The whitewashing of Asian characters is still a major problem in Hollywood: Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, Tilda Swinton in Doctor Strange, and Emma Stone in Aloha are some of the most recent examples. Yet when the Hellboy reboot threatened to follow the same route in casting English actor Ed Skrein as Major Benjamin Daimio, a character of Japanese-American descent in the comics, another casting controversy transformed into an example for the industry.
“The public conversation was the same conversation we had,” Lloyd Levin, a longtime producer on the Hellboy films, said on the reboot’s Bulgarian set. “We felt we made a mistake. We lost track.”
Skrein made a bold move when, in August 2017, he announced his departure from the Daimio role so it could be “cast appropriately.”
“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 voice in the Arts,” the actor said in a statement at the time. “I feel it is important to honour and respect that.”
Soon after Skrein’s departure, the team cast Hawaii Five-0’s Daniel Dae Kim as the new Daimio.
“I’d heard about the controversy even before I knew I was gonna be a part of this project,” the actor said in between takes on set. “This casting came as the last one in a long line of examples of the exact same issue. So when I heard what the producers did and what in particular Ed Skrein [did], I was really deeply moved and very impressed.”
Levin offered more context behind the course-correction.
“When we started talking about this and we started talking about Daimio, it was years ago and we had already established a story where Daimio was… You know, the story takes place in the U.K. so we were creating Daimio as giving him an English background and we lost track of who he was in the comic books and we made a mistake… Ed was very very gracious and it was something we all felt we wanted to correct.”
In the Hellboy comics from Mike Mignola, Daimio is a member of the B.P.R.D. (Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense), a former marine who returned from the dead under mysterious circumstances. The character’s arc isn’t heavily intertwined with Hellboy’s on the page, but on the screen, as the producers were formulating their approach to the reboot, Levin mentioned how Daimio felt like “a really great foil” for the titular antihero.
“We looked at a broad list when we said we gotta cast it more faithfully as the character was written as his ethnicity,” the producer said. “When we saw Daniel on the list, I think we went pretty much directly to him.”
There was no audition, per se, according to Kim. “I just had a conversation with Neil Marshall, our director,” he said. “…Neil had known of my work, I’d known of his work, it was just a question of whether our sensibilities fit together — and they do.”
Hellboy stars Stranger Things’ David Harbour as “Big Red,” a half-demon fiend born as the herald of the apocalypse who becomes a force for good when his human dad (played by Ian McShane) takes him in as a baby hellspawn. When he’s called to handle some giants in the English countryside, the now fully grown hero is thrust into a battle with The Blood Queen (Milla Jovovich), a resurrected sorceress hellbent on taking revenge for a past grievance.
The film is a complete reboot from the Hellboy films of the Guillermo del Toro age, but Skrein’s move to step down feels more significant.
“It’s not often that someone takes that kind of responsibility and something that has a direct effect on his livelihood,” Kim said of Skrein. “So I couldn’t give him more credit for taking the stand that he did because it enabled me to do this job, of course, but I think what it says about the business and that issue writ large is much more important.”
Hellboy will open in theaters on April 12th. Tickets are on sale now at https://tickets.hellboy.movie/
For more of our Hellboy set visit coverage, peruse the links below: