ENTERTAINMENT HERO COMPLEX

The women of 'Star Wars' speak out about their new Empire

(Robert Carter / For the Times)

"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.

FULL COVERAGE: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

"It was cool," she says with a laugh.

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.

Daisy Ridley takes the wheel in "The Force Awakens" as the solitary Rey, an ace pilot. (David James / LucasFilm Ltd.)

The "Star Wars" narrative has always favored 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 2 meters). So the news that Rey sits front and center, skillfully 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 Dec. 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.

PHOTOS: Scenes from 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens'

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.

The scavenger

"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 center 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.

[Rey] feels very modern. I think she will be relevant to audiences today, she embodies that sense of self-reliance and independence.

Kathleen Kennedy, Lucasfilm

"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 junkfields 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."

PHOTOS: 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' behind-the-scenes images

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 by phone. "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.

Carrie Fisher says Leia is still in charge, if a bit bruised. (Rex Features)

The princess

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," "Gov. Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader's leash. I recognized 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 recognized 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."

I was in my trailer in the back and I heard Harrison. I recognized 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.

Carrie Fisher, actress

In response to this reporter's surprise that the actress who brought to life Princess Leia — general of the new resistance — was self-conscious, Fisher let out a guffaw. "I think everyone thinks the same way, only [some] people pretend better. 'I'm going to do badly this time. I look like .... The new people are better. What am I going to do? My hair looks bad again.'"

Fisher may still get nervous, but that doesn't change her legacy. Nor did it stop her tenacious response about the recent kerfuffle over her character's notorious bikini. A frustrated father in Deptford, Pa., went viral in a Fox 29 report over a Target store selling Princess Leia action figure toys dressed in the divisive "slave Leia" ensemble (a metal two-piece the character was forced to wear while prisoner to character Jabba the Hutt). The man was perturbed it was being sold in the toy aisle and flustered over how he was going to explain the toy's chain to his daughters.

"How about telling his daughter that the character is wearing that outfit not because she's chosen to wear it. She's been forced to wear it," Fisher advises. "She's a prisoner of a giant testicle who has a lot of saliva going on and she does not want to wear that thing and it's ultimately that chain, which you're now indicating is some sort of accessory to S&M, that is used to kill the giant saliva testicle…. That's asinine."

Truly the contempt for the scruffy-looking nerf-herders of the world is very much alive and well in Fisher.

Action drives Gwendoline Christie's Capt. Phasma. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

The soldier

If Princess Leia ignited the hearts and minds of little bun-wearing heroes across the galaxy, Capt. 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 favorite 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 armor 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, rather Kennedy's thoughts on the status of female heroes.

"Kathleen Kennedy said to me, 'Have you ever Googled 'female heroines'? I said, 'No,' and she did it for me. If you do it, there are a lot of scantily clad women. Now women should be allowed to dress exactly however they choose, but the idea that you Google female heroines and there isn't a diverse range of examples that come up, I find it a bit depressing."

GRAPHIC: Know your Imperial helmets

It was this discussion that helped lead to Christie's involvement. The idea was to try something different, to push the boundaries for female roles, both evil and benevolent, toward a more realistic depiction of women. Which is a funny thought considering the most popular characters of this world carry around lightsabers and converse with Wookiees. Still, you won't find Phasma in the scantily clad role of the hero nor will you see her as the stereotypical slithering, seductive female villain.

"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 Capt. 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. I think we're a society that has promoted a homogenized idea of beauty in women — and in men — and I think it's really interesting, modern and necessary to have a female character that isn't about the way her body looks. It isn't about her wearing makeup. It's not about her being conventionally feminized. The idea of this enormous legacy and franchise embracing an idea like that, which of course to many of us feels logical, is actually really progressive. And long overdue."

The reason I love my character so much and I feel so enthusiastic about Capt. Phasma is ... we see a female character and respond to her not because of the way she looks. We respond to her because of her actions.

Gwendoline Christie, actress

Already the folks at "Star Wars" headquarters are attempting to work toward a more progressive galaxy on all marketing and social media platforms. Responding to an online commenter who said of Capt. Phasma's look on the official "Star Wars" Facebook page, "Not to be sexist, but it's really hard to tell that's female armor for me," the official account replied candidly, "It's armor. On a woman. It doesn't have to look feminine."

The boss

How did the re-focus 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.

Director J.J. Abrams is in the cockpit with Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy. (David James / LucasFilm Ltd.)

"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."

How does this make a difference? "Having a female point of view in the room — when you get into a discussion about behavior — who would say what and how they would interact with one another," Kennedy explains. "In certain situations women are going to have a different opinion on that than men. It made for a really balanced conversation in the room."

Other members of the story room, including director Abrams, were receptive to the new voices. "JJ was great about recognizing 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."

Lupita Nyong'o says her character has a "colorful past." (Disney / Image Group LA)

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. I think Hasbro, who's making toys for a while, they were perhaps a little reluctant to move too quickly with something that's been such a successful boys line. I think they're recognizing that selling to girls is just as effective as selling to boys. More and more the lines are being blurred as to deciding ahead of time that some things are for boys and some things are for girls. I think that's a big part of the conversation. It's all of these areas that are contributing to change really happening. Over the last several years that I've been in the business it seems to me that this has been a topic of conversation every few years. Then everybody thinks it's a trend or that it's a significant change. And then it doesn't really move the needle. I think that's — hopefully— what's going to begin to happen now. It's going to be real change. And not just perceived change."

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. Lightsabers crossed for the women of "Star Wars," because it's their galaxy too.

meredith.woerner@latimes.com

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