Percy Jackson And The Olympians | Executive producers talk casting Percy, adapting the books

Left to right: Leah Sava Jeffries as Annabeth, Aryan Simhadri as Grover and Walker Scobell as Percy in Percy Jackson And The Olympians.
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We sat down with Executive Producers Jonathan E. Steinberg and Dan Shotz to chat about making Percy Jackson And The Olympians – and their long creative partnership.

With three of its eight episodes now streaming on Disney+, Percy Jackson And The Olympians is shaping up to be a fun fantasy adventure. It’s also a very faithful adaptation of author Rick Riordan’s books. Riordan’s been heavily involved with the series, credited as a co-creator as well as executive producing alongside his wife Rebecca Riordan.

The show tells the story of the titular Percy Jackson (Walker Scobell), a young boy who finds he doesn’t really fit in. It turns out there’s a reason for that – he’s the son of a Greek god, a Demigod. Taken to Camp Half-Blood to be among his own kind and learn about his newfound powers, he learns he’s been accused of stealing Zeus’ lightning bolt. To clear his name, he sets out on a quest accompanied by Annabeth (Leah Sava Jeffries) and the Satyr Grover (Aryan Simhadri).

It’s a fun premise that captured a whole generation of young bookworms. But to make this series work, the Riordans worked with two people who really know their TV. Dan Shotz and Jonathan E. Steinberg have been writing and producing since the early 2000s, and also have a long-standing creative partnership. They worked together on Jericho, See, and Black Sails, but this is the first time they’ve worked on something for and about younger people.

Here’s what they had to say about adapting the books, casting Percy and their creative partnership.

When it came to Percy Jackson, what attracted you to that story and to adapting it for TV?

JS: I think it’s a story that really speaks to everyone, and I think those are really hard to find. A story about a kid who doesn’t fit and then realises that the things that make him strange are actually the things that make him powerful, is a really compelling story and a really universal one; I think something anybody can relate to. And to then add into it this incredible world, and creatures, and landscapes, and other characters that Rick [Riordan] has built into it, turns it into the kind of adventure that I grew up loving. And so the opportunity to make one of those and to contribute something to that space was pretty exciting. 

You guys have worked together on a few projects now, but usually kind of the darker, more grown up variety. So what was it like working on something that was so different that’s aimed at a younger audience and about younger characters?

DS: I mean, I think, we can’t not mention that we’re both fathers. And so when my kid, my 13 year old now, fell in love with these books and it actually really made her fall in love with reading. And so when you watch your child sit in bed and stay under the covers and read till way too late at night, you just see the impact that this particular story and stories like this are having on your own child, and it makes you want to dive into that story and give kids that and give anybody that who has felt like that kid, whether they read it 20 years ago, they’re reading it now, whether you read it 20 years in the future.

I think there’s something so timeless about these books that make people just fall in love with these characters. And so to get this opportunity to bring these particular characters to life was just a huge exciting opportunity – a challenging one, but one that we were just excited to dive into.

I think in that first episode, you capture really well that feeling of being young and the imagination and not quite knowing where you fit. Could you walk me through when you were developing and writing that first episode and deciding how to introduce us to Percy?

JS: It’s a balancing act, I think, in that you want to get just enough of an understanding of the world he’s starting in, to understand him and root for him and to be able to to get a real sense of where this journey is starting. At the same time, it’s an adventure and I want my adventure to get started. And so I think you’re just trying to distil it to what’s the most important, what are the most important pieces you need to anchor all of this?

In the first episode, I think the biggest piece of that was Percy’s relationship with his mom, and his mom’s relationship with him, and understanding what the shape of that was and why they were so important to each other, what they meant to each other, so that when she was gone she lived in every scene. You know, even though she’s not there, her presence is felt. So I think that there was a lot of energy focused on ‘how do you build that in the sturdiest way possible?’ So my hope is you come out of that episode ready to watch this kid go and fight the world, and care from the very beginning.

Percy is such an integral part of the entire thing and it must have been a real process to try to find the right person to play him. What do you think Walker brings to the role?

DS: I mean, it was a big global search. If we don’t find the right Percy, this does not work. But I will say, we saw it right away. When we saw his first audition tape, Jon was actually the first one to, I remember the phone call, it was like, ‘dude get on the casting site, go look at this kid.’ And it was immediate. It was immediate for everybody. He just brought this rawness. He was just so natural and you just saw the choices he was making that were so specific that no one else was doing. And we just immediately saw it and then when you get to know the kid and know what a good soul he has and what a good person he is, it made it a complete no brainer. He was Percy Jackson.

And then when we got to set and the 160 days this kid had to shoot, you just see his resilience, you see what he can do, never complaining, always the one showing up with a smile on his face, excited for the next challenge. So, we feel very grateful and very lucky to have found Walker.

Walker Scobell as Percy Jackson in Percy Jackson And The Olympians.
Credit: Disney

you’ve worked very closely with Rick Riordan, the author, on this series and he’s been open about – with the film adaptations before – not having so much input. Do you think that’s really important to have had him in this process and to have him there the whole way through?

JS: Yeah, I think it was critical, I think any adaptation is an exercise in breaking things in order to put them back together again. I think you have to be willing to let everything go in order to rebuild something that feels both organic and feels like it’s made for this medium, but also still possesses the same emotional experience and has its heart and soul in the same place as the book. I think that’s a really difficult exercise without somebody to speak for the material, and I think it’s an even more difficult exercise when there are so many millions of people who aren’t just fans of this book but feel really deeply connected to it.

Somebody’s got to be able to be there to say ‘This feels like it is of the Percy Jackson universe to me’ or ‘This doesn’t.’ And there was really nobody, nobody who could have occupied that position other than Rick and Becky [Riordan], so having them as partners in this and as hosts in this material, to be able to help understand it, help to navigate it, was was a huge part of what’s making it work right now.

So, coming back to your partnership, what is it about the dynamic that you two have presumably built over the years that keeps you coming back and working together?

DS: We have known each other since we were six and [looks to Jonathan] seven. So it is a very long history, and we started our careers in television together. It’s been a good, almost 20 year relationship in and out of different series that we’ve been building together, and, you know, I think we complement each other in, in many ways, but also just have the same passion for storytelling and love doing this together as friends, as partners, and as guys who grew up on the same block still doing this after after many years – and now as fathers. Jon has kids; I have kids; being able to build this for them because they are such massive fans of the book. So we feel really fortunate.

Episodes of Percy Jackson And The Olympians are streaming weekly on Disney+.

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