Daisy Ridley: JJ Abrams warned me that Star Wars is a religion

She was working in a pub when she was cast in the franchise. Six years and three movies later, is the force still strong?

Daisy Ridleys earliest childhood memory is of a party hosted by her parents at their family home in west London, when she was three, maybe four. She was surrounded by grownups, towering above her, when she abruptly and dramatically declared: Im shy! before running out of the room. My mum told me I did that, so maybe Im remembering half an imprint of someone elses memory, she says, laughing at the irony of both commanding attention from her audience and then immediately rejecting it. Its a trait that has somehow stuck.

At 27, Ridley finds herself at the centre of the universe. With three Star Wars films under her belt, the actor is adjusting to multiple layers of fame: theres the gilded A-list Hollywood kind that comes with red carpets, stylists and outfits gifted by the most sought-after designers; then the sort of fame that has tabloids tracking her most mundane moves, breathlessly documenting Ridleys brave trip to the dry cleaners (with no makeup!) or strolling through London wearing gasp a daisy print skirt. And then, of course, theres the fierce, cult-like superfan fame, where the force of millions of Star Wars obsessives will always be with her, the legacy of being plucked, as a fresh-faced 21-year-old unknown, by director JJ Abrams to play Rey, the scrappy scavenger mentored by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

We meet on a late autumn afternoon in one of Londons grandest hotels. The Star Wars press campaign has occupied an entire floor and a corridor of suites is taken up by publicists, assistants and executives fixed on their phone screens. Ridley, wearing a dark denim Ulla Johnson boilersuit, cinched in at the waist and tucked into Christian Louboutin mesh ankle boots, takes a seat on a beige chaise longue in a very beige room, expertly low lit for movie stars. Her dark bob is slicked back, her cheekbones wide and high. She looks terrific and when I say so, she immediately credits her stylist (Samantha McMillen, whose longest-standing clients are Johnny Depp and Elle Fanning), and a new trainer.

Im the strongest and healthiest Ive ever been. I didnt get injured once [on set]. I actually got my kickboxing green belt during filming, which really felt like something. Ridley mugs a goofy face at her achievement. It was honestly the best thing ever.

With the late Carrie Fisher in new film Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker. Photograph: Allstar/Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures

The daughter of a banker and a photographer, Ridley had done a few bit parts on TV (Toast Of London, Casualty, Mr Selfridge) and was working in a pub when she got the part of Rey six years ago. She was an ideal blank canvas for Abrams who, Ridley has said, wanted to project vulnerable and tough, sweet and terrified on to the character. Although comparisons to a young Keira Knightley were swift the two look remarkably alike Ridley held her own with fans and critics, and was heralded as terrific in a doozy of a breakout role by Variety. Its obvious Ridley enjoys an ease on screen; it helps, perhaps, that she was never really a Star Wars fan like the then-unknown Mark Hamill in the original films, she was able to play her part unburdened by the weight of the franchise. Whether this delicate alchemy works in The Rise Of Skywalker remains to be seen: nobody gets to watch the new film until its premiere.

From the start, Abrams warned her to understand the scale of what she was taking on: This is not a role in a movie. This is a religion for people. It changes things on a level that is inconceivable, she recalls him telling her. But Ridley, who went to boarding school in Hertfordshire and grew up with her older sisters Kika-Rose (a model) and Poppy Sophia (a reiki instructor) in a pretty cobbled street in west London, radiates a natural charm and confidence. She is chatty, sitcom-expressive and enthusiastic; life right now is so amazing, glorious, fabulous. I can see how she won Abrams over.

Above and top: Rhea Costa dresses. Giuseppe Zanotti shoes. Sara Weinstock earrings. Anita Ko ear cuff. Misho ring. Photograph: Dylan Coulter/The Guardian

Its been hard at points, she says of the attention that followed the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, fiddling with her earring. I have a thing with control, but it does get a bit easier. I texted my friend the other day and I was, like: Dude, please dont put pictures of me online. Because its that weird disconnect, that people dont ask peoples permission before they post things.

Ridley began therapy and binned social media two years ago, considering it an unnecessary invasion of her now closely guarded privacy. She is reportedly engaged to her boyfriend, the English actor Tom Bateman, whom she met while filming Murder On The Orient Express two years ago (a ring is on her finger, but she wont talk about her love life). Friends are reminded to put their phones away when they go to dinner together. Im like: You cant say where we are, not just because its me because its not safe. My friend has 50,000 followers and youre telling 50,000 people where you are right at that moment? Thats scary.

Was that an awkward conversation? Did she worry her friends would think she was becoming grand, or difficult? Ive never had an issue with saying things like that, Ridley says. Im not passively aggressive Im just directly aggressive. It is a bit uncomfortable, because obviously I dont want to say to my friend, Please dont do that. But Im not the one who should be feeling uncomfortable. She pauses to sip on a juice shot weve both been given. Fucking hell, is that just ginger? Oww, its just ginger. She winces.

With John Boyega in The Force Awakens

and The Last Jedi. Photographs: Allstar/Lucasfilm/Walt Disney Pictures

Everybody needs to be more accountable for what they post and what they share. Recently, I met someone that knew of someone I vaguely knew that knew something about me they shouldnt have known. I was, like, Yeah, please dont talk about stuff like that. She exhales, before continuing.

People think they know things about you, and that they know you its a constant imbalance. I wish people sometimes would go: Hey, what do you do? so I can say it, but people see me and are, like, A-haaa! She is careful to add the caveat that she is of course, grateful and lucky. It gets to her most when the fame affects those closest to her. Recently, my family went to a wedding and it was really uncomfortable, because people assumed they knew me and only directed questions to me. My sister who was with me was basically ignored. I cannot stand that. Its just rude.

I ask if she thinks it has been easier to be confident and navigate her celebrity because of the privilege in her life of boarding school, her upbringing and so on? Ridley is suddenly incredulous.

As Mary Debenham in Murder On The Orient Express. Photograph: 20th Century Fox/Allstar

The privilege I have how? No, genuinely, how?

Well, I say, in terms of wealth, class, education that kind of privilege, in knowing how to decode the rules in certain spaces. As a caveat, I add that both of us have privilege, and its not a criticism; I was simply curious to know what she thought. Things take an awkward turn.

Well no, because, no There is a very long and tense pause, before she insists that, actually, there is little difference between her experience and that of her co-star John Boyega, who grew up in south London to British Nigerian immigrant parents. John grew up on a council estate in Peckham and I think me and him are similar enough that no. I dont point out that members of Ridleys family were establishment figures (her grandfather, John Ridley OBE, was head of engineering at the BBC from 1950 to 1965; his brother was the Dads Army actor and playwright Arthur Ridley), while Boyega had to apply for a hardship fund to join Theatre Peckham.

August Getty suit. Sophia Webster shoes. Sara Weinstock earrings. Misho ring. Photograph: Dylan Coulter/The Guardian

Also, she adds, I went to a boarding school for performing arts, which was different. (Her publicist later calls to clarify that Ridley won a scholarship.)

But surely nine years of private education gave her some additional confidence?

No. Ridley leans on her elbow while twirling a small knot in her hair. No. I think, also, it has taken me a little while to be OK with it. I was always fairly confident, and I think that comes from being part of a big family who are all quite chatty.

Its an unexpectedly defensive detour, as if the mere mention of privilege is an attempt to diminish Ridleys hard work or talent. I try to change the subject but get the distinct feeling that her publicist, sitting behind me in Ridleys eyeline, has made some sort of silent intervention. Im not saying what youre saying is wrong, Ridley adds. Ive just never been asked that before, so Im like, oh. I dont think so. We move on.

Despite starring in one of the biggest film franchises in history, Ridley didnt know much about cinema while growing up and is still working through lists of must-sees that have been passed on to her by friends. Her cultural touchstones were the film Matilda, Disney, Pink and the Spice Girls, and musicals such as Chicago. At the wrap party for the final instalment of the sequels trilogy, Abrams gifted her a Lion King score signed by Elton John, because me and John [Boyega] were always messing about re-enacting the, Waahh, Simba! scene. But for the most part, growing up she was, I dont know, just hanging out. I worked in Abercrombie & Fitch as a mere T-shirt folder. She says this meant she was able to gatecrash nights out with the models who worked there, going to fancy places like [Mayfair private members club] Maddox where Id be on the fringes of their table, sipping my free vodka cranberry.

In Ophelia. Photograph: Dusan Martinicek/Allstar/IFC Films

Parties arent her thing anyway. She got invited to an Oscars one hosted by she thinks Madonna. I want to say Madonna? Anyway, I was so tired and didnt go, so my dad went. Hes great at parties and had a great time. Im more of a dinner person, I was never really a partier. Has she ever been out until lunchtime the next day? No! Ridley gags and laughs. I dont take drugs, so if I make it past 2am, Im like, Look at me! This is only life and a little bit of alcohol, and I am still going!

Ridley is vegan and doesnt drink often I dont think its about not letting go, I just dont like being drunk but did revel in the wild anecdotes that Carrie Fisher would let slip on set. Oh my God, she was so sassy and had all these amazing stories. I cant mention any names but things that only happen with Americans who live in big houses in the middle of nowhere.

August Getty suit. Sara Weinstock earrings. Dana Rebecca Designs ring. Photograph: Dylan Coulter/The Guardian

Fisher famously told Ridley to be careful about who she dated after Star Wars because, as in her case, You dont want to give people the ability to say, I slept with Princess Leia. Were they particularly close on set? Oh, she was so smart and so funny. She went through things, like wearing the gold bikini [in Return Of The Jedi], so I didnt end up having to do those things, and Im so grateful.

Ridley was in the cinema when she got the phone call telling her that Fisher had died. I spoke to [my agent] Hylda, and went to the bathroom and wailed. Someone sweetly came up to me and asked if I wanted a refund for my ticket. I said, No, Im fine and then I wailed more, and then I had a parking ticket and was, like, this is all awful. Fisher had played Leia as a general leading the Resistance against the First Order in the last two films. How did they work around the loss in The Rise Of Skywalker?

Everyone is really happy with the way the footage has been used, even though its difficult to do and watch. Billie [Lourd, Fishers daughter] is in the film, and she says it was a way of working with her mum again. Its one of those weird things where its as satisfying as can be, even amid all the trauma.

As for what comes next, Ridley says shes sadly unemployed, but I have itchy feet. There are projects she cant talk about yet, things that are almost ready. She is full of praise for her agent who she says deserves a producer credit on Ophelia (Ridleys last major film, a reimagining of Hamlet also starring Naomi Watts and Clive Owen), as she practically made that happen. For the most part, she is now sifting through scripts. I had an amazing script and then a meeting with the director and it was just really weird, like, a really weird vibe. She grins. Then Hylda had a conversation with the director and was, like, Nope no, youre not doing it.

Star Wars has given me the opportunity to do smaller things and allowed me to say no, which is glorious. I dont talk a lot about various things because there are people fighting the good fight, and I know I have safety in that the people I have worked with have loud voices. Its an elliptical allusion to I think equal pay and #MeToo in the industry. She rubs her nose, before explaining some more. Well, there was another film I really wanted to do, but there were a number of factors that meant I didnt believe it was right. How so? Well, it wasnt equal and all that stuff, so I said no, even though thats really scary. But how much of a blessing is it to be able to say no?

Given that Disney owns Star Wars, is she conscious of what issues she can talk about publicly? Does she have to modify, say, her politics?

No. I dont feel I have to edit what I say the things that make me angry are the things that make everyone angry. Everyone is annoyed with BoJo. Everyone has an issue with Trump every sane person anyway. She smiles brightly at me, almost apologetic, reluctant to expand. Its not that I dont talk about this stuff, but other people are so much more articulate than me and say it better. Our time is being signalled to a close. She bounces up from the stiff-looking chaise longue, still lively and energetic. This [was] starting to feel like a therapy session, she jokes, exhaling. A buzz of voices breaks out in the corridor, as the line of people looking to speak to Ridley, or get a picture of her, to find out what its like to be her, gets imperceptibly smaller, interview by interview. I wonder where shes at her happiest. On my parents sofa, she replies without hesitating. Im happiest when Im having a nap on their sofa, because theres always a murmur of their voices. I find that very, very comforting.

Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker is out on 19 December.

Styling: Samantha McMillen/The Wall Group. Hair: Mara Roszak/SWA. Makeup: Molly Stern/SWA

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Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/dec/07/daisy-ridley-jj-abrams-star-wars-a-religion

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