Less than a week after being cast in the Hellboy reboot as Ben Daimio, a Japanese-American character in the original comic book series, actor Ed Skrein has dropped out of the film, citing the brewing controversy over his hiring.
“Last week it was announced that I would be playing Major Ben Daimio in the upcoming Hellboy reboot,” Skrein wrote on Twitter. “I accepted the role unaware that the character in the original comics was of mixed Asian heritage. There has been intense conversation and understandable upset since that announcement, and I must do what I feel is right.”
He continued, “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 honor and respect that. Therefore, I have decided to step down so the role can be cast appropriately.”
Skrein, who played the villain in Deadpool, was cast last week in the Hellboy film, which Neil Marshall (Game of Thrones) will direct. But after the news broke that he would play Daimio, a swift backlash soon followed.
“Representation of ethnic diversity is important, especially to me as I have a mixed heritage family,” Skrein added in his statement on Monday. “It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity. 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.”
In response to Skrein’s note, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola tweeted, “Thank you [Ed Skrein], very nicely done.”
Hellboy producers Larry Gordon and Lloyd Levin and Lionsgate & Millennium made a statement to Deadline, saying, “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 social media response to Skrein’s note, meanwhile, was positive.
Hellboy is the latest film to find itself at the center of a whitewashing controversy in the last 12 months. Previously, Marvel’s Doctor Strange was criticized for casting Tilda Swinton in the role of The Ancient One, a character traditionally portrayed as an Asian male in the Strange comics.
Matt Damon’s The Great Wall also came under fire for having Damon star in the film. In that case, the controversy arose not over whitewashing, but over the use of the white savior trope. “We have to stop perpetuating the racist myth that [only a] white man can save the world,” Fresh Off the Boat star Constance Wu wrote in a widely circulated tweet. “Our heroes don’t look like Matt Damon.”
Ghost in the Shell with Scarlett Johansson was also slammed for whitewashing, as Johansson’s character is Japanese in the original manga. The film further complicated matters by including a plotline that explained how Johansson’s character had been a Japanese woman who was placed into the body of a white woman, literally erasing her identity.
Similarly, the Netflix film Death Note, also based on a Japanese manga series, drew criticism for whitewashing as it cast white actor Nat Wolff in the lead. Its producers have argued that the adaptation shifts the series’ setting to Seattle, therefore making this an American take on the story.
“Our casting directors did an extensive search to get Asian actors, but we couldn’t find the right person, the actors we did go to didn’t speak the perfect English… and the characters had been rewritten,” producer Masi Oka told EW last year (Oka was not involved in the film’s casting). “They could have gone [with an] Asian [actor], I can’t deny that. The studios were adamant about trying to cast Asian actors. I mean, this was a difficult one. It was something we were definitely conscious about.”
On television, Netflix was criticized for casting Finn Jones as Danny Rand, a.k.a. Iron Fist, in the Marvel series Iron Fist. The character is traditionally white in the Iron Fist comics, but given the lack of Asian superheroes portrayed in the Marvel universe and the original comics’ use of cultural appropriation when it debuted in the ’70s, many argued a modern take on the character should have been played by an actor of Asian descent.
—Additional reporting by Shirley Li