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British actor Ed Skrein’s Aug. 28 decision to quit Lionsgate and Millennium’s Hellboy reboot — after criticism for being a white actor playing a character who is Japanese-American in the comics — has many in the industry wondering whether the unprecedented move is a tipping point for Hollywood’s practice of “whitewashing” roles.
Some see Skrein, 34, as caving to pressure from a social media-fueled mob of PC police. “No one knows where the line is,” says a studio publicity head, “and every movie now is controversial for any reason.” In addition, there are concerns that an overcorrective backlash against whitewashing will cause filmmakers to decide against making movies about diverse characters altogether.
Already, Sony’s adaptation of Michael Lewis’ 2014 best-seller Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt is effectively dead because it no longer would be the default to cast real-life protagonist Bradley Katsuyama with a white actor. “A decade ago they would have just done that,” Lewis said Sept. 2 at the National Book Festival. “There were emails back and forth about how impossible it was to make a movie with an Asian lead.”
But that conventional wisdom, and the assumption that there aren’t enough qualified nonwhite actors to cast big-budget projects in a culturally accurate way, is misguided, says Russell Boast, vp at the Casting Society of America. “They do exist, but because our focus has been on star power, which in the past has very often been a white male actor, there hasn’t been the need to have that list of the top 10 or 100 Asian actors that mean something financially to the studios,” he says. “It’s our duty to stop using that as an excuse. Ed’s move is making our jobs easier.”
Out of the top 900 films since 2007, just 5.7 percent of named or speaking characters were Asian, according to a July 2017 study from USC’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative. “The issue is not that actors shouldn’t be allowed to play across racial borders,” says Boast. “It’s that there are so few minority characters that when these roles do come along, we shouldn’t be taking away these rare opportunities from minority actors.”
Although instances of white actors playing characters of color date back to the dawn of cinema — “We were shouting to the wind because nobody would listen,” says Japanese-American Clyde Kusatsu, who has worked as an actor since the 1970s — social media has intensified and amplified the issue, with Doctor Strange, Death Note and Ghost in the Shell three prominent examples in the past year. Ghost was perceived to be hurt by the controversy.
“Twitter continues to rally every time this happens,” says William Yu, a digital strategist whose viral campaign #StarringJohnCho uses Photoshopped posters to re-imagine popular movies with an Asian-American lead. “If you’re going to portray people from certain cultures, it’d better be authentic or Twitter’s going to call you out in a heartbeat.”
Still, “nobody anticipated the backlash,” says a Hellboy production source, adding that what fellow executives thought might fade instead has shown staying power.
“I thought things would change four movies ago,” Jon M. Chu, who is directing Warner Bros.’ upcoming Crazy Rich Asians adaptation, tells THR, adding that whitewashing may still occur unless there is more diversity behind the scenes. “If there’s not someone in the room to say, ‘Hey, you know all those things that have been online in the last couple of years? This is what they’re talking about,’ I can see [awareness] getting lost.”
Where Skrein’s decision may have the biggest impact is in putting the onus on actors who find themselves in hot water after accepting a whitewashed role. Whereas Emma Stone and Rooney Mara offered apologies for their respective Aloha and Pan characters after those movies were released, Skrein is the first actor to address whitewashing criticisms by stepping aside. “Skrein could’ve taken the role like the hundreds of others who have taken those roles, but he didn’t, and he went public about it,” says Leonard Chang, co-executive producer of FX’s Snowfall. “Now others will have to contend with this precedent.”
Adds Chu, “His actions also opened the doors for other people in the industry to support this and say this isn’t just an Asian-American issue.” Hollywood A-listers including Jessica Chastain, Mark Ruffalo and Ava DuVernay have praised Skrein’s decision, as has Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed two Hellboy films but is not involved in the reboot. “What he did was remarkable and laudable. It was very brave,” says del Toro. (In addition to losing a payday for himself and commissions for his agents and reps, Skrein also risked “the blowback of a giant studio saying, ‘You’re screwing us by admitting we were naive or wrong in doing this,’ ” says Chu. “That risks future jobs. It’s real consequences.”)
But the definitive, immediate impact of Skrein’s choice is that Hellboy‘s producers have vowed to recast his part with an actor “more consistent with the character in the source material,” and multiple actors of Asian descent confirm to THR they now are being considered. “He just raised the bar,” says USC’s Stacy L. Smith, who has advocated for stars to introduce an inclusion clause into their contracts. “If these companies aren’t going to change their exclusionary hiring practices and outdated, unsupported myths of what makes money at the box office, then actors can take it on themselves to completely transform this industry.”
Aaron Couch, Rebecca Ford and Borys Kit contributed to this report.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 6 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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