When The Eagle Huntress premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 24, one of Hollywood’s biggest breakout stars was quietly plotting to use her newfound fame to help make it soar. Star Wars: The Force Awakens was still burning up the box office, but Daisy Ridley had turned her attention to Otto Bell’s subtle yet gorgeous and moving documentary about a teenage girl in a remote Mongolian village who bucks generations of tradition and becomes her community’s first female eagle hunter.
By the time the film hit international film festivals over the summer, explanatory title cards had been replaced by narration from Ridley, who also signed on as an executive producer. The 24-year-old Brit knew that fandom she earned for her revelatory turn as Rey, the face of the rebooted Star Wars universe, could help bring attention to a remarkable real-life, 13-year-old Kazakh heroine named Aishoplan Nurgaiv. Ridley was right. For evidence, look no further than the very interview you’re reading…
It’s very cool to see you get your Morgan Freeman on as the narrator of The Eagle Huntress.
Thank you so much. I’ll never have a voice like that, though, but it’s nice to try.
You’re also an executive producer on the film. How’d you get involved?
Morgan Spurlock [who’s also an executive producer on the film] shares my agency, and my agent had gotten a hold of the film somehow. This was like a week before Sundance. So I watched it and was blown away, and said I wanted to be a part of it. So we all got on a call — me, Otto, and Morgan — the night before the Sundance premiere. I came on as executive producer, hoping that if I was a part of it, it would reach more people, because it’s such an amazing story. And then they brought up narration, which I jumped at the chance to do. So we [recorded] that in the springtime.
What was it about the film that blew you away?
The main thing for me was the relationship between Aishoplan and her father. I’m super-close to my dad, and my parents have always been really encouraging to all of us, not in an overt, “This is what we’re doing” way, but just because they’re bringing us up to be the best people we can be, in the same way that Aishoplan’s parents are. Her mom seems great, too, but the relationship that’s depicted in this film in particular between those two I thought was unbelievable. And then her kind of quiet determination… She’s not trying to change the world, she just wants to take on this competition, she just wants to train an eagle. And she does that, which I found very moving.
What do you think a story like this says about gender equality on a global scale? We talk about it so often as Americans and Brits, but it’s refreshing to see to depicted on a smaller scale in such a tiny, remote corner of the world.
What’s interesting is in the wider world, people are so terrified of change. I don’t think anyone means any harm in that community, in the Altai Mountains, it’s just what it’s been. So everyone is very open to it when she does do what she’s doing. The elders are like, “Sure, OK.” They’re cool about it now. I think it proves that everyone else in the world needs to be a bit more open to stuff.
How do you think you would fare as an eagle hunter?
Oh, wow. I do not know. I love animals. I think Aishoplan’s determination and commitment far exceeds my own [laughs]. I don’t know if I’d have the patience. But maybe I would.
You said you hoped your involvement could help raise the film’s profile, are you finding that to be the case so far?
Well, when I was on Instagram, it was just a great way to tell people what was going on. The narration was a nice [way to contribute], but I feel kind of bad because I had nothing to do with making the film [laughs], and people are saying, “Congratulations” to me. It was everyone else. But just to be part of it is really cool.
I know you quit Instagram a couple months ago. Are you off social media for good?
I don’t know. It’s been nice not being on, to be honest.
Are you more productive that way?
No, I’ve actually not been productive at all [since filming wrapped on Star Wars: Episode VIII in July], it’s been fan-tastic. I’ve been funemployed. Usually I do not like having time off but it’s been really, really nice. It’s been like taking a breath. I’ve been literally just doing what I want to do for the past month or two. Been traveling, went to New Zealand to see some friends. Went to Australia to see my sister. Things that I would’ve never been able to do before, and I’m taking every moment and holding onto it.
Is this something you can see yourself doing more of, championing small films like Eagle Huntress?
Yeah. Small films and everything. Things that I’ve always wanted to be a part of are easier now. I’m just about to start working on a charity, it’s quite small, that works with kids on reading and empowerment in that way.
In the marketing for Eagle Huntress it’s being called a tale of “girl power.” Obviously there were reactions in the same vein to Rey’s emergence as the first lead female hero of Star Wars. How do you feel about the term “girl power”? Is that a term you embrace, or does it feel like it’s a bit antiquated at this point?
I mean, I grew up with “girl power” being the Spice Girls. Like, for real. So I thought “girl power” was the coolest thing ever. There were five different girls and they could wear whatever they wanted and they could do high kicks in their music videos. I think “girl power” is potentially not the right way to talk about it, because I think it sounds somewhat superficial. But the meaning behind it, girl empowerment, is all right. To me it’s so much more than what “girl power” says. But to be part of this huge, worldwide movement of equality and diversity is super exciting, regardless of what it’s named. I also think it doesn’t really matter what it’s called, it’s the force behind it, and what well-intentioned people are doing.
We’re getting another Star Wars movie in another month or so. Are you excited to see Rogue One?
I’m very excited to see it. I had a drink with Felicity [Jones, who stars as the Rebel team leader Jyn Erso] a few weeks ago and she’s super cool. And it’s weird, because I’ve talked so much retrospectively about what was going on, but it was so odd to be reliving what was going on [through her]. She gets to go and talk about this film that she’s part of in all these amazing places. I felt like – jealous is the wrong word, but I had such a good time in the run-up to the film. And it was all so exciting. Knowing that she’s experiencing that is so great. And the film’s meant to be amazing. It’s a fantastic continuation of the Star Wars world.
What sort of tips did you give her?
Oh God, I didn’t give her tips. She’s like a proper human being. She’s got everything nailed. God, what did we talk about? We went for a cup of tea. It was just nice to talk about filmmaking experiences. And I’ve been a huge fan of hers for a long time. Have you ever met her? She’s so great! So just to chill was really nice.
Do you see any similarities between Rey and Jyn?
I don’t know. That’ll be interesting when I see it. I don’t watch things and think in that way. So I think I’m just going to watch it and be blown away. And maybe I think later about if there are any similarities.
How do you deal with people constantly asking for spoilers?
People haven’t. Weirdly. I can’t even remember the last time anyone asked me anything. I think one person did this week and it was a joke.
I’ve got to imagine people will occasionally ask you something about Rey’s parents, since that’s such an essential Star Wars mystery. What else do you get asked, when they do ask?
Well, the big thing on social media is Reylo [fan art featuring romantic coupling of Rey and Kylo Ren]. I think people are interested in the romance of it, and if anything romantic is going to happen. So yeah I’d say parents first and then that.
So what are your feelings on Reylo?
It’s kind of amazing to me, because it’s young people that have been talking about it. It’s weird, when I was on social media — and I still do follow the Instagram stuff, if anyone’s reading this, I do follow it — but these 12-, 13-year-old girls and boys are having these really interesting conversations about abuse and manipulation and chemistry and connection. So it’s actually kind of eye-opening. I don’t think at that age I would’ve thought so deeply about something like that. So to see kids have conversations like that I think is really cool, regardless of where it ends up it’s the conversation that’s really interesting.
I have to admit I had not heard of Reylo.
Oh yeah, and then there’s Stormpilot, Oscar [Isaac] and John [Boyega], Finn and Poe.
Yeah, but we haven’t seen them around recently.
This is true. Maybe he busted out on them.
The Eagle Huntress is now playing in New York and Los Angeles.
‘Star Wars’: Daisy Ridley says ‘Rogue One’ character Jyn Erso isn’t Rey’s mother: