Rick Riordan Responds to Racist Backlash Around Annabeth Chase Casting for ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians’ Disney+ Series

Last week, it was announced that Leah Sava Jeffries would portray Annabeth Chase and Aryan Simhadri would portray Grover Underwood in the upcoming “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” series on Disney+. They join Walker Scobell, who will portray the titular Percy. Since then, there has been significant backlash to the casting of Jeffries, a Black actress, as Annabeth, described as white with blonde hair in the original books. Author Rick Riordan, who is also writing the series and cast the actors, has responded to the backlash on his blog.

“This post is specifically for those who have a problem with the casting of Leah Jeffries as Annabeth Chase,” Riordan writes. “It’s a shame such posts need to be written, but they do. […] 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.

“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 goes on to explain that, since the beginning of the casting process, he has focused on finding the best actors to “inhabit and bring to life the personalities” of each character, not physical appearance.

He calls out the frequent defensive responses he has seen online since Jeffries casting, some saying things like, “But I am not racist. It is not racist to want an actor who is accurate to the book’s description of the character!”

“You either are not aware, or have dismissed,” Riordan says in response, “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. 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.”

Further discussing the “I’m not racist” response, he quotes an article in the Boston Globe about Dr. Khama Ennis, who created a program on implicit bias for the Massachusetts Board of Registration for Medicine: “To say a person doesn’t have bias is to say that person isn’t human. It’s how we navigate the world … based on what we’re taught and our own personal histories.”

He then goes on to say, “Racism/colorism isn’t something we have or don’t have. I have it. You have it. We all do. And not just white people like me. All people. It’s either something we recognize and try to work on, or it’s something we deny. Saying ‘I am not racist!’ is simply declaring that you deny your own biases and refuse to work on them.”

“The core message of Percy Jackson has always been that difference is strength,” he says. “Anyone can be a hero. If you don’t get that, if you’re still upset about the casting of this marvelous trio, then it doesn’t matter how many times you have read the books. You didn’t learn anything from them.”

Read Riordan’s full blog post.

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  1. I’ve never read these books and have literally NO emotional connection to them. So for me, the casting choices have no impact. But, I do kind of have to point out two issues with Riordan’s response.

    First, if the race of the character isn’t important, when why are all his characters white? It feels like “after-the-fact” cleanup.

    Second, for an author, he really seems to not understand the concept of emotional investment with a character… something most authors *want* their audience to have. A character isn’t just a placeholder in a book, it’s someone we come to know as a whole, which like it or not, includes their race, gender and cultural background.

    The fact that the actor is highly skilled and qualified is not a relevant issue here. We assume all actors being cast are that. It’s that people coming to the TV series expecting it to reflect the books *and the characters in those books* may be put off by it.

    Ironically, the message Riordan is sending is “race, gender, cultural background are irrelevant.. the characters I write are 2D figures and really have no impact, so are completely interchangeable.” Worse, it suggests that real people’s gender, race and cultural background are equally irrelevant and are also interchangeable.

    If Riordan really wants people other than white anglos in his books, a very commendable goal – he should WRITE them in his books. Blaming the audience for their reaction to the creators’ narrowminded creations is definitely placing the blame in the wrong place.

    As for this specific instance, as I noted, never read the books, didn’t care for the movie, unlikely to watch the series, so this is literally a non-issue for me. I’m sure Leah Jeffries will do an amazing job in the role and yes, no one should be harassing her over the casting director and author’s casting choices.

    1. All his characters aren’t white. Not in the books, not in the movie. You’re lecturing him about doing something he already does – not only in the Percy Jackson books, but in ALL his series. POCs all over the place. As well as LGBTQ+ characters. So maybe actually inform yourself about his work before writing a very long response to something you say several times you’ve never read and have no connection to.

  2. I personally don’t have a problem with it, but I do understand the backlash.

    The Werewolf above is absolutely correct about people’s attachment to an existing character. It has nothing to do with the actor or actress, but the character they enjoyed reading about in the books. I completely understand that.

    With that said, people don’t have to watch it. If it really turns them off that much, they can read the books again or re-watch one of the two movies already made. There’s also no shortage of other content out there to discover.

    I certainly don’t watch everything on Disney+, most stuff I watch is really old by today’s standards. If they want my eye balls on something new, they have to earn it. Likely, they probably don’t care as long as I renew my membership, but that’s honestly not a guarantee long term, as I rotate the other services already and still am on my original D23 membership.

  3. Fans will be upset by most any casting at any point because it doesn’t fit what it should look like in their heads. That said, to completely separate it from a character’s book description and to claim that description is irrelevant, does kind of feel like he’s just trying to tick the box.

    His response leaves way more to be desired though. To effectively tell everyone who disagrees with his choice that they’re racists who won’t admit it kinda shows that e has no argument here.

    If he wants to stick to this, I’d like to see him take it the other direction and see what happens. There’s plenty of characters described as nonwhite in the later books. Make one of them white, both to prove how irrelevant background is, and to see what reaction he gets.

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