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Alex Garland on ‘Annihilation’ Whitewashing: ‘There Was Nothing Cynical or Conspiratorial’ in Casting the Film

The director wrote and cast "Annihilation" based on the first novel in Jeff VanderMeer's trilogy, which doesn't reference the lead character's heritage until the second book.

Natalie Portman and Alex Garland

Rob Latour/Variety/REX/Shutterstock

Alex Garland has broken his silence on the whitewashing backlash against his new film, “Annihilation.” The science-fiction thriller was criticized by the advocacy group Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA) for casting Natalie Portman in the lead role, despite the fact her character is described as having Asian heritage in Jeff VanderMeer’s trilogy. However, the character’s race is not mentioned until the second book, and Garland notes he only wrote and cast the movie based on VanderMeer’s first novel.

“The characters in the novel I read and adapted were not given names or ethnicities,” Garland said. “I cast the film reacting only to the actors I met in the casting process, or actors I had worked with before. There was no studio pressure to cast white. The casting choices were entirely mine.”

As Garland previously told Yahoo! Entertainment, he adapted “Annihilation” before VanderMeer’s sequels were even published. In the first book, the characters are only referred to by their professions. Natalie Portman’s character is named Lena in the movie, for instance, but the “Annihilation” novel only refers to her as the biologist. Garland did not ask VanderMeer about any details in the sequels because he was only interested in adapting the first novel.

Garland reacted further to the whitewashing controversy in a statement made to Deadline:

This is an awkward problem for me, because I think whitewashing is a serious and real issue, and I fully support the groups drawing attention to it.

 But the characters in the novel I read and adapted were not given names or ethnicities.  I cast the film reacting only to the actors I met in the casting process, or actors I had worked with before.  There was no studio pressure to cast white.  The casting choices were entirely mine.

As a middle-aged white man, I can believe I might at times be guilty of unconscious racism, in the way that potentially we all are.  But there was nothing cynical or conspiratorial about the way I cast this movie.

“Annihilation” opens in theaters nationwide February 23 via Paramount Pictures.

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