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Exec Producer and ‘Star Wars’ Superfan Athena Portillo Leads Disney Channel’s ‘Resistance’

The Force is strong with Athena Portillo, who is an executive producer on the latest animated edition of the “Star Wars” saga, “Star Wars Resistance,” which premieres on the Disney Channel and the DisneyNOW app on Sunday, Oct. 7, from 10 to 11 p.m. EDT/PDT. She’s also a “Star Wars” superfan who was pulled into the franchise’s orbit in 1977 as a child when she saw the film that kicked off the franchise with her family.

“The first time I saw ‘Star Wars’ was at the Coronet Theater on Geary Street in San Francisco. I think I was five at the time,” she recalls. “The first image I remember seeing was the Star Destroyer and being introduced to a completely different universe.”

Her affection only grew from there. “I remember watching ‘Empire Strikes Back’ and really falling in love with ‘Star Wars’ at that point. I wanted to know what was happening with Luke Skywalker, why he wanted to be a Jedi, his strength. I loved the colors. I loved the music. I loved the sounds; everything related to it.”

As Portillo grew up, she knew that she wanted “Star Wars” to be a part of her career. She studied journalism while going to school at San Francisco State University and got her foot in the door at Lucasfilm with an internship for a newsletter produced by the licensing division. After awhile she moved into visual effects, still longing to be involved in actually producing “Star Wars” content. That’s when an opportunity opened up in Lucasfilm’s new animation division. But the position wasn’t for a “Star Wars” property; it was for the animated feature “Strange Magic.” And that’s when a little “Star Wars” magic happened.

In addition to “Strange Magic,” Lucasfilm Animation was also working on “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” the franchise’s first foray into television animation, spearheaded by Dave Filoni.

Filoni noticed Portillo’s unique license plate, “Jedi 96,” teasing her that she was working on the wrong project. “He’d tease me about my license plate and asked ‘What does the 96 stand for?’ I’m like, ’96 is when I started my career in the entertainment industry,’ and he said, ‘You are such a nerd. I don’t know why you’re working on a show about fairies. You should be working on ‘Star Wars.’” Awhile later, an opportunity opened up. “I started working on ‘Clone Wars’ with Dave in January of 2007, and I have been working with him ever since.”

She started out as an associated producer, then became a line producer on “Clone Wars.” She won two Emmys for her work on that series. She then became a producer on Disney XD’s “Star Wars Rebels” before taking on her current role as “Resistance” executive producer.

“Resistance” takes place before the events of the live-action film “The Force Awakens” and follows a young pilot, Kaz Xiono, recruited by Poe Dameron to work undercover for the Resistance. The style of the new series is inspired by anime and, in addition to Poe, will feature characters from the larger “Star Wars” universe from time to time.

“It’s a different look from what ‘Clone Wars’ and ‘Rebels’ had,” Portillo explains. “It’s more of a 2D line-drawn look, even though it’s done in 3D. I also think it’s exciting to introduce ‘Star Wars’ to a new fan base. You don’t really have to have known about ‘Star Wars’ to get into the show. But we do put little things in there [for aficianados].”

Portillo no longer has the “Jedi 96” license plate that started her on this journey, but she has a version of it that not only acknowledges “Star Wars,” but her love of other sci-fi franchises that she’s grown to love, like “Alien.” “I had a license plate that said ‘Xenomorph,’ but no one really knew what that meant and it wasn’t as much fun.”

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