Forest Whitaker’s character, Saw Gerrera, has the dubious distinction of being the first character to make the jump from a Star Wars TV show to a movie in Rogue One. It’s a lot of pressure for someone we still know relatively little about, but the grizzled mechanical soldier seems to be a kind of half-Yoda, half-Vader who is skeptical of lead character Jyn Erso and her mission to steal the Death Star plans. Despite a lack of trust in Jyn, Gerrera still seems game to impart a little wisdom after all his years fighting the supposed good fight.
That kind of reluctant hero is the perfect character for Whitaker, whose acting range has been career making: He’s played everything from the big innocent teddy bear to a serious villain. He made his first real splash as the beloved football star in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, and as the stoic, possibly Jedi-like lead character in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance as despotic Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, and most recently appeared this year as a steely general in Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival.
But just in case you need a quick primer on Whitaker’s latest character, and how he’ll factor into Rogue One, here’s everything you need to know.
He Fought for the Republic Against the Separatists
Saw was first introduced in the greater Star Wars canon in Season 5 of The Clone Wars in four episodes known as the “Onderon Arc,” named after the character’s homeworld that was overrun by the Separatist Army fighting against the Republic. Chancellor Palpatine couldn’t lend his full support to the campaign during the costly Clone Wars, so he relied on local guerilla fighters led by Gerrera to battle alongside Jedi representatives Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker to help oust the Separatists.
In a weird twist of fate, it was Skywalker’s training that empowered the young Gerrera with the fighting skills that he would use to become a notorious Rebel commando after the Republic became the Empire.
Clone Wars mastermind Dave Filoni told IGN the Onderon Arc — which was first thought up by George Lucas — is essential to the nascent fighting spirit that will inform who Saw is when we see him in Rogue One. “While there have been various scenarios in the Extended Universe, this is really a story that we were excited about because it was coming straight from George, the idea that there would be pocket groups of rebels around the galaxy that would later kind of form a Rebel Alliance galvanized under Mon Mothma] and Bail Organa,” he said. “It really felt like we were getting to tell an important part of the overall saga.”
He Also Fights to Avenge His Sister
It’s more than just scrappy idealism that drives Gerrera. His devotion to the Republic and then the Rebellion has some seriously personal stakes. The fight for his homeworld also claimed the life of his beloved sister, Steela Gerrera, the other commander of the Battle of Onderon in The Clone Wars.
But since this is Star Wars, and things need to be all in the family, it wasn’t just some battle droid laser blast that did her in — it might have inadvertently been Saw’s fault. In the episode called “Tipping Points,” Saw shoots down a Separatist gunship which crashes near a cliffside Rebel camp, leaving Steela hanging for her life at the edge of a huge rock face. Anakin’s Padawan learner, Ahsoka, attempts to save her with Force powers, but the still operational gunship shoots at them, causing Ahsoka to drop Steela to her death.
Filoni said that Steela’s death in The Clone Wars was necessary to Saw’s history because “there had to be a price paid for [Saw’s] freedom.” He went on to explain, “I will say this about Steela. When I think of her, I think that she’s one of the biggest regrets I have this season, which is I wish we hadn’t killed her. We all ended up liking that character very much. I thought she was very successful.”
He Met Jyn Erso before Rogue One
In Rogue One, Jyn heads to the mysterious holy planet of Jedha, home of the kyber crystals that power the Death Star laser, to seek Gerrera’s help. We haven’t seen the movie yet, but she’s ostensibly there to ask Gerrera, who is hunkered there as the leader of a Rebel insurgent force, for advice about how to pull off her mission to steal the Death Star plans. Jyn would obviously seek out his guidance because of his military prowess, but also because the pair have crossed paths before — and it all involved her father Galen.
In the Rogue One tie-in prequel novel Catalyst, Director Orson Krennic attempts to recruit Galen into the Imperial army to use Jyn’s father’s scientific research to benefit the Empire’s destructive battle station, but initially tells him his scientific know-how will be used for a renewable energy project. Galen senses something fishy with Krennic’s weaselly ways, and packs up his family — including Jyn and his wife Lyra — to get off of Coruscant ASAP. Krennic sics the whole Imperial military on him, so to evade capture he enlists Saw’s help to ferry them to safety. The renegade freedom fighter sets them up on a safe haven planet called Lah’mu, which is where the Ersos are before Krennic comes calling again in the flashback opening of Rogue One.
He’s an Extremist
It takes awhile for Saw to go from heroic Republic commando to underground insurgent, and his violent and shadowy movements are briefly mentioned in author Claudia Gray’s book Bloodline, which primarily deals with how Leia went from impudent royalty to badass Resistance general leading into The Force Awakens. A senator named Ransolm Casterfo mentions Saw Gerrera’s Partisans, when reminiscing about certain Rebel attacks during the Galactic Civil War. It seems Gerrera favored using his own small band of brutal Rebel fighters to cause pockets of disruption for the Empire rather than the large scale assaults prefered by leaders like Mon Mothma. This doesnt really sit well with the people in charge.
Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy told Entertainment Weekly, “Hes on the fringe of the Rebel Alliance. Even [they] are a little concerned about him,” and on The Star Wars Show, Lucasfilm Story Group creative executive Pablo Hidalgo said of Saw, “He’s an extreme Rebel. He’s definitely against the Empire, but he does things that morally push against the kind of things that Bail Organa and Mon Mothma stand for. He’s definitely the more extreme side of the Rebel Alliance.”