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‘Annihilation’ Star Jennifer Jason Leigh Responds to Whitewashing Accusations

Alex Garland’s new fantasy thriller “Annihilation” has generated buzz for featuring a diverse cast of mainly women, but advocacy groups have accused the film of whitewashing its characters.

Starring Natalie Portman, Gina Rodriguez, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Oscar Isaac, “Annihilation” is based on Jeff VanderMeer’s book trilogy about a group of women who go on an expedition into a dangerous, unknown territory that could threaten society. Portman plays a biologist who served in the military and leads the group on the journey.

Criticism emerged after advocacy groups pointed out that Portman and Leigh’s characters are described as being Asian and half-Indian in the books. At the movie’s premiere in Westwood, Calif., on Tuesday, Leigh said she recently heard about the whitewashing accusations. “It’s not in the first novel at all, which I think is the book that Alex read and that he based it on,” she said. “I think had he known about those things, it might be a different cast. But we’re lucky to have a movie with all women.”

Rodriguez said she was drawn to the film because it allowed her to transform into a character so different from her “Jane the Virgin” persona. “How often do brown girls get to play in sci-fi?” she asked.

Rodriguez, who recently directed an episode of “Jane the Virgin,” discussed how directors can aid industry efforts to make casts more diverse, like the one shown in “Annihilation.” “I think it would be wonderful if we got to a space where people felt that they were conscious of their attempts at creating good characters, not characters specified by race,” she said.

Rodriguez added that people of color “want to be able to do anything and play in any different world and have opportunities like anyone else.”

For Thompson, the “most remarkable thing” about the film was working with a predominantly female cast. “When you’re one of two women on set or the only woman on set, sometimes what happens is that you’re otherized,” she said. “No one means you harm; it’s just the way that it is. In this case, there was no other.”

While praising the female casting, Novotny said she hopes that is not the only aspect audiences focus on. “We’re in a transition era which needs attention, too,” she said. “So I’m happy that there’s a focus around the female cast. At the same time, as a movie, I’m hoping we can move past that and just be seen as a good movie.”

“Annihilation” hits theaters on Feb. 23.

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