Lucasfilm's Kathleen Kennedy on 'Star Wars,' 'Lincoln' and Secret J.J. Abrams Meetings (Exclusive)

Kathleen Kennedy on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter
Kathleen Kennedy on the cover of The Hollywood Reporter
 Art Streiber

In her first in-depth profile, Kennedy reveals how she landed Abrams to direct "Episode VII" as THR talks to Steven Spielberg, David Fincher and producer husband Frank Marshall, who remembers meeting her: "There was no way I was going to screw this up by hitting on Steven's assistant."

Even as Kennedy was laboring frantically to make the Abrams deal and put her stamp on Lucasfilm, she has been in the midst of a grinding awards campaign. Lincoln -- the last film she will produce for Spielberg for the foreseeable future -- has defied expectations by grossing more than $180 million worldwide (and counting) while picking up a dozen Oscar nominations, matching Spielberg's record with Schindler's List in 1994. Lincoln marks the eighth time that one of Kennedy's films has been nominated for best picture. Shockingly, given her career, she has yet to win.

"I'd love to have the Oscar," she laughs. "I'd love to get this over with. It's not fun to lose. I admit that." She has sat at the Golden Globes, the Producers Guild Awards and the Screen Actors Guild Awards, only to watch Ben Affleck and the Argo team stride to the stage. While she tries to assure others on the Lincoln crew that life will go on, she also is glad that she has a demanding new job. "I would hate to be in a situation where my entire focus was obsessing around the issue of whether we're going to win best picture," she says.

Even before taking the reins of Lucasfilm, Kennedy was one of the most accomplished women in the industry. But she has flown a bit below the radar, perhaps because of the shadow of the enormously powerful men with whom she has worked. She hasn't sat for many interviews over the years. "I'm not great at talking about myself," she says, dressed simply in a black jacket and cream blouse. "I don't analyze things all the time, I just do them."

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No doubt one of the keys to Kennedy's success is that she is the opposite of a preener. Even her expansive, contemporary-style office at the Kennedy/Marshall Co. in Santa Monica, from which she will be largely absent for at least the next five years (the length of her Lucasfilm deal), is decorated in muted, neutral shades. She displays mementos that trace a career: a Seabiscuit bobblehead that plays a broadcast of one of the champion's races; a framed, autographed playing-card-size photograph of Abraham Lincoln that was a gift from Spielberg; a toy Snowy, the terrier from The Adventures of Tintin, the 2011 movie she produced for Spielberg and Peter Jackson; and hefty, meticulously rendered Star Wars collectible figurines. There also is a series of photographs of her daughters.

Spending time with them is a priority for Kennedy. Despite the demands of work, she says she and Marshall, who have homes in Los Angeles and Telluride, Colo., manage to have an active social life -- including many friends outside the industry. "I have a very fun husband," she says. "He's managed to hang on to every person he's known since grammar school."

In her new position, she will split her time between the Lucasfilm offices at Disney and the company's headquarters in the Presidio of San Francisco. Usually Kennedy flies to the Bay Area on a Tuesday and returns to Los Angeles on a Thursday evening -- a schedule she says allows her to spend more time with her family than she could during long film shoots. On the heels of War Horse, which had her living in England for three months, Kennedy spent another three months away from home in Richmond, Va., for Lincoln.

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Of all the films they've made together, says Spielberg, "We probably have never worked more closely as a team than we did on Lincoln. … She was there for casting, readings with actors. Every single aspect of mounting this film in Richmond was under Kathy's purview."

Kennedy agrees that making Lincoln was especially profound for Spielberg and her. "This is a movie that we all deeply, deeply cared about," she says of the years-in-the-making project. "Those are the most enriching, lasting experiences. It really represents an important part of your life, creatively."

Those who have watched Spielberg and Kennedy at work say the connection is apparent. "It's so efficient, it boggles the mind," says screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park). "They're able to accomplish in a day what mere filmmaking mortals do in a few -- and they don't seem to finish a lot of sentences." Kennedy, he adds, is "great at correcting him and being straight with him. … Finding someone whom you trust and know will be honest with you is difficult for most directors and super-difficult for someone of Steven's stature. That has to feel irreplaceable."

STORY: 'Lincoln' Gets Tweaked for Overseas Release

DreamWorks CEO Stacey Snider says she experienced Kennedy's competence back in 2000, when, as chairman of Universal, she was weeks away from the start of filming on Jurassic Park 3, with $18 million already spent: "I was in New York, and my phone rang, and as my foot stepped into the crosswalk, Kath said: 'Steven and [director Joe Johnston] aren't happy with the script. We're going to pull the plug.' And by the time I got to the other side of this wide boulevard, she had told me what the plan was, how the $18 million would be rendered productive, how they would fix the script and restart the movie. It was from one curb to the other -- something horrible happened, and there was a solution."

Given that, it's hardly surprising that Spielberg seems to feel some sense of grievance that his old friend Lucas has taken Kennedy away. Lucas called to raise the issue during a dubbing session on Lincoln. "He actually asked for her hand in business," says Spielberg. "I wasn't going to stand in her way."

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