Disney+ is once again facing controversy over one of its projects. This time, some fans are upset over the recent casting announcement for the live-action series Percy Jackson and The Olympians, based on the young adult fantasy novels by Rick Riordan. The rhetoric has gotten so heated, that Riordan himself has spoken out, calling fans racist if they disagree with the casting. It’s an ugly turn for a fandom that had eagerly awaited a live-action reboot of the popular book series, at least until a tweet from the official Percy Jackson series Twitter account revealed the main cast members and set off a firestorm on social media.
Some fans, it would appear, are upset with the casting of actress Leah Jeffries as Annabeth Chase, a character played by Alexandra Daddario in the films Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief in 2010 and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters in 2013. According to Variety, some fans took issue with Jeffries, who is African-American, because she doesn’t look like Annabeth as described in the books, which is light-skinned with light eyes. While Daddario may have fit the look described in the books, the actress herself endorsed the casting of Jeffries in a tweet and voiced her excitement for the TV series. “Leah Jeffries is going to be an incredible Annabeth!!!” Daddario tweeted on Tuesday.
Jeffries will star alongside Walker Scobell, who will play Percy Jackson, and Aryan Simhadri, who will play Grover Underwood. The three play young demigods who go on a series of adventures while still learning to harness their powers. As the controversy grew in recent days, Riordan himself felt compelled to speak out. “This post is specifically for those who have a problem with the casting of Leah Jeffries as Annabeth Chase,” he wrote in a blog post on his website. “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.”
The knee-jerk reaction to Jeffries’ casting in the Percy Jackson series is entirely superficial and does not take into account her ability as an actress. Her acting resume is limited, so her work and talents are not instantly recognizable to many fans. Her biggest credits are a handful of episodes on the Fox series Empire and a supporting role on the short-lived Lil Rel Howery sitcom Rel, which aired on Fox in 2018 and 2019. It is that lack of familiarity that Riordan seizes on and insists Jeffries won the role – in an open casting call by Disney – solely on her merits as an actor. “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,” Riordan wrote. “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.”
Riordan also insisted that, regardless of how fans felt about the casting, their anger should be directed at him, and not at a child. “If you have a problem with this casting, however, take it up with me,” he wrote. “We should be able to agree that bullying and harassing a child online is inexcusably wrong…the negative comments she has received online are out of line. They need to stop. Now. Once you see Leah as Annabeth, she will become exactly the way you imagine Annabeth, assuming you give her that chance.”
Percy Jackson and the Olympians will be based on Riordan’s 5-book series about the 12-year-old demigod, which has sold over 180 copies worldwide. The series will reportedly follow the plotline of the books, beginning with The Lightning Thief, in which Percy discovers his godlike powers when Zeus accuses him of stealing his lightning bolt. Filming will begin soon in Vancouver, Canada, and a premiere date has not been set. Riordan, however, promises Jeffries will strike a positive chord with fans once the series airs. “She will be a role model for new generations of girls who will see in her the kind of hero they want to be,” he said, noting if fans of the books still have a problem with the casting, they didn’t learn any of the lessons from them. Fan support for Jeffries, however, has been overwhelming, culminating with a Twitter hashtag, #LeahIsOurAnnabeth, where fans voice their support for her casting. Jeffries herself has not made a public statement on the controversy surrounding her casting.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians will have its pilot episode written by Rick Riordan and Jon Steinberg (Black Sails), with James Bobin (Dora and the Lost City of Gold) directing. Steinberg will serve as showrunner with his producing partner Dan Shotz. Steinberg and Shotz will also serve as executive producers with Bobin, Rick Riordan, Rebecca Riordan, Bert Salke, Monica Owusu-Breen (Alias), Jim Rowe, Gotham Group’s Ellen Goldsmith-Vein, Jeremy Bell, and D.J. Goldberg.