A Star Wars: The Force Awakens panel kicked off Star Wars Celebration today in Anaheim, California, discussing the origins of production, some new details on the film, charitable initiatives and more.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy took the stage, and took a selfie with the crowd behind them before sitting down to speak with host Anthony Breznican of Entertainment Weekly.
Kennedy and Abrams began with the story of how she had to convince him to take on the role of directing Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Breznican then asked Abrams about his insistence on using real props and practical effects when possible, which generated a huge roar from the crowd.
"We needed a standard, and we need to set a standard that was real," said Abrams. "You want it to be legitimate, you want it to be authentic. [...] You don't need to use your imagination, because we actually had those amazing sets there."
Later in the panel, two droid builders, Oliver Steeples and Lee Towersey, came out on stage with R2-D2 — the real R2-D2 that appeared in The Force Awakens. Steeples and Towersey were fans who loved to build droids, and their work got them the job of building the actual R2-D2 model for the new film. And then, a model of BB-8, the rolling ball droid seen in the teaser trailer, rolled out on stage.
"There were a lot of discussions about how having a CG BB-8 would be easier," said Abrams. But in the end they decided to build a real model, and "it was better for the actors, it was better for the film itself."
Kennedy and Abrams also spent time talking about the charitable programs associated with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Star Wars: Force for Change has now raised more than $6 million for UNICEF, according to Abrams. And Kennedy said the charity is now partnering with UNICEF Kid Power, which uses pedometer-equipped wristbands to trigger food packets for malnourished children around the world.
Following the droid segment, three actors from the film joined the panel: Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey; John Boyega, who plays Finn; and Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe Dameron. Abrams revealed that the scene from the trailer with Boyega in a Stormtrooper outfit in the desert takes place not on Tatooine, but on a planet called Jakku.
Rey is a self-sufficient scavenger in a ship graveyard, said Ridley. That's what she's doing when she runs into Finn, and a grand adventure begins. Finn, said Boyega, is in incredible danger, and the way he decides to react to it changes his life in a major way. Isaac said his character, Poe, is sent on a mission by a princess, and he encounters Finn on that mission.
Asked about how he felt when he got the role of Finn, Boyega said, "The excitement just turned into absolute nerve and I was scared to tell my parents that I got the job as Finn. I waited until that cast photo was published before I told my parents."
Next up was a parade of the new Stormtroopers, along with four actors from the original trilogy: Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia Organa), Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) and Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca).
A number of the panelists had previously spoken about the importance of adding more women characters to the Force Awakens cast. Fisher quipped that when she was 19, she was proud to have been featured as the only woman among the main cast of the original films, adding that these days she's happy to have the "support" of the other women in the cast. She also confirmed Princess Leia won't be sporting the hair buns or the metal bikini from the original trilogy.
The castmembers present at the panel then posed for a photo opportunity with Abrams, Kennedy, R2-D2 and BB-8, with the Stormtroopers lined up behind them. And finally, Abrams closed the panel with the second trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The film hits theaters Dec. 18.