‘Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker’: Meet Naomi Ackie, the new face of a more inclusive galaxy
Naomi Ackie remembers choreographing fight scenes with her cousin during summer vacation while she was growing up.
Inspired by “Star Wars,” these action sequences involved ducking and jumping and swinging big sticks at each other in the garden. She also made a bow and arrow that she would shoot around the house.
Consider it early preparation for her role as Jannah in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” J.J. Abrams’ final installment of the nine-film Skywalker saga that hits theaters Dec. 20.
Not much is known about the highly anticipated film, or Ackie’s mysterious new character. And as she sipped a flat white during a recent morning conversation in West Hollywood, Ackie was cautious about revealing anything that could be considered spoilers.
“She’s fierce,” said Ackie, carefully describing Jannah. “She’s got a lot of history involved with the issues in the film. Once you find out her story, you’re rooting for her and you can understand why she’s fighting.”
Very much aware of the limits of what is safe to share, the British actress pointed out that “The Rise of Skywalker” marks both the conclusion of the current sequel trilogy that began with 2015’s “The Force Awakens” and continued with 2017’s “The Last Jedi,” and the full saga that George Lucas introduced in a galaxy far, far away in 1977’s “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope.”
“It means that whatever characters [are introduced] now have to add to wrapping up the story, because we know this is the end of the Skywalker saga,” Ackie said. “Her importance to the story has to be relevant — and it feels relevant, definitely, for some of the characters and for the larger picture.”
Here’s as much as we know now, over a month before the film opens worldwide: Since the character’s official introduction at Star Wars Celebration in April, Jannah has been seen wielding a bow and arrow astride a horse-like creature called an Orbak. She’s briefly glimpsed opposite Finn (John Boyega) in teaser footage, and it’s known that she fights on the side of the Resistance.
A closer look at Jannah’s weapon reveals it is a bow with two grips, and Ackie does confirm her character is ambidextrous.
“When you find out more about Jannah’s history and where she comes from, it makes a lot of sense,” said Ackie of the weapon. “That’s all I can say, is the bow makes sense.”
“Once you find out her story, you’re rooting for her and you can understand why she’s fighting.”
Drawn to acting at a young age, Ackie knew she wanted pursue the profession by the time she was in her mid-teens. Initially she hoped to become a Shakespearean actress and perform on the West End. While studying at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, her interests expanded to include writing and directing theater.
“I’d always had the idea of film in the back of my mind,” Ackie said. “But I think when you’re not in America, and every film you see has American actors in it, you just think, ‘Oh, that’s Hollywood. That’s a totally different thing.’”
She made her feature film debut in William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth,” a period drama about a young woman (Florence Pugh) stuck in a loveless marriage to an older man, which premiered at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival. In addition to “The Rise of Skywalker,” Ackie’s upcoming projects include the second season of Netflix’s “The End of the F***ing World.”
Despite her awareness of the “Star Wars” films growing up, Ackie said she “was brought up a Trekkie.” She does have an affinity for animated fare such as “Mulan” and “Beauty and the Beast,” but the blockbuster franchise that influenced her the most came from outside the Disney empire: “Harry Potter.” She’s a Slytherin who wears her green scarf with pride.
“Harry Potter was a really big thing for me,” said Ackie. “Actually, if there was anything that made me want to be in films more, it was like looking at those kids and wanting that feeling of being a part of something epic.”
While audiences are still in the dark on the details of “The Rise of Skywalker,” Ackie said we have more information than she had when she started working on the film. Yes, she knew she was auditioning for “Star Wars” when she went in for what was officially an “untitled Disney project,” and the final stages of the process included a chemistry read with Boyega. But she didn’t know anything about Jannah or the film’s story.
Landing the part meant months of working out, horse-riding and archery training. It wasn’t until around three months into her training that she was able to read the film’s script (she read it twice).
These days, the more she talks about “The Rise of Skywalker” the more Ackie recognizes similarities between herself and Jannah. They are both willing to fight for justice and what they believe in, she said, although Ackie is much less likely to pull out any bow and arrows to make her point.
“I get angry at things and I want to fight against the system that makes people feel like they’re not of worth,” said Ackie. “That means sometimes I can’t keep my mouth shut, and sometimes it brings out the warrior in me to have discussions that might not be easy.”
She’s aware that images like the one with her and Boyega, two black actors together in a “Star Wars” movie fighting bad guys, is significant. Ackie noted that people of color comprise a large part of “The Rise of Skywalker” cast, and that’s still a rarity for films of its kind.
“I was quite nervous about the fact that I was a person of color coming into this space that has been predominantly white,” Ackie said. “[There was] a lot of anxiety around that because you just never know.”
Her worry is understandable in light of the racist and sexist online harassment that actress Kelly Marie Tran was subjected to for portraying Rose Tico in “The Last Jedi.” Tran, who was the first woman of color to have a leading role in a “Star Wars” film, will reprise the role in “The Rise of Skywalker.”
Ackie credits Tran for her courage in leading the way.
“We’re in a place now where you know it is deemed as wrong to be discriminatory, but it’s still happening,” said Ackie. “So there’s a certain level of courage and bravery that you have to have when you enter into these spaces where you know for a fact you didn’t previously belong to.
“That sometimes requires you to shake off the shackles of inadequacy and feelings of not being good enough. It gets in the way, especially when you’ve been training sometimes twice as hard to get half as much.”
Besides, Ackie just doesn’t understand how people can accept “aliens with like six arms and 12 legs [but not] a black person and an Asian person in space.” And although she knows some people might have a problem with it, she’s “not going to be part of an industry that allows that belief system to thrive.”
For now, the actress is taking each day at a time, trying to enjoy doing things her way during this relative period of calm before “The Rise of Skywalker” is released.
“I just want to enjoy everything the way it is right now,” Ackie said. “And then embrace whatever comes next and just evolve with it and hope that I can make it as positive as I choose to.”
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