Being a non-white actor in Hollywood has never been an easy place to sit. For every step forward the big and small screens seem to take, in favourites like Fresh Off the Boat, The Big Sick and Insecure, it seems to take an equal number of steps back in whitewashing controversies. Most recently, actor Ed Skrein stepped down from the upcoming Hellboy film, after finding out that his role as Ben Daimio was originally written as a Japanese American character in the comic series.
Skrein has been praised for his decision to exit the film by Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and British Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, but the question still remains, why was Skrein cast in the first place?
Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. actor Chloe Bennet was another celeb to recently sing Skrein’s praises on Instagram, but her post about the Game of Thrones actor quickly turned into Bennet defending her own decision to change her last name. After a commenter asked why the actor changed her last name from Wang to the anglo-sounding Bennet, the Asian American actor responded with one of the most succinct, truthful and, unfortunately, all-too-real answers we’ve seen on the subject.
Writing on her own Instagram account, Bennet says “Changing my last name doesn’t change the fact that my BLOOD is half Chinese, that I lived in China, speak Mandarin or that I was culturally raised both American and Chinese. It means I had to pay my rent, and Hollywood is racist and wouldn’t cast me with a last name that made them uncomfortable. I’m doing everything I can, with the platform I have, to make sure no one has to change their name again, just so they can get work. So kindly love, f–k off.
When it comes to casting white actors in roles for characters originally written for people of colour in order to cash in on ‘big’ names, the box office results have rarely been positive. Aloha with Emma Stone, Ghost In The Shell with Scarlett Johansson, Prince of Persia with Jake Gyllenhaal, and The Great Wall with Matt Damon all bombed in theatres, with some of the blame going to the controversy over whitewashing the leading roles.
Of course, there are actors who have enjoyed successful careers in Hollywood without changing their names, but those with non-Anglo names are rarely allowed to forget their decision to keep their birth names. Lupita Nyong’o and Chiwetel Ejiofor have become two of Hollywood’s most exciting stars of the past few years, but even with all their accolades and awards, the pair continue to endure nervous award show hosts and interviewers who stumble through pronunciations or resort to making jokes at names they’re unfamiliar with. At least John Travolta tried.
In the recent case of Daniel Dae Kim and Grace Park leaving Hawaii Five-o after CBS refused to match their salaries to their white counterparts, the story made headlines and drew a huge amount of support for the actors and the members of the Asian community. But what’s most frustrating is that in the end, CBS allowed the two stars to walk away, leaving an even larger gap in representation on screen.
Now just imagine if we treated Anglo names the way we treat names representing other ethnicities and cultures.