Peter Mountain/Paramount Pictures
February 14, 2018 at 11:09 PM EST

Director Alex Garland has responded to accusations of whitewashing over his new film Annihilation, insisting that there was “nothing cynical and conspiratorial” in the casting process and pointing to an absence of racial identity in the initial source material.

Based on Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name, Annihilation stars Natalie Portman as a biologist who enters an environmental disaster zone in search of answers about what happened to her husband (Oscar Isaac). Along with Portman and Isaac, the cast includes Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

The film has come under criticism because the latter books of VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy reveal that Portman’s character is of Asian descent, while Leigh’s is half-Native American. Garland says that he only read the first book, which gives no names or ethnicities to the characters.

“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 told Deadline Hollywood. “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.”

He continued, “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.”

Portman and Leigh both recently learned of their characters’ heritage in an interview with Yahoo. “Well, that does sound problematic,” responded Portman, while Leigh called it “probably a valid criticism.”

Portman added, “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. 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.”

In a separate interview, Leigh, like Garland, referenced the lack of information in the Annihilation book. “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 told Variety. “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.”

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