As is the way with everything in the Star Wars universe, we don’t know much about the new character. Ackie has called Jannah “cool,” and when speaking to Refinery29 at the Rise of Skywalker press junket, she dared to use a few other adjectives I presume didn’t incur the wrath of Lucasfilm. Jannah is capable; she rides a creature that is basically a long-haired, majestic space horse; and she comes into an ensemble already filled with beloved characters at the last minute. That’s bold as hell.
Jannah also has the distinction of being the first Black female character in the Skywalker Saga — only the second in the Star Wars film canon. (Thandie Newton was the first in Solo: A Star Wars Story.) It’s about time, but Ackie says, there’s a whole universe of ground that still needs to be broken out there. She’s glad to have opened up a corner of the galaxy, but she’s got her sights set on other frontiers, too.
Luckily, 2019 seems to be her year. In addition to her role in Star Wars, she was a breakout character in season 2 of Netflix’s The End Of The F***ing World, and while the Game of Thrones prequel series she started filming is now cancelled, it’s only a matter of time before she lands her next big thing.
Refinery29: You used to play Star Wars as a kid. What scenes did you play out?
Naomi Ackie: “The films open up such a wide range of stories that as a kid I was just like, This is like a perfect breeding ground for my imagination. So I would force my poor cousin to play. I would make up fight sequences in the garden, and he would be so bored and tired and I'd be like, do it again. I was a tyrant. Star Wars was just such a part of the language of play.
“And it's funny because actually filming it, I felt like a kid on set. I have a scar on my knee where I banged it while I was playing around on set because it was just so big, and you feel like you can do anything.”
You learned to ride horses for this. Did you have to do physical training too?
“Yeah. I went from not being able to do and push-up or like not being able to do three in a row to doing full pull-ups and jumping and running. I felt so strong and capable. That really helped because then you're on set and they're like, ‘Hey, can you do that stunt like 40 times in a row?’ It's an incredible gift to be given the opportunity to push the limits of your body in that way.”
We know that Jannah is “cool,” but what else can you tell us about her without getting in trouble with the Star Wars gods (aka Lucasfilm)?
“She is strong and has a swagger about her, but she's vulnerable in that she has a history that has her questioning her identity. She has made a life for herself, being resourceful, aiming for something more, being willing to fight for something more. She’s willing to sacrifice what she has for the greater good.”
You have a rule about never playing characters who are described as “sassy.” Is it safe to say that no one will call Jannah that?
“I just hate that word. It's a lazy word. To me, it’s layered with actual low-key shade, especially if you're a woman, and especially if you're a Black woman. There are definitely better ways to describe someone who might actually be just speaking up, or might be empowered or might have boundaries that they want you to keep. They use sassy to mean ‘assertive’ or ‘empowered.’ We don't need it. I also hate when they're like, ‘You’re sassy,’ and then people click their fingers.”
There are some rampant theories about your character — have you seen any that feel like they’re on the right track?
“Because there are so many different theories, I will say someone has to be on the right track. But there are things that they don't think will happen that will happen.”
“There's such a wide array of different people who enjoy this, so they have a right to feel like they're being represented in these movies as much as anyone else.”
Naomi Ackie, Actor, Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker
Both Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran endured some really rough reactions when they entered the franchise. Was that a concern at all as you prepared to join these movies?
“I would never be the person to be like, You have to like me because there's not many of me in this industry. I do think that what we have to question, with our opinions and our preferences, the unconscious bias, and maybe look at why things bother us. If we take a second to be introspective, maybe it's not the reason that we previously thought it was.
“If they don't like it, they don't like it. But I think there's a difference between not liking something and targeting the person who works in that field. It’s crossing a line when it comes to ridiculing where they come from and how they speak and what they look like. I’m an actor. People aren't gonna like everything I do. That’s okay for me, because then you get to start to mend and figure stuff out. But bullying is different. If you're a bully, you're a bully. If you don't like it, that's an opinion. Those are two separate things.
“But it’s social media, it's words. As long as it doesn't mess with my safety, my privacy, my mental health, I'm actually fine because I'm a grown woman. I can handle my business and I know who I am and I can carry on. It’s all good.”
There’s a lot of weight placed on being one of the first Black female characters in the franchise. Do you feel that at all?
“When I feel like I can celebrate it the most is when I see messages about a little girl looking at the poster and being like, ‘Hey, she looks like me.’ That's when I'm like, I got it. It feels good to me when women, especially Black women, approach me and say, ‘I’m so happy that you wore natural hair.’ There's a kind of level of celebration about it that's brilliant to me. That’s how I feel good when I watch films and TV. It's important to me, so I can only assume that it's very important to other people, especially the people who are into these films in a very deep way that make it a part of their everyday lives. Those people don't just look like what we usually see in Star Wars. There's such a wide array of different people who enjoy this, so they have a right to feel like they're being represented in these movies as much as anyone else. Anything I can do to help that process forward, I’m all for.”
What other boundaries do you want to see broken in the industry?
“I would love to see more period dramas with people of colour in them because I feel like there's a level of erasure about the reality of race back in the day, especially in British film. I'm going to try and do something about that.
“And definitely characters that are bad characters, that are unlikable. We have gotten past that point where you have a character that’s like, ‘I’m just a strong woman,’ who has all their self-esteem put together. They strut down the street and they know what's up. I want to actually have characters, especially characters of colour, who are somewhere in between and questioning their identity or doing things that are really questionable or super villainous. I’d love to be the lead in stories that you don't usually see Black women as the leads in.
“There’s so much. The possibilities are really endless. But I know for myself and a lot of the female actors I know, we all feel like we're ready to start pushing that boundary just a little bit more — a lotta bit more, to be honest.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.