By Meredith Woerner Los Angeles Times.
"That's my chair."
Harrison Ford and Daisy Ridley had just stepped onto the Millennium Falcon set for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" when Ridley went to get into the pilot seat. Han Solo wasn't pleased.
"I was honestly so embarrassed," Ridley says. "Obviously he was kidding around and even J.J. (Abrams) said, 'Oh, my God.'" Still, Ford's joking around didn't stop Ridley from climbing into the cockpit. Her character, "Star Wars" newcomer Rey, is this galaxy's new ace pilot. And yes, Rey flies the ship that can make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs.
"It was cool," she says with a laugh.
If there was ever a better metaphor for women taking the wheel in a galaxy far, far away it's Han Solo handing over the keys of the Millennium Falcon to the 23-year-old Ridley.
The "Star Wars" narrative has always favored the pilot. Han Solo is a pilot. Anakin Skywalker was heralded as the cringe-inducing, pod-racing prodigy who later grows up to be "the best star pilot in the galaxy" (according to old man Obi-Wan). Even Luke Skywalker could bull's-eye a womp rat while flying (and it's not much bigger than 2 meters). So the news that Rey sits front and center, skillfully piloting the prize of the "Star Wars" skies is a big deal.
"It's fantastic," Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy says about Ridley's role in the film. "I think what's great about it is Rey, her character, is such a good pilot. That isn't something she's turning and asking how to do, that's something she's doing."
This is clear even in the first carefully doled-out footage of "The Force Awakens" in which John Boyega, another new cast member, and Ridley are seen running frantically from a mysterious explosion. Boyega's character, Finn, yells out, "We need a pilot!"
Ridley as Rey gives her best exasperated shrug (while running from certain death over hot sand) and yells, "We've got one." She is the pilot.
As the Dec. 17 opening of "The Force Awakens" approaches, the next generation of "Star Wars" characters seems to have several strong roles for women, on both the dark and light side of the Force. For a series that has struggled to find more than one standout female role (no matter how much she kicks butt), that is significant.
That's not to say "Star Wars" has been absent of female influence. The franchise can boast the creation of the innovative and genre-busting Princess Leia, crafted by Carrie Fisher. And the newly established animated series "Star Wars: Rebels" and "Clone Wars" have a varied cast of animated parts for women. But the live-action movies have left a lot to be desired for female roles on film.
Padme Amidala, portrayed by Natalie Portman, started as a strong political figure/large-alien-cat fighter. In the end, however, Amidala gives up everything, including the will to live, when the love of her life (Anakin Skywalker) turns to evil.
She physically dies of a broken heart while cry-birthing Luke and Leia Skywalker. Padme doesn't even get the glory of living on as a political martyr; her whole story is swept under the rug so Darth Vader can take the stage.
The rest of the women in the "Star Wars" prequels and originals were sidelined to cantina bar stools or Coruscant hallways, banished as background players or imprisoned dancers, with the occasional exception of a Mon Mothma cameo ("Many Bothans died ... "). This list becomes only more frustrating when compiled with deleted scenes from "Return of the Jedi" that revealed footage of multiple female rebel pilots attacking the Death Star. Sadly, most of the lady rebels wound up on the cutting-room floor, save for one pilot whose small line was dubbed over with the voice of a man in the finished film.
But now there's Rey.
THE SCAVENGER "She feels very modern," Kennedy says of Rey. "I think she will be relevant to audiences today, she embodies that sense of self-reliance and independence. I think that's who she is. I think that's who she is as a person, as Daisy Ridley and who she is as Rey."
The little we know about Rey is that she's been left to fend for herself amid the wreckage of the previous war between the Empire and the Rebellion. Despite the Ewok celebrations at the defeat of the Empire, there were still corners of the galaxy left forever altered by the damage, including Jakku, Rey's home.
In the "Star Wars" marketing machine, Rey sits front and center in the Drew Struzan posters like a yin and yang symbol, holding the balance between the dark and the light side. Where she'll fall in this world we're not certain, but we do know that her main priority in the film isn't political reformation or treaties with the Trade Federation. Rey is focused solely on the day-to-day. She's the first female lead in the films to grow up outside of privilege.
"I don't know if Rey is really about anything in the beginning of the film except for working and feeding herself," Ridley says. "Her life is pretty ... 'mundane' is the wrong word ... but it's pretty repetitive. She's literally living hand to mouth. She's solitary. She doesn't speak to people very much. She's just trying to make it work for herself."
Even though Rey lives isolated in the desert planet, she remains tied to the "Star Wars" legacy built years ago. She spends her days scavenging through the junkfields and hunting among the innards of downed spaceships, including the remains of a crashed Imperial Destroyer. Her salvaged speeder is made from scrap, and even her goggles (which seem to be repurposed glass from the classic Stormtrooper helmet) link her to the past.
"Rey's not important because she's a woman, she's just important," Ridley says. "But obviously, having a woman like this in a film is hugely important."
After working on "The Force Awakens" Ridley admits that the parts Hollywood was offering after she wrapped haven't lived up to the character of Rey. "I understand sexism is going on, and I've seen it actually more this year being out of the film in the scripts I'm being sent. Sometimes I'm reading it and I'm thinking, 'Are you for real? Literally the bit on the side?' That's not cool."
So how will Rey live up to the legacy of Leia? Fisher, the actress who donned the weighty buns in 1977, 1980, 1983 and reprises the role for "Force Awakens," responds to this question in an enthusiastically defiant matter: "She doesn't have to!" "That's not the point," Fisher says by phone. "It's a new generation doing what they have to do or what they feel they need to do. What's good is that they're confident and capable, and that they don't stop. They don't not do things just because they're afraid to do them. They're relatable, again. This girl I think is more relatable. Well, in that she is not a princess militant."
Strong words of support from the woman who Lucasfilm's Kennedy says was the springboard for why it was so important to have strong female characters in the "Star Wars" Universe.
THE PRINCESS Fisher would know what it takes to make a lasting legacy in this franchise. The first few precious moments of "A New Hope" follow the angry revolutionary pulling together a contingency plan to smuggle spy documents off a spaceship. Unafraid of being taken hostage by the nefarious Empire, Princess Leia blasts the invading Imperial Stormtroopers. Leia shoots first.
In captivity, Leia proceeds to throw some truly galactic shade: "Darth Vader, only you could be so bold," "Gov. Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader's leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board," and the classic, "Aren't you a little short for a Stormtrooper?"