Audiences might flock to see “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for the chance to reunite with Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) after thirty years, but they’ll walk out of the theater as fans of Daisy Ridley’s Rey, whose optimism, hope and courage echo the same guileless wonder with which Luke Skywalker (and, by extension, all of us) approached his unlikely hero’s journey at the start of “A New Hope.”
We first meet Rey on the desert planet of Jakku, where she was abandoned by her parents at five years old, and it doesn’t take long before she’s swept up on an equally momentous quest alongside John Boyega’s Finn and the scene-stealing new droid BB-8. Variety spoke to Ridley about the surreal experience of joining the “Star Wars” universe, watching director J.J. Abrams turn into a “fanboy” around Harrison Ford, and her own star-struck moment meeting “Star Wars: Rogue One” lead Felicity Jones.
What do you relate to most in Rey as a character?
Her hopefulness. I think that was something driving me through the auditions — even though it felt so insanely out of anything that I could’ve imagined, there was something inside of me that was telling me that I could do it, even though I was riddled with doubts and insecurities. So probably that. She’s much more hopeful than I am, and much braver than I am. For a woman who had been alone for such a long time to be so open to what’s going on, and letting journeys happen, and letting relationships happen, I think is really incredible.
How collaborative was the process of creating her as a character, in terms of what was mapped out versus what you worked out with J.J. as you went?
She changed from when we first began, she became softer. And I think that’s probably me, because Americans tend not to understand me, so it helped, slowing down the speech and everything just made it softer than I am. And that’s nice, because watching it, I was surprised, like, “Oh, that was cool and that’s not me.” But it was definitely a collaboration. Obviously, the script was incredible. I didn’t have to do anything with that, but J.J. is incredibly collaborative. Every day, we would all run through the scenes, and depending on how we felt, things would change. We would tweak things. We would just talk things through to make sure we were all on the same page … To see Harrison and J.J. together was amazing, because J.J.’s a huge fanboy so he’d be like, “Oh my god!” and then obviously they would talk through things. And I’m incredibly inexperienced, so to see someone as experienced as Harrison, seeing how he works and what it is that he does to make things click so well is incredible.
What was the best piece of advice you got before you began?
I was emailing Simon Pegg and he said, “Here’s where the fun begins” — as Han Solo said — and that’s nice because I guess I’ve been told by millions of people that my life’s going to change and am I ready? And it gets to the point of “okay, all right.” So remembering to enjoy it and to be in the moment so it’s not passing me by, so I can really remember how it felt at that time … because when I first got cast, I was in another plane — I was certainly not having an in-body experience for months, so when I finally felt like I came back to myself, I tried to hold on to that.
I’d imagine it’s so surreal, just watching yourself…
Yeah. Watching it was not pleasant for me. The film was. My performance wasn’t.
How does it feel, having your face on the cover of magazines and on action figures? Is it something you can enjoy yet?
Yeah. It’s funny because the action figures are cool, and then I enjoy the magazines because that’s me. Obviously, the fans are wonderful, they’re so excited, but I’m not Rey and people tend to not be able to differentiate the two. So to be able to be me — a much glammer version myself, obviously… a whole village making me look better than I usually do — that’s nice. And the interviews I’ve done, people have tended to be quite kind, and so that’s nice because I read things and I think, “Oh, I think I’m represented well here.” Because in the film Rey’s an incredible representation of a young [woman]. Her story and the character J.J. wrote is a representation of something amazing that I tried to embody, and so that combination is really nice, to be able to be me and then be her, too.
Is there anything you’ve learned from her, or tried to take from her as a character into your daily life?
Maybe the softness. I don’t think I’m a very hard person, but in comparison to her… And always keeping her cool.
What does she appreciate most about Finn when they meet?
The thing that’s exciting is, BB-8 is her first ever friend, so that relationship was wonderful. And then with Finn… she’s never really had relationships in her life, so to have someone that not only is talking to her like she’s a person, but also because they’re the same age and they’re both searching for something, and they can see that in each other … it’s fun. It’s a wonderful combination of things. He’s sure of himself — kind of like me and John — he’s pretty sure of himself and that’s helpful, that’s like an anchor. And he’s brave, he tries to do the right thing, and he risks things for her, and that’s never happened to her before.
What was your first day on set like?
Well, it was in Abu Dhabi, so it was boiling. It was incredible. There were Speeders, and creatures, and a desert vast in front of you. You couldn’t even see the end of it. It was amazing, obviously terrifying, but to see the thing that we were trying to recreate… we didn’t have to embellish anything because it was right there in front of us, so that was absolutely amazing.
What about your last day?
Oh, gosh. I was crying my eyes out. I remember Harrison wrapped and he did this amazing speech, of course, and then we all wrapped that day, I think, and then I had to go do some extra stuff with splinter unit, so I had two wraps. I loved all of the guys so much, it was just really emotional saying goodbye to everyone and in particular Colin, our cameraman. I remember just saying goodbye to him. Oh my gosh, it’s just so intimate, that guy that’s there behind the camera that’s been watching you for six months, and it’s just an unreal relationship.
Do you think there were any advantages to you being so new to this process?
I think I didn’t psych myself out. I definitely was psyched because I’m a young woman in a film, but in terms of this world, I didn’t psych myself out because of that, because I didn’t really know how far [‘Star Wars’] reached. I’m clearly one of the only ones in the world. [Laughs.] I wasn’t trying to fit into a thing… it was not like I was like, “Right, I’m the Han; I’m the Leia; I’m the Luke.” I was just like, “Okay, I’m Rey, just trying to do me, just trying to do this scene, trying to do the right thing,” and I think that was a huge advantage because I think if not, it would’ve been a very different thing. It will be interesting to go back to “VIII” after everyone’s seen the film. I’m glad that people are going see the film before we start shooting because I think that will be a kind of… not a marker, but some kind of directional thing. I think it’ll be a very different experience.
You don’t think people’s reactions might get into your head?
I don’t know, because I think it was so joyous now that I’ve had that experience — even though the other stuff is combined, I’m not freaking out about it being my first thing anymore. So with a tiny amount of experience, I think this will be more easy to juggle, even though the expectations may go up after people have seen “VII,” hopefully.
Have you read the script for “Star Wars: Episode VIII” already?
I have. It’s very good; very good. Let’s see “VII” first and then we’ll talk about “VIII.” [Laughs.]
Who are some of your acting role models?
Julia Roberts, always. Meryl Streep, back in the day Meryl Streep, like in “Kramer vs Kramer” and “The Deer Hunter.” I love Carey Mulligan. I love Felicity Jones. It was funny because I went to go see the “Rogue One” set and I was like, “Oh my god, I love you.” And she’s so tiny, and elegant, and she’s just so small. Everyone’s so much smaller than they seem. Everyone’s like, “Oh my god. You’re kind of tall.” Who else? Oh, and then obviously people like Celia Imrie, the English greats.
Do you have a dream role?
Roxie in Chicago. Obviously Renee Zellweger did it so well, but that’s the one thing I’m like, “Oh my god. I’d love if they did ‘Chicago’ again.”
You proved that you’re a great singer on Twitter by dueting with Oscar Isaac…
Well, when when we did our little duet a couple days ago and he was like, “Oh yeah. Let’s do this thing,” because we got asked Twitter, I was like, “Oscar, I can’t do this with you. You’re Llewyn Davis. I can’t do this.” [Laughs.] I enjoy singing.
Maybe that should be your next role, “Chicago” on Broadway or the West End.
Oh my gosh. The thought is terrifying, but also incredibly exciting.
There have been a number of wild fan theories about “The Force Awakens,” given the movie’s secrecy — have you heard of any that actually got close to predicting what happens?
Not really. The crazy ones are crazy, but the Kylo Ren [being] Luke thing, I was like, “This doesn’t make sense.” Other fan theories, I guess they would if we were doing an expanded universe thing, but J.J. made it very clear that we weren’t. So it’s funny because obviously you could see how that might play out and I can always see the reasoning behind what people are saying, but it’s fun to know that they’re way off.
Is there one particular moment that stands out to you from this whole experience?
No, the past two years have felt like a wonderful… Firstly, I can’t believe that it’s been two years since I started auditioning and obviously in amongst that time, many other things have happened away from this. You know, your life goes on, and then your life goes on plus “Star Wars.” It’s just been an incredible time. I feel so lucky that I’ve got to spend time with people who seem to genuinely care about me and in particular, the Bad Robot guys, like Maryann [Brandon] and M. J. [Markey], the editors, are just incredible, Ben and Burky and everyone, they’re just wonderful. To be able to spend time with that, and work with people who really see something in you that you didn’t see before, and for people to encourage you, and bring something out of you you perhaps didn’t know was there, is ultimate.
How do you think you’ve changed since this journey began?
I definitely feel like my voice has more weight now. It’s funny, because when I was doing voice coaching before — because I was slightly posher in it than I am day to day — the voice coach said that I do a thing like when I’m talking and I used to lose my voice at the end of sentences a lot and that’s an emotional thing, because a lot of the time I felt like what I was saying had no weight, and that there was no point in what I was saying, and I don’t do that anymore. So that’s a nice thing. I feel like when people have appreciated you as much as they have, for you as a person, it gives you such a wonderful sense of self. I’m still learning who I am, and still learning and testing my capabilities, but to be surrounded by people who care is great.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” debuts in theaters on Dec. 18.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.