Star Wars: a heroine awakens
Meet Naomie Ackie, the badass newcomer in The Rise of Skywalker, a fast-rising actress galloping out of north-east London on a space horse (with tusks).
It’s not even lunchtime the day after the London premiere of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, and already Naomi Ackie has her heels off.
Needless to say, they’re stunning – off-white, soft leather, peeptoe – but curled up barefoot in her chair she still looks effortlessly sci-fi chic, like a covergirl for Vogue Intergalactic. She’s wearing a softly shimmering metallic gold jumpsuit, a stylistic nod to the Star Wars cosmos of which she is now forever part.
But even in the midst of the blockbuster franchise finale, the ninth and closing instalment in a 42-year saga, it’s Ackie herself who’s truly shining.
Alongside D‑0, JJ Abrams’s cone-headed new droid, the 27-year-old British actress is the freshest human addition to the enduring pantheon of Star Wars heroes and heroines. And she’s no rusty droid, either. Jannah is a powerful warrior goddess, one who comes galloping in on Orbak-back (think: space horses with tusks), and she couldn’t be cooler.
A fiercely loyal and strong rebel leader, we meet her when the action needs her. Like Finn, played by fellow Londoner John Boyega, Jannah is a former stormtrooper. After bonding with Finn, The Force and a particularly poignant “feeling”, she proves invaluable in [not-that-much-of-a-spoiler alert] the final showdown with Emperor Palpatine.
The mass cast-and-crew screening earlier this week – so many people worked on Episode IX, Disney had to book out every screen at the gigantic Cineworld in Hemel Hempstead – wasn’t the first time Ackie had seen the film. There was a screening at Bad Robot, Abrams’s production studio, in Los Angeles. “He has a cinema inside it, of course,” she says with a laugh – embarrassed, almost, at the thought of appearing to be showing off by association.
“That was crazy!” continues this expressive, wholly engaging and thoroughly down-to-earth woman from Walthamstow in north-east London. A graduate of London’s Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, she starred in well-reviewed British indie Lady Macbeth (2016) and Idris Elba’s Yardie (2018). But Star Wars is a wholly different universe of filmmaking. “I was so overwhelmed, honestly. When your face is on a screen that big, it’s very hard to look at yourself anyway. But with a film this huge it was so hard to look at myself objectively. There was a lot of processing I needed to do.”
But it was watching with an audience for the first time that the scale of her blockbuster gig really hit home. “Some films just need to be watched on a big screen.”
It’s true. The block-yellow “crawl”, scrolling up through the star-speckled black. John Williams’s theme tune, as stirring as ever. Add in cameos from some Star Wars legends and this is an epic nostalgic thrill.
“It taps into something,” Ackie nods. “I think that’s why people are so protective of it. It’s like they’re protecting a part of their childhood, or what they’ve used as a part of their identity for a very long time – for some people 42 years.”
At 27, it hasn’t been quite that long for her, but Ackie still remembers dancing around her school playground, imaginary lightsaber in hand, pretending to be a Jedi. “I was totally immersed in it and also altogether unaware that I was.”
To become part of this universe, then, was a truly strange experience. “Especially right at the end, when you’ve watched the first two of this trilogy going: ‘Oh God, they’re lucky, goddamn, I wish I was in it.’ And then suddenly you’re like: ‘Oh, I guess this is happening for me.’” There are stars in her eyes, still, as though she’s just been told she’s got the part.
Working with actors she’d admired on screen was “surreal” – especially when they got on as well as they did. There was a playful, “unspoken” bond between herself, Boyega and Daisy Ridley (who plays Rey) in particular that was immediate and instinctual. “When I came into it I felt like I knew them already. They reminded me so much of my friends and family. Maybe it’s just a London thing.”
Still, she also connected with San Diego-born Kelly Marie Tran, who plays Resistance mechanic Rose, which she describes as “an energy thing, a vibe thing”. All of which linked in to a crew-wide sense of camaraderie. “It was so lovely to be with people that I didn’t feel nervous to be around. There was no sense of hierarchy, and a real community spirit, which is so nice.”
That community spirit translates on screen. The closing sequences feel like being enveloped in a big, Chewie hug. And not just because everybody and their recently resurrected mum is tearfully embracing each other.
Ackie responds emphatically and affirmatively. “D’youknowwhatImean? You can always tell with films when people have had a good time in it. I think audience members can smell that.”
That said, it wasn’t easy being thrust into such an established series, and a particularly blinding limelight. Like many young actors, she suffered from a heavy dose of imposter syndrome. “Obviously there’s all the excitement and the gratitude, but for me it was also about tackling personal stuff, like: ‘Ohmygosh, do I belong here? Am I good enough?’ I don’t know where that comes from. Maybe it’s a female thing, maybe it’s a me thing, I don’t know.”
Now, though, she sees the self-doubt as part of the journey. “I think it’s a good thing. Because now I’ve come out the other side, and I know I’ve worked hard and I do deserve to be here.”
It’s been a wild ride. She thinks back to the “Star Wars village” at Pinewood studios, the legendary UK film studios where the first Star Wars trilogy was filmed, where the Rise of Skywalker crew set up shop and where she underwent months of pre-production training. “In training I would – unwillingly – be taken jogging around Pinewood with weights around my ankles.”
For a moment I think she’s joking but she’s dead serious. Her eyes widen. “Ah, mate. But then I looked at myself on the poster and I was like: ‘Good arms, Nae!’”
Has she kept that up? She looks at me as though I’ve just asked if she’s secretly a Sith lord. “Nooooo! Of course I haven’t.”
But she can do pushups now. “Like, in inverted commas. I learnt that my body can do those things – whether or not I do them on a daily basis is very questionable!”
To be fair, doing laps around her local park – in Tottenham in north London, where she now lives with her mates – might not be quite as exciting as the spectacular Star Wars set. There, she became accustomed to seeing spaceships being built, designers fiddling with all the weird and wonderful props, and artists putting final touches on alien costumes. All this “became a normal thing, which is strange in itself: when the extraordinary becomes ordinary. It was mad.”
She was equally blown away by the prosthetics used to create the film’s galaxy of non-human lifeforms. “When you see them up close – seamless. They look like LEGIT aliens.”
The furry beasts that Jannah and her group of revolutionaries ride (also think: a yeti got uncomfortably friendly with a horse) were themselves the result of movie magic. Yes, they were actual horses, albeit tricked out with a little post-production magic. “They gave the horses these little lycra body suits – no word of a lie – with FUR coming out of them.”
In the earlier stages of filming, she was terrified of the beasts she was tasked with riding, at full pelt, while firing a bow and arrow. “They’re so big and powerful and when they run fast, DUDE, they run FAAAST!” But by the end she loved it so much there were times they had to ask her to slow down. “They’d be like: ‘We’re trying to get the shot here, Naomi, and you’re riding faster than the professional riders.’ It was insane.”
So not only did she smash what can only be described as a stratospheric, career-making role in one of the biggest, most well-loved film franchises of all time, but in the process, she’s also got superfit, learnt to ride as well as professionals, not to mention slay with a bow and arrow. There’s been a few perks, huh?
She shoots me a knowing look. “So many perks! It’s the gift that keeps on giving.”
Speaking of gifts that keep on giving, I tell her I was feeling Jannah’s warrior goddess look – the cross-body snakeskin, the come-at-me-bro utility belt – and she thanks me like she’s been waiting all day for someone to show the outfit some love. “Dude, thankyou. I LOVED wearing it. I think there was something important, for me, about honouring the fact that I’m a grown woman. That it hugged my curves, that the material was hardy. It made me feel strong. I will absolutely adore that costume for the rest of my life. Every time I put that outfit on I was so happy.”
That’s a look that’s not going anywhere anytime soon. Jannah is now a prized LEGO action figure, immortalised in unrecyclable plastic (literally) forever. There’s going to be a lot kids rocking a Jannah costume at their next fancy dress party.
“I hope so!” she beams. “With the little afro in the back, ah, I love it,” she says softly, almost dreamily. The wider cultural importance is implicit: she’s the first black female character in the Skywalker saga – and only the second in the Star Wars universe (the first was Thandie Newton, in Solo: A Star Wars story, although Lupita Nyong’o voices 1000-year-old pirate-turned-innkeeper Maz Kanata). It’s clearly a dream come true, and Ackie looks like she’s still pinching herself.
I push a last question, which I know I’m not really supposed to ask. At some point during all those hugs in the film’s climactic love-fest, there’s a mysterious conversation between Jannah and returning Star Wars legend Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams. While all the other outstanding franchise questions are swiftly being answered (sometimes, tbh, too swiftly), here it feels there’s a new question being asked.
“There’s that little moment, isn’t there?” Ackie says cheekily, a glimmer of The Resistance in her eyes. “There’s that little moment,” she repeats, and her smile widens.
Yes, and? This is the end of Star Wars as we know it, but is this – a pause for dramatic effect – the end of Jannah?
“Who knows?” she grins, and here she looks at her publicist playfully. “I love this question. I don’t know, to be honest. You could hope. I don’t know whether it would involve me even. I’d like to think that the character of Jannah will continue on, even if it’s not on the screen.”
It’s a Star Wars cliché, but what the hell, it’s bang on here: The Force is strong with this one.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is out now