Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are twins. Basically.
Both are 23, born only three weeks apart (he’s older). They are both youngest children, and both hail from the same city – although he’s from South London, she’s from West London, and they both insist those neighborhoods may as well be on different planets from each other. Both longed to act from a young age, and both ended up as the new leads of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
He plays the conscience-stricken, AWOL stormtrooper Finn, and she’s the abandoned, desert scrounger Rey. They’re both figures searching for a place to belong in the galaxy, and their mere presence in The Force Awakens – along with Guatemalan-born costar Oscar Isaac (who wasn’t available for an interview) – provides its own renewed sense of belonging in this fictional universe for fans who’ve longed to see a person of color or a woman at the fore of a Star Wars story.
“Writing this script with Larry Kasdan, I didn’t know what Rey was going to look like, I didn’t know what Finn or Poe would look like. I just knew that this movie needed to look the way the world looks,” director and co-writer J.J. Abrams tells EW.
Ridley is the youngest of five sisters. Her father is a photographer and her mother works in communications at a bank. Ridley has appeared on just a few British TV series in her short career, but winning the role of Rey transformed her into an instant star, especially among young women.
“What we’ve seen of Rey, she looks like she can handle her stuff,” Ridley says. “So most of the comments I get are from parents who say how wonderful it is that their little girls can see this character.”
During filming, Ridley said she and Boyega braced themselves for the public discussion that would eventually come from their casting. “John and I had a conversation last year and we both knew that was how it was going to be. He was going to be the black guy and I was going to be the girl,” she says. “I think neither of those things could ever be a bad thing.”
A few less-enlightened types tried to turn it into one. A handful of people tried to launch a racist boycott campaign on social media the day the new trailer dropped in October, and the hashtag ended up trending all day – although mainly because it was being shouted down by more open-minded Star Wars fans the world over. Abrams even sent out a message about it prior to the trailer debut.
— Bad Robot (@bad_robot) October 20, 2015
“My main thing is that people connect with her, regardless of gender, color, age,” says Ridley, who bristles at the word “hero.”
“For me, the idea of her being called a ‘hero’ or a ‘heroine,’ I think that’s almost wrong, because the whole thing is she’s a normal girl going on a journey,” she says. “There’s so much talk about gender, still, and the wage gap, and opportunity for women around the world in different sectors, so to be one of the facial representations of a positive progression is incredible. It’s not a burden… It just seems to me like it’s so simple, and obviously the difficulty then is when you look at other films and go, ‘Oh my god how did you screw up so badly? Why is your cast so white and male?’”
Boyega also feels the significance of opening up the galaxy as a place where everyone is welcome. The actor, who has two older sisters, was born in the U.K., but his father, a Pentecostal minister, and his mother, a caregiver for people with disabilities, had immigrated to England from Nigeria before he was born. His career began a few years before Ridley’s did, and he’s best known for his role in the cult-hit Attack the Block, starring as a streetgang leader who rallies his neighborhood to fight back an alien invasion.
As a lifelong Star Wars fan himself, Boyega says the benefit of diverse casting is that kids will pretend to be the characters they love whether those individuals have skin that’s white, brown, green, or covered in fur. That’s what he did. On the original trilogy, it wasn’t just Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian who captured his imagination.
“We see through the eyes of children that they’re not talking about race the way we grown folks are. They’re not talking about color or how much melanin is in someone’s skin. That should teach us something,” Boyega says.
The bigots trying to sully things? He has no time for them. “We’ve been having a continuous struggle with idiots, and now we should just force them to understand – and I love the way I just used Force there, by the way – just force people to see this is the new world,” he says. “There are loads of people of different shades and backgrounds. Get used to it.”
LOST SOULS, NOW FOUND
So, Finn and Rey may not look alike, but their commonalities far outweigh their differences. Both are essentially war orphans. He was a child soldier, bred to wear the white armor of a stormtrooper and fight and die, if necessary, on behalf of The First Order. She was abandoned at age 5 on the desert world of Jakku, and has been waiting ever since to be reclaimed.
“There was no one really guiding her. She’s never sat around a table and had a meal with someone else,” Ridley says. “She has a boss, she has someone to answer to, she has to trade the junk for food, and that’s how it has to be. She works to feed herself, and she goes to sleep, and she gets up again. It is a sad life.”
When she meets Finn, a fellow discarded person, they activate something in each other. She has been told she’s nothing, and he has been told he’s only good for one thing. “It’s about looking for a greater purpose, rather than thinking ‘this is the only thing I can do,’” Boyega says. “He wants to change. He wants to make a difference. He’s trying to find some kind of moral dignity in this war.”
Finn and Rey bond after fleeing First Order bombshells being dropped on their heels and only learn each other’s names later, but by then it’s already a friendship forged in the stars. In real life, Boyega and Ridley’s chemistry extends off screen, and the only annoying part is outsiders jumping to conclusions about them.
In real life, Ridley says, she and Boyega are “like brother and sister – unfortunately for all those people who ‘ship,’ which I never knew was a thing but I guess comes from ‘relationship.’ We get on really well and we make each other laugh. Sadly, people think a guy and girl can’t be friends without something romantic going on.” (Funny, they said the same thing about Luke and Leia once.)
SABERS AND STARSHIPS
Apart from the way Finn and Rey are making our own little corner of time and space a better place, playing the parts for Boyega and Rey was mainly … fun.
From climbing ropes through fallen Star Destroyers and battering henchmen with her staff, to flying the Millennium Falcon, both on her own and alongside Han Solo, Rey is living out the dream of every fanboy or fangirl.
She even got some sage starship-flying advice from Harrison Ford. “I was doing random switch-flipping and Harrison kind of put his hand out and said, no, everything had to have a purpose. Like, you flip a switch and then you see what it does, before you do anything else,” she says. “I was probably flipping switches too quickly!”
There was one other awkward moment. “Um, probably when I sat in his pilot seat,” Ridley says. “There’s a shot where I pilot the Falcon by myself. And then [on another day] Harrison and I went to film together. I went to get into the pilot seat and he was like, ‘That’s mine,’ and I was genuinely mortified. And J.J. was sitting there like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ And, you know, I moved into the co-pilot seat.”
For Boyega, he got to live out the childhood dream of swinging a lightsaber in a battle against the Dark Side of the Force.
“It started in rehearsals. We had [Kylo Ren actor] Adam Driver. That was the first time ever I had a stick in my hand that I could pretend was a lightsaber, which was the first stage of excitement,” he says. “I had to do all the sound effects and stuff by myself.”
In front of the cameras, he was given a much more elaborate prop. “That’s when I got the real saber, which is blue, it’s lighted, and just looks really epic,” Boyega says. “It felt monumental in my hand. I knew not to play like I used to when I was a kid, but to actually use it in serious combat for a scene. It’s absolutely crazy to have in your hand. It’s a bit heavy but it’s worth it. “
He also learned that even in real life, you’ve got to watch where you swing those things.
“It was quite a thing to get used to,” Boyega says. “You had to be in the flow of the rhythm to make sure the hand didn’t get caught or you’d be pain for a quick second.”
For more on Star Wars, follow @Breznican.
To continue reading more on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday, or buy it here.