A version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 13 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
Few personal stories evidence the rags-to-riches nature of success in Hollywood better than that of Daisy Ridley. In early 2014, she was an unknown British actress whose experience consisted of a few tiny roles and a lot of rejection.
What a difference a year makes. On Dec. 18, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is poised to launch Ridley and fellow 23-year-old Brit John Boyega into the galaxy of superstardom. Their stories aren’t much different from those of the eight other actors age 35 and under who made THR’s annual Next Generation talent list.
The stars seem to hold the key to John Boyega’s future. When he was just 19 years old, the South London native strode into theaters like a proto-Denzel Washington in Attack the Block, director Joe Cornish’s aliens-invade-a-London-project cult thriller. After a sojourn to television for Fox’s 24: Live Another Day miniseries, and supporting roles in films like 2013’s Nigeria-set drama Half of a Yellow Sun and Imperial Dreams (which won the Audience Award at 2014’s Sundance Film Festival), Boyega finds himself at the center of a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
Currently living in Los Angeles, Boyega has no real idea what’s in store for him when J.J. Abrams’ sequel invades theaters — even though he’s been working with Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, all of whom saw their life turned upside down when Star Wars first hit screens in 1977. “This is the first Star Wars movie in the age of social media, and it’s a different path,” says Boyega the day after the final Force Awakens trailer premiered (along with the Instagram video of him going nuts over it). “The stories they’ve shared, … I’ve been able to pick out a few things that are beneficial, but in terms of direct advice none of them have given any.”
For some actors, like Ford and Fisher, being in a Star Wars movie is a great career catalyst. For others, like Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor, it kind of has no discernable impact. And for others still, like Jake Lloyd and Hayden Christensen, it kind of destroys them. How much of that did you take into account before you took this on?
None of it. I am all about opportunity. I’m all about story. When J.J. signed on as director I was very much interested to come and read for him. It was just a matter of whether or not I could do the job, and apparently I could. For me, it’s just all about making sure that this is a really cool film. That [Finn] the best character I can make him. In terms of it being a failure for some actors and all that stuff, it’s been a long time since the last Star Wars movie came out. I haven’t been scared with the risks and all that stuff. As an actor I wanted to do a great, great piece. As a fan as well.
How do you maintain a semblance of normal? Given the world is going nuts around you and about you — fans are crushing websites to buy advance tickets — how do you keep an even keel?
I think the major thing is I’ve had a life before. Two years ago I wouldn’t have sworn this was a conversation I would be having. So it hasn’t taken over my life just yet. As actors we have to try to maintain some sort of balance. I think in the coming months that will change and I’ll know exactly what the dynamics are. But for now, there hasn’t been anything that has completely changed the way my whole life works.
Coming off of Attack the Block did you have a blueprint for the way you wanted your career to develop? Was there a plan you were working off of?
Yeah, absolutely. Once we recognized Attack the Block would be a project the States would receive, once Big Talk Productions had [arranged] for distribution in the States at Screen Gems, we knew that was a great opportunity to go to America and get involved in some new projects. So the plan was to go over to the States, do a TV show, or a movie, and slowly build up a portfolio of work. But you know how life goes: Some things work out, some things don’t.
I’m sure there’s a contractually obligated answer to this question, but were you a Star Wars fan as a kid?
(Laughs.) What kind of contract would that be? Absolutely. Yeah, definitely I was.
Did your parents get your love for Star Wars?
No. My parents are not interested in Star Wars whatsoever. They’re only interested in The Force Awakens. In terms of the rest, they’re like, “OK, cool, but you’re not in it.” They’re all about stakes. I’ve always been a fan, especially of the extended universe, like the comic books, the games. I had watched all the movies before being cast. I was fully aware of what Star Wars was. I didn’t have to get an update.
I’m sure it’s like dancing between raindrops, but can you talk a little bit about what you responded to in the script and your character specifically. Aside from the fact that it’s a Star Wars movie, what about him made you have to play him?
I think I’m always interested in characters that start off one way and end another. I find it very boring to have to read a script where the character always knows what to do, knows who they are, has a blueprint for their lives. I just feel that sort of character is painted for a perfect story. What has always interested me, and what has interested a lot of people, are the characters that are unlikely. The characters that don’t necessarily fit or match the status quo. Finn isn’t a guy you would expect to be involved in this story. The fact that he’s a Stormtrooper. We don’t [usually] go into [Stormtroopers’] pasts or lives much: how the dynamics work for them, how they were recruited — we don’t ever really see much about the past there. It was interesting to me to have that kind of character.
As much as most of Star Wars fandom is warm and embracing, there is this strain of ugliness, this whole #BoycottStarWars movement, where people are upset that Star Wars has been co-opted by women and people of color. How did you feel when you first heard about it?
The biggest movement so far is the fact that Star Wars probably beat Hunger Games in presales eight times over. So my question is, how is that little other agenda doing?
Yeah. And on the flip side of that there’s a whole generation of kids for whom this is gonna be their first Star Wars movie.
The lead is being played by a black man wielding a lightsaber. Their first Jedi, like their first president, is black. Is that a responsibility you thought of before going into it?
No. (Pauses.) I am 23, so I don’t have information about the way the world works when it comes to different mentalities. What I’m being exposed to now is new. I’m not the ordinary when it comes to this stuff. To me, going into a Star Wars film, having a responsibility to the world — I feel like if I thought about that my audition would not have been great. I would have been crying and making speeches halfway through the audition. For me, I went in as an actor. That has always been the main fixation. Whatever inspiration anyone draws from that is absolutely fantastic. It’s always good to feel like you’re involved in anything positive. In terms of my approach to Star Wars the main fixation to me was the role, the story and making sure Star Wars is honored in a very respectable way.
What’s been the most surreal part of the ride so far?
I think just watching the trailers, for me. That’s surreal. It doesn’t get realer than that. We went to Comic-Con, met the fans, but watching the actual content is ridiculous. I’ve never seen myself in that kind of format before — in a movie that is probably the biggest movie of all time. It’s a culture. It’s like a religion for some people. It’s like, it’s so crazy to see yourself heavily involved in it.
Last question. Do you still have your lightsaber?
Let me go to my room. I have one, two, three, four, five lightsabers. Wait, there’s one on the floor. Six lightsabers. Lightsabers I’m going to give away to certain people when I see them.
Do you have one you keep somewhere safe? One that’s important just to you?
There is one that is open to just swing around a few seconds when I walk around the house.
Just in case.
Yeah, just in case.
Before landing one of the most coveted roles of the decade, Star Wars: The Force Awakens heroine Daisy Ridley had become accustomed to disappointment. In the months leading up to her first audition for Episode VII‘s female lead, the 23-year-old actress’ confidence was shattered. Just one week into a gig with a small workshop, she was told not to bother coming back. And then after nabbing a lead role in the E4 series Youngers, the part was cut down to just one day of filming. “I was kind of used to things not happening, so I just felt the whole way through [the Episode VII audition process], ‘I’m going to lose the job. They’re going to find someone better than me,'” she recalls. Even her first two Star Wars auditions were underwhelming — at least from her perspective. Remarkably, Ridley kept getting called back, and something clicked in that final audition, propelling her past the horde of hopefuls. Now, she says with a degree of satisfaction, “I’ve got opportunities I didn’t have before.” That’s an understatement.
Though the CAA-repped actress is well booked with Episode VIII, which begins shooting in January in London, and then Episode IX, she will soon be familiar to a globe-spanning fan base and presumably have her pick of roles and directors. But even after seizing the role of Rey, Ridley continued to face rejection. She recounts being turned down for an unnamed film role in the past year after a sweat-induced wardrobe malfunction in front of a casting agent. “I’m sure the star they cast is much better than me,” she muses. Perhaps it’s that self-deprecating air that helped win over Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams and the Lucasfilm brass. And whether her career trajectory is more Harrison Ford or Hayden Christensen, Ridley has a backup plan in play: She’s begun taking courses for a psychology degree. And of course, she’s staying put in London, where she lives with her family and her deaf and blind dog named Muffin. “I love to come to L.A. to visit, and then I like to come to rainy old London because it’s home,” she says. The Hollywood Reporter talked to Ridley about her impossible ascent from obscurity to Next Gen Hollywood force.
How did you land the part of Rey?
I had heard about the role quite a while before I auditioned, and I emailed my agent that I have this really weird feeling; I really feel like I need to audition. Then months went by and the same people were reading for it. But I still really had this feeling of needing to read for it. So I emailed my agent again for an audition. I had four or five auditions over seven months, and it was a very emotional time. My first few auditions really didn’t feel good, but my last audition suddenly felt like something clicked. You’re so desperate to get a role, but I felt like even if I didn’t get it, I did a good job, I’d done myself proud.
What did that call from J.J. feel like?
It was weird because by that time I knew the field was quite narrow, so I was just relieved that I was about to know either way. I just remember kicking this bottle on the street as I was walking in central London, thinking that this is just a normal moment.
How did you deal with the secrecy involved with Star Wars?
I got home and told my mum and dad and sister, but then I couldn’t tell anyone for three months, knowing that something monumental had happened in my life. The day before they were going to do the announcement, I was talking to my mum, and I said, “I’ve wanted to tell everyone for ages and now I don’t want to.” And she said it was like being pregnant, when you’re desperate for the baby to come out and then the baby’s there and you’re like, “Go away, go away. I can’t handle it.” Once everyone knew it was a whole other thing.
How are you similar to or different than Rey?
The main difference is that she didn’t have a family and I have a family that I’m close to. Otherwise I’d say the way we deal with things is similar. She faces a lot of challenges throughout the film, and the way she reacts to things I think is kind of the way anyone would. That’s why I think she’s so universal and brilliant: She’s frightened but she faces up to what she needs to. And she’s brave and smart, and you see an entire emotional spectrum of her throughout the film. She’s not a superhero. She’s a normal girl thrust into extraordinary circumstances, so it’s very relatable. It’s an emotional story about a girl on a journey, but the story is a lot more than that.
What did training entail?
It was three months. Basically, J.J. wanted me to look stronger because I was pretty reedy before. I was doing weights. I had to up my food intake because he basically just wanted me to look as if I could raise a piece of junk and look strong enough. So there was a big emphasis on “getting guns,” as they say. It was going in five hours a day, and it would be an hour of fitness and then four hours of stunt stuff.
How did you handle the diet component?
I actually found it really difficult because it was protein. I don’t know anyone who eats that much, because I eat a lot, and I was like, “There’s too much hot stuff going into my body.” I had this incredible chef. He made shakes and bars. But putting on muscle is really hard. You feel like you’re constantly eating, and it’s not enjoyable. I ate a lot of fish. Spirulina became my best friend.
Why do you think Star Wars resonates with so many people?
It tells individual stories, but the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s not Han’s story, it’s not Luke’s story, it’s not Leia’s story. All of them have stories that connect together. They all influence the other, and J.J. has continued that.
Was Carrie Fisher a valuable resource on set?
Carrie and I didn’t talk so much about [the first trilogy]. She’s such a brilliant, brilliant woman and just hilarious. But I didn’t really want to ask Mark, Carrie or Harrison too much about what went on. I know that John [Boyega] spoke to them much more than I even realized because he’s been telling me stuff that I never knew. Carrie’s daughter [Billie Lourd] was there on set, and she’s my age and really great as well.
Does she play a young Princess Leia?
No. There’s no need to have a younger Leia. We don’t need another one.
Once you were announced as Rey, there was still and continues to be so much secrecy with this franchise. How do you navigate that?
Me and John had to do something the other day, and we were allowed to talk about things that we haven’t been able to talk about, and I felt really funny about that. I’m not going to get in huge trouble, but it’s just that everyone has worked so hard on it. The minute you think about all the other thousands of people who are keeping this a secret, it didn’t feel like such a burden anymore. Even if I were to describe in the best detail possible everything that happens in the film, I could never do it justice because it’s a story told in film. So the secrecy doesn’t feel difficult. It feels like the right thing. There were rumors here and there, and some things are true and some are totally not.
In this age of social media everyone knows so much about movies before they see them.
And it takes away. I don’t want to dissect something before I see it. And things change. I don’t even know what it’s going to be like after editing.
Everyone wants to know who Rey’s parents are. Do you know?
Will the viewer know after the first episode or not necessarily?
Questions will be answered, absolutely. The main question will be answered.
What was the moment you knew you wanted to act?
I wish I had a fairy-tale story but I don’t. I went to a performing arts school and was a bit naughty and ended up having an incredible drama teacher, so he was probably the first person that made me think I could do it as a profession. But even after I left school, I went traveling. I went to India for a few months and then I started auditioning. My sister asked me, “Why do people want to be actors?” I had no answer. I’m not totally sure of my capabilities. I felt like a total novice compared to everyone I worked with. I went to the dentist last week and I said I was an actress, and everyone’s like, “Ooohhh.” It still feels weird to me.
Who is your industry role model?
Carey Mulligan. She’s done an awful, awful lot, and the roles she’s taken are absolutely incredible. And her life is private.
What is your worst habit on set?
Once J.J. bet me that I couldn’t go a full day without singing — and I almost finished the day and I started singing again! When I feel comfortable, I just like to sing and hum, and I don’t even know I’m doing it. But sometimes someone will come over to me like, “I love that song you were singing, but it’s distracting.”
What show are you addicted to?
RuPaul’s Drag Race. I demolished season three in a week. For Halloween, me and my friends are doing Drag or Die and I’m doing Trinity K. Bonet, who is one of my favorite queens and who I love the most. And I watch House of Cards. My absolute number one.
If you weren’t an actress, what would you be?
A psychologist or counselor. I’ve just signed up for a degree next year, and I’m starting with social sciences. I always felt interested in it. People really benefit from talking about what’s going on, and the people who help others get through awful points in their life are actually amazing. To touch someone who’s going through something would be very fulfilling. Then again, I get very emotional so I don’t know whether I would get too involved in things and be able to separate.
What is your overall career goal?
I don’t know. Goals are ever-changing. I didn’t set out to be in a Star Wars film but now I’ve been in one. I was looking at an interview with Kate Winslet the other day, and she was saying that she still cares so much. That’s what I’d like to do, continue caring as much and continue working with people who also feel like that.
What’s your all-time favorite movie?
Matilda. Oh my God, one of our camera guys worked on it, and I was bugging him all day. It almost felt like her journey is similar [to Rey’s] in that Matilda starts with so much she doesn’t really want to be and finds out something about herself that’s special. It’s that thing of a child or a young person or even an older person not feeling happy about what’s going on, feeling like there’s no way to change it, and then suddenly something happens and the possibilities seem endless. It’s about using what you have, what everyone has within them, all the special things about themselves, to make a good life for themselves and those around them.
What role from the past would you love to play?
Roxie Hart in Chicago. Renee Zellweger was so incredible in that. I’m desperate to do a musical. Actually I hear rumors that there are musicals being made, and I’m just waiting for someone to say, “Daisy would be good in so and so.”
What was your worst audition ever?
I really get bad stage fright. It happened this year. I went to audition for a film, and it was baking hot. I was wearing something that I couldn’t wear a bra with, so I was wearing a sticky bra. I started the audition, and luckily it was quite short. I heard a noise and felt a sensation that one of the cups had fallen off because I was sweating so much. I was like, “Holy cripe. What do I do?” I made a clench to my elbow to the side of my body and acted like nothing had happened. I got up and said good-bye to the casting director and told her what happened, and she went, “Oh, I wondered what went on.”
Did you get the part?
No. I’m sure the star they cast is much better than me.
What’s your hidden talent?
I can knit quite well. I make really long scarves.