Reversing Hollywood’s decades-long practice of casting white actors in Asian roles has proved vexing. Boycotts haven’t worked. Op-eds have drawn attention to the issue, and social media has magnified the scrutiny of the lack of diversity and inclusion on the big screen.
But last week’s stunning decision by British actor Ed Skrein to drop out of playing a Japanese-American character in the upcoming “Hellboy” reboot is likely to put pressure not only on casting directors but actors themselves, as well as film companies and studios.
Skrein, who declined an interview request, said in a statement that when he accepted the role, he was unaware that the character of Ben Daimio was of Asian heritage. He said the casting announcement caused “understandable upset” and “intense conversation” that prompted him to do what he felt was right. The response to his move has been largely positive, with many people on social media pledging to support other projects involving Skrein and raising his profile.
Some activists said that Skrein’s decision and reasoning would put the onus of reversing the pervasive pattern of whitewashing on fellow actors. Stated Skrein: “It is our responsibility to make moral decisions in difficult times and to give voice to inclusivity.”
Lionsgate, the studio behind the planned 2018 release, issued a response: “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.” A spokesman for Lionsgate did not return a request for further comment.
In renouncing the practice and calling for the role to be “cast appropriately,” Skrein amplified the voices that have long decried whitewashing, activists said.
“What Ed has done will echo through the industry,” said Cindy Chu, an actress on CBS’ “MacGyver.” “He’s set a new level of integrity for white actors to do their part in making sure whitewashing is discontinued.”
Chu is among a number of Asian-American actors who have become outspoken in recent years, protesting the shortage of meaningful roles for minorities in film and television. Asian-American actors’ fear of being blacklisted for calling for changes in the industry has given way to a growing chorus of talent drawing attention to other disparities, including pay. In July, Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park brought the issue front and center for CBS, which refused to raise their salaries to equal that of their white co-stars on the popular series “Hawaii Five-O.”
Ren Hanami, chairwoman of SAG-AFTRA’s Asian Pacific American Media Committee, said she’s hopeful Skrein’s action will encourage other actors to follow his lead, but she’s not ready to call it a turning point. Only sustained media attention driven by criticism from fans can bring industry-wide change, she argued. “We need to keep the dialogue going. It’s going to have to be several Ed Skreins and … public pressure and ticket sales that are really low for the movies” that don’t consider diversity. She added: “Then we need to really highlight the success of things like ‘Fast and the Furious’ and movies that have diverse and inclusive casts.”
Activists have not been mollified by the explanations given when roles written for minority characters are played by white actors. Ridley Scott in 2014 defended his $140 million-budget film, “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” which featured white actors in lead roles portraying Egyptians, by saying, “I can’t mount a film of this budget, where I have to rely on tax rebates in Spain, and say that my lead actor is Mohammad so-and-so from such-and-such.” The film flopped, grossing just $65 million domestically. Other films that have been accused of whitewashing have also tanked at the box office, providing evidence that this type of backlash is among the factors that can hurt studios’ bottom lines.
In March, “Ghost in the Shell,” featuring Scarlett Johansson as a Japanese cyborg, also failed to win audiences domestically, earning $41 million. Two years ago, “Aloha” starred Emma Stone as Allison Ng, a fighter pilot of Hawaiian and Chinese heritage. The film grossed $26 million worldwide on a $37 million production budget, a small sum given its A-list talent, including Bradley Cooper, Bill Murray and Rachel McAdams.
“All of these films have not done very well,” Chu said. “If there’s anything that the [Hollywood] institution will listen to, it’s money. It’s profit. Numbers. At a certain point, they’re going to have to realize that these kinds of decisions are going to affect their profit, and I think they will follow the money.”
A recent CAA report, updated quarterly with fresh box office figures, makes the case that a diverse cast boosts ticket sales better than less diverse films. Examining 413 theatrical features released from January 2014 through the end of last year found that multicultural moviegoers accounted for nearly half of opening weekend audiences for the 10 highest-grossing films in 2016. “At every budget level, a cast that is at least 30% non-white outperforms a release that is not, in opening weekend box office,” the CAA study found.
Notable successes include Universal’s “Fast and the Furious” franchise and films like this year’s hits “Get Out,” “Girls Trip” and “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” which stood out because of its diverse cast, mirroring the demographics of its setting, Queens, New York.
“More diverse films bring in more money,” said voice actress Stephanie Sheh, who has frequently taken Hollywood to task on social media over whitewashing. After Skrein was announced for the role in the “Hellboy” reboot, she tweeted out images of five Asian male actors who could have played the role of Ben Daimio, including Will Yun Lee (“The Wolverine,” “Spy”) and Louis Ozawa Changchien (“Predators,” “Agents of SHIELD”). Sheh said she now plans to support the film.
“What’s impactful about Ed not just stepping away from the role was the statement that he made,” the actress said. “He didn’t say he was doing it because of pressure. He did it because it was the right thing to do. I really do hope that more people at the top are listening.”