February 15, 2018 10:10 AM

Natalie Portman has responded to claims of whitewashing in her upcoming film Annihilation.

When asked about the controversy during an interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Portman and her costar Jennifer Jason Leigh said they were unaware of the original race of their characters.

“Well, that does sound problematic, but I’m hearing it here first,” said Portman.

Jason Leigh also agreed, adding, “It’s probably a valid criticism. I didn’t know that.”

In the sequel novel to Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation (the book on which the film is based), Portman’s character Lena is described as having strong Asian heritage while Leigh’s Dr. Ventress is written as half-white, half-Native American.

Though Portman said she only became aware of her character’s race in the source material earlier this week, she acknowledged the problem of whitewashing in Hollywood.

“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,” said the actress. “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.”

Paramount Pictures

Annihilation stars Portman as a biologist who enters a mysterious environmental disaster zone to save her husband (Oscar Isaac); Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tuva Novotny, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson and Benedict Wong also star in the film.

Ahead of the Feb. 23 release of the film, director Alex Garland also weighed in on the controversy.

“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. 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,” he said in a statement to Deadline.

“There was no studio pressure to cast white. The casting choices were entirely mine. 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,” the director continued. “But there was nothing cynical or conspiratorial about the way I cast this movie.”

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