When the inevitable media and fandom close reads of Force Awakens started last December, even the most die-hard Star Wars fans couldn’t deny that much of the films plot was derivative of 1977s A New Hope. Though the characters pushing the story were, notably, not white men, they also felt familiar. Rey felt like a Luke Skywalker knockoff; Kylo Ren was actively, consciously doing a Darth Vader impersonation; Even Han Solo seemed to have stepped into Obi-Wan Kenobi’s worn-out boots. Nonetheless, fans seemed to connect with characters in profound ways. Enthusiasm wasn’t dampened by the presence of the sort of archetypes generally criticized in the context of other franchises. Star Wars, because of its peculiar hype cycle and the attention its caretakers pay to casting, can get away with two-dimensionality in a way other properties can’t.
John Boyega’s Twitter wokeness makes him Tumblr’s Space Prince. Daisy Ridley’s Instagram videos feel like snaps from a precocious younger sister. And even though Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac have no social media pages, the interviews all four actors gave on the whirlwind Force Awakens press tour cemented their public personas in way their other projects had not: They were not only eminently likeable, they were all big name stans, competing (in a friendly way) with their own fandom to love Star Wars the most. The actors’ exuberant embrace of Star Wars was in part genuine (unless they truly are the most exceptional actors of a generation), but also a marketing ploy. The combination worked and catalyzed moviegoers.
Watching Boyega lose his mind in a video taken by a family member as he watches the first Star Wars trailer, it felt like he could have been any one of your friends. The fact that he was out there on Twitter the next day extolling the reasons why a black stormtrooper would and should exist in the Star Wars universe was the cherry on top. That connection made it easy for audiences to conflate Boyega’s personality with his character’s earnest, wholesome, and endearing opportunism. This happens in many fandoms, but is rarely played into by an actor so charmingly effective in that role. No back story? No problem: Boyega’s journey from regular British teen to highly scrutinized but grounded star served well enough to flesh out Finn.
As Hayden Christensen could attest, when a Star Wars actor fails to make that connection with fandom, recycled tropes become less palatable. Perhaps the third most disliked character in the universe (after Jar Jar Binks and the Ewoks), Anakin Skywalker was already a tough gig, but Christensen’s dead-eyed delivery sealed his fate as fans realized that it wasn’t just that he didn’t have chemistry with Natalie Portman, it was that he didn’t have chemistry with the entire universe. Constantly and predictably outperformed by Ewan McGregor, Christensen failed to make up for his acting with a globe-spanning charm offensive. He said he was a fan but every interview seemed to be given with reluctance, and a request for his best Vader impersonation was met with an incredibly tepid repetition of the single word Luke. It was clear he considered dealing with fandom, despite being a fan, a burden. So, without a larger-than-life persona to glom onto, fans were forced to reckon with his character as presented in canon: a mumbling collection of tropes tied together with a rattail.
All this to say, Felicity Jones has huge shoes to fill, but very small boots to step into.
Star Wars reliance on its actors’ enthusiasm presents a mounting challenge to those involved in the franchise. Felicity Jones, following Daisy Ridley and Carrie Fisher, has become the latest in a line female badasses. This obligates her to publicly play the wily, headstrong leading lady while demonstrating a profound engagement with canon. Overcommitting to a mock fight scene with Jimmy Fallon on The Tonight Show, Jones played the role perfectly. Guessing Han Solo off of a single second slouch from Diego Luna in an on-camera game of charades wasn’t a shabby effort either. But it remains to be seen whether the charm of her public persona can overcome the recycled problem.
The Force Awakens, despite its flaws, set a high bar for Rogue One to clear. The Force Awakens trio is beloved by fandom for many valid reasons, despite the building blocks of those characters being salvaged from ones we’d seen before. That’s because the real magic of Star Wars is no longer in the VFX, but in the actors and the excitement they bring to the franchise. That’s a gamble that puts a lot of pressure on the casting director, but, as the history of the franchise has shown, it can pay off huge.