When Daisy Ridley, 27, arrives at the beachside restaurant in Santa Monica wearing a white T-shirt under a loose jumpsuit, her hair pulled back into a casual ponytail, she looks like any other young tourist wandering in from the boardwalk. The impression isn’t far from reality. The British actress – who was plucked from happy obscurity at 21 and cast as Rey, the first central female protagonist of the Star Wars franchise – is a world-famous Hollywood outsider, as baffled by the rarefied world of moviemaking as the next person. This month, her part in the cult of the biggest money-making movie brand of all time will come to an end, as the final installment in the JJ Abrams-helmed trilogy, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, hits our screens.
“I feel I will have some closure when the movie is out,” she admits over a vegan snack of corn on the cob, French fries and a margarita, because it’s Friday afternoon and why not? But Ridley, who is similar to Rey in her very direct, look-you-straight-in-the-eye manner of speaking but is considerably goofier, affecting funny accents and relentless, foul-mouthed and funny self-deprecation, realizes that Star Wars will never actually be over for her. Like Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford before her, she will always be linked to the Skywalker legacy. If she’s going to be stuck with one character for the rest of her life, it might as well be an iconic feminist Jedi master. “I do feel good about Rey, and these movies,” she says. “She is this young, amazing woman. People like to say a female character is ‘strong’. But that word is overused. She’s capable; self-reliant.”
“People don’t BELIEVE me when I say this, but I REALLY didn’t know what I was getting MYSELF into”
After six years in the spotlight, Ridley is still trying to assimilate and make sense of it all. “Ninety percent of the time, I’m so grateful,” she says, taking a sip of her drink with a little hoot of joy, celebrating the end of another long day. “The other ten percent, I’m like [fake crying], ‘This is so scary!’” As a grounding influence, Ridley often travels with her mother, who takes snapshots on her phone like any proud parent. When they retreat to their hotel room, Ridley will scroll through the shots of herself on set, or as a guest on the American talk show The View, and try to digest. “Some days I get back late and I’m absolutely shattered and away from home,” she says. “Then the next day, I get to meet a legendary actor who I might work with, and I’m like, ‘In what f***ing world is this happening?’ I’m trying to find the balance.”
Ridley’s journey from working in a pub to playing Rey has been well documented. She is one of three daughters born to photographer Chris Ridley and banker Louise Fawkner-Corbett. She studied drama at the Tring Park School for the Performing Arts (situated in Hertfordshire, just over an hour outside London; it counts Julie Andrews, Thandie Newton and Lily James amongst its alumni) and was struggling to land bit television parts; Abrams, who is known for casting relative unknowns and catapulting them to stardom (Jennifer Garner in Alias comes to mind), offered her the role after five auditions over a period of seven months. It was a lightning-strike moment that changed everything.
“People don’t believe me when I say this, but I really didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she says. “I knew this was a film that was going to be watched by so many people, but I was more concerned with how long it would take to make, how long I would be in that world. I didn’t know about press tours. I was like, ‘Why are we going to Germany? Or China?’ And then it became more like, ‘Oh God. Are you okay? Are they taking care of you?’” The short answer is yes. Ridley and Abrams have developed a working shorthand and he has guided her through the grueling schedule of filming, post-production and press obligations with an almost paternal level of concern.
“Being in your early TWENTIES is a crazy thing. You’re trying to FIGURE out, ‘What do I like? WHAT don’t I like?’”
Looking back at the experience with some distance, Ridley is aware how many moving parts had to click into place to set her on her current trajectory. “I’m not blind to the fact that if I’d auditioned on a different day, or worn something else…,” she says. “I did my hair in French plaits for the first audition, and I remember Nina [Gold, the casting director] said: ‘Imagine if you hadn’t worn the French braids. What would have happened?’ I can’t help but think what a strange thing this has been. Being in your early twenties is a crazy f***ing thing anyway. You’re trying to figure out, ‘What do I like? What don’t I like?’”
Now, post-Rey, we get to see who Ridley is when she isn’t wielding a lightsaber. Her everyday life back home in London is anchored by workouts with her trainer, which began as a necessity for a very physical role and are now part of a head-clearing daily practice. “I got my green belt in kick-boxing and I gave myself a huge pat on the back,” she says. “I was showing people pictures and I thought, I have to stop this. And my makeup artist friend said: ‘Don’t stop showing the pictures. You worked hard.’ We’re all working hard to do what we have to do.”
Ridley hates bad driving and is prone to road rage. “My friends find riding in a car with me hilarious,” she says. She loves reading, particularly Elizabeth Gilbert books, and singing, especially in a choir. She recorded a song with Anne Hathaway and Barbra Streisand for a Streisand album, Encore: Movie Partners Sing Broadway. “Barbra and JJ know each other socially, and he said Barbra wanted to meet me, and I thought ‘LOL, sure she does,’” Ridley recalls. “But I did meet her, and I recorded this song. And then she was in London recently and asked if I wanted to come to her show in Hyde Park and meet her afterwards. Again, I was like LOL. But I went, and she actually remembered me. It was amazing.”
“The things I was initially HAPPY to talk about have changed. The BOUNDARIES around what’s yours and what’s other people’s START to drift’”
Ridley is rumored to be engaged to British actor Tom Bateman, who she met on the set of the Kenneth Branagh-directed movie Murder on the Orient Express, though she is reticent to talk about their relationship. “The things I was initially happy to talk about have changed. The boundaries around what’s yours and what’s other people’s start to drift.”
It’s clear that even without the Star Wars whirlwind to dissect, Ridley would be the type to ask big, challenging questions, and she is drawn to work that reflects that. Last year, she played the (critically acclaimed) lead in Ophelia, an innovative retelling of the Hamlet story from a female perspective, opposite Naomi Watts and Clive Owen, directed by Claire McCarthy. “About two people saw it,” she says, with a bit of a wince. “That s*** hurt like hell, but you can only do your bit on set, and then a movie just takes on its own life.”
“I always FIND the sudden intrusion DIFFICULT to navigate. But I am getting BETTER at it”
Next up, she co-stars with Tom Holland in a Doug Liman-directed dystopian thriller, Chaos Walking, based on the book The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness. If anyone can empathize with a life-changing rush of sudden media attention, it’s Holland, who became a Marvel superhero seemingly overnight. “People are crazy for Tom, and he is handling it well,” she says, and she can relate. “My parents never thought Star Wars was this golden chalice for me. But both of them have said how brave I am. I didn’t know what I was getting into and I have apparently held myself well in the face of it.”
As she finishes her drink and asks whether she has corn in her teeth, a table with three kids under ten sitting behind her is clearly angling to get a better look at one of their heroes. It’s a common scenario for Ridley. “I remember coming out of the toilet at the first premiere and people were staring at me. It was really strange. I couldn’t figure out why they were looking,” she says. “I always find the sudden intrusion difficult to navigate. But I am getting better at it.”
The goal, it seems, is to forge ahead into the post-Star Wars galaxy with a healthy perspective and good memories, but also an awareness of how much the process both depleted and shaped her. “The more I do out of the Rey costume, the more people see me as an actor,” she says. “Now I am just trying to march to the beat of my own drum.”
Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker opens on December 19 (UK) and December 20 (US)