The actor, known for his work in Deadpool and Game of Thrones (he played Daario Naharis before Michiel Huisman took over the role), stated on Monday that he was stepping down from the role of Major Ben Daimio in the film because he felt his casting was not in line with the character’s Asian-American heritage.
“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,” he wrote in a note on Twitter. “I feel it is important to honor and respect that. Therefore I have decided to step down so the role can be cast appropriately.”
The initial announcement that Skrein would be playing Daimio came last week and was immediately met with backlash over what seemed to be yet another example of Hollywood’s tendency to “whitewash,” or reconceptualize non-white characters — particularly those of Asian descent — as white so that they can be played by white actors. Recent years have seen similar outcry over Scarlett Johansson playing a Japanese character, Motoko Kusanagi, in 2017’s Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton playing the traditionally Tibetan Ancient One in Doctor Strange, Emma Stone playing the Chinese-Hawaiian character Allison Ng in the 2015 film Aloha, and Jake Gyllenhaal playing the lead in 2010’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.
An oft-cited justification for such whitewashing is that those roles go to big-name (white) actors, who in turn attract bigger audiences to the movie. Though considering Ghost in the Shell’s dismal box office haul, that seems more and more like a false argument, and it was likely not a factor in Skrein’s casting, as Skrein is not really a box-office draw on his own at this point. Nevertheless, whitewashing perpetuates a cycle that makes it difficult for non-white actors to break through: They can’t get hired if they’re up against big-name talent, and they can’t become big-name talent because they’re not given the opportunity.
What distinguishes Skrein’s decision to give up the role of Major Ben Daimio — who is Japanese-American in the Hellboy comics — is the fact that actors aren’t typically the first ones held accountable in claims of whitewashing. After all, there are casting departments and directors that make these decisions, and actors depend on roles for their livelihood. That Skrein has taken it upon himself to publicly step away from the project is the first time in recent memory that an actor has acknowledged whitewashing prior to starring in a film (Stone, Johansson, and Swinton all acknowledged it after the fact).
Skrein’s announcement has been met with praise for his sacrifice and his attempt to raise awareness about the issue of representation:
Here’s Skrein’s full statement: