Naomi Ackie has a brilliant smile on her face, and why wouldn’t she? It’s been quite the year for the 27-year-old British actor, who appeared in season 2 of the critically acclaimed Netflix series The End of the F**king World and opposite Sam Claflin in the gritty British crime drama The Corrupted. Now she’s capping off 2019 with one of the biggest movies of the decade. Hell, one of the biggest movies of the last 40 years.
The Rise of Skywalker is the long-awaited final installment in the Star Wars saga, which not only completes the recent legacy trilogy, but brings closure to a swashbuckling sci-fi opera that began in 1977. Ackie joins the cast as Jannah, an ally of the Resistance and a brand-new character to both the films and the entire Star Wars universe. I meet her at London’s Corinthia Hotel, where I’m told I’m her final interview of the day. Yet she shows no signs of fatigue, and with her leg pulled up onto her chair, she relaxes into the conversation.
“There were no expectations and I could actually do whatever I wanted,” she tells ELLE.com. Hired last year and with no Jannah backstory in the comics, movies or Wookiepedia to consult, Ackie had free rein with the character. “Whatever me and J.J. [Abrams, the film’s director] decided on what this character should be, could be—there was a real freedom in that.”
Of course, she wasn’t going in blind. Abrams, who returned to Star Wars as director and co-writer four years after the release of The Force Awakens, provided Ackie with enough character notes and information to help turn Jannah into a person Ackie could understand and deliver onscreen.
“J.J. helped me with some stuff to do with trauma and other things that really helped me figure out why she would fight,” the actor explains. “It’s not necessarily that you see that thought process happening for her, but for me as an actor, it’s important to know those things, to be a geek about it. I felt like there was enough for me to work with to show what this character needed to show.”
It wasn’t just the notes on Jannah’s backstory that helped Ackie find her way into the character. Shortly after being hired for the role, she began training that lasted from May to January of this year. She gets a glint in her eye when I ask just how wild it was. “I rode horses, I did archery, rock climbing—there was a lot. It was so fun!” she recalls. “I come from a physical background and I’ve always loved to do martial arts, but I’ve been in and out and never stuck to it, which frustrates me.
“It was important for me to feel confident and strong throwing around Jannah’s body, if that makes sense. There were some days where they’d be like, ‘Hey, can you do this stunt?’ And if I hadn’t had the training, then I’d have to say, ‘No.’ Maybe I would have been able to do it once, but 25 times? No, no!”
The training had a personal impact on Ackie too, helping her develop a positive attitude about fitness—feeling good and being healthy in her body. “For me, it was an exercise in loving my body, not for what it looked like but for what it could do,” she says. “However it looked was a byproduct, and that really shifted my perspective. Especially for women, we need to practice feeling that and reminding ourselves how amazing our bodies are.
“When I started to feel super strong and capable, it brought something out in me that I hadn’t previously felt, that I could [then] bring to the character.”
When Ackie’s casting was announced, the response was amazing. Historically, the sci-fi genre has left little room for women, let alone women of color, but these legacy sequels have slowly increased representation of women and minorities, and audiences have responded mostly with approval. However, Kelly Marie Tran, who debuted as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, has suffered mindless abuse from a toxic minority in the Star Wars fandom. Was Ackie concerned this same faction might turn on her? She takes a moment to collect her thoughts.
“I don’t know what it was like for Kelly before the film came out, and I don’t know what it’s going to be like for me when the film comes out, but I do know that what I’ve experienced so far has come hugely from a place of love and support and excitement and joy, and I don’t think that will go away,” Ackie says. “I think negative voices sometimes scream the loudest, even though they’re a very small group. I’ve done other projects where you get hate mail and silly messages on your Instagram posts, but to me, that is like water off a duck’s back.
“There are people who will look for the holes in whatever you create and whatever you say to justify the hate of you, and that’s fine,” she continues. “As long as it doesn’t get in the way of me creating, me making money for myself, me supporting my family, my friends, me being able to be a good person and be free in this world, it really doesn’t rub me the wrong way at all.”
So what does the future hold for Ackie in the Star Wars universe? There’s a certain scene in The Rise of Skywalker that suggests she could go on an adventure with Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian. At the mention of Lando’s name, her face lights up. “I legit cried when they brought him on set,” she excitedly recalls. “There was a huge crowd because we were doing a lot of that last bit, the Resistance scenes, and J.J. took the mic and was like, ‘Okay, we’ve got Billy Dee Williams on set, everybody, just give this man a round of applause.’ Then suddenly Billy Dee is next to me and I’m like, ‘oh, I’ve got to do the acting thing. Game face!’ I felt super emotional, but it was beautiful. He’s so charming. He’s like that in real life.”
Whether her future in the Star Wars franchise intertwines with Williams or not, she’s had a long time to think about what could be in store. “For Jannah, it would be nice to see her find out more about her history, and maybe go off to help more people forge [their] own families,” she says. “The thing that’s so interesting about Star Wars is that it always follows the same themes about making your own family and finding out where you come from, and not letting it define who you are.
“I hope she has that same journey to figure herself out. But also,” Ackie adds with a cheeky grin on her face. “I want Jannah to become a Jedi!”