Wen of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. said Skrein was a “rockstar” [sic].

They were joined in their praise by Hellboy creator Mignola and Stranger Things actor David Harbour, who is playing the movie’s titular hero.

Hellboy actor David Harbour praised Skrein’s decision. Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images/AFP

The pushback against casting white actors as characters that originally were Asian stems in part from what many Asian-American actors say is the dearth of significant parts in an industry where a vast majority of characters on-screen are white.

It is my hope that one day these discussions will become less necessary and that we can help make equal representation in the Arts a reality
Ed Skrein

A 2016 study by the University of Southern California of hundreds of films and televisions shows found that half had no Asian speaking characters.

Yuen, associate professor of sociology at Biola University in Los Angeles, said audiences that have been clamouring for casting of people of colour for characters of colour.

“People in power are finally listening to the social media outrage and admitting there could be consequences, however small,” she said, citing a Paramount executive’s admission that the controversy around the casting of Scarlett Johannson as a character who was Japanese in the manga and anime on which Ghost in the Shell was based affected the film’s reviews and led to a mediocre showing at the American box office.

Actors have reacted to criticism of whitewashing with a variety of explanations.

In 2015, Emma Stone said she had become “the butt of many jokes” for her role as a half-Asian character in Cameron Crowe’s Aloha. She described the controversy as igniting “a conversation that’s very important”.

Scarlett Johansson plays The Major in Ghost in the Shell. Photo: Paramount Pictures

Addressing criticism of her casting in Ghost in a Shell, Johansson said in February: “I certainly would never presume to play another race of a person.” She also acknowledged that “having a franchise with a female protagonist driving it is such a rare opportunity”.

MacKenzie Davis said that she was not aware that her character Mindy Park in 2015’s The Martian was of Korean heritage in the Andy Weir novel from which the film was adapted.

For Davis, the role was a great opportunity for a young actress.

Mackenzie Davis (centre) as Mindy Park in The Martian.

“I was 26, and I remember putting it on tape for one of my favourite directors, and it wasn’t a part of the conversation at the time. All I knew was that I was so unbelievably excited, and it was an opportunity so far beyond anything that had happened in my life so far,” she told New York magazine this year.

Davis said she is allowed to audition for parts “written as a Latino woman or a black woman” but has chosen not to because “there’s no way to change that dynamic unless people take it upon themselves to not participate in that” before raising the issue of a “dearth of opportunity”.

Some people online reacted to Skrein’s announcement by criticising the condemnation directed at a white actor playing a character who was originally non-white, but allowing minorities to fill roles that had been white in the comics.

“Let’s not forget, Alice Monaghan who is a pale redheaded Irish woman from 50’s Ireland in the Hellboy comics is a black woman in the new movie,” a Reddit user said.

“I guess we’ll be seeing her drop out of the movie too now, right?”

In explaining his decision, Skrein pointed to the importance of “representation of ethnic diversity”, adding that he has “a mixed heritage family”.

Leaving the role was about making “moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity”, he said.

“It is my hope that one day these discussions will become less necessary and that we can help make equal representation in the Arts a reality.

“I am sad to leave Hellboy but if this decision brings us closer to that day, it is worth it. I hope it makes a difference.”