Pan director says he tried to create a racially diverse Neverland

Despite a mostly white cast, Pan director Joe Wright says he tried his best to make his Neverland as racially diverse as possible

Pan, the latest movie version of the Peter Pan story, has been accused of "whitewashing" the character of Tiger Lily, who in the film is played by a Caucasian actress even though she is described as an "Indian princess" in the beloved stories of J.M. Barrie.

Responding to the public outcry over this choice - almost 95,000 people signed a petition urging Warner Bros studio to "stop casting white actors to play people of colour" - director Joe Wright tells Life he auditioned many non-white performers, but found none were as "emotionally" suitable for the part as Rooney Mara, the American star who eventually won the role.

Lupita Nyong'o, the Kenyan actress who won an Oscar for the 2013 drama 12 Years A Slave, was reportedly one of those considered for the role.

At a recent press event in New York, Wright speaks of an exhaustive casting search that he claims left no stone unturned when it came to finding the right actors for the film, an origin story that imagines Peter's early years as an orphan and his arrival on the fantastical island of Neverland.

"I met very few Caucasian actresses," says the 43-year-old Briton who has directed period dramas such as Anna Karenina (2012), Pride & Prejudice (2005) and the Oscar-winning Atonement (2007).

I resisted meeting any Caucasian actresses until I couldn’t find the right person. I finally... decided that the most suitable for the role, emotionally, would get the part.

DIRECTOR JOE WRIGHT on his choice of Rooney Mara to play Tiger Lily

"I had a lovely time meeting actresses from India and China and Japan and Africa and the Middle East, as well as African American and Native American actresses and so forth.

"And I resisted meeting any Caucasian actresses until I couldn't find the right person. I finally screen- tested three actors and decided that the most suitable for the role, emotionally, would get the part."

Explaining his choice of Mara, 30, who is of Irish, French-Canadian and German descent, he adds: "Tiger Lily's described as being this kind of kick-a**, princess warrior, and there's something of the princess about Rooney and there's something of the kick-a** about her."

Nonetheless, her casting has triggered a considerable backlash, including a petition on the Care 2 website, which slams the film- makers and movie studio for picking a white performer for the part, arguing that this is "particularly shameful for a children's movie - telling children their role models must all be white is unacceptable".

Media commentators such as Wall Street Journal columnist Jeff Yang have echoed such criticisms, which have gathered steam in recent years as Hollywood finds itself increasingly on the defensive over charges of "whitewashing", or the casting of Caucasian actors as characters originally conceived or meant for non-whites (see other story).

In an article, Yang urges Hollywood to "grow up" rather than "stubbornly resist" the changing demographics of its audience, and reminds the industry of its power to "influence cultural norms and aspirations".

While Wright says he deliberately made the tribe Tiger Lily leads in the film as racially diverse as possible, all the key roles in the movie - including the titular Peter - have gone to white actors, with the exception of Adeel Akhtar, a British performer who has a small speaking part.

Australian newcomer Levi Miller, 12, was picked from more than 4,000 videotaped auditions after an open casting call to play Peter.

On Neverland, Peter meets pirates, fairies, mermaids and local tribes, including the pirate Blackbeard (Wolverine star Hugh Jackman), Captain Hook (Garrett Hedlund), Peter's mother Mary (Amanda Seyfried) and a mermaid (Cara Delevingne).

Wright says of this fantasy world: "When I first started considering Neverland as a world, before I started thinking about Tiger Lily's casting, I thought about the community that she's part of. And I didn't want to make them one specific nationality.

"I decided that I'd make the tribe natives of planet Earth and the indigenous people of the globe. And that felt like an opportunity then to have all these people come together and fight Blackbeard, who's almost like a colonial villain who wants to overtake their land. That was very exciting."

The director further defends his casting of Mara as Tiger Lily to be in line with the source material ("Our idea of Tiger Lily being Native American actually comes from the Disney cartoon, not Barrie's original source material - Barrie's kind of non-specific about Tiger Lily and her community's race").

But in fact the Scottish playwright and author does refer to Tiger Lily as an "Indian princess" from a tribe of "piccaninnies", a racial slur for those of African origin, which certainly indicates she is non-white.

It has to be said, of course, that both Barrie's stories and the 1953 animated film by Disney are today widely considered to be guilty of many racial stereotypes and insensitivities themselves.

As for the American film industry's own insensitivities, a Hollywood Reporter article hints at the real reason that may drive them, quoting a veteran producer who explains that it is all about the bottom line - the studios prefer established stars to boost the marketability of their films, rather than actors of particular ethnicities.

Wright seems quietly resigned to the fact that he will be answering questions about this for a while. He says he understands why people have reacted negatively to the issue. But he believes watching Pan in its entirety will allay any criticisms.

"I think people's concerns - which I fully understand - about the casting of a Caucasian actress in the role are justified until they see the movie. And when people see the movie, they kind of understand what I'm trying to do."

Pan opens in Singapore cinemas tomorrow.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 07, 2015, with the headline 'Finding the colour in Neverland'. Print Edition | Subscribe