The story behind the first black Peter Pan on film in Wendy
Director Benh Zeitlin discusses his journey to Neverland.
For the last century, the story of Peter Pan was simple: Three children with thriving imaginations, led by a precocious Wendy, are stuck in a less-than-ideal home life — circumstances that pushed being “realistic” and “grown-up” over simply being a kid. Then comes our hero, Peter.
However, Peter, in his various iterations — like in the 1953 Disney classic and even the 1991 Steven Spielberg-helmed reimagining Hook, with Robin Williams — has also been a bit of a jerk. He’s passive-aggressive to women (the animated film features Peter saying girls “talk too much”). He treats Native Americans as animals, or “red men.” And, well, he’s always white.
After making the Best Picture-nominated Beasts of the Southern Wild in 2012, director Benh Zeitlin wanted to sprinkle the story of innocence with a little pixie dust in his Feb. 28 release, Wendy. The title character, played by young newcomer Devin France, acts as the lens through which the audience sees Neverland, a lavish landscape Zeitlin scouted in the Caribbean islands. Peter is played by Yashua Mack, the first black actor to portray the popular character in a major motion picture. Why the change? EW spoke to Zeitlin to get his insights on the casting, and making and release of a project he has been working on for seven years.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I read that you auditioned upward of 1,500 kids before you chose Yashua. What was it about him that spoke to the character?
BENH ZEITLIN: It was a bunch of things. [I had] this realization as I was scouting these landscapes. Knowing the narrative of Peter, he’s lived outside for hundreds of years. Early on, we scrapped this idea that the Lost Boys were going to have a little clubhouse with zip lines. That’s often how his world is realized. My experience playing as a child, nothing ever got done because you just are moving too fast, you move on too quickly. Your dad would build a treehouse, but a 6-year-old kid is never gonna complete that project — they’re gonna get, like, three steps of the way. In order for us to believe that this kid lived in this place, you’re gonna need this level of fearlessness and fluency with the surroundings that you could never teach. That was the idea early on that Peter was going to come from Neverland, from the region where we’re going to shoot the film.
Yashua lived in a Rastafari camp in Antigua. A lot of places you see in the film are their playground. Seeing this little boy drop into character was one of the most shocking things I’ve ever experienced in my life. He just inherently understood how to perform.
In the aftermath of Beasts of the Southern Wild, some accused you, as a white person, of not being qualified to tell the story of this black community. Does that bother you, even now with Wendy?
Obviously, you’re aware of it. You know there’s a level of scrutiny that’s gonna exist when you cast people that aren’t like you in any respect. There’s a current in the world that people should just tell stories about themselves. These are stories about people that are radically different from me. There’s a long and shameful history of white filmmakers misrepresenting women and misrepresenting people of color in film. I think it’s a great thing that there is a level of scrutiny that exists. The goal is always to create three-dimensional characters that are not reduced down to the sum of their identities — which are complicated. The further the character is from yourself, the more you have to work to give that character complexity to make them feel real.
It’s significant that this will be the first Peter Pan of color in a major movie release. How much did that weigh on you while you were filming Yashua?
You’re aware that it’s a radical departure from the history of the story. Radically dismantling the history of the story was a huge reason why we wanted to tell it. His character and the story has been so important to me. But you look back at iterations of it and they’re wildly sexist. They’re wildly racist, the way they portrayed Native Americans, usually.
Something from the past Pan stories that you did decide to keep was the concept of Mother, a source of comfort and safety. In this movie, the physical manifestation of Mother is a giant deep-sea fish that appears incredibly realistic. Your movies have always been about this magic realism. What about CGI effects doesn’t click with you?
You see these films for kids, and they’re entirely built inside of a computer. There’s movies where kids are in the rain forest, and the kid probably never went outside. There’s a real incredible loss to me happening in the world. I find it upsetting, not just the fact of using digital technology, but how homogenous all these different artists are. We’ve lost these artisans. Pretty much everything filters through somebody sitting down at their laptop.