'Altered Carbon' star lays bare show's nudity, race issues

Australian actress Dichen Lachman talks "Altered Carbon", the Netflix sci-fi series weighed down by white-washing and nudity controversies.

Jennifer Bisset Former Senior Editor / Culture
Jennifer Bisset was a senior editor for CNET. She covered film and TV news and reviews. The movie that inspired her to want a career in film is Lost in Translation. She won Best New Journalist in 2019 at the Australian IT Journalism Awards.
Expertise Film and TV Credentials
  • Best New Journalist 2019 Australian IT Journalism Awards
Jennifer Bisset
3 min read
Katie Yu/Netflix

Eight women stand naked around actress Dichen Lachman in an eerie dark-blue set covered in shards of silicon glass. Beside the merkin covering her private parts, she is naked. Completely naked. She lifts her TV sword and kicks off what will become a memorable (and controversial) fight scene.

Netflix's "Altered Carbon" Season 1 Premiere - Arrivals

Dichen Lachman at Netflix's "Altered Carbon" season 1 premiere in Los Angeles.

Paul Archuleta/FilmMagic

That scene is from the new Netflix series "Altered Carbon", the latest sci-fi blockbuster from Netflix's big spending spree. At $6 million to $7 million per episode (there are 10) it's almost as pricey as the Will Smith-led "Bright", the sci-fi and fantasy film that cost $90 million.

Lachman plays Rei, sister to main character Takeshi Kovacs (played first by Will Yun Lee, then Joel Kinnaman -- read on for how that works) in the dystopian future of 2384, where people can cheat death. Everyone has a device that stores their consciousness, called a "stack", installed in the back of their neck. It can be surgically inserted into another body, or "sleeve", when their previous body gets turned into a holey red mess in a gunfight. That's something that happens a lot over the course of the murder-mystery plot.

Rei's naked sword fight presented a logistical challenge. First of all, Lachman had to agree to do it. Then the producers had to find eight girls who looked like Lachman, both physically and in skin tone. On top of all that, they had to be proficient with a sword.

"It hasn't been done before," Lachman tells me in our cramped corner of the busy Westin Hotel lobby in Sydney. "Of course when I heard about it I was terrified. I did not expect that."


"That" fight scene.


Since release last week, the show has faced questions over why there's so much nudity. Nearly every episode contains it.

Lachman knew the nudity was justified.

"Not only does it underline in this world bodies are just sleeves, there's not a lot of self-consciousness. You can be anybody or anything."

After reading the scene and talking to the producers, she felt reassured. Especially upon learning it would be directed by a woman and all men had to leave the room.

"Rei is so powerful and unapologetic about who she is," Lachman explains.


"Altered Carbon" has faced questions over its white-washing of main character Takeshi Kovacs, played by Joel Kinnaman (right).

Katie Yu/Netflix

Despite that idea, the show has faced some criticism over white-washing. Kovacs, a Japanese man, is put into a white male body.

"First of all," Lachman says, "it's staying true to the book. At its core, it's still him. There's so much representation on this show, more than anything I've ever seen."

Lachman grew up in Adelaide, Australia, with parents of German and Tibetan descent. The show features Japanese characters like Kovacs and Rei, as well as Ortega, from Mexico, who has several scenes in Spanish with her mother.

Lachman points to "Game of Thrones" as an example of a series where she's more concerned about the racial politics. "In a world of dragons and zombies and all sorts of crazy creatures, there are still no Asians."

As a bleak dystopia, "Altered Carbon" cops flak for being a lesser "Blade Runner". But on the diversity front, Lachman thinks "Altered Carbon" is superior.

"In 'Blade Runner', there's sanskrit and Japanese and Chinese writing on all the buttons and everything, and not one person who looked like they could read it."


Unlike "Blade Runner", "Altered Carbon" features people of colour.

Katie Yu/Netflix

She gushes about working with Netflix.

"This show pushes boundaries. There is nothing like this out there, not in terms of the story, but the questions it's asking about our society. Even on a technical level, it's like a 10-hour long feature film.

"They give creators a lot more power, they're more autonomous."

She brings up "Dollhouse", the sci-fi TV series she appeared in from 2009-2010, for comparison.

"I know the writers wanted to push the show even further if they could. But you're limited. You have to have a rating."

Lachman has a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and says Netflix producers accommodated her schedule between the set in Vancouver and her home in LA, where her daughter lives. She did three months of sword-fighting training and braved stunts with no protective padding.

"At the end of it I felt so strong. If I can get through that I can get through anything."

"Altered Carbon" is currently available for streaming on Netflix worldwide.

2018's hottest new sci-fi and geeky TV shows

See all photos

Blockchain Decoded:  CNET looks at the tech powering bitcoin -- and soon, too, a myriad of services that will change your life.

iHate: CNET looks at how intolerance is taking over the internet.