‘Percy Jackson’ Creator Defends Controversial Casting Decision

in Disney, Entertainment, Movies & TV

The cast of Disney+'s Percy Jackson and the Olympians

Credit: Disney+

As production continues on Disney+’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series ahead of its 2024 release window, it seems like some people still aren’t getting the message of the book.

Walker Scobell as Percy Jackson
Credit: Disney+

It’s 2023, but some people are still choosing to attack young actors on the internet out of sheer bigotry. From Halle Bailey being cast as Princess Ariel in Disney’s new live-action remake of The Little Mermaid (2023), to actress Yara Shahidi’s portrayal of Tinkerbell in Peter Pan & Wendy (2023), race-swapping has become an especially touchy subject in Hollywood.

Everyone seems to have their own opinions when it comes to people of different racial backgrounds stepping into historically white roles, and similar discourse has now made its way to the Percy Jackson franchise as author Rick Riordan gears up to adapt his beloved YA fiction series to the small screen—again. Check out the official teaser trailer below:

The upcoming Disney+ series follows several lackluster film adaptations, none of which were true to Riordan’s original vision for the story. But now, with virtually full creative control, Riordan and showrunners Jonathan E. Steinberg and Dan Shotz can hopefully get things right this time around.

In the books, 12-year-old demigod Percy Jackson, who will be played by Walker Scobell in the Disney+ show, is accused by the Greek god Zeus of stealing his lightning bolt. With the help of his two trusty allies, Annabeth (Leah Jeffries) and Grover (Aryan Simhadri), Percy sets out to complete his quest of returning the lightning bolt to its rightful owner—running into some dangerous adversaries along the way.

A cabin from Disney+'s Percy Jackson and the Olympians show
Credit: Disney+

Although plenty of fans expressed excitement for the new show when it was announced in 2021, Percy Jackson and the Olympians quickly found itself in the center of controversy. Early on in the show’s production, it was announced that Jeffries, who is Black, would be playing the role of Annabeth, who is described in the book as being white.

These remarks complained that the casting did not reflect their own views on how the character should look, blatantly dismissing Jeffries’ ability to actually play the part.

In response to racist backlash to Jeffries’ casting, Riordan posted a lengthy defense of the young actress last year, saying, bluntly, “Friends, that is racism.” He pointed out that such a criticism also ignores the core message of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians books, which promote acceptance, unity, and the beauty of difference. In the words of Riordan himself, “You should never judge someone by how well they fit your preconceived notions.”

the cast of percy jackson on disney+
Credit: Disney

More recently, the bestselling author took the time to reflect on Jeffries’ casting controversy while speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, explaining that the young actress “should not have to deal with” being the target of such hate, dismissing allegations that he only cast her because it was “woke”:

For Leah, she should not have to deal with that. She should be allowed to practice her profession and her art, and to be recognized as a talented actor who got a part because she merited getting the part, without dealing with this speculation of it was only this or it was only that — ‘It was a quota, It was wokeness,’ whatever, blah, blah, blah. That didn’t sit well with me. I am first and foremost always a teacher, and that was a teachable moment. That was a moment that I needed to say, ‘OK, hold on. Let’s examine this, and let’s examine what you’re saying and why you’re saying it.’

A clip from Disney+'s Percy Jackson and the Olympians show
Credit: Disney+

He continued, noting that racism and colorism has “always been with us,” and that instead of denying it, we should “work on it” in day-to-day conversations. Riordan also doubled down on his previous defense of casting Jeffries, saying that the Percy Jackson team “stands behind her unconditionally”:

Racism, I believe, is not something we have or don’t have. That’s the wrong conversation. I think we’re all prone to that. I mean, to believe anything else is to ignore the entirety of human civilization. Racism, colorism, it’s always been with us. So it’s not helpful for us to say, ‘Oh, I’m not racist.’ Of course we are. What the question really is, is do we recognize it? And do we work on it? Or do we deny it? Those are the choices. That’s the conversation I was trying to frame —this is clearly not a valid thing to attack a young girl who worked very hard, and was cast out of hundreds of other young actresses that we looked at, because she was so good at embodying the soul, the personality of that character. She shouldn’t have to deal with that. And I want her to know that I stand behind her 100 percent. The entire team of the Percy Jackson series stands behind her unconditionally.

Thankfully, Jeffries seems as confident as ever following the backlash, and wrapped up filming on the Disney+ series earlier this year. As for original Annabeth actor Alexandra Daddario, she similarly voiced her support for Jeffries with a Tweet, saying that the young star “is going to be an incredible Annabeth!!!”

It’s disappointing to see such blatantly hurtful criticisms surrounding Jeffries’ casting as Annabeth, but at least the Percy Jackson team has got her back.

What do you think of Rick Riordan speaking out against Leah Jeffries’ casting controversy? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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