Coming Full Circle With Vanessa Marshall (Star Wars Rebels exclusive interview)

The circle is now complete…

When I started this amazing journey it was with Vanessa Marshall.  She was the featured person at the unveiling of a brand new animated series set to debut on Disney XD called Star Wars Rebels.  This was the first Star Wars offering under the new Disney-Lucasfilm era and the first animated Star Wars show since Clone Wars so excitement was running high and Vanessa was as engaging and intelligent as she always is.  Hearing her story, her love of the franchise, the depth of her fandom, and the importance of portraying a strong, female character kids could look up to convinced me this would be something worthwhile.  And it has been!

At the press junket for the series finale of Star Wars Rebels, it was the highlight of my day to reconnect with Vanessa!

For four years, Vanessa has been bringing Hera to life.  Her character, Hera Syndulla, is a Twi’lek who leads a ragtag group of freedom fighters on board her ship The Ghost.  Ezra, Kanan, Sabine, Zeb and Chopper are more than crew mates – they are family.  She has taken on that role with depth and passion, giving Hera a full-bodied character.  But now, the show was coming to an end.  It seemed only fitting that we would get the chance to meet up again and talk about the show’s impact on Star Wars fans and for Vanessa.  As always she was incredibly generous with her time.  After some catching up, we started the interview.

One of Vanessa’s favorite episodes features Hera piloting the new B-Wing fighter

It’s been four amazing seasons and Hera has developed so much over the years. Do you have a favorite character moment?

I really love the B-wing episode where she gets to fly the B-wing and explains the value of flight.  I think it really dips into how she survived her childhood and found comfort from the perspective she gains in the air.  My dad’s a pilot also and Dave Filoni understands that about pilots.  Steve Melching wrote the script and it was just wonderful.  It was one of my favorites.  There are so many to choose from but that one in particular because the B-wings factor into the future films so as a fan it was also special.

In your mind what makes Hera such a strong character and an inspiration for the next generation of Star Wars fans?

I think she manages to have just the right amount of a lot of very cool personality traits and abilities.  Like I said, she’s very nurturing.  She’s also very skilled at combat, also as a pilot, she is a strategist and really keeps her focus on the task at hand and doesn’t get emotional. I think in this final season we see her get emotional because she’s obviously devastated (over Kanan’s death), but for the most part she manages to combine some of the best human qualities any gender would look up to. It’s very nice to see her as such a strong figure and I think a lot of kids in the future will look up to her for all of those reasons.  You don’t have to be one way or the other. You can live in all sorts of shade of grey and excel in all areas.  And I think Hera exemplifies that for them.

I love that Hera and the whole Ghost crew provide such inspiration for kids like my daughter, Emma! Vanessa is always so gracious with her time, too. This from the Season 2 finale screening

Who have been your role models and how do they affect how you portray Hera?

Well, my own mom has been a role model for me (who is also an actress – Joan Van Ark).  She grew up in Colorado and they were sort of working class.  She got a full scholarship to Yale Drama School and didn’t even get to graduate because she got a part in Piccadilly Circus, was in London performing and then Broadway and all these wonderful things.  She sort of got this Cinderella story and she is so driven and disciplined.  And I’ve been inspired by her.  Sometimes I felt abandoned by her, in all honesty, because her career was so important to her, but at the same time Hera, perhaps in Season 1 when she isn’t forthcoming about details about Fulcrum and stuff like that – she could have been seen as sort of cold and not the best mom in the world. But at the same time when there’s a task at hand things need to get done and I drew on watching my mom focus like that to know that’s what that looks like.  There have been a number of strong women who have impacted my life.  Several professors, teachers, mentors who have brought different elements of Hera’s personality into my life.  She’s sort of a combination of a few really great women I know.

Is there an aspect of her character you didn’t quite get a chance to explore as much as you wanted to?

No not really.  We didn’t see a lot of her with Kanan.  I think a lot of what went on with them was behind the scenes. We sort of filled in the blanks with these stolen moments here and there.  But I think Season 4 rounded that out for us a great deal.  We got to see how she was with her father and that gave you a sense of her history.  Like I said, the value of flight and that’s a really important part of her personality.  And I’d almost say what if she were to be a mom, what would that look like, but in a weird way she kind of already is.  I’m curious about where she lands.  We know from the future films that she survives.  At least in Rogue One she’s called into the War Room and so on so that bodes well.  In Forces of Destiny, she’s having a conversation with Han Solo which was riveting.  But I’m curious where she lands in the future.  I just don’t see her stopping the fight.  I don’t think she would until she’s completely unable to do so, so I wonder what does that look like in the deep future.  I don’t know if we’ll ever see that, but that would be cool.  I don’t know if I would even portray it because she’d be so much older, but you never know.  (Note: Vanessa hadn’t seen the final cut of the series finale so did not know how Dave was going to flesh out some of these aspects of her character – and if you haven’t seen it yet, you should!).

Getting to meet up with Vanessa at her first Star Wars Weekends at WDW – I was so impressed she remembered meeting me with all the people she interacts with – a truly caring and classy person

Being a huge Star Wars fan yourself, is there a moment you’ve geeked out over while doing Rebels?

I think meeting Peter Mayhew at Star Wars Weekends down in Orlando.  I was there the same weekend.  It was my first time down there and it was his 79th birthday I believe.  They had a Millennium Falcon cake and it was the first time he had walked and it was right before he was about to film Episode VII.  He had had surgery and was able to walk up to the cake and blow out the candles and after this experience I went to the ladies’ room and cried, looking in the mirror, and asking “Whose life is this?”  I mean Chewie is my favorite, I love him dearly, and I could barely speak to Peter Mayhew because it was just too mind-boggling.  I had to pinch myself because it was so surreal.  There have been many moments like that.  Having a speaking part in Rogue One was also cool.  I got to play Gold Leader, one of the pilots, so to be involved in one of the films was an honor.  It just seems like all of it is so special, I could just start crying it’s so great.

If Kanan had lived how would that have affected her life and career in the Rebellion?

I don’t think she would have been as broken ultimately as she was.  I mean, she still had hope.  I think she probably would have had a lot more fire in her, and it seems like losing him really dashed that flame. Or at least for several episodes anyway.  She does kind of come back but she’s just never the same. So I think we’d see more of that continued strength. Not that she’s not strong when we finish the season.  Actually I’ve not seen the finale so I don’t even know how it ends but I do think she would feel safer, more confident, more victorious with him by her side.

What for you has been most meaningful in this journey with Hera?

I’ve connected with a lot of children.  The Children’s Hospital event we did for May 4th was wonderful. We met a bunch of kids who were terminally ill and to see them dance and play with R2D2 and Chopper, to see that joy, to see how this franchise deeply impacts kids moves me to no end.  I felt so lucky and grateful to be a part of that.  I was at DragonCon in Atlanta and I met a kid and he asked for my autograph and the dad came up to me afterwards and he said, “I just want you to know my son is autistic and he doesn’t talk at all.  And when Hera is on, he opens up and for whatever reason you make him feel comfortable enough to talk and feel safe enough to do that.”  And he said thank you for taking the time to sign his thing and of course I would have done that anyway, but he said, “No, I really want you to understand the value and the impact of that.”  It’s not just a silly cartoon.  I know the narrative touches people.  It touches me, so much so that I forget I’ve even recorded it it’s so powerful.  I’m not bragging, but I’m really acknowledging the majesty of Lucasfilm and Disney, so I thank them for that.  But to hear that someone is that comforted by a performance is truly moving.  I’m deeply honored to have that kind of impact on anyone’s life.

I’m excited to see what Vanessa will be doing next and hopefully we’ll get to see her continued involvement in the Star Wars universe.  She is such a wonderful, beautiful person with a kind and generous heart.  While it will be sad to see this chapter of the Star Wars universe come to a close, I know it paves the way for new and exciting things in the future.

  • You can follow Vanessa on Instagram, on Facebook and Twitter!  Be sure to keep up with all she’s doing and of course if it’s anything related to Star Wars, Disney, and/or Marvel we will let you know

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