Rick Riordan Admits Race Replacing Annabeth Chase In Live-Action Percy Jackson Disney+ Series Is “Massive Benefit To Broaden The Cast In Terms Of Representation”
Novelist Rick Riordan, who also serves as an executive producer on the upcoming Disney+ live-action adaptation of his novel series, Percy Jackson and the Olympians, recently claimed that race replacing Annabeth Chase is “a massive benefit to broaden the cast in terms of representation.”
Speaking with Variety, Riordan addressed the casting of Leah Sava Jeffries to play the role of Annabeth Chase, the daughter of Athena in the upcoming Disney+ series. He stated, “Leah impressed me from the moment I met her. She has that sort of steel that makes her a leader, but there’s a bit of vulnerability to her.”
He then added, “Now, again, does she look like Annabeth looks in the books? No. Was that important to me? No. If anything, it was a massive benefit to broaden the cast in terms of representation.”
Riordan previously justified the decision to race replace an assortment of characters including Annabeth in an interview with Entertainment Weekly in September.
He first explained how he came up with the character of Percy Jackson, “[My son] was struggling with dyslexia and ADHD, having a terrible time in school, but the one thing he did love was Greek mythology. As a classroom teacher myself, I knew a great deal about Greek mythology. I loved teaching it. So I started telling him stories from the Greek myths and, when I ran out of the old stuff, I made up a new Greek hero: A modern-day kid named Percy Jackson who, like my son, has ADHD and dyslexia and finds out that those are indicators that you may well be a demigod. My son had no trouble believing that.”
He continued, “20 years on, it was important that I looked at it again with fresh eyes and made sure that the story was speaking to all kids, and that everyone could look at this series and see themselves. It is inclusive enough that everyone can be a hero — after all, that’s why I wrote the book in the first place.”
“My son, because of learning differences, was feeling like an outsider and this was my way of saying, ‘It’s okay. Difference is a strength. You’re gonna be just fine. And you belong in this world,” he concluded.
Riordan previously lashed out at his own fans and readers after they objected to the casting that strays from his own source material. He wrote in a blog post on his website, “This post is specifically for those who have a problem with the casting of Leah Jeffries as Annabeth Chase. It’s a shame such posts need to be written, but they do.”
He then clarified, “First, let me be clear I am speaking here only for myself. These thoughts are mine alone. They do not necessarily reflect or represent the opinions of any part of Disney, the TV show, the production team, or the Jeffries family.”
Riordan continued, “The response to the casting of Leah has been overwhelmingly positive and joyous, as it should be. Leah brings so much energy and enthusiasm to this role, so much of Annabeth’s strength. She will be a role model for new generations of girls who will see in her the kind of hero they want to be.”
Next, he claimed individuals are bullying and harassing Jeffries albeit without providing any proof, “If you have a problem with this casting, however, take it up with me. You have no one else to blame. Whatever else you take from this post, we should be able to agree that bullying and harassing a child online is inexcusably wrong.”
“As strong as Leah is, as much as we have discussed the potential for this kind of reaction and the intense pressure this role will bring, the negative comments she has received online are out of line. They need to stop. Now,” Riordan stated.
In contrast to his comments to Variety and Entertainment Weekly Riordan revealed that the show’s casting was indeed subject to The Walt Disney Company’s racist quota policies, “I was quite clear a year ago, when we announced our first open casting, that we would be following Disney’s company policy on nondiscrimination: We are committed to diverse, inclusive casting. For every role, please submit qualified performers, without regard to disability, gender, race and ethnicity, age, color, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or any other basis prohibited by law.”
“We did that. The casting process was long, intense, massive and exhaustive,” he added.
The Walt Disney publicly posted on their Reimagine Tomorrow website, “By 2022, 50% of regular and recurring characters across Disney General Entertainment scripted content will come from underrepresented groups.”
They have since removed that from the website and replaced it with the following statement, “We are committed to inspiring a more inclusive world by reimagining the way we tell stories and who tells them. Our intention is to broaden access and diversity in our industry by adopting inclusion standards across Disney General Entertainment* and live-action Studio productions by the end of 2022, with the goal of advancing representation in front of and behind the camera, in marketing and more.”
However, they link to their Inclusion Standards at ABC Entertainment, which state that 50% or more of regular and recurring written characters come from Underrepresented Groups and 50% or more of regular and recurring actors come from Underrepresented Groups.”
Nevertheless, Riordan continued, “I have been clear, as the author, that I was looking for the best actors to inhabit and bring to life the personalities of these characters, and that physical appearance was secondary for me. We did that.”
“We took a year to do this process thoroughly and find the best of the best. This trio is the best. Leah Jeffries is Annabeth Chase,” he asserted.
He then decried his own readers and fans as racists, “Some of you have apparently felt offended or exasperated when your objections are called out online as racist. ‘But I am not racist,’ you say. ‘It is not racist to want an actor who is accurate to the book’s description of the character!’ Let’s examine that statement.”
He explains, “You are upset/disappointed/frustrated/angry because a Black actor has been cast to play a character who was described as white in the books. ‘She doesn’t look the way I always imagined.’”
“You either are not aware, or have dismissed, Leah’s years of hard work honing her craft, her talent, her tenacity, her focus, her screen presence. You refuse to believe her selection could have been based on merit,” he argues. “Without having seen her play the part, you have pre-judged her (pre + judge = prejudice) and decided she must have been hired simply to fill a quota or tick a diversity box. And by the way, these criticisms have come from across the political spectrum, right and left.”
Riordan elaborates, “You have decided that I couldn’t possibly mean what I have always said: That the true nature of the character lies in their personality. You feel I must have been coerced, brainwashed, bribed, threatened, whatever, or I as a white male author never would have chosen a Black actor for the part of this canonically white girl.”
“You refuse to believe me, the guy who wrote the books and created these characters, when I say that these actors are perfect for the roles because of the talent they bring and the way they used their auditions to expand, improve and electrify the lines they were given,” Riordan writes. “Once you see Leah as Annabeth, she will become exactly the way you imagine Annabeth, assuming you give her that chance, but you refuse to credit that this may be true.”
He then reiterated that he was calling his own readers and fans racists for wanting characters to look the way they are described in his books, “You are judging her appropriateness for this role solely and exclusively on how she looks. She is a Black girl playing someone who was described in the books as white. Friends, that is racism.”
Percy Jackson and the Olympians arrives on Disney+ with a two-episode premiere on December 20th.
What do you make of Riordan’s latest comments regarding race replacing Annabeth Chase?