All Photographs by Mario Testino
Great interview with Daisy Ridley on Star Wars, Superfans, and Her Lightsaber Workout in the latest issue of Vogue… see below
“They’re really heavy,” Daisy Ridley says. “Three, four, five kilos? And the weight’s very unevenly distributed.” She’s talking about lightsabers—and explaining that if you’re actually in a Star Wars movie, you can’t just pick one up and wave it around, as children have been doing in their bedrooms for the past 40 years. Not at all. In real life—or rather, for real movies—special conditioning is in order. Before she could film fight scenes for Star Wars: The Last Jedi—the second in the trilogy in which she plays Rey, the heroine—she undertook a kind of neon martial-arts training. “You do, like, eight thwacks one way, eight the other, eight up, eight down,” she says. I suggest they could market that as a form of exercise. “Yeah,” she agrees, laughing: “Lightsaber school.”
We are driving from Ridley’s hotel in Beverly Hills to a convention center in Anaheim, where 7,000 Disney fans will turn up to see her stand on a stage for a few minutes with the cast of The Last Jedi. She has been groomed for the occasion—three braids on one side of her head, revealing the tiny peace-sign tattoo behind her right ear, a Lela Rose off-the-shoulder pantsuit, and Pierre Hardy pumps embellished with eyes. Ridley, a 25-year-old Londoner, is plainspoken and fast-moving, with a wide face and eyelids that look as though they’ve been painted onto it with a brush. (“People really open up to me; it’s hilarious,” she tells me. “Someone said it’s because I have a big face—I look honest.”) In the classic mode of contemporary London, expletives punctuate her speech. She occasionally phrases things musically, as if improvising a show tune, yet there’s something about her that suggests she’s allergic to nonsense.
When we meet, Ridley has been seen by the general public in only one film. But because that film is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, she has been thrust into a limelight comparable only, perhaps, to the attention directed at Harry Potter upon his arrival at Hogwarts. “Understand the scale,” the film’s director, J. J. Abrams, told her when he offered her the part. “This is not a role in a movie. This is a religion for people. It changes things on a level that is inconceivable.” Ridley nodded enthusiastically, but she really had no idea. “You don’t know what you’re getting into,” she tells me more than three years later, still sounding stunned.
D23 Expo, the annual midsummer convention of the official Disney fan club, is like Halloween on steroids. Out on the main floor, you might at any given moment bump into an adult Snow White or a middle-aged man wearing Mickey Mouse ears. In the greenroom, Josh Brolin is having his lunch, and Benedict Cumberbatch is chatting to Gwendoline Christie, who is here with her boyfriend, fashion designer Giles Deacon. They, at least, have ostensibly come as themselves. But the presentation they’re part of is like a circus. Numerous actors in upcoming Disney movies take brief turns onstage, doing little other than proving to the assembled fans that they are real—and smaller than you think. Ridley and her costars are dwarfed by a screen showing behind-the-scenes footage from The Last Jedi. The roar of approbation is so loud that you could easily mistake it for the ground shaking.
These are what Ridley, quoting Mark “Luke Skywalker” Hamill, calls UPFs—Ultra Passionate Fans. She herself wasn’t a Star Wars fan until she started auditioning for the role of Rey. Only then did she begin to sense the phenomenon’s cultural presence. “I was in Topshop, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, there are Princess Leia T-shirts.’ Suddenly I couldn’t see anything without seeing it too.”
Rey, Ridley’s character, is a scavenger who lives in a desert outpost. She has a determined gait and clothes that look as though she’s improvised them from bandages left in the sand. As her nemesis, Kylo Ren, says, Rey is “strong with the force—untrained but stronger than she knows.” She is in effect the new Luke Skywalker, a female heroine of a magnitude and complexity previously reserved, in this genre, for men.
In casting the first film in the new trilogy, Abrams was intent on finding an unknown actor for the role. It was important, he felt, that she not be associated with any other character. And in Ridley he found “an emotional person, a true person, a funny-as-hell person” who was also “almost preternaturally confident. We needed someone whom you felt like you could know,” Abrams explains. “Who was beautiful but not someone who seemed like they were from another species. You needed to love her. Daisy came in, and her face was expressive and wide-eyed and lovely, and it was so clear.”
Ridley remembers auditioning several times over seven months—each time, until the final reading, she was given a fake script. It wasn’t until she was offered the job that she understood the size of the role. “When I read the full script,” she says, “I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ ”
Of course, not having been associated with anything previously carries the concomitant risk of being associated with only this one role from now on. When I mention this, Ridley is unfazed. She has already filmed Kenneth Branagh’s new version of Agatha Christie’s novel Murder on the Orient Express as the governess, Mary Debenham, and played the lead in Ophelia, a retelling of Hamlet directed by Claire McCarthy, with Naomi Watts as Gertrude. She is currently shooting Chaos Walking, directed by Doug Liman and based on a science-fiction thriller. She points out that it’s amazing what you can do to your appearance with the help of a wig. “Blonde today, brunette tomorrow,” she says blithely.
While Abrams was shooting The Force Awakens, Rian Johnson was writing The Last Jedi. As he watched the daily footage shot by Abrams, he felt he understood Rey better and began to write in response to what he describes as Ridley’s “spirit.” She brought the character to the screen, Johnson says, “in a way that made you root for her, like you were seeing yourself in her. You saw the story through her eyes.” Though Ridley has done a great deal of press for The Last Jedi, the film’s contents are so shrouded in secrecy that she is allowed to say very little about it. She lets on that we’ll find out more about what has happened to her family, and says it goes from being a physical journey with a friend (Finn, played by John Boyega) to an emotional journey with a stranger (Luke Skywalker, whom she meets on top of a mountainous island at the end of The Force Awakens). “More of a conversation, as opposed to a big adventure,” she suggests.
As for the ongoing appeal of Star Wars, she’s not entirely sure where the magic lies—except, she says, that “it’s essentially a family drama that’s played out in this big, expansive world.”
It’s not lost on her collaborators that there are parallels between Ridley’s real life and her journey on the screen. One minute she’d had only small parts in a couple of British TV series; the next she had journalists turning up at her door. “At the beginning she was claiming she was almost done with acting—she’d been working at a pub,” Abrams says. Johnson agrees: “Like Rey, she has this extraordinary talent, that has seemingly come out of nowhere, and I think Daisy’s just starting to scratch the surface of her skills.”
Ridley grew up in West London with two older sisters, whom she describes as her “best people.” Even though the three of them fought a lot when they were younger, she idolized them and says they would “protect each other to the absolute death.” Their father, who also has two daughters from a previous marriage, is a photographer—“the coolest cat in all of the land,” in his daughter’s estimation—who used to take pictures for the British rock magazine NME. Her mother works for a bank, and Ridley’s maternal grandparents set up a chain of bookshops.
“I was a little tomboy,” Ridley remembers. “Loud. Often very sassy. Insane amounts of energy. I remember asking, ‘Was I shy?’ And my mum laughing hysterically. She said I used to run into a room and go, ‘Helloooo!’ ”
She was, and still is, a voracious reader—“I rarely saw her without a book,” says Branagh, who directed her in Murder on the Orient Express—and she recently asked her mother to give her a list of classics, which she’s now making her way through. (Current title: The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë.) From the ages of nine to eighteen, Ridley went to a performing-arts boarding school—not because she was particularly serious about performing, she says, but because she liked to sing and do gymnastics and was so energetic as a child that her parents sent her “literally just to keep me busy, because the days were twelve hours long.”
She didn’t really know she wanted to act until she was seventeen. A girl in Ridley’s drama class who was from Newcastle protested that she couldn’t play Lady Macbeth because she didn’t have the right accent. Their teacher was furious. “He was like, ‘Who the fuck told you you couldn’t do Lady Macbeth?’ ” Ridley remembers with a smile. In his fury, she felt her own liberation.
That first day in the car to Anaheim, Ridley rarely finished a sentence. Everything she said was expressive rather than articulated. (“You’re like, ‘Ugh.’ ” “And I’m like, ‘Aaaah.’ ”) Later, she would tell me how tired she was that day—and how unprepared for the presentation of a public self. She had just finished shooting Ophelia in Prague and hadn’t realized how much of that tragic role she still carried with her. “I felt: This is so unlike me,” she said. “I’m such a perky little thing usually.” She’s starting to understand the time she needs to shake a role off.
But something else was also very noticeable. Ridley often used the language of the set—she referred to daily scripts as “sides,” to assistant directors as “our first” and “our second,” and to her personal assistant as “my personal.” These abbreviations, along with the assertion that some of her best friends are her hairdressers, suggest that she speaks to more people inside the film world than out of it, and if you count the years she has committed to Star Wars, you understand the nature of the bubble. When she did the first audition, she was 21; when it’s over, she’ll be 27. Her agent, her publicist, and her hair and makeup people all call her “the baby.”
Last year, when she deleted her Instagram account, she explained that she had “a lot of growing up to do” and would prefer to do at least some of it in private. “She has learned fast, and she has learned in the spotlight, and she has kept her nerve,” Branagh tells me. “She’s ballsy enough to assume there may be some inelegance or mistakes, but it’s worth doing.”
A few days after the Anaheim event, Ridley and I meet for tea in New York. She’s wearing a black three-quarter-length dress she just picked up in & Other Stories, with white Converse high-tops, her hair pulled into a topknot. “I realize I sort of do dress like a four-year-old,” she says as she puts the cookie that comes with her tea onto my plate (she is a vegan). She is much sparkier, tougher, and entertainingly opinionated this time. She talks about working with the late Carrie Fisher—“I’d never met anyone openly bipolar before, who discussed loving glitter because of her LSD days”—and she tilts her head back to stem the tears as she speaks.
It was Fisher who warned her that it was hard to date once you became a Star Wars star, “because you don’t want to give people the ability to say ‘I had sex with Princess Leia.’ ” Ridley skirts around this issue. In the past couple of years, she has been linked with the actor Charlie Hamblett, but when I ask her if she’s with anyone now, she quickly replies, “I’m not saying.”
Last year, she explains, was difficult, and it’s only in the past few months that she’s been figuring it out. The Force Awakens was released just before they began shooting The Last Jedi, and the positive response to her performance made her worry she wouldn’t be able to repeat it. “Everything was so confusing,” she recalls. “People were recognizing me—I still don’t know how to handle it. My skin got really bad because I was stressed. It was crippling. I just felt so seen and so self-conscious.”
Alarm bells had started ringing much earlier. At one point, two fans appeared outside the door of an apartment she had just moved to. “I heard a knock on the door. These two guys went, ‘Hey, Daisy, can I get an autograph?’ and I literally went, ‘No fuckin’ way.’ ” She went to see a play with her mother that night. “My mum said to me, ‘Everyone’s trying to take ownership of you.’ ” Still, now, Ridley says, she calls her mother once a month “in hysterical tears, going, ‘I’m not equipped to deal with this!’ ”
She started therapy (“I went and saw a lovely lady,” as she puts it), and she realized that she was disappearing. “I felt like I was sort of reducing myself because I was so worried that people would recognize me,” she explains. Then she thought, “You know what? I want to dance through life. I don’t want to scuttle.”
Ridley is not complaining. “I’m very aware that there are thousands of other people who could do what I do much better, and it’s a matter of timing and luck. I’m counting my blessings that I get to be one of the people working.” As for her sense of perspective, “I worry that things start to seem normal that aren’t normal,” she reflects. “You get rushed through airports, and you never have to queue, and you get tickets to things that you wouldn’t otherwise. I think it’s important to remind yourself that it’s not normal. It’s difficult, though, because it is my normal.”
If Ridley’s emotional frankness makes her sound somewhat fragile in conversation, that, in performance, is much closer to a strength. It’s no accident that her Rey is a disarmingly human vessel for a force beyond nature. She makes it feel, says Johnson, “as though there is very little artifice on the screen. She has that magical thing that great actors have where they can take honest emotion and, without diluting it, shape it to what the scene requires.”
The last time I speak to Ridley, she’s calling from a car on her way back to the Canadian wilderness. She and her friend Flora Moody had taken a break from filming Chaos Walking and gone to hear Star Wars composer John Williams perform at the Hollywood Bowl. “They did my theme,” Ridley says, meaning “Rey’s Theme” from The Force Awakens, “and I couldn’t believe it. It was very overwhelming. There was an older woman behind us and she was like, ‘Why are people mobbing you?’ ”
Ridley and Moody became friends when Moody did Ridley’s hair and makeup for The Last Jedi, and they have since worked together on Ophelia and Chaos Walking. For a couple of months, they’re sharing a “very comfy but very creepy” cabin in the woods, making questionable almond-milk pancakes and listening out for shotguns.
“I feel really homesick,” Ridley says. “I suddenly realized that since February the longest I’ve spent in my own flat is four days.”
What does she miss exactly? I ask.
“I love going to sleep on the sofa with the sound of my parents talking in the background,” she replies. “That’s literally what I miss.”
Last September—three-quarters of the way through her discombobulating year—Ridley added a fourth and, she believes, last tattoo to her collection. Tattoos are the only form of rebellion she’s ever attempted—she remembers her grandmother seeing one she had done as a teenager and saying, “Daisy, that is pen, isn’t it?” But in her case it’s hardly rebellion at all. This latest is on the side of her torso, and it’s the most intricate. Inked by the L.A. tattoo artist Dr. Woo, it represents, at Ridley’s request, “the solidity of my family within all of the other craziness that goes on.” The result Dr. Woo came up with was a symbol: a star within a cyclone.
“I don’t need a tattoo to represent my life,” Ridley points out, “but I really love it. I like looking at it,” she says, “and thinking about all of the things that are constant.”