Rise of Skywalker may be Naomi Ackie’s first big screen Star Wars role, but it’s not her first time playing in the Star Wars universe. Like many people her age, Ackie grew up dueling with lightsabers on playgrounds, the saga part of a bigger, shared imagination that she is now literally stepping into as one of the stars of the hugely anticipated finale, Episode IX.
Ackie brings a fresh face to the Star Wars universe and to screens in general. It was only a few years ago that she launched her acting career, appearing in Idris Elba’s directorial debut, Yardie, and on British television series like the dark comedy The End of the F***ing World.
Now, with audiences just about ready to meet her mysterious Jannah, Ackie sits down with Polygon to discuss joining such a massive franchise, learning to ride alien costumed horses, fighting off flying ants and living out a childhood dream.
Polygon: Do you know what of your work it was that JJ Abrams saw that made him cast you?
Naomi Ackie: I don’t! I think that there was an element that we were working on in the film that maybe he liked, which was about being able to be vulnerable and also strong at the same time. I can only base that on what we worked on during the making of it. That was something that he wanted to push and could have seen in me previously.
From her bow and arrow to the horse-like Orbak that she rides, it seems like Jannah is maybe a less technology heavy character.
Yeah, there’s definitely a feeling with Jannah that she’s been super resourceful with her environment and has taken whatever surrounds her to make a lifestyle within the space that she’s in. It’s really cool. Jannah has an incredible backstory that we get to have a snippet of in this film. But yeah, it’s kind from everything that’s around her, from her weapons to what she rides. Even her costume has a story. Coming into that and knowing that they had already thought of all that before I stepped into the role was brilliant.
What was the first thing you learned about her?
The first thing I learned about her, I can’t say! But what I soon learned about her was where she comes from. That helped a huge amount and helped to explain how she’s important to the story and what it means going forward for both the film and and for the legacy of Star Wars.
The word Jannah in Islam means heaven. Is that something that ties to the character in any way?
That’s a good question. You’d have to ask JJ about that. I think there’s a link of sort of aiming for something greater. I think that’s something that anyone who fights in the rebellion has that in common. You’re fighting for this idea of a greater good. Or maybe even about creating heaven in the environment that you’re in. Maybe there is something cryptic about her chosen name.
Tell me a little bit about your relationship to Star Wars before you were cast.
I can’t remember when I first saw the movies. They’ve just always been there. I used to make like lightsabers when I was six in my garden. Weirdly, I used to make a bow and arrow. I mean, that doesn’t have anything to do with Star Wars, specifically, but it’s a weird crossover. It’s such a part of the culture, all around the world. To me coming into it, it felt super daunting, but also familiar. I was familiar with the tone and I was familiar with the bigger message of Star Wars.
I wanted to ask about the creatures that you’re riding, the Orbaks. Are those actual horses in costumes?
Yeah! There are horses in, Oh, bless them, these lycra costumes on that had all the hair. They figured it out because Star Wars is so good good at being practical and only adding in CGI when they need to. They figured out to make these amazing creatures. They needed the movement of how hair would flow, blowing the wind when you’re riding. So we had horses. I trained to ride horses. I’m a London girl, so it was crazy to me. Then they obviously added in CGI to create the rest of it. But a lot of it is real. Real horses riding through explosions in fields. They’re incredible.
You already have an action figure, which seems like it must be the coolest thing in the world. What was it like seeing that for the first time?
So weird! But, like in the best way. It’s seeing your character portrayed in that way that can last forever. I’ve been tagged in Instagram posts of people buying Jannah toys and it’s something that I kind of try my best to separate myself from. Because, if you think about it too much, a head could get big. I’m really happy to have that. If I ever have kids, they’ll definitely get a load of them from me.
Obviously secrecy is a huge deal on something like this. How tricky is it to keep secrets?
You know what I feel like? Like in life, some secrets are easier to keep than others. These are big secrets and they’re very easy to keep big secrets. Personally, I’m a sucker for a spoiler. I love spoilers, personally. But I would never want to do that to someone else. I think that part of the joy of Star Wars ramping is all the theories and the idea of secrecy. That gets people really excited. More than anything, I want to honor that tradition.
Who was the first person you told after being cast?
My pops. My dad was in the house when it happened and he heard me scream, so he ran up to my room to go, “What’s going on?” He found out at the same time that I did. He kept it a secret, though.
What was your first day like on set?
It was crazy. Daisy [Ridley] said it as well and I really agree: Sometimes, the bigger moments are hard to retain with all the information. All l I remember was being super overwhelmed, having more people on a set than I’d ever had. We had the horses on set that day. We had flying ants, who weren’t invited, but who were also on set there that day. I ended up with an afro full of flying ants, which wasn’t fun, but that was at the end of the day. I remember people telling me, “When you get a moment, stop. Absorb it. Stay in the present moment,” which is basically all you can do when you’re in the moment in these huge, larger than life situations.
Do you think this is the end for you and Jannah, or might we see more of her?
I don’t know. You have to ask the big boys up top. I would love to, if I was given the opportunity, to continue her story. I would embrace it with open arms. I loved playing Jannah. But, if this is the end for Jannah, then I’m so grateful that I had that time working on this character and I’ll just do some other cool stuff elsewhere.