Tuesday 20 February 2018

Brand new stars for brand new Star Wars

Just ahead of one of the most anticipated film releases of the year, our reporter meets three new members of the Star Wars galaxy

Stars in the ascendancy: Daisy Ridley, Lupita Nyong'o and John Boyega
Stars in the ascendancy: Daisy Ridley, Lupita Nyong'o and John Boyega

Anne Marie Scanlon

In 1977, the original Star Wars film propelled three 'unknown' actors to stratospheric fame overnight. Harrison Ford was a relatively ancient (in Hollywood years) 36 and legend has it that he was working as a set carpenter when Star Wars writer and director George Lucas saw his potential and cast him as the iconic Space Cowboy Han Solo. Ford, along with his original "unknown" co-stars Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia, the woman with the worst hairstyle in the history of cinema) makes a much-hyped return in the seventh episode in the series Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

This latest instalment in the franchise introduces three new characters: Finn, Rey and Captain Phasma. Like Lucas before him, director JJ Abrams wanted fresh faces in his first foray into the Star Wars universe. None of the new trio enjoyed a serendipitous Ford-like moment; instead, all went through a rigorous casting process that lasted seven long months.

When I meet the newbies, John Boyega (Finn), Daisy Ridley (Rey) and Gwendoline Christie (Captain Phasma), they are all bubbling over with excitement about appearing in the new film.

Christie, who plays the first female baddie in Star Wars history, is far from unknown and already has a cult following as Brienne of Tarth in Game of Thrones. However, the 37-year-old actress knows that appearing in Star Wars will thrust her into a level of fame and scrutiny beyond anything she has known before.

Because of the secrecy that surrounds Star Wars, I wasn't allowed to see the new film or to ask the actors any questions about the plot. I tried but they were all keeping their vows of silence. Christie did admit that "playing a villain in Star Wars was delicious".

Meeting the female Darth Vader in real life was not as intimidating as I expected. At 6ft 3ins, Christie, dressed very simply in a white shirt, is all smiles and giggles and admits to being easily intimidated and "really afflicted" by being star-struck.

Christie once turned down the chance to meet one of her idols, Tilda Swinton. "I just couldn't," she says breathlessly, as she was afraid of making a fool of herself.

With a cultural phenomenon like Star Wars, all decisions are open to criticism by hardcore fans and some found the idea of a black Stormtrooper (Finn) hard to take. Although "unknown", John Boyega, at 23 is already a seasoned professional, having worked steadily since 2011.

Boyega is both relaxed and exuberant but his response to the criticism of his being cast as Finn was a lesson in how to deal with trolls. He simply told them to "get over it".

He is unsure how many individual auditions he had during the seven months he was trying to win the part of Finn. "I can't tell you how many rounds there were, because they're probably judging me on things I didn't even know I was being judged on. 'Let's see how he puts on his jacket…'" he laughs.

Boyega got the life-changing news that he'd won the much-coveted role from JJ Abrams in person.

"I'm done, I'm finished, I'm tired, I'm just, 'Is it a yes or is it a no?' And it just so happened to be a yes. It was a lot to take in at that moment. I called my agent and I was in tears."

Newcomer Daisy Ridley, also 23, just exudes enthusiasm. Clutching a green juice and wearing a Philip Lim jacket, the young actor tells me she really wanted the part of Rey not just because it was Star Wars but because she had never done a film.

"And it was a film with people I'd seen in other films!" she elaborates. "And when I met Harrison I was like, 'Oh my God, Harrison Ford!'"

Ridley is more than aware of the fact that once The Force Awakens is released both Rey and she will become a role model for young women.

"I'm not a crazy 20-something. I would much prefer to stay in and watch Great British Bake Off than go out.

"I'm just a normal girl from London, I'm not really doing anything special (unlike) teenage activist Malala Yousafzai - she is really doing special things and I am not."

Later, when talking about the prevalence of fame worship in the world today, Ridley says: "There are people who are really making a difference in the world out there. For a person to look up to, I will direct anyone towards Malala."

Boyega is under no illusion about the way his life is about to change dramatically, going from relative anonymity to constant judgement and scrutiny.

"That's life," he replies stoically, adding "But I'm in Star Wars. That just dilutes everything. It's fun!"

Like her co-stars, Christie, now 37, has grown up with Star Wars and says of the original trio of stars: "They're legends, I hold them in such high regard."

Instead of being intimidated by the stature of the 'originals', Christie found them to be "lovely, normal, charming people (who) don't treat you any differently… working together on a film".

Daisy Ridley says: "(Harrison Ford) he's a normal guy. We had a conversation about normal things." When I ask her what, she replies "He likes planes," then she quickly adds: "Well, obviously that's not normal for me!"

All three actors use the word "surreal" about their experience as they're now immortalised as action figures and even postage stamps.

"The main thing is the film," Ridley states, "but it's nice those extra things come along with it. Crazy as they are. Being a stamp!"

Christie is particularly enamoured of the fact that her character has been made into a pet toy. "I love that idea," she says.

"I can't wait to get one of those. Everyone's going to get them as Christmas gifts. I love the chew toy!"

As Star Wars returns to the big screen and Harrison Ford returns to the role that made him famous, maybe the legend about his original casting will finally be put to rights.

He wasn't 'discovered' whilst hammering nails on set. The reality is a far better story. George Lucas employed Ford to read lines with actors auditioning for the role of Han Solo; Lucas soon realised that Ford was the perfect man for the role.

And the rest is Hollywood history.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens on December 17.

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