Actress Natalie Portman responded to criticism that main characters in her forthcoming film Annihilation were whitewashed. Portman and her co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh told Yahoo Entertainment that they only found out about the race of the characters this week. When asked about the claims, Portman said, “Well, that does sound problematic, but I’m hearing it here first.”
“It’s probably a valid criticism,” Leigh added. “I didn’t know that.”
The film is based off of Jeff VanderMeer’s book Annihilation. The sequel of that book characterizes Portman’s character Lena with “high cheekbones that spoke to the strong Asian heritage on one side of her family.” The character played by Leigh, Dr. Ventress, is a half-white, half-Native American woman in the book.
Hollywood, of course, has a well documented history of whitewashing stories. Some recent examples of this are Tilda Swinton’s role in Doctor Strange and Scarlett Johansson as the lead in the live-action Ghost in the Shell.
Portman says she knows this and hopes it will change. “We need more representation of Asians on film, of Hispanics on film, of blacks on film, women and particularly women of color, Native Americans—I mean, we just don’t have enough representation,” she said. “And also these categories like ‘white’ and ‘nonwhite’—they’re imagined classifications but have real-life consequences. ... And I hope that begins to change, because I think everyone is becoming more conscious of it, which hopefully will make change.”
The Media Action Network for Asian Americans shared a statement with The Hollywood Reporter earlier this week claiming that director Alex Garland was misrepresenting main characters by casting white actresses. The criticism is strikingly different from the praise the film has thus far received for its mostly female cast and inclusion of women of color like Tessa Thompson and Gina Rodriguez.
As pointed out by Vulture, Garland told Yahoo last year that he wrote the script based off an unpublished version of Annihilation and didn’t read the published copy or sequels on purpose. Physical descriptions of the characters aren’t included in the first book, only in the sequels, which could be why Portman and her co-stars didn’t know until now.