Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker may very well be—if Disney is to be believed—the last film in the nine-movie Skywalker Saga, but that didn’t stop director J.. Abrams from bringing on some new characters to enhance the world that George Lucas created over forty years ago. To much fanfare, British actress Naomi Ackie was announced as Jannah during last April’s Star Wars Celebration. At the time, her character was shrouded in mystery, but one thing was for certain: she was an absolute bad-ass.
Though The Rise of Skywalker marks an end, it’s also another milestone in a series that has introduced millions to strong women like Princess Leia; now, Ackie’s Jannah joins the ranks of the many women core to the franchise, powerful characters that’ve delighted young girls and women across nine films. Jannah also marks the first black female character to be featured in the Skywalker Saga, and is only the second black woman (third if you count Lupita Nyong’o voicing the alien Maz Kanata) to be part of the Star Wars franchise after Thandie Newton in last year’s Solo: A Star Wars Story.
A longtime fan of the franchise, 28-year-old Ackie is well aware of what her character means to fans, but in between dishing on her favorite droid (“D-O, he’s so cute and small and compact”), and staring at the poster positioned behind her during our interview, she could not contain her glee, stopping every so often to proclaim, “I’m still pinching myself.”
GQ: In April, you made your debut at Star Wars Celebration where your character, Jannah, was introduced to the world to huge cheers and applause.
Naomi Ackie: Wow, I just got chills remembering that.
The Rise of Skywalker is the last installment of the Skywalker Saga that has been part of pop culture for over four decades. And now, in 2019, you are joining this family. What does that feel like?
In this moment? It's very hard to put into words. If I'm being really honest, it's both familiar and still really surreal to me. So, it depends on what situation I'm in. Star Wars is really a thing that can never really become pedestrian. When you're involved in it, it's a big deal. What I'm really grateful for is being surrounded by so many people who are really grounded and have done this before, who are kind and as excited as I am. It feels good, but sometimes I still have to pinch myself. I probably will feel like that for awhile.
Star Wars has become more inclusive and diverse over the course of its run. It really speaks to fans like me, people who didn’t have that representation growing up. How does it feel to be part of the change—not just in this franchise, but in changing the landscape of Hollywood?
Oh, it's huge. I was just working with an actress from the U.K. called Josette Simon. She was the first black woman to go into the Royal Shakespeare Company, and before we left, I had to thank her. I told her, “Thank you so much for everything that you did, because what you did allowed people like me to do what I do.”
The part of this job that I take very seriously is being given this opportunity to be able to do what she did, and what other people like her have done: to make it better for the next generation. Are we fully there yet? No, but we're getting closer, and with every generation, there's more people to encourage the next. I want to do my part and I want to be part of that chain. I want people to stand on my shoulders and continue the good work.
Something I heard a lot from black women after your debut was how excited they were to see that Jannah had her natural hair, big and flowing, like a crown on her head.
When we were figuring out what to do with my hair, I wanted to do something that I needed to see, that I didn't have when I was a kid. Even though you got the job, it doesn't necessarily mean that you got into the place of full acceptance of yourself. I'm still working on that. But it feels good to know that for other people I can be helpful to that process of self-love and celebration. There’s so many things out there telling us that we're not good enough. We have to keep on shifting. It doesn't matter who you are, you have to keep on shifting. The part that I can play is to help with the shift in attitude. I'm just happy to have to be able to inspire someone with that. It's a small thing, but it means a lot.
I know that when you were a little girl if you had seen a movie like Star Wars having a woman that resembled how you saw yourself, then yeah, I think it matters. Representation matters. If you can see it, then you can be it. I've been on planet earth for 28 years and I've got a lot to learn. I think what I have started to acknowledge is how integral storytelling plays a part in how humanity sees themselves. That means we have to keep fighting towards having everyone included in the stories that we tell. I think the younger version of me wouldn’t believe that I would get it this role, or even just getting the opportunity to audition, because I was like, “Well, they're going to go in a different direction. There’s no way that someone who looks like me is going to get this.”
This final chapter is also a bit bittersweet. We lost Carrie Fisher before the filming even began. But I feel like there's still pieces of Leia in every woman in the Star Wars universe. Is that something that you felt responsible to carry on?
Absolutely. I think, if I'm being really honest, there were moments of fear from me to live up to a certain standard that isn't necessarily me. For instance, I was working out and I got really muscle-y and I was like, “Oh my gosh, I'm a lady with muscles! This is messing with my body image!” When I got to the place where I was like, “No, I'm strong, and I'm feminine and I'm curvy and I'm black and I’ve got big hair, and that’s OK!”—suddenly that became this really joyous celebration.
I think that the legacy of Princess Leia is about that, because whatever obstacle she came against, she was always authentically herself. That character opened up so many doors for what we, me, Daisy, Kelly, and Billie are able to do. We believe that, all of us—not only in this film, but in all the other films. You get to see these amazing, strong women from many different places kick butt, take names, be the narrator of their own story. It's a really inspiring time.
What do you want Jannah’s legacy to be?
I want Jannah’s legacy to be that she made a difference. That her history doesn't define her future and that she could kick some butt too. I think it's important that bravery and fighting for what's right isn't always about not feeling any fear or just feeling the fear. Instead it’s feeling the obstacle and doing it anyway.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on GQ