IRISH TIMES – Reboot king JJ Abrams is diversifying the Star Wars universe… Gwendoline Christie, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega on finding new hope in a galaxy far, far away
Two months ago, when a new trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiered during an American football game on ESPN, fans and curious newcomers reacted with predictable fervour: Ooh, Mark Hamill is still a no-show; has he gone over to the Dark Side?
Sadly, the subsequent jubilation on social media platforms was somewhat marred by the nasty little hashtag #Boycott StarWarsVII. For the unlovely architects of this slogan, the appearance of London-born actor John Boyega in the new film was evidence of #whitegenocide and “cultural misappropriation”.
Conspiracy theories took note that JJ Abrams, the talent behind the Star Wars reboot, was both Jewish and a “known” Obama supporter. “It’s just Black Lives Matter in Space” shouted one protester into the echo chamber. A petition was duly circulated.
Normal folks everywhere, by way of response, sighed or face-palmed before moving on to the next tale of internet crazies: What do you mean, Mad Max: Fury Road has been taken over by the bloody wimmin? #whitemaleextinction.
Ire, in the information age, is hardly novel. But one does have to wonder how deeply buried is the rock that these malcontents are living under. Surely they can’t have failed to notice before now that Darth Vader is voiced by James Earl Jones and Mace Windu is essayed by Samuel L Jackson?
Have they seen any work by The Force Awakens director before? Abrams, who scored his first major TV hit with the female-centric Felicity, may have occasionally attracted flak for being too fast and furious with his exciting but unphilosophical Star Trek films or for being overly Spielbergian with Super 8. But no one has ever watched his TV shows and movies and complained that they were insufficiently politically correct.
And so Star Wars: The Force Awakens marks a genuine New Hope: a galaxy far, far away where imprisoned, underdressed princesses don’t end up providing ill-defined services to Jabba the Hut.
Just ask Gwendoline Christie, who plays Captain Phasma, a role that was originally written for a man but was gender- swapped to facilitate more equitable representation and to make room for the rather wonderful Christie. The actor, by now, is well-accustomed to androgynous military women, having spent several seasons in armour as Game of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth and having lately stepped out as Commander Lyme in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.
“In film and television, there’s a long tradition of non-essential women,” says Christie. “Being in Game of Thrones, where you are surrounded by well-rounded, brilliant female characters, has taught me a lot.”
She laughs: “It’s taught me how to break a man’s nose with my elbow.”
Stormin’ the role
Playing a Stormtrooper, however, required something more than mad elbow skills.
“It’s just the biggest thing,” Christie says. “One of the reasons that I loved Captain Phasma is that not only is she the first female villain in Star Wars, but I think it’s unusual for a female character to be presented in this kind of uniform.
“Whatever wonderful random series of things that cause us to look the way we look is not relevant here. And because of the costume, the action becomes all about the character and the choices and decisions she makes. I was classically method-trained, so it was very interesting to not have my usual senses available. Being in Star Wars is already a surreal experience. Add the loss of various senses and it really felt like you were working in another dimension.”
It’s not just equal opportunities on the Dark Side. Elsewhere, the film, which is set some years after the events depicted in The Return of the Jedi (hence those roles for Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher) utilises a dual protagonist structure, as reformed Stormtrooper Finn (Boyega) teams up with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger from the planet Jakku. On hand to supervise is Oscar Isaacs’s veteran X-fighter Poe.
Ridley has show-business pedigree: her great uncle, Arnold Ridley, played Pte Charles Godfrey for more than a decade in Dad’s Army. A lively creature in an androgynous striped suit, she looks as if she might have been cloned using spliced DNA samples from Keira Knightly and Natalie Portman.
“I get Keira a lot,” she says. “I really don’t look that distinctive. People always tell you look like someone else. Mostly I get: you look like my friend Sarah. Or you look like my friend Maggie. And I think, oh great. I love looking like everyone else.”
That ordinariness is key to Rey, she says, and it’s the key to Daisy Ridley. And it’s entirely in keeping with JJ Abrams’s grander democratisation of the Star Wars universe.
“I went to boarding school from nine to 18,” says Ridley, who in common with most ordinary twentysomethings uses the words “random” and “skilled” quite a bit. “I’m a very normal girl. I love watching The Great British Bake Off. I never really felt the love that people had for Star Wars before; that’s not because I’m a girl; that’s because I’m the person I am.
“I was never really crazy into anything. I never had posters of anything on my wall. I never wanted to meet my idols or anything like that.”
If only Rey had come along earlier. “If I had a little sister – being the youngest of many sisters – I suspect she’d love Rey. She is not over-sexualised. She is not born into privilege like Amidala or Leia. She’s just this girl. Who one day is alone and scavenging for food and the next finds herself on a great adventure.
“I don’t think it’s just girls that will look up to Rey. I think she’s someone everyone can connect with because she exceeds all expectations. But she’s not in a gold bikini. She’s covered up and fighting all the way.”
He’s the one
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is just one part of John Boyega’s extraordinary career curve. Born and raised in Peckham to Nigerian parents, the young actor was spotted by a theatre agent while still at primary school. By 19, he had tread the boards at the National Theatre and was named by Screen International as one to watch, based on his screen debut in Attack the Block.
As much as the 23-year-old loved teasing Harrison Ford and entering the “same world of action figures and Jedis and flying things” that he grew up with, he’s keenly aware that his appearance will mean a lot for other kids back in Peckham.
“Obviously, representation is everything,” he says. “It’s so important for kids watching to have a point of identification. It’s going to be amazing for people to relate who maybe couldn’t before. Especially with the strong female characters that we have. It’s going to be a great opportunity for everyone to see themselves on screen. In some way.” He laughs. “But what I’m most proud about is all the green people we have.”