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[The following story contains spoilers for Willow episode seven, “Beyond the Shattered Sea.”]
Willow star Ruby Cruz is proud to buck the conventions of what constitutes a Disney princess.
On Jonathan Kasdan‘s legacy sequel series, Cruz plays Princess Kit Tanthalos, the daughter of Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) and Sorsha (Joanne Whalley) from Ron Howard’s 1988 film, and early on in the series, she rejects her betrothal involving Galladoorn’s Prince Graydon (Tony Revolori). She can’t commit because she’s been in love with Erin Kellyman’s knight-to-be, Jade, for her entire life. As the series progresses, the two characters finally come to terms with their mutual feelings by declaring love for one another in the midst of a quest to rescue Kit’s brother, Airk (Dempsey Byrk).
For Cruz, one of the key takeaways from Kit’s arc is some much-needed humility as the world doesn’t revolve around her royalty.
“She finds [hope] in Elora [Ellie Bamber], this person that saved her when she thought she was going to die. That really snapped her into the reality of, ‘This is much larger than me. This isn’t just about me finding my father or finding who I am,’” Cruz tells The Hollywood Reporter.
It’s often said that the entertainment industry is a much smaller world than people realize, and Cruz’s Willow casting truly epitomizes that notion. Through one of her first professional roles on HBO’s smash hit Mare of Easttown, Cruz met fellow actor Cailee Spaeny as the duo were cast to play best friends. And on their first day of work together, the pair took fictional Instagram photos as make-believe best friends, but in the process, they actually became dear friends in real life, too.
So Cruz was quite shocked when the audition for Kit presented itself because it meant that she’d be replacing Spaeny in the role.
“It felt very cosmically in tune, to be honest. The project first came into my life through my friend [Spaeny], and I was like, ‘Oh, this seems like a crazy opportunity,”” Cruz says. “Things didn’t work out for her, scheduling wise, so that’s when I got the audition. I was like, ‘What in the world? This project has obviously come into my life for some reason, so I better take it.’”
In a recent spoiler conversation with THR, Cruz also teases what viewers can expect from Willow’s season-one finale, before recalling her most memorable days on Willow and Mare.
Well, you remind me a lot of Andrea Riseborough because every time I see you, you have a completely different look. Are you trying to keep us on our toes?
(Laughs.) It’s not something that I try to do, but I think it’s just naturally who I am. I’ve been this way since I was really young, honestly. I just feel like I’m a different face every day, and I think it definitely helps my acting by disappearing into characters and stuff. I just like catering to different sides of myself.
You’re also one of the few actors who’s from Los Angeles.
Yeah, I went to a performing arts program for a year or two in high school, so I know a bunch of actors that are from here, but professionally, it’s really rare to meet others, honestly.
So your Willow casting story is quite something. You joined a bit late as you replaced Cailee Spaeny in the role of Kit, and she happened to play your best friend on Mare of Easttown. So was it bizarre at first to take over for someone you knew?
(Laughs.) It was, but it felt very cosmically in tune, to be honest. The project first came into my life through my friend [Spaeny], and I was like, “Oh, this seems like a crazy opportunity.” Things didn’t work out for her, scheduling wise, so that’s when I got the audition. I was like, “What in the world? This project has obviously come into my life for some reason, so I better take it.” So that’s sort of what I felt.
Pardon my curiosity, but have the two of you talked about it at all? Is everything cool?
(Laughs.) Oh yeah! Everything is totally fine. Definitely. I love Cailee. She’s a safe space for me. She’s the best.
Did you originally go out for the role of Kit?
No, I didn’t audition for it until [Spaeny left the role]. I didn’t even know my team was trying to get me to audition for it until I had the audition, and that was very shocking to me, honestly.
When you eventually watched Willow (1988), did you glom onto anything to use in your performance, be it from Madmartigan (Val Kilmer) or Sorsha (Joanne Whalley)?
Totally. As an actor, it was a really cool opportunity to have footage of my character’s parents meeting, and it also allowed me to understand their personalities. So instead of having to come up with this whole backstory for myself, I could watch the original movie and see Madmartigan’s sprightliness. He’s very outspoken and very confident, and Sorsha is defiant, strong-willed and unafraid to go against the grain. So those were definitely things that I put into my character, but I also envisioned how those people would raise a child. What parts of them would Kit get annoyed with? What parts of them would Kit want to reject? So it was a really cool experience to be able to play with that.
Kit is a princess who’s used to being the center of the universe. Is that why she’s having such a tough time with Jade (Erin Kellyman) prioritizing duty and Elora (Ellie Bamber) re-emerging as the Chosen One?
Yeah, definitely. She has a very distorted view on the world and a very warped idea of things. She’s grown up royalty. She’s grown up very privileged, and even if she hates to say it, she’s grown up with everything that she’s needed. It may not necessarily be everything she’s wanted, so she’s had to fight for some things. But going out into the unknown and facing the reality that she’s not actually the most important person in the room and that all these ideas that she’s had about herself and the world aren’t true, it knocks her down pedestal by pedestal. So she is really struggling.
She’s also very selfish when we find her. She’s very self-centered, and she’s having trouble thinking about anything but herself. But I will cut her some slack because she has some pretty bad abandonment issues. With her father not being around for most of her life and now her brother being kidnapped, it’s a terrible thing to go through. So she’s deflecting those emotions, and she’s trying to make herself big and scary so that she can’t get hurt anymore. She’s just so complicated. Many people might find her to be mean, which she is, but she’ll learn. We both know that she’ll learn.
In episode one, it seems like Kit and Jade have been quietly seeing each other for a while without really defining the relationship. Is that how you would describe it?
Erin and I decided something other than that. They’ve grown up in this bubble their whole life, and they’ve found a safe space in each other. They both feel misplaced and misunderstood, and they’ve definitely grown up loving each other whether they understand that or not. So when Kit decides to run away, they silently know how the other one is feeling. I don’t know how Erin feels about it for Jade, but I don’t think that was the first time Kit snuck into her room. But I do think it’s the first time that they kissed. That was a solidifying moment for Kit because she knew she was either going to have to marry someone else who she doesn’t love or run away and never see the person she does love, again. So that was her acting on an impulse that she’s had over and over again, but never acted on until then.
That certainly makes sense because in episode five, Jade confesses her love to Kit despite the revelation that Kit’s father, Madmartigan, killed her father. So Kit finally heard what she’s been waiting to hear.
Definitely. Episode five is such a beautiful moment for both of these characters. Kit has grown up with a very complicated relationship with love, vulnerability and emotions, and so she’s learned to put those things away in a box. Her mom is very diplomatic, and their whole family has gone through some trauma with Madmartigan not being around, which is something Sorsha never talks about with her kids. So Kit has also learned to never talk about it and to never trust love and to never put herself in a vulnerable position to be hurt like her mom has. But through Elora and the help of truth plums, she’s taught that vulnerability and honesty is powerful. So she’s finally able to be honest with Jade and herself about how she’s feeling. That moment was so precious to me and Erin. It was so special for us to be able to film that.
Well, in episode six, Kit finds Madmartigan’s sword in a tomb, and then she hears his voice calling for her to find him. So at that point, she seemed ready to leave Jade behind. Where was her head at in that moment?
Six is a really big episode for Kit because her dad has always been an open wound for her. We’ve seen Boorman [Amar Chadha-Patel] pick at that and tell her lies or things that she can cling onto about her father. And then once she learns about those lies, she’s hurt even more. So it’s just a very vulnerable spot for her, and once she gets close to finding him, she gets lost in that and can’t really stop. She’s clinging onto everything Allagash [Christian Slater] is saying and putting all her trust in him. And then once Madmartigan calls out to her, that’s something that she’s thought about her whole life, and then it’s taken away from her. So it puts her at a very low point, and she’s in a very rough spot where she just doesn’t care about anything anymore. Yeah, six is hard for Kit.
Yeah, from there, Kit seemingly falls to her death during an argument with Elora. She feels like Madmartigan chose Elora over his own daughter. But once Elora saves Kit in episode seven, the pair have a heart to heart as both wanted what the other had, basically. That leads to them taking a leap of faith together. So did you appreciate how the show didn’t pit Kit and Elora against each other for too long?
Yeah, at its core, this show is largely about these two young women and their relationship together. In the beginning, Kit was just so ready to absolutely despise this person and not trust anything she says and walk away from her at any moment. But then she slowly learned to trust her and other people, which is a big part of Kit’s arc. There are moments in six and seven where Kit is completely hopeless, and that’s the turning point where she can start finding hope again. She finds it in Elora, this person that saved her when she thought she was going to die. That really snapped her into the reality of, “This is much larger than me. This isn’t just about me finding my father or finding who I am.”
You mentioned that filming Jade’s confession in episode five was a big deal for you and Erin. Was that also the case for when you shot Kit’s own declaration of love during episode seven’s training sequence?
Definitely. The way that Kit finally confesses her feelings in the middle of a sword fight, I remember thinking how perfect it was. She was even using it as a ploy to win, and that’s just so Kit. They’ve used sword fighting their entire lives to get the aggression and tension out that they feel towards each other. It’s a metaphorical way of working through it all, so it was the perfect way for Kit to say I love you through their love language of sword fighting. She had to get to that breaking point to be able to come back up and realize what was really important to her. And Jade is definitely one of those things.
You voiced evil Queen Bavmorda in episode four, right?
(Laughs.) I did.
Should we read into that at all?
I remember doing my ADR for four and Jon [Kasdan] just being like, “Hey, so we need this Bavmorda voice. Do you just want to do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” (Laughs.) So it was spur of the moment, but it was actually really fun to do. I just listened to a little recording of [Jean Marsh’s Bavmorda from the 1988 film] and started playing around with it. I think it’s so funny that they actually used it. So I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.
Decades from now, when you’re reminiscing next to a crackling fireplace, what day on Willow will you likely recall first?
There are so many. There’s one that I can’t really get into because it’s part of our finale. It was just one of the most epic things to shoot, and I never thought my life would be that epic. I didn’t expect to be in the circumstances that I’ve been in now, but there’s a battle at the end that people can look forward to.
But episode three was very wet and very rainy, as there were a lot of rain machines, and how cold that was is now scarred into our memories. So there was one day where Erin and I were just plummeting into madness. We just could not stop laughing no matter how cold or how tired or how wet we were; we just could not keep it together. So I will never forget how miserable everybody looked and felt, but how much we could not stop laughing.
What about Mare?
There were so many big moments on Mare because it was one of my first projects. So there were a lot of firsts going on, and working with Kate [Winslet] was obviously a dream come true, honestly. But I would go with meeting Cailee. Before we even filmed anything on camera, we spent a day together taking fake Instagram photos as our characters, as best friends, and we just instantly clicked. I genuinely made a best friend that day, and I’ll never forget that day. It was really special.
I’m so impressed that you’ve bookended this interview with Cailee. Well done.
(Laughs.) That’s so funny.
I thought you were going to highlight that scene where your character is running on foot from that lunatic ex-boyfriend of Cailee’s character. That was a harrowing sequence since it was cross cut with Sosie Bacon’s character falling asleep as her son was in the running bathtub.
Oh, I know! That was also really crazy to film. It was like four in the morning, in the middle of nowhere, and it was freezing outside. I was wearing these giant Filas, those really chunky ones, and I hopped that fence, face planted and cut my hands up so badly. And when I ended up watching the show, I saw that they kept that take of me just falling on my face. (Laughs.)
That’s an unwritten law. If an actor gets hurt during a take, they have to use it because there’s blood in the art.
Exactly. You’ve got to give it your blood, sweat and tears.
Willow is now airing on Disney+. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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