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The women of The Last Jedi on Carrie Fisher and making a more modern Star Wars

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Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi is finally opening next week, and there has been heavy fan speculation about everything from the origins of its characters and the fate of Luke Skywalker to the complicated relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren. But at a recent press conference in Los Angeles, the cast of the film was eager to highlight something else: the film’s progressive, modern portrayal of women.

The shift was apparent just from the composition of the panel itself. J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens garnered attention for introducing Daisy Ridley’s character as a lead, but other than Carrie Fisher as General Leia, the only other woman in a primary role was Lupita Nyong’o, with her motion-capture performance as Maz Kanata. Nearly half of the 10 cast members on the Last Jedi panel were women: returning cast members Ridley and Gwendoline Christie, and franchise newcomers Laura Dern (who plays Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo) and Kelly Marie Tran (Resistance fighter Rose Tico).

“Guys, the girls in this movie kick some butt,” Tran said early on in the discussion. “Every single one is so good, and I can’t wait for everyone to see it.”

While the franchise has presented active, action-oriented heroines in Force Awakens and Rogue One, Dern said she was particularly excited by the choices Johnson made around her character. Vice Admiral Holdo is a Resistance leader, seen in promotional photos with a flowing dress and bold purple hair, which Dern saw as a break with how strong women are traditionally portrayed in films. “I was moved by the fact that [Johnson] really wanted her strength to first lead with a deep femininity,” she said. “To see a powerful female character also be feminine… moves away from a stereotype that’s sometimes perceived: that strong female characters must be like the boys.”

Photo by David James / Lucasfilm Ltd.

Christie, who returns as the First Order’s Captain Phasma, echoed the sentiment, recalling her reaction to learning about the initial casting of The Force Awakens. “I was utterly delighted to see that there was a more representative selection of actors that were going to be in these incredible Star Wars films, and that has continued,” she explained. “You get to see women where they’re not being strong just because they’re acting like men. They’re doing something else. And you’ll see a developed character — or at least a developing character — that’s showing some complex character traits. And I’m just delighted about that. I’m delighted that something as legendary as Star Wars has decided to be modern, and to reflect our society more as it is.”

Since Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy took charge of the company, she’s been vocal about the idea that bringing more diversity and representative casting to Star Wars was essential to the franchise’s future. That’s expressed itself in the films, and is also evident within the executive ranks of Lucasfilm. (Kiri Hart, for example, heads the Lucasfilm Story Group, which orchestrates the franchise’s massive, interconnected story universe.) It’s impossible to ignore that the franchise hasn’t hired a woman to direct yet, despite a surprising number of creative differences and director firings on films like Solo and the untitled Star Wars: Episode IX. But that hasn’t made the audience reaction to characters like Rey any less ardent.

“When I got involved, I knew it was a big deal, but the response was so beyond anything I could have imagined,” Ridley said during the conference. “And obviously that’s a testament to Kathy, J.J., [original Force Awakens screenwriter] Michael [Arndt], Larry [Kasdan]; everyone who created the characters in the beginning. And I think what’s great about everyone is, it’s not like ‘she’s a girl, this is a guy.’ It’s just great characters that are happily falling into broader categories now.”

The discussion about representation and the franchise’s portrayal of women played out against a bittersweet backdrop for the cast and director: the death of Carrie Fisher last year at age 60. Christie and Dern, in particular, mentioned how significant Fisher was to them when they were growing up. Christie praised the fearless example she provided as a proudly unconventional woman. “That was really instrumental to me, as someone that didn’t feel like they fitted that homogenized view of what a woman was supposed to be,” Christie recalled. “But there was inspiration there, that you could be an individual, and celebrate yourself, and be successful without giving yourself over — without necessarily making some terrible huge compromise. So [she was] a big inspiration for me.”

Photo by David James / Lucasfilm Ltd.

Johnson has said Fisher’s performance in The Last Jedi was not changed after her death, leaving the film to stand as her final performance as the character who defined her career and much of her public persona. Given that the press conference was held before the film was screened for press — the cast themselves had only recently watched The Last Jedi — no new details or revelations about the nature of Leia’s story arc were revealed, but Dern took time to stress how much she felt Fisher’s work in the movie captured her essence as a person.

“People speak about people who are brave, who are fearless. I’ve known, luckily, a few people that would hold those descriptions — but not that they would be without shame,” Dern explained. “I think she found an equal, irreverent subversive [in Johnson], and they have this dance that gives us this performance.”

It’s one thing for a film to tackle issues like representation through casting; it’s another to explore these themes and ideas in the actual film. Star Wars has a history of using representation as shorthand. Sometimes that’s been benign: in the original trilogy, for example, the Imperial officers tend to be British, while the Rebels are American, giving the story a spirit of Independence Day rebellion. At other times, it’s been catastrophically offensive, like the Asian and Jewish stereotypes deployed for aliens in The Phantom Menace. With a tongue-in-cheek aside, however, actor Andy Serkis indicated that The Last Jedi’s embrace of strong, powerful women could go beyond casting alone — and be a central theme to the film itself.

“Speaking as the leader of the First Order, I’d like to say that Snoke is very unimpressed by the fact that there is such a huge female force that seems to be growing in the universe,” he said. “It’s deeply threatening, it’s deeply undermining, it must be stopped, it actually cannot go on. And this, we see — without giving too much away — a little snatch of in this movie.”

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