Ghost in the Shell began as a Japanese manga before it was adapted into an anime film, and some fans have criticized the live action reimagining for whitewashing a role that could have gone to an Asian actor.
"I think whenever you cast someone, someone's going to be critical of it. To me, I stand by my decision," he told the crowd of fans. "She's the best actress of her generation, and I was flattered and honored that she would be in this film."
In the film, Johnasson portrays The Major, a cyborg created with a human brain that was voiced by actress Atsuko Tanaka in the anime. Sanders stated that the creators of the original anime, including director Mamoru Oshii, are "vehemently in support of" his star.
"I was very lucky to get an amazing international cast of people that I've always really wanted to work with. Scarlett was one of those people," he explained. "There are very few actresses who've had 20 years of experience, who have the cyberpunk aesthetic already baked in. She comes from such edgy films, from Lost in Translation to Under the Skin. She's got an incredibly body of work and her attitude and toughness is, to me, The Major."
Following the trailer presentation, Sanders gathered with a group of reports backstage to continue discussing the film. Until this point, conversation about the movie had only been about the controversy, but now fans will finally get a glimpse at actual footage. What, he was asked, had that been like?
"Quite seductive, actually," Sanders said. "We knew this time would come and I think we're very proud of what we've done and how we've done it. So, it wasn't like, 'We've got to get it out there! I'm not going to take any more flack!' It was like, 'It'll come out when it's ready.'"
Ghost in the Shell isn't the first film to come under fire for whitewashing this year, as Doctor Strange featured Tilda Swinton playing a character that originally appeared in comic books as an Asian man. Subsequently, Swinton told ET that she supported "shouting nice and loud for a more accurate representation of the diversity of our world on our screens."
Meanwhile, Sanders said that casting Johnasson actually allowed his cast to be even more diverse. "The beauty of casting her was then I didn't have to cast big name actors around her," he reasoned. "I could cast people like Juliette Binoche and Kaori Momoi and Takeshi Kitano. That's unusual for a Hollywood film...I was given the freedom to cast the film how I wanted."
Whether critics will feel differently about Johnasson being cast as The Major once they've had a chance to see the film is TBD until Ghost in the Shell hits theaters on March 31, 2017. Until then, Sanders shared the moment that he knew he'd made the right choice.
"You start doing wardrobe fittings and the wigs not right, the clothes aren't quite right, and it's like, 'Oh god, it's going to be a disaster!' And I remember when it all gelled," he revealed. "We were waiting for the wig to come from New York to Wellington, [New Zealand,] and we were just using bad stand-ins. But when it all came together and she walked out, I was like, 'Yes, that's The Major.'"