LOS ANGELES – The latest “Star War” trilogy might be drawing to a close, but newcomers Keri Russell and Naomi Ackie are hoping they’ll become part of the ensemble of memorable characters introduced throughout the nine film Skywalker saga.
Russell is well-established, while Ackie is an actress on the rise. Both learned quickly about carrying the weight of heightened expectations as the new co-stars in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
It certainly didn’t take Ackie long to find out. The stakes were laid out in her first meeting with director J.J. Abrams after when she was selected to play a noble warrior named Jannah.
“J.J. said ‘I’m not trying to scare you, but there’s going to be a lot of young black girls who are going to be really inspired by this character,’” the British actress recalled. “That kind of hit me in the chest. It made me say to myself ‘Oh my gosh.’ But that helped get ready for this moment.”
“Rise of Skywalker,” which opens in theaters Friday, is the ninth film in the so-called Skywalker saga that started with original “Star Wars” in 1977. It traces the history of the Skywalkers, from Anakin — a Jedi who became the galaxy’s most fearsome enforcer, Darth Vader — through his idealistic son Luke and finally to Kylo Ren, the son of Anakin’s daughter Leia.
Before “Star Wars,” Ackie had starred in two British projects, the TV series “The End of the F(asterisk)(asterisk)(asterisk)ing World” and the drama film “Lady Macbeth.” She said her chat with Abrams put everything into perspective that her character could empower young girls of color, and even herself.
“I think if I had had that in my life, maybe I would have been a bit easier on myself growing up,” said Ackie, whose character is a freedom fighter with natural curly brown hair who wields a bow and arrow from atop a horse-like creature. Jannah becomes an ally of the Resistance and helps Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron’s interstellar battle with the evil First Order.
“I grew up needing that, because I probably wouldn’t have straightened my hair so much,” she continued. “I wouldn’t have, you know, tried to fit myself into boxes that I was never going to fit into. So if this character can be a part of the process of young women, men and non-binary in any way to help identify your truth, then I will do this over and over and over again because I know that’s what I need in my life.”
Russell said she was nervous heading into her role as Zorii Bliss, dubbed the “Masked Scoundrel,” who hails from the snow-dusted world of Kijimi. It’s one of the new planets introduced in “Rise of Skywalker,” and it links her and Poe, played by Oscar Isaac. The actress felt more comfortable with joining the space saga after reuniting with Abrams, who she first worked with 20 years ago on the television series “Felicity.”
“It’s not like shooting some independent film with coffees in your hand talking about feelings,” said Russell, an Emmy-nominated actress who also starred in the TV series “The Americans” as well as the films “Mission: Impossible III” and “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”
Russell’s character sports a wine-colored fitted outfit and a gold helmet that covers her face. She said putting on the costume made her feel like she was a part of the story even more, calling it the “real magic of movie making.
“Everything about ‘Star Wars’ from the moment you’re in costume fittings, it’s like making an old-fashion movie, spending all this money,” she said. “There’s all of this artistry like ‘Lawrence of Arabia.’”
Both Russell and Ackie said they haven’t dealt with any heavy fan criticism just yet, but they’re well aware of it.
Ackie said she’s gotten advice from Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran about their past experiences dealing with critics. She praised them for how far they have come in the franchise.
“I’m glad that I didn’t come in early like them,” Ackie said. “I look at John and Daisy. They were in their early 20′s when they got this. When I was in my early 20s, I would not have been able to handle what they had to deal with. Maybe I would have. And you know, being a bit older and coming in at the end and having the people that support me, it feels more like my head is in the right place. My heart is in the right place. So I’m ready to. We’re ready to go.”