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Even for audience members who don’t recognize the name, the sight of Mon Mothma in Rogue One will be a familiar one. The red-haired, white-robed military leader appears at a crucial moment in 1983’s Return of the Jedi to brief the Rebel troops before the Battle of Endor. She’s onscreen for all of two-and-a-half minutes, not even enough time to merit an action figure in the original Kenner toy line. But the character — one of only four women in the original trilogy with a speaking role — makes an impression. Here’s how Mon Mothma became a part of the Star Wars universe in the first place, and how she ended up back on the big screen after all these years.
Watch Mon Mothma’s scene in ‘Return of the Jedi’ (featuring Caroline Blakiston):
In writing the story for his third Star Wars movie, creator George Lucas wanted to show how the Rebel Alliance had expanded its forces since the first film, so he introduced previously unseen military leaders like Mon Mothma, General Madine, and Admiral Akbar. As documented in J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, Mon Mothma was featured in George Lucas’s earliest draft of the script, giving an “inspirational speech” to the troops. By the time the briefing scene was shot, Mon Mothma was charged with delivering two crucial pieces of intel about the Death Star: The weapons system is not yet operational, and the Emperor himself is on board to oversee its construction.
“Many Bothans died to bring us this information,” the character gravely reminds the Rebels, referring to the Alliance spies.
This is actress Caroline Blakiston’s most memorable line. Blakiston — who now, at 83 years old, has a recurring role on the BBC series Poldark — had been a working actress in England for two decades when she auditioned for Return of the Jedi. Though the character of Mon Mothma is regal and somber, Blakiston’s ability to convey emotion seems to have been part of her casting; notes from the audition say that she “can cry” as needed. That’s why her line about the sacrifice of the Bothans — full of restrained emotion — makes such an impact. Of course, because Lucas was keeping story details on lockdown and making last-minute script changes, the actress didn’t entirely know what she was talking about.
“No, I had no idea what a Bothan was,” Blakiston said in a 2006 conversation with the Star Wars Interviews blog. “I had just a page with my lines. Everything was secret, and I had to sign for that. So I learned what I had to learn and I went to the studio and they told me my lines had changed. I had to learn new lines, which was difficult as the language that was used is not the language we speak.”
The briefing scene took two days to film, and that was the last audiences saw of Mon Mothma for more than 20 years. In the 2005 prequel Revenge of the Sith, the character appears alongside Amidala (Natalie Portman) and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits) as a member of the Galactic Senate. To play the role, Lucas cast Irish actress Genevieve O’Reilly, who’d had a small part in the Matrix films and bore a resemblance to Blakiston. Unfortunately, most of O’Reilly’s scenes ended up on the cutting room floor, and in the theatrical version of the film, Mon Mothma never gets a chance to speak. (Watch a deleted Mon Mothma scene from Revenge of the Sith, below.)
Watch Genevieve O’Reilly play a young Mon Mothma in a deleted scene from Revenge of the Sith:
Still, Mon Mothma was not forgotten. After Revenge of the Sith, the character began cropping up in the expanded universe, including appearances in the Clone Wars animated series, Marvel comics, and Star Wars novels. One of Mothma’s enduring fans was original Rogue One screenwriter Gary Whitta, who jumped at the chance to bring her back to the film universe. The re-appearance of the character was kept under wraps until the Rogue One trailer premiered in April, featuring Mon Mothma (played once again by O’Reilly) front and center.
“My proudest character that’s in the movie is Mon Mothma,” Whitta said at Rogue One’s red carpet premiere. “I’m so thrilled … I put her in the original version of the script, and when the first trailer dropped and people went, ‘It’s Mon Mothma!’ I said, ‘Oh thank God, people love her as much as I do!’”
O’Reilly was as surprised as anyone when she was called to reprise her character. And she was thrilled that the new Star Wars film would allow Mon Mothma to share the screen with a female protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones).
“It was such a joy, because rarely as women do we work with other women onscreen. We’re forever working with men,” O’Reilly said in an interview for Entertainment Weekly’s Rogue One issue. “Felicity is brilliant. And what we got to play was two women very different parts of our lives: one young, rebellious, passionate young woman and an older woman who has perhaps been there, done that, learned a lot of lessons, perhaps lost that along the way.”
Mon Mothma doesn’t have an especially big part in Rogue One, but she’s indispensable to the story — and just as importantly, conveys the combination of strength and compassion that Caroline Blakiston first brought to the character in just seven lines, 33 years ago. In an interview with EW, Blakiston (who likes to sign fan memorabilia with the words “Many Bothans died to bring you this autograph”) said she’s grateful to see Mon Mothma’s return, even if she couldn’t play her this time around.
“I’m neither jealous nor sad, only happy for the actress who’s getting a shot at her,” Blakiston told the magazine. “Maybe one day we will get to meet and have tea together. That would be a hoot!”
Watch a breakdown of the first Rogue One: A Star Wars Story trailer, featuring Mon Mothma: