Altered Carbon takes place in a world where the mind has been digitized, turning bodies into disposable “sleeves.” The main character is a man of Japanese descent whose mind has been forcibly put in the body of a white man—which means Joel Kinnaman, the show’s star, is portraying an Asian character. This has raised questions about whether the Netflix show is another example of Hollywood whitewashing. Here’s what those behind the show had to say.
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Richard K. Morgan’s book centers around a character named Takeshi Kovacs who is forced inside the “sleeve” of a white man named Elias Ryker in order to solve the murder of a wealthy “Meth” (those who’ve achieved immortality). Even though it can seem awkward at times, the premise overall works in the book because the story is told, first-person, from Kovacs’ point of view. He talks about being trapped inside someone who doesn’t look like him and how he’s unhappy about it, resulting in an interesting examination of body autonomy and identity. From the book:
In a wood-paneled toilet somewhere, I stared into a fragmented mirror at the face I was wearing as if it had committed a crime against me. Or as if I was waiting for someone else to emerge from behind the seamed features.
The mirror didn’t fit its frame; there were pointed jags dug into the plastic edges, holding the star-shaped center precariously in place. Too many edges, I muttered to myself. None of this fucking fits together.
I didn’t think I’d ever be able to repair this mirror. I was going to cut my fingers to shreds, just trying. Fuck that. I left Ryker’s face in the mirror.
The show makes this more complicated. While original Kovacs is played by The Wolverine’s Will Yun Lee, Joel Kinnaman is playing the lead role of Kovacs during the time when he’s in Ryker’s body. This matches what happens in the book, but Kovacs’ point-of-view is missing. Since the series can’t immerse the audience in the mind of our protagonist, as you can with a first-person narrative, what ends up happening is another situation where a white actor is playing an Asian character.
During a set visit to Altered Carbon, I asked showrunner Laeta Kalogridis about the dissonance between the book and the show, and the risk that comes from a visual adaptation of such a plot line. It’s much like the recent, and very similar, whitewashing issue with Ghost in the Shell, where Scarlett Johansson played a Japanese woman who’d been placed inside a Caucasian-looking robot. Kalogridis was attached to the Ghost in the Shell adaptation back in 2009 and said the decision to make the Major white “broke my heart.” But Kalogridis feels Altered Carbon is a different situation, and she explained what she’s done to try and combat whitewashing issues that came from adapting this story.
“I did not want to violate that paradigm [from the book], because that is what the book is and it does actually matter,” Kalogridis said. “But one of the things I had the best time doing is—because he’s had multiple sleeves before then—I did something that I’m almost 100 percent sure nobody has ever done before. You see this character in three different bodies: Two of them are Asian.”
Kalogridis’ adaptation of Kovacs will actually be seen in three bodies through the first season, two of whom are played by Asian actors. Kinnaman is the main actor, playing the character for at least six of the season’s 10 episodes—Lee plays Kovacs in his birth body for one episode, and Arrow’s Byron Mann looks to be playing a later sleeve of the character for three. But Kalogridis promised both of the other actors are present through the first season.
“They both have very significant parts. They both have, like, huge amounts of action. They both have huge amounts of, like, emotional exposition,” Kalogridis said. “We even take one of those Asian bodies and make [Kovacs] fight that body.”
She also said they actively worked to diversify the rest of the cast, and expand roles that were previously underwritten, which is especially noticeable with the Elliott family. In the book, Kovacs’ investigation into the murder of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy) leads him to another victim, a young woman named Lizzie Elliott. In the book, Lizzie is only a subject of conversation, and her father is practically an afterthought. But in the TV series, both of them play a much bigger part. Vernon Elliott (Ato Essandoh) helps Kovacs with his investigation, and he keeps Lizzie’s (Hayley Law) digital stack in a virtual reality program after being traumatized.
It’s important to note that Lizzie was blonde and, presumably, white in the book (which is another issue; in many books, white is seen as default and not usually specified by authors), but she and her father are played by black actors for the Netflix show. This provided Altered Carbon an opportunity to examine the intersection of race and class in a future world where one might (incorrectly) assume race doesn’t matter anymore. Kristin Lehman, who plays Laurens’ wife Miriam, hinted at a scene related to this which was added for the show (Kalogridis combined Lizzie’s character arc with that of Leila Begin, a pregnant woman from the book, whose unborn child is killed by Miriam).
“The reason it feels painful for me is... for me, personally, it contains a willingness for me to fully and completely represent—sorry, I don’t mean to get emotional saying it—white entitlement,” Lehman said, getting choked up. “It involves race, it involves class, it involves life and death. And I think, ‘Well this is the story, and this is what I’ll be telling, but—’” She stopped, unable to continue because she’d started crying.
All of that said, there is one problem that’s arisen which may have been unavoidable, but could have implications later. During the set visit, Joel Kinnaman avoided discussing the whitewashing issue for his character, but did mention how both Lee and Mann were checking in with him on how he was playing the character of Kovacs, so they could mimic some of his behavior. “Since I’m the one that has been doing it the most, by far, I think it’s more been them coming to me and asking if there’s some little thing that I do. So there’s a couple mannerisms that I shared with them,” Kinnaman said.
This is understandable. After all, Kinnaman is the main actor, and he should be given free reign of how to interpret his character. Only, it’s not just his character, not entirely. Kinnaman has only signed on for one season, saying he’s probably “out” after that, and Kalogridis indicated that Kovacs would change bodies between seasons, making it an enticing opportunity for successful actors to temporarily step into a prestige drama. But since Kinnaman is the main version of Kovacs in the first season, there’s the question of how much his performance will shape future versions of this character. Takeshi Kovacs might be Asian—and will be, at least in two bodies this season—but a white man is still shaping who he is and how he’s portrayed.
We have no way of knowing what kind of effect that will have, if any—but as far as who will play the character in the future, Kalogridis did give us hope with one added note: In her version of the story, Kovacs always chooses Asian bodies. Ryker’s sleeve was forced upon him, but in other situations, he prefers to look Asian. If that idea holds up, we could see him played by an Asian actor next season.
“I take great pride in the fact that we have honored the fact that Kovacs, up until the point he’s resleeved by [Laurens] Bancroft into Ryker’s body, he chooses people of Asian descent because that’s what he [prefers],” Kalogridis said. “I’m really really, proud of that.”
Altered Carbon, from Netflix and Skydance, comes out February 2.