With the premiere of Percy Jackson and the Olympians on Disney+ approaching later this month, Nerds & Beyond was invited to participate in two press conferences for the series where the starring cast and some of the creative team got the chance to talk about bringing the series to the streamer.
Note: Responses have been edited for clarity.
The first of the press conferences featured cast stars Walker Scobell, Leah Sava Jeffries, and Aryan Simhadri as well as co-creator/showrunner/executive producer Jon Steinberg and executive producer Dan Shotz, primarily focusing on how the cast brought the series’ characters to life from the page and how to make a successful adaptation.
Karen Butler from UPI News asked the trio what they loved about the iconic characters they were portraying and how they made them their own:
Leah Sava Jeffries: I took this character and I mixed it up, and when I say mix it up, I made sure that I still had Annabeth but also giving my natural self. And I think that really played a good part in stuff. I have a goofy side of me, but I also have that straightforward, serious, “Let’s get straight to the point,” side. Mr. Rick, he told us to be ourselves when we film this, so, I think that’s what made the chemistry really good between all of us with playing these parts, but still giving Annabeth, Percy, and Grover at the same time.
Walker Scobell: Yeah, I kind of agree with that. I don’t think I really made Percy my own — I mean, we all kind of did in a way, but I think for the show, we tried to ground it a little bit more in real life. I think that it’s really important to remember that he’s still a 12-year-old kid, and so he throws tantrums, sometimes he gets
angry. I think it’s much more of an emotional journey for him.
Aryan Simhadri: Yeah, I completely agree. We all brought ourselves into the character. What I really liked about Grover is that he kind of starts out like really skittish, a little cowardly. But you can still see that he’s always willing to put himself in front of his friends. And kind of like Walker said, that journey that all of us go through, Grover comes out of his shell a little bit more and is more willing to throw himself in front of danger to protect the people that he cares about.
Diego from Awards Radar asked the cast how they related to the characters they brought to the screen and if there were any moments where they felt their character shared a certain mannerism with them, or if there was a trait they’d like to take away from the series:
Aryan Simhadri: Walker’s definitely very, uh … rebellious.
Dan Shotz: [LAUGHS] Mischievous.
Walker Scobell: I think Percy’s sense of humor. I have a very similar sense of humor to him.
Leah Sava Jeffries: I would take Annabeth’s vulnerability. I’m gonna try to keep mine short because I know I talk a lot, but definitely, I think her vulnerability while bringing out the focus in her. I feel like I can definitely be focused but also have a deep sensitivity to me as well that I took from her.
Aryan Simhadri: For Grover, one of my favorite things reading his character in the books was how connected he is to everyone that he cares about, which is a trait that I really admire in him and it’s something that I really want to try and take from the character and put it into this story as much as I can.
Cherry (unknown outlet) asked the group what scene they were most excited to share with audiences when the show premieres. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, is that everyone seemed to share a particular scene:
Walker Scobell: The Ares fight.
Aryan Simhadri: Yeah!
Walker Scobell: I mean, come on. It’s the Ares fight. I don’t even think there needs to be an explanation. It’s the Ares fight.
Aryan Simhadri: It’s the Ares fight!
Leah Sava Jeffries: It is the Ares fight!
Dan Shotz: Ares fight, yeah.
Aryan Simhadri: Also, the Council of Cloven Elders scene was really fun. I’m not sure if it made it to the final cut or not, but it was just this day of everyone was dressed like me. No one talked with words except for me, and by the end of the day, I could understand word by word what everything meant. It was so much fun.
Jonathan Steinberg: That’s a good question. The Ares fight.
Dan Shotz: [LAUGHS]
Aryan Simhadri: Ares fight!
Walker Scobell: Ares fight!
Jonathan Steinberg: We’re all here for the same reason. The relationships between these kids were really what got me excited about the book — the first time I read it, it got me excited about the project when we came on and watching these guys inhibit that and take stuff and make it so human and so much fun was really pretty outstanding. I’m very excited for people to see the book in a different way.
Dan Shotz: I think for me, it was that we got to do some pretty amazing creature design in this show. Things that I think have never been seen like this, ever. So for me, it was the chimera fight with Percy at the top of the Arch [St. Louis]. It’s just pretty epic and Walker is amazing in it and I’m excited for everyone to see that one.
Francisca from We Got This Covered asked Shotz and Steinberg specifically if they got a bit more space to make a faithful adaptation than the film series from the early 2010s and how they toe the line between maintaining the essence of the source material while bringing the story to a different medium. Steinberg had a great response.
Jonathan Steinberg: I think it’s a little more art than science. I think as you’re reading the book, it starts in terms of trying to form a sense of what really is contributing to the journey, to the important moments, to the stuff you remember a couple of days later. I think that conversation became much more detailed and much more substantive once you’re in conversation with Rick and Becky about the things that they have those feelings about — the things they feel like this wouldn’t be a Percy Jackson story or Percy Jackson journey without.
Then from there, you just start planting flags and things and feeling if this wasn’t in the show, I think as a fan, I’d be disappointed, so that’s got to be in there, and trying to figure out how to stitch everything together in a way where nothing feels extra, nothing feels like it’s there just because we wanted it to be there. It all has to be part of a story that functions organically and that makes you feel like it was always built this way even though it’s in the middle of a pretty serious adaptation.
Rolling Stone Brazil continued the conversation about adaptations by asking the group how they bring the characters to life in a way that is as faithful to the books as possible. To Steinberg, it boils down to respect:
Jonathan Steinberg: I think you have to be extremely respectful of it, but also at the same time have to not be afraid of it. I think you commit to telling a story about this kid trying to figure out who he is and how he and his friends are going to get through this and making the story work on its own two feet. And then trying to figure out how to make sure that it is also doing all of the things that the book wants. It’s a constant balancing act between a real sense of reverence for the material and a willingness to try stuff.
I think having Rick and Becky on board makes that process possible. I think the ability to pitch something new and then look at their faces and see if it’s working is invaluable. I think you have to be able to walk both sides of that line at all times.
Dan Shotz: There’s no one closer to this series than the Riordans, and what was so impressive about them was they were open to looking at it themselves. Rick wrote this 20 years ago and he has some distance from it, so it was exciting to hear what things he wanted to do with it, how he wanted to explore different themes and ideas and dig deeper into all of it. So it was amazing to watch, and they were insanely collaborative for us all to bring what we brought to it. It was a special relationship.
The next press conference included both Steinberg and Shotz again, this time adding in director and executive producer James Bobin to dive more into the creation of the series behind the camera with questions submitted from a variety of outlets beforehand.
The pre-submitted questions included one from one of our own Editors, Hannah, who was curious to know what lessons the team are hoping younger audiences walk away from the series with:
Jonathan Steinberg: I think Walker’s superpower is he’s able to make being a dummy charming. I always find that to be an incredibly charming thing about a hero is he doesn’t have to be the first one to figure things out. There’s just something endearing, and I think in a way that the leading edge of what this story is that his superpower is humanity. That all of these other kids who maybe didn’t have Sally in their life, they know how to use their powers better and they know how to use their weapons better, but there’s a lot to be learned from somebody who’s got their humanity. And I think a story that knows that from the beginning and is willing to center that and celebrate it, I think is something my kids will get to watch.
Dan Shotz: Great question, by the way. For me, it’s that you’re not alone. I think a kid that is going to a different school every year trying to figure out who he is, who his friends are, what’s going on with him is very daunting and scary, and there’s a lot of kids who can relate in some form to feeling like an outsider not fitting in. I think this story really says that no matter what complications you have, whether in your family or with whatever relationships you have, that you’re not alone: there’s someone out there who you can connect to that is going to make that difference in your life and help you find your center.
I think about that lot with these three and how they connect to each other in this story and what they provide for each other and give to each other, and I think that’s where this story is universal and relatable and really powerful.
Of course, you can’t talk about adapting a series like Percy Jackson into live-action without discussing some of the challenges faced, which is why one of the questions was born of a curiosity of what those challenges were and how they were approached:
James Bobin: Director-wise, it’s the world-building, which is always going to be hard. Rick is so great in the book we want to do just clear. And also it’s very different to reading it, to then seeing it obviously because seeing it, everyone has their own idea of what it looks like. And so it’s trying to be correct and be truthful and be honest yourself of how you feel about it. Because the tone of the book is so in the world whereby it’s a magical world whereby these creatures coexist with humans and it’s, that’s just the way the world is, but yet it’s really also a movie about a road trip across America, a very recognizable America, a real-world America.
So it is balancing that idea, those two competing ideas in a way, that I think totally is really a challenge. Directing and creating that world as a director and making those people leaving that world for real in a plausible way was the biggest challenge I faced for sure. But I’m very pleased now. I’m totally loving the world we created.
Jonathan Steinberg: It is a massive constellation of challenges. It’s hard to isolate one, but I think a heading under which a lot of them fall is trying to make two shows at once, which is a show that is everything you would want as a fan of these books, and at the same time is a show that doesn’t care whether you have read those books. Frequently you really are sort of interlacing these two shows on top of each other and then you turn it sideways and you’re making two other shows, which is a show that works for an 8-year-old because it’s fun and you understand it and it isn’t too scary, but it’s scary enough to keep your attention and the jokes play. But it’s also a show for that kid’s parents such that they don’t watch the show just because it’s on and they’re stuck there, they watch it because it has something to say to them too. So I think it is this story that has so many different dimensions that you’re constantly trying to track in space.
I guess that’s why it’s hard to isolate one thing because every problem is really four or eight problems when you look at it through that lens and you’re trying to solve it in every direction at the same time.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians premieres with two episodes on Disney+ on December 20. Our spoiler-free review of the first two episodes can be read here, and check back after the series premieres for episodic recaps.