The first book in Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series arrived in 2005. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief introduced the concept of half-bloods, half mortals and half gods, and the camp where those half-bloods learn more about their heritage. Quests, mythical objects, monster attacks—they’re all part of everyday life for a child of the Greek gods. The upcoming Disney+ adaptation Percy Jackson and the Olympians brings the books to life, this time as a television series. It follows Percy’s journey as he explores his identity and tries to prove himself to his father. The story is built on pillars of friendship, adventure, and monsters. So many monsters.
We talked to executive producers Rick Riordan, Rebecca Riordan, Jon Steinberg, and Dan Shotz and cast members Walker Scobell, Leah Sava Jeffries, and Aryan Simhadri about bringing the fantastical world of Percy Jackson to life.
Finding Percy, Annabeth, and Grover
From each of their first appearances in the series, Walker Scobell, Leah Sava Jeffries, and Aryan Simhadri—Percy, Annabeth, and Grover, respectively—embody the characters from the books. Casting them was no small feat. “They have the personalities,” Rick Riordan said. “It was open-end casting. We watched thousands and thousands and thousands of tapes and a lot of really great young actors. But there was something about these three. When the actor speaks, they are embodying the voice I hear in my head when I’m writing these characters. They have the same interactions, they have the same personalities—I care about them. I want to watch them go on an adventure.”
Jon Steinberg echoed that, saying, “I think we got very lucky that all three of those kids created that sense in all of us, of seeing them in their audition tapes and feeling right away, ‘I want to make a show with that, Grover, I want to make a show with that Annabeth, and that Percy.’ Walking into a project like this, knowing that we felt like we had the right center of the team to make it work was critical.”
Like Rebecca Riordan pointed out, the trio was warming up to each other as actors at the same time their characters were getting to know each other. Leah Sava Jeffries said preparing for the role was challenging in a very fun way. “I definitely just studied on this, and I feel like we all did,” she said. “We worked really hard for this and we worked off of each other.”
She joked how she really inhabited the role of the rather serious Annabeth. “My family would have to pull Leah out of Annabeth. I would come home, and my family made a joke to me and I would be like, ‘It’s not funny.’ I’ll be like, ‘Can I sit here and do my homework in peace, please?’ I would just be so straightforward.”
Simhadri said his favorite thing about playing Grover was seeing him become more sure of himself as the story continued. “You see those confident traits that were always in him in the first couple of books, but you really see them get to shine,” he said. “You can see him have his moments throughout the series. I would say it was by and far the same for me… You’re playing Grover in Percy Jackson. It’s such an iconic character in an iconic series. I keep saying that, but it’s true. And so getting to get to know my cast and crew, and everyone was so supportive, it definitely felt like I was meant to be there by the end.”
Rediscovering Percy Jackson
Rick Riordan was very involved in the adaptation and was frequently on set, which immersed the author in the world of Percy Jackson again. Walker Scobell said he took advantage of having Rick Riordan around. “I kind of feel bad,” he joked. “I talked to Rick a lot. But he was very happy to answer all of our questions. It was nice for him to be there, because it was confirmation, I guess, that he’s happy and that people will like it. Because they obviously like the books. I like the books a lot. I know all the little changes… it was nice for him to revisit it, because it’s been a while since he wrote the first book. And every little thing that we changed was stuff that Rick wanted to change originally in the book.”
Steinberg confirmed that Rick Riordan got to approach the adaptation with hindsight. He said, “Anybody’s second draft is going to be a little different than the first. I think watching someone who had lived with the first draft for so long, finally have somebody open that up and have a chance to play in that world again, was really fun.”
He added that having Rick Riordan on hand was a crucial part of the process. “In order to do a version of this story that really feels like its heart, and its soul, and all of its parts were in the right place, you need the guy who has spent the better part of his adult life in that world,” Steinberg explained. “So having that partner to be both willing to say, ‘This thing you’re trying doesn’t feel like Percy to me,’ or to say, ‘That thing you’re trying, I wish I’d thought of that. And that does feel like Percy to me,’ is, I don’t know how on Earth you would go about making this without that kind of support and guidance and partnership.”
Beyond Percy Jackson and the Olympians, being on set helped Rick Riordan with getting back into the characters’ heads for new Percy Jackson books ( one of which came out recently). “One thing informed the other,” Riordan said. “I found that while writing the book and being on set at the same time, Percy and Annabeth and Grover started to sound like Walker and Leah and Aryan, and Becky pointed that out when she read it. And it’s very much to the good. It makes the voices more alive and more real. And at the same time, it was helpful to write a new Percy book while advising on the series because it refreshed my memory and reminded me what’s important about these characters.”
Props and Monsters
The world of Greek gods and monsters means bringing those monsters to the screen, which is a challenge. Dan Shotz said, “You are doing some of the most complicated creature design of all time. Every episode, new creatures, new ideas with those creatures. And then you’re doing a cross-country tour where your sets change every week. So it checks all the boxes for how challenging it is, but that’s also what makes it so worth it. Not only that, but just there is such a human, honest story to tell that has come from such an honest place, and once you think about that, all those challenges kind of go away and you are all in.”
Shotz continued, “Then the real next step is to just get everyone else to buy in. And the material did so much of that because everybody connects to this story in some way. There’s access points for adults, for kids, for people who’ve read the books, who haven’t read the books. There’s so many ways to dive into this story.”
And it’s the main trio of Percy, Annabeth, and Grover who help make Percy Jackson and the Olympians so accessible. Each of them brings a different facet to the story, helped along by a prop or prosthetic. For Annabeth, it’s a New York Yankees cap that makes her invisible. Her mother, Athena, gifted it to her. Jeffries said, “When I had to put my hat on in some scenes, it was funny because I had to act like I wasn’t there and sometimes Walker would have to act like I’m not there, but I was laughing actually.”
Percy has his own special gift: Riptide, a ballpoint pen that turns into a sword. Wielding the weapon meant training. “We all did, I think, like a month of just training beforehand for wires and some sword fights,” Scobell said. “We all did some sword fighting, which is really fun. And I love Riptide, I think a little bit too much. I always wanted to have the pen in my pocket to just feel it for the scene. And I ended up getting to take both the pen and the sword home, which is really awesome.”
Simhadri joked that, legally, he didn’t take anything from the set. Then he said, “But yeah, I definitely got a lot of stuff. I got Hermes’ shoes, the ones that Luke gives us. I wear them all the time, a little too much. The props team, they carved out a bunch of staffs out of fake wood with goat faces in them for the Council of Cloven Elders. That was awesome. I got to keep a few of those.”
Simhadri also got a full set of Mythomagic cards, which we hope Disney plans to sell.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians premieres on Disney+ on December 20.