Natalie Portman and her Annihilation co-star Jennifer Jason Leigh have both spoken out over the ‘whitewashing’ controversy that has engulfed their casting in the film, saying that they had no idea their characters were not white in the original books.

Annihilation, which is out on February 23rd in the United States, is a science fiction based around Portman’s character Lena, a biologist working in a secret natural disaster zone. It’s an adaptation of the first book of the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, published in 2014.

However, it’s not revealed until the second book of the series, ‘Authority’, that Lena is revealed to be of “Asian heritage”. Furthermore, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character as the government psychologist Dr Ventress is described as being half-Native American and half-white.

Natalie PortmanNatalie Portman with co-star Gina Rodriguez at the 'Annihilation' premiere in L.A.

Their casting has subsequently come under heavy criticism from American Indians in Film and Television (AIIFT) and Media Action Network for Asian Americans (MANAA).

In a new interview with Yahoo! News, though, both Leigh and Portman have said that they didn’t know before they were cast that the characters they would be playing were of different ethnicity.

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“Well, that does sound problematic,” Portman told the interviewer, “but I’m hearing it here first”. Leigh agreed with her, adding “It’s probably a valid criticism. I didn’t know that.”

“We need more representation of Asians on film, of Hispanics on film, of blacks on film, and women and particularly women of colour, Native Americans,” Portman continued, saying that “categories like ‘white’ and ‘non-white’” were “imagined classifications” with “real-life consequences”, and the film industry was gradually “becoming more conscious of it”.

The film’s director, Alex Garland, who also adapted the ‘Annihilation’ book for the screenplay, has addressed the issue, saying that he was unaware of issues of ethnicity in VanderMeer’s book, which gives few clues in its style as to the characters’ physical traits, and often doesn’t reveal names.

“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,” Garland said in a statement this week. “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.”

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