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Star Wars

Post-Princess Leia: women of new Star Wars movie talk about taking the wheel in J.J. Abrams' film

The strong female characters introduced in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, such as ace pilot Rey and villain Captain Phasma, owe a debt to the original film's genre-busting female lead.

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 December, 2015, 10:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 December, 2015, 9:44pm

“That’s my chair.”

Harrison Ford and Daisy Ridley had just stepped onto the Millennium Falcon set for Star Wars: The Force Awakens when Ridley went to get into the pilot seat. Han Solo wasn’t pleased.

“I was honestly so embarrassed,” Ridley says. “Obviously he was kidding around and even J.J. [Abrams] said, ‘Oh, my God.’”

Still, Ford’s joking around didn’t stop Ridley from climbing into the cockpit. Her character, Star Wars newcomer Rey, is this galaxy’s new ace pilot. And yes, Rey flies the ship that can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.

“It was cool,” she says with a laugh.

READ MORE: The Force Awakens: New Star Wars film appears certain to smash box office records ahead of worldwide premiere

If there was ever a better metaphor for women taking the wheel in a galaxy far, far away it’s Han Solo handing over the keys of the Millennium Falcon to the 23-year-old Ridley.

The Star Wars narrative has always favoured the pilot. Han Solo is a pilot. Anakin Skywalker was heralded as the cringe-inducing, pod-racing prodigy who later grows up to be “the best star pilot in the galaxy” (according to old man Obi-Wan). Even Luke Skywalker could bull’s-eye a womp rat while flying (and it’s not much bigger than two metres). So the news that Rey sits front and centre, skilfully piloting the prize of the Star Wars skies is a big deal.

“It’s fantastic,” Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy says about Ridley’s role in the film. “I think what’s great about it is Rey, her character, is such a good pilot. That isn’t something she’s turning and asking how to do, that’s something she’s doing.”

This is clear even in the first carefully doled-out footage of The Force Awakens in which John Boyega, another new cast member, and Ridley are seen running frantically from a mysterious explosion. Boyega’s character, Finn, yells out, “We need a pilot!”

Ridley as Rey gives her best exasperated shrug (while running from certain death over hot sand) and yells, “We’ve got one.”

She is the pilot.

As the December 17 opening of The Force Awakens approaches, the next generation of Star Wars characters seems to have several strong roles for women, on both the dark and light side of the Force. For a series that has struggled to find more than one standout female role (no matter how much she kicks butt), that is significant.

That’s not to say Star Wars has been absent of female influence. The franchise can boast the creation of the innovative and genre-busting Princess Leia, crafted by Carrie Fisher. And the newly established animated series Star Wars: Rebels and Clone Wars have a varied cast of animated parts for women. But the live-action movies have left a lot to be desired for female roles on film.

Padme Amidala, portrayed by Natalie Portman, started as a strong political figure/large-alien-cat fighter. In the end, however, Amidala gives up everything, including the will to live, when the love of her life (Anakin Skywalker) turns to evil. She physically dies of a broken heart while cry-birthing Luke and Leia Skywalker. Padme doesn’t even get the glory of living on as a political martyr; her whole story is swept under the rug so Darth Vader can take the stage.

The rest of the women in the Star Wars prequels and originals were sidelined to cantina bar stools or Coruscant hallways, banished as background players or imprisoned dancers, with the occasional exception of a Mon Mothma cameo (“Many Bothans died …”). This list becomes only more frustrating when compiled with deleted scenes from Return of the Jedi that revealed footage of multiple female rebel pilots attacking the Death Star. Sadly, most of the lady rebels wound up on the cutting-room floor, save for one pilot whose small line was dubbed over with the voice of a man in the finished film.

But now there’s Rey.

“She feels very modern,” Kennedy says of Rey. “I think she will be relevant to audiences today, she embodies that sense of self-reliance and independence. I think that’s who she is. I think that’s who she is as a person, as Daisy Ridley and who she is as Rey.”

The little we know about Rey is that she’s been left to fend for herself amid the wreckage of the previous war between the Empire and the Rebellion. Despite the Ewok celebrations at the defeat of the Empire, there were still corners of the galaxy left forever altered by the damage, including Jakku, Rey’s home.

In the Star Wars marketing machine, Rey sits front and centre in the Drew Struzan posters like a yin and yang symbol, holding the balance between the dark and the light side. Where she’ll fall in this world we’re not certain, but we do know that her main priority in the film isn’t political reformation or treaties with the Trade Federation. Rey is focused solely on the day-to-day. She’s the first female lead in the films to grow up outside of privilege.

“I don’t know if Rey is really about anything in the beginning of the film except for working and feeding herself,” Ridley says. “Her life is pretty … ‘mundane’ is the wrong word … but it’s pretty repetitive. She’s literally living hand to mouth. She’s solitary. She doesn’t speak to people very much. She’s just trying to make it work for herself.”

Even though Rey lives isolated in the desert planet, she remains tied to the Star Wars legacy built years ago. She spends her days scavenging through the junk fields and hunting among the innards of downed spaceships, including the remains of a crashed Imperial Destroyer. Her salvaged speeder is made from scrap, and even her goggles (which seem to be repurposed glass from the classic Stormtrooper helmet) link her to the past.

“Rey’s not important because she’s a woman, she’s just important,” Ridley says. “But obviously, having a woman like this in a film is hugely important.”

After working on The Force Awakens Ridley admits that the parts Hollywood was offering after she wrapped haven’t lived up to the character of Rey. “I understand sexism is going on, and I’ve seen it actually more this year being out of the film in the scripts I’m being sent. Sometimes I’m reading it and I’m thinking, ‘Are you for real? Literally the bit on the side?’ That’s not cool.”

So how will Rey live up to the legacy of Leia? Fisher, the actress who donned the weighty buns in 1977, 1980, 1983 and reprises the role for Force Awakens, responds to this question in an enthusiastically defiant matter: “She doesn’t have to!”

“That’s not the point,” Fisher says. “It’s a new generation doing what they have to do or what they feel they need to do. What’s good is that they’re confident and capable, and that they don’t stop. They don’t not do things just because they’re afraid to do them. They’re relatable, again. This girl I think is more relatable. Well, in that she is not a princess militant.”

Strong words of support from the woman who Lucasfilm’s Kennedy says was the springboard for why it was so important to have strong female characters in the Star Wars Universe.

Fisher would know what it takes to make a lasting legacy in this franchise. The first few precious moments of A New Hope follow the angry revolutionary pulling together a contingency plan to smuggle spy documents off a spaceship. Unafraid of being taken hostage by the nefarious Empire, Princess Leia blasts the invading Imperial Stormtroopers. Leia shoots first.

In captivity, Leia proceeds to throw some truly galactic shade: “Darth Vader, only you could be so bold,” “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognised your foul stench when I was brought on board,” and the classic, “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”

While Han Solo shirks responsibility and Luke Skywalker fumbles around with his evolving, boyish perception of the hero, Leia gets things done. When her own rescue goes awry, she grabs the blaster herself and finds a way out. She’s not just a princess but a radical fighting for freedom under a tyrannical empire.

“She had contempt for and worked with men, and I liked that,” Fisher says. “There was something human about her. It showed that she could do whatever she needed to do, and if she could do that, then everybody could do it. People identified with her. She’s like a superhero.”

Kennedy, who took over the reins for Lucas in 2012, agrees. “When Princess Leia hit the scene in 1977 she was a pretty formidable character. I give George [Lucas] a huge amount of credit,” she says. “Leia really held her own. We used that as kind of a touchstone for why it was so important to have a strong female character and hopefully many more strong female characters in the Star Wars universe.”

The new film reintroduces Leia 30 years after the war. She’s no longer a princess but a general. And she’s still very much in command – “still walking and talking,” Fisher says. “She doesn’t have any mortal wounds or disease.” But, she warns, “things have happened that have been difficult.”

Fisher was mum on the rest of her character’s details but didn’t mind sharing a moment of nostalgia she felt on the set of the new film.

“You’re so self-conscious, you’re exhausted before you get out of your trailer. I was in my trailer in the back and I heard Harrison. I recognised how his boots sound, and I heard him say, ‘Is Carrie here?’ That was funny. That was like we’re back on Star Wars campus.”

If Princess Leia ignited the hearts and minds of little bun-wearing heroes across the galaxy, Captain Phasma was created to spark fear.

The first female villain in a Star Wars movie, played by Gwendoline Christie (who made waves on Game of Thrones as Brienne of Tarth), is already setting sights high. Some are comparing Phasma to fan favourite Boba Fett. “Which means she makes a lot of impact but she’s not at the forefront of the action all the time,” Christie says.

But you won’t see Phasma tapping out after being carelessly knocked into a sarlacc pit like a wobbly toddler. Kennedy has big plans for Phasma and confirmed that the captain will carry on into the next movie. “She’s an important character, a baddie in the best sense of the word.”

Phasma, or the Chrometrooper as fans have dubbed her because of the custom silver armour she wears as a sign of her authority, commands the Stormtroopers of the First Order. But it wasn’t talk of villains that intrigued Christie.

“We see women in a different range of roles in the film,” Christie says. “And the reason I love my character so much and I feel so enthusiastic about Captain Phasma is, yes, she’s cool, she looks cool, she’s a villain – but more than that, we see a female character and respond to her not because of the way she looks. We respond to her because of her actions.”

How did the refocus on realistic female characters in Star Wars occur? Perhaps it was simply Kennedy’s not-so-outlandish-idea of putting women in the writing and development room. Long before there was Rey or Phasma or even Lupita Nyong’o’s mysterious 1,000-year-old space pirate Maz Kanata (whose character will be entirely computer-generated), months were spent in the story conference room creating characters and ideas.

“I have a story department up at Lucasfilm, and four out of the six people who make up that story department are women,” Kennedy says. “So there were as many women sitting in the room having those discussion as there were men. I think that, in and of itself, is what really began to help [Rey] take shape in a way that was relevant to us. And hopefully relevant to other women seeing the film. I think having all those voices in the room, along with mine, was extremely important.”

Other members of the story room, including director Abrams, were receptive to the new voices. “J.J. was great about recognising right away when it made sense and I think was incredibly appreciative,” Kennedy says. “As were [writers] Larry Kasdan and Michael Arndt. Because had it just been the three of them talking about these characters and not having input from myself or [co-producer] Michelle Rejwan or [head of story] Kiri Hart, who knows if that opinion would have been said? It’s not to say that it would have headed in a bad direction, but they actual got input from a point of view that they wouldn’t normally have. In many cases it just changed certain things by small increments. But cumulatively it makes a difference.”

Kennedy doesn’t want the emphasis to stop there. She says that she was encouraged by the response she’s been seeing from Disney.

“They are really, really making a huge effort across the company to put more focus around casting women and putting women in positions of responsibility, with directing and various other positions inside, different lines of business in the company,” Kennedy says. “It’s not just about casting female protagonists. It’s gotta be across the board throughout the industry.”

Will the fantasy women of Star Wars make a change here on Earth? Casting women for roles other than private alien mob boss dancer is a start, and it’s nice that General Leia is around to see it all come to fruition. Lightsabres crossed for the women of Star Wars, because it’s their galaxy too.

Los Angeles Times

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens on December 17