'Star Wars' Actor Debra Wilson Is a Prolific Force Among Video Game Performers
Mornings don't seem to affect Debra Wilson. The star, perhaps best known as an original cast member and the longest-serving performer on Fox's sketch comedy series Mad TV, exudes a vibrant energy in the early hours, an effervescent positivity that is contagious even over the phone.
While Wilson made a name for herself in comedy, starring on Fox's answer to Saturday Night Live for more than eight seasons, in recent years she has become a prolific presence in gaming, building a resume with roles in more than 40 titles over the past five years alone. It is her latest project, EA and Respawn Entertainment's Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, however, that has brought her work in the medium into the spotlight in a new way.
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"I believe I'm the first black female Jedi as far as video games are concerned," Wilson tells The Hollywood Reporter of her role as Cere Junda, an ex-Jedi living in exile following the passing of Order 66 by the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. Cere serves as a mentor to the game's protagonist, Cal Kestis (Cameron Monaghan), and is one of the game's lead characters.
"To be a part of the Star Wars universe in this regard is amazing," she says. "Growing up with Star Wars from a very early age — well, not that early because I’m a little older — it had a very powerful impact on me."
Fallen Order is not Wilson's first brush with the franchise, as she recalls a commercial she shot a few years ago ("which never ran") in which she played a Twi'lek, the tentacle-haired race of aliens that populate George Lucas' universe. "That was monumental in and of itself," she says, adding that becoming a Jedi for the new game is a "meteoric jump."
As Cere, Wilson is not hidden under a head full of squid-like appendages. The character was modeled after her, using performance capture technology to render her likeness into the game, a decision she says she is "grateful and deeply humbled" to Lucasfilm (which consulted on the game) for making. "It’s the first time I’m on a game box," she exclaims.
The project was shrouded in secrecy from its earliest stages (Fallen Order had two separate working titles, Rowboat and Bird Dog), but Wilson picked up on a few hints throughout the audition process that pointed toward what type of game this would eventually become. "I had early inklings, because the one thing they did tell you was the character’s name," she says. "It didn’t feel like an average name, and they weren’t telling you to do an accent. I thought, this feels like it’s otherworldly."
Playing an exiled Jedi knight during a time period that has not been explored as much as others in the Star Wars universe, Wilson had a lot of blank canvas to work with when crafting her role as Cere (pronounced "sear", not like Apple's Siri, though Wilson does do a spot-on impersonation of the AI). When asked if she took any inspiration from past entries in the Star Wars pantheon, she says she relied on only one guide: "Truth."
"You’re part of a franchise that requires something of you," she says. "You have to do the work as a performer to bring that organic truth to the table. That’s the thing you have to bring in your arsenal more than anything. You can do the research, but you’re not there to mimic."
Wilson credits the gaming industry for continuing to offer strong roles to female performers. "I’ve been blessed to play female characters who are not just side characters, who are powerful and rich and deep and have journeys," she says. "I’m very grateful that the industry allows that and welcomes it, because on the outside, as me, no one cares about my age, my looks, my race or my gender. It’s all about capturing the performance from the inside out."
In 2019, Wilson has starred in ten games, many of which are the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful releases of the year, including Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, The Outer Worlds, Gears 5, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, Rage 2, Days Gone and Far Cry New Dawn.
Wilson sees games (and performance capture) as a new frontier, offering roles to a wider range of performers from more diverse backgrounds. "I’m finding that what I do as I move through this creative space is more viable than when I was younger. Back then, when it was just in front of camera, it was based on your look," she says. "Here, the only thing that's necessary is bringing your A-game, because we’re going to ask you to do the work from the inside out."
She has a number of other game projects in the pipeline, including new content for massively multiplayer online role-playing game Guild Wars 2 and the upcoming Disintegration from Private Division (which she worked with on this year's The Outer Worlds).
The performer credits humility for her success in gaming. "It’s not like working on film where you go, my reputation precedes me, my followers on Twitter precede me. You have to come in humbled and do the work," she says. "In other words, leave your fucking ego at the door."
Wilson is managed by Aaron Kogan at AK Management. Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order launches on Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PC on Nov. 15.
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