Rick Riordan Defends Diverse Cast, Slams Fox Movies

The next big thing in Hollywood was created by a middle school teacher from Texas. To his fans, he’s Uncle Rick.

In the crowd of a Los Angeles theater, where Uncle Rick has stopped on his most recent book tour, two teenage sisters gush that they drove for nearly two hours to make it here tonight — longer, when you account for parking — but it was worth it. Like Percy Jackson, the character that made Uncle Rick famous, the older sister has ADHD, while the younger sister never liked reading. And Percy also landed in Los Angeles on his very first quest. So by the logic set out in Uncle Rick’s books, these girls were born to be heroes.

Peter Yang for Variety

“Here’s what I think is gonna happen,” the 15-year-old whispers. “He’s gonna pull me out of the audience and say, ‘I want you in my show.’” Her sister scans the room and takes stock of all the adult fans present; they grew up on Uncle Rick’s work, too, and their excitement to see him rivals that of the pubescents they’re sandwiched between. “He’s still alive,” the 17-year-old reasons, though Rick is only 59, “and people will still pay $60 a ticket to come see him.”

Rick Riordan published “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief ” in 2005. The book introduces 12-year-old Percy, who discovers that the monsters and demon-eyed teachers who have plagued him his whole life aren’t figments of his imagination: He’s a demigod, it turns out — the child of a human woman and the water god Poseidon — and the Greek myths he grew up learning about are real. To empower his son, Haley, Riordan positioned Percy’s ADHD and dyslexia as strengths: They came from his battle instincts and his innate ability to read ancient Greek. Five books and 18 years later, Percy is a full-fledged hero, whose story will get a definitive screen adaptation when the TV series of the same name hits Disney+ on Dec. 20.

Between then and now, Riordan managed to quit his day job as “Percy Jackson” bloomed into a full literary ecosystem. There are two sequel series narrated by other characters, “The Heroes of Olympus” and “The Trials of Apollo,” made up of five books each, plus companion books, graphic novels and, as of September, new books where Percy is the central character. That’s before getting into Riordan’s separate series based on Egyptian and Norse mythologies, or Rick Riordan Presents, his publishing imprint highlighting other authors and folklore.

It’s hard to imagine that it has taken “Percy Jackson” almost two decades to get “Harry Potter’d,” as Jon Steinberg, co-creator of the Disney+ series, puts it. Until you remember when 20th Century Fox tried to do just that.

According to screenwriter Craig Titley, Hollywood studios began “buying up any book that had three kids chasing monsters” following the massive box office success of “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone” in 2001. Titley ended up writing Fox’s “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief ” at the invitation of director Chris Columbus, who had helmed the famed first “Harry Potter” film.

Leah Sava Jeffries; Age 14; Hometown Detroit, Mich.; Among Jeffries’ credits are a six-episode run on “Empire” and a role in the Idris Elba-led thriller “Beast.”
Peter Yang for Variety

“The problem,” says a source close to the production at the time, “was Tom Rothman.” The Sony Pictures chief, who was then co-chairman of 20th Century Fox, “was notorious for doing movies on the cheap. So if ‘Harry Potter’ is what you’re aiming for, you’re automatically handicapping the project.”

“Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief ” headed to theaters in 2010 with something of a built-in audience — which the source says Rothman took for granted. “He felt marketing could sell a known book series, so why spend top dollar? But the special effects are bad. There’s not the edge that the books had.” And according to Titley, budgetary constraints led to major rewrites of some of the first book’s most climactic moments, upsetting fans in the process.

Rothman declined to comment, but a source who was high-ranking at Fox at the time claims that Fox never discussed replicating Harry Potter, and that it would have been unwise to give “Percy Jackson” a Harry Potter-like budget when the $95 million the studio did spend was enough to do the job.

The movie made $227 million at the box office — decent, but nowhere near the $976 million reached by “Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone” on its $125 million budget. Fox eventually greenlit a sequel, and “Percy Jackson & the Olympians: Sea of Monsters” made $202 million in 2013. Some insiders felt that this dashed any potential for a major franchise. But the Fox source points out that Rothman exited the company in 2012 and priorities simply began to shift. Either way, the studio never bothered to adapt the last three books.

If you ask Uncle Rick, though, the problem was much bigger than money.

“It’s refreshing that Uncle Rick hates the PJO movies even more than we do,” a fan wrote on Twitter in 2020. Uncle Rick wrote back: “Well, to you guys, it’s a couple hours’ entertainment. To me, it’s my life’s work going through a meat grinder when I pleaded with them not to do it.”

Plead he did, as demonstrated in emails Riordan wrote to Fox in 2009. He published them on his blog in 2018 — nearly 3,000 words, not including the 12 pages of script notes he says he attached. In the emails, Riordan begs the studio to listen to him about how it could preserve the spirit of the book.

“After the movie experience, I basically wrote off Hollywood for a long, long time,” Riordan says. “I really didn’t want to have anything to do with the film industry. There were many years of me saying, ‘I don’t want to engage. I don’t want to think about other adaptations. I’m done.’ But when it started to become clear that something was going to happen with me or without me, I had a long talk with Becky, my wife. We said, ‘Well, if something’s going to happen, it’s probably best to give it one more shot.’”

That “something” was the 2019 acquisition of 20th Century Fox by the Walt Disney Co., sending the screen rights for the “Percy Jackson” books into the hands of the Mouse House. For Riordan, the deal was cause for both concern and “a glimmer of hope.”

Walker Scobell; Age 14; Hometown Erie, Pa.; Before “Percy Jackson and the Olympians,” Scobell nabbed his big break starring opposite Ryan Reynolds in “The Adam Project.” He’ll soon be seen alongside Michael Douglas in “Blood Knot.”
Peter Yang for Variety

It took “many meetings with many different executives and many different branches of the Disney conglomerate,” but eventually the Riordans got on board as executive producers of a new adaptation. Only this time, Riordan insisted that the project live on the small screen. “My feeling was always that television was the better format for ‘Percy,’ because it allows us a larger canvas to tell more of the story,” Riordan says. “And to be more faithful to the source material, which is what the fans of the books really would love to see.”

Things are different now that Uncle Rick is involved.

Sipping on a cup of coffee from craft services on the Vancouver set of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” — it’s January, and there’s one week left until production wraps on Season 1 — Riordan says that one of the “fundamental mistakes” made in the films was that the characters were aged up. Logan Lerman was 17 when he stepped into the role of Percy Jackson, while Percy’s friends, Annabeth Chase and Grover Underwood, were played by 23-year-old Alexandra Daddario and 25-year-old Brandon T. Jackson.

“Now, having been through the production process, I totally get why they did that. It’s much easier to work with older actors,” Riordan concedes. Still, “once you have older teens, it’s a completely different dynamic. You lose so much of the wonder. The magic of being a middle grader doesn’t come across the same way. There’s a jaded teenage quality.”

Riordan’s eyes light up when he talks about finding the children who became his trio: “They’re perfect, and they’ve only become more perfect.”

Walker Scobell, who starred in “The Adam Project” alongside Ryan Reynolds, is just 14. “He’s got that snarky attitude, but he’s also very sincere,” Riordan says. “Did I care that his hair is a different color than what is described in the book? Not at all. He just felt like Percy.”

And 17-year-old Aryan Simhadri plays Grover, whose character is technically a 24-year-old half human, half goat. But satyrs age gracefully, and the books say he looks 16. “Does he look exactly like I describe him in the book? No. That doesn’t matter,” Riordan says.

And then there’s Leah Sava Jeffries, the 14-year-old playing Annabeth, daughter of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. Riordan sings her praises most thoroughly: “Leah impressed me from the moment I met her. She has that sort of steel that makes her a leader, but there’s a bit of vulnerability to her.” He adds, “Now, again, does she look like Annabeth looks in the books? No. Was that important to me? No. If anything, it was a massive benefit to broaden the cast in terms of representation.”

If Riordan sounds defensive about what his cast looks like, it’s because he’s been forced to be. Even in a mythological universe made up of bull-headed giants and three-headed dogs, fandom is a beast of its own. In 2010, fans took issue with the fact that Daddario was a brunette, unlike the blond Annabeth described in “The Lightning Thief.” So it wasn’t a total surprise that, when self-proclaimed purists learned that Scobell was blond, Simhadri was Indian American and Jeffries was Black, all hell broke loose. And not the kind overseen by Hades.

Aryan Simhadri; Age 17; Hometown Orange County, Calif.; Simhadri has starred in Disney projects such as the 2022 remake of “Cheaper by the Dozen” and the coming-of-age movie “Spin.” “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” marks his first series regular role.
Peter Yang for Variety

Ugly sentiments poured out from the bleakest corners of the internet when Jeffries’ casting was announced alongside Simhadri’s in the spring of 2022. Less than a week later, Riordan turned to the blog through which he’s communicated with fans since 2005 to say, “If you have a problem with this casting, take it up with me.”

In the post, he condemns assumptions that he “must have been coerced, brainwashed, bribed, threatened” into choosing a Black actor to play the role, holding firm that Jeffries and her castmates “used their auditions to expand, improve and electrify the lines they were given.” And he doesn’t hesitate to label the backlash as racist several times before explaining that racism is an evil everyone, himself included, has to unlearn.

“It’s something that we were well aware would be an issue as soon as we knew that she was the one,” Riordan says of Jeffries. Being a middle school teacher is still the core of his identity, he says, and the cast of “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” is just another class of students. More important than making television, Riordan’s priority is “to protect them, to foster their education and to do everything I can to be a mentor and, hopefully, even a friend to them.”

As Riordan points out, it helps that Jeffries is wise beyond her years. “It got to me for the quickest second — literally, like 90 seconds,” Jeffries says about the debacle. “But I know that no matter how many people are going to say bad things, it’s never going to be true.” She adds, “This sounds really weird, but I don’t blame them — those people might not know how to adapt. Me? No matter who they put in it, I would love it either way. Because it’s just a show; it’s not like I fired someone.”

Leah Jeffries, Aryan Simhadri and Walker Scobell in “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”

Jeffries relished the opportunity to explore what it meant to be a Black Annabeth. Andrew McIlroy, who worked on set as an acting coach, printed out hundreds of images of Greek characters, inviting the actors to hold onto the pictures they resonated with. “Leah said, ‘None of these people look like me,’” McIlroy recalls. So in their next session, he brought her an image of a dark-skinned woman with long black hair and flames in her eye sockets, wearing an intricate golden crown. “She went, ‘Yeah. That’s Athena. That’s my mom.’”

From there, the kids were at liberty to have fun on set.

“There’s lots of things to do here in Vancouver. We go on hikes, and that counts as school!” Scobell says. “Sometimes instead of going back to the classroom and doing math, the camera guys teach me about the lenses and let me try on the Steadicam harness, and that counts as school too.”

For Jeffries, the highlight of the show has been its creator. “I love working with Mr. Rick. When he walks into the door, even though we’re not related, it’s like, ‘Hi, Grandpa!’” she says, as Simhadri nods vigorously. McIlroy also stands out in her memory: “He has us throw these balls at each other either super hard — I promise you we don’t hurt each other — or really soft. He would have us yell a line that’s supposed to be whispered, or one time, he had me sing really, really high notes like Mariah Carey. That way, we won’t get too used to how we’re saying it.”

Leah Jeffries as Annabeth Chase in “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”

Being three years older than his castmates, Simhadri wears his seniority well. When interviewed alongside Jeffries, he encourages her to speak first, and he leads with gratitude in his own answers, even if he can’t help cracking jokes. Explaining why a scene where Grover meets with other satyrs was his favorite to shoot, he says, “Everyone had prosthetics on like I did. It was cool to know that other people had to feel what I felt. Not that it was a bad feeling!”

The kids’ first time getting back together after wrapping production is four months later, for a photo shoot in Los Angeles, where they fall right back into their giggly rhythm. The boys play the “Rocky” theme over the speakers more than once — Simhadri explains that they “discovered” the movies together in Vancouver. When it’s Jeffries’ turn to take some solos, she cues songs by SZA and Rihanna. Scobell flips his middle fingers up at the camera any time his mother isn’t looking, while Simhadri roars with laughter and Jeffries rolls her eyes and grins.

It’s as regular a childhood as you can ask for when you commit to growing up on a big-budget Disney set.

“I’m superstitious,” Uncle Rick admits. “I don’t think I really allowed myself to feel that the show was going to happen until we got the greenlight” — which came in January 2022, after about 18 months of development.

Executives at Disney, however, couldn’t have been more optimistic. “The North Star in the development process was to honor the books and Rick’s vision,” says Karey Burke, president of Disney’s 20th Television. “And secondarily, to have the show live alongside the worlds created by our sister studios at Lucasfilm and Marvel. We really wanted to spare no expense to make sure that this series felt as big and imaginative.”

Sources say that the budget for “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” falls between $12 million and $15 million per episode, which would put it on par with “The Mandalorian,” the Pedro Pascal-led “Star Wars” series that premiered on Disney+ in 2019. (Disney declined to confirm these numbers.)

As with any streaming series, subscriber growth will be a major criterion determining ongoing investment in “Percy Jackson.” This is Disney’s first chance to launch a completely new franchise on its streamer, since the current most popular titles on Disney+ hail from franchises that predate the platform.

“But, honestly, the first marker is going to be the response of Rick’s core fans,” says Ayo Davis, president of Disney Branded Television. “We need to understand how it’s resonating.”

Walker Scobell as Perseus “Percy” Jackson in “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”

Fandom is a lucrative and predictive force in Hollywood, and that may be especially true in this scenario. “Percy Jackson” has something that “Star Wars,” the Marvel Cinematic Universe and “Harry Potter” all lack: Uncle Rick. In other words, there’s a direct and constant channel of online communication between creator and consumers; Rick uses his blog to ask fans for feedback, they post their thoughts on social media, he reads their messages and the cycle repeats. From a business perspective, that relationship is invaluable.

“This is the first time I’ve ever been in a development process where you’re talking about fans,” says Dan Shotz, who showruns and executive produces “Percy Jackson and the Olympians” with Steinberg. “We wanted to protect the things that fans didn’t get to see in the movies and wanted to experience from the books. At the same time, we need to separate it from that and say, ‘Why is this a story we want to tell?’” Answering that question required the writers to make a few changes to the story, which can be touchy.

“I think it would have been harder if Rick wasn’t the partner that he has been,” Steinberg says, “in the sense of getting comfortable with the idea that we may have to break everything to put it back together again in a way that feels right.”

For example, to further push the innate inclusivity of the “Percy Jackson” universe, which mythologizes neurodivergence and features canonically queer characters, Shotz and Steinberg wanted to explore disability. “Chiron, in the story, is in a wheelchair,” Shotz says about Glynn Turman’s character, whose chair in the books serves to conceal his horse body. “In lore, centaurs were warriors. So with our Chiron, the horse has a brace on his leg, a war injury, so that his disability isn’t just a cover. It’s something we’re going to deal with in the future of the series. We don’t even address it in the first season. Right now, it’s just a detail.”

Aryan Simhadri as Grover Underwood in “Percy Jackson and the Olympians.”

If all goes according to plan, the writers will have plenty of options for when and where to explore Chiron’s backstory.

“We want them all,” Burke says of the 11 books and counting that Riordan has published within the “Percy Jackson” universe, beyond the original five. “In spite of the movie experience that he had before, he’s an expansive thinker about his work. He doesn’t have a rigid interpretation of it. The other series that he’s created that live in this world are all part of our universe that we can adapt.”

On the topic of considerations across other levels of Disney, like merchandising and theme park potential, Burke smiles. “I will say that there’s incredible support across the Walt Disney Co. for ‘Percy,’” she says, and notes that Disneyland is already passing out “Percy Jackson”-branded candy bags for Halloween. “But Percy Jackson World at Disney World! I want the Imagineers on that right now.”

For his part, Riordan tries to stay focused on the task at hand. “If nothing else were to happen but those five seasons, I would be delighted,” he says with a contented sigh. We’re dealing with Uncle Rick here, after all.

He laughs about the nickname. “As I get older, it starts to feel a little weird. If you want to call me that, OK, but I’m not gonna put that on my business card.” Then he continues, “But it is an honor. Someone told me yesterday that I was a father figure to a lot of kids out in the world. That’s a huge responsibility. And I’ll try not to let them down.”

Stylist: Alison Brooks/Exclusive Artists Management; Stylist Assistant: Lena Barker; Grooming (Simhadri & Scobell): Ayae Yamamoto/Exclusive Artists using Oribe Haircare; Grooming (Jeffries): Caitlin Krenz/Exclusive Artists using Kosas and Mizani; 

Lead Image: Scobell’s Pants: H&M; Sweater: Obey; Sneakers: Nike; Simhadri’s Jacket: Rag & Bone; T-shirt: Zara; Pants: Sandro; Sneakers: Converse; Jeffries’ Top: ALC; Skirt: Molly Goddard; Shoes: Gucci; Cover Image; Scobell’s T-Shirt: All Saints; Jacket; Asos; Jeans: Rag and Bone; Sneakers: Nike; Simhadri’s T-shirt: Robert Barakett; Jacket & Pants: Topman; Shoes: Converse; Jeffries’ Top: Alexander Wang; Skirt: Aliétte; Shoes: Gucci; Jeffries Single: Top: Alexander Wang; Skirt: Aliétte; Shoes: Gucci; Scobell Single: T-Shirt: All Saints; Jacket; Asos; Jeans: Rag and Bone; Sneakers: Nike; Simhadri Single: T-shirt: Robert Barakett; Jacket & Pants: Topman; Shoes: Converse


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