In which we learn that there’s so much more to Daisy Ridley than playing Rey in the new Star Wars films.
Daisy Ridley on the ups and downs of life as the star of a multi-billion-dollar-box-office franchise.
A FEW WEEKS AFTER THE RELEASE OF
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey—Jakku scavenger, desert-planet survivor and feminist hero—went on holiday to an island off Croatia with friends from the crew. The actress, who was 23 at the time, had been warned that after the release of the movie—number seven in a franchise that has made more than $53 billion—her life would dramatically change, and she was terrified. This was, after all, her first big-screen role. In restaurants, she scrutinized waiters to see if they were being too nice to her; she wondered if she’d ever be able to use the tube again. On holiday, her friends started calling her Linda, “as a jokey alias,” she says, “and then they started calling [her] Paranoid Linda” when she became convinced a man was following them around.
Two years later, 25-year-old Ridley is sitting opposite me at a restaurant in Manhattan, dressed in a shirt and cropped pants in clashing blue-and-white prints, her hair still wet from the shower. She’s brimming with the kind of enthusiasm that reads onscreen as charisma, and that helps to explain her meteoric rise from stage-school graduate with a few TV credits to one of the most recognizable stars on the planet. Paranoid Linda still makes an occasional appearance, she says, but mostly she has managed to adjust to life after two Star Wars movies.
Ridley clings to the fact that fame doesn’t have to have a warping effect. It also fits in with her belief that the best way to survive the pressures of high-voltage exposure is to try to enjoy it. Everything is “amazing” in her world, and everyone is “remarkable,” ranging from her mother (“a great person”) to Barbra Streisand (“a fantastic woman”), with whom she recorded a song in 2016, to Harrison Ford (“awesome”) to Olivia Colman, whom she starred with in Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express and whom she found “incredible.” There is no hint of sycophancy here; it appears that Ridley is simply joyfully happy.
This cheerfulness has been a useful screen to hide behind during the years since she made The Force Awakens. Now her character, Rey, is back for The Last Jedi, the new Star Wars film directed by Rian Johnson. But Ridley found that this one came with more pressure than the first movie. “I suddenly felt a much bigger sense of responsibility,” she says. “I didn’t think I was good in the first film, and I was struggling with that.”
This is no humblebrag. Ridley’s candour when it comes to her own performance is kind of startling. h
When she was a child, her general inability to disguise her feelings occasionally sent her into scatterbrained overdrive, an impulse that was, and still is, tempered by her loving London-based family: her mother, who works in communications, her father, who’s a retired photographer, and her two sisters—a model and a musician.
At age eight, Ridley went to board at Tring Park School for the Performing Arts in Hertfordshire, U.K.—not, she says, from any desire to be an actor but because a friend of hers had gone to boarding school and it sounded like fun. “I was such a grumpy child,” she says, smiling at the implication that she can still, now and then, throw a big tantrum. “I used to get super-distracted—once I’d done my work, I would be annoying to everyone else, and my mum thought that if I was busy I’d be less distracting. I always sort of felt like I didn’t fit in.” This anxiety wasn’t just a result of being a bookish teenager; it also resulted from a feeling of unreadiness to go out and meet the world as an adult. “At 12 or 13, I didn’t know how to do makeup,” she says, “and I still don’t know how to do my hair. And people wore high heels at that age!”
Even now, Ridley retains some small sense of herself as an outsider looking in. How could she not? Her CV at this point is extraordinary: As well as the Star Wars films, the actress has starred in Ophelia opposite Naomi Watts and shot Murder on the Orient Express alongside Judi Dench, Penélope Cruz, Sir Derek Jacobi and Olivia Colman. It was on that last set that Ridley finally cracked. “I turned to Ken, wiped away a tear and said, ‘I can’t believe I’m here, thank you so much.’” She added, only half-jokingly, “Did someone make you cast me?” (No, he said.) The selfdeprecation is real. It’s not just the burden of fame or lame faux humility. There have been times in Ridley’s life, most notably after the first Star Wars movie was released, when she was literally uncomfortable in her skin. At 15, she was diagnosed with endometriosis, a painful condition of the uterus lining that can result in, along with other symptoms, severe acne that is exacerbated by stress. You know, the kind of stress that comes when you find yourself the star of the highest-grossing film of all time. “I was in my flat going nuts, and then my skin got really bad with the stress of it all, and I hadn’t been well—I had holes in my gut wall and stuff—and we were trying to figure out what to do with that because I felt poorly.” She did what she always does in times of stress and turned to her family, moving first to her sister’s house, a few streets away from their parents, and then to a flat she rented on her own in the same West London neighbourhood.
Still, says Ridley, it was scary. It is difficult to think of a more intense introduction to Hollywood than winning a big role in a new Star Wars movie or a bigger professional leap than hers, going from small parts in the usual roster of U.K. dramas and long-running soaps ( Casualty, Silent Witness, Mr Selfridge) to the first day of filming The Force Awakens in Abu Dhabi. She had only gone to the audition because a friend mentioned that she was going too, and now here she was, on day one of the shoot, with a production assistant holding an umbrella over her to keep the sun off while she looked around and “freaked out.” And then J.J. Abrams, the director, yelled “Action.”
Ridley will never forget that first scene, in which she had to dismount from her Speeder bike and walk a short distance with BB-8 while saying something like “We’re going to get you home.” Is it true that, after she delivered her line, Abrams called her acting “wooden”? Ridley laughs. “It is true! After the first take, he goes, ‘Just a bit… wooden,’ and then we carried on. But J.J. is the kind of person who, before a scene, says ‘Don’t fuck it up.’ So he said, ‘Just a bit wooden,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ But it got better.” She is still laughing at the discrepancy between how bad it sounds (quite bad) and how bad it was. “It’s only because that word, ‘wooden,’ is so loaded. But it was just tense. And I thought, ‘Okay, loosen that shit right up and it’ll get better.’”
In fact, Ridley found Abrams and the rest of the production crew to be incredibly nurturing, to the extent that she was rarely aware of the Star Wars “machine.” It was a friendly set, she says, where she mostly hung out with John Boyega, the 23-year-old Brit who plays Finn and with whom she had the greatest number of scenes, although her best friends were among the crew. Abrams had deliberately hired hair and makeup for Ridley from the team who had worked on the Harry Potter franchise because, she says, “Aside from the fact that they’re amazing, he h
“I WAS SUCH A GRUMPY CHILD. I ALWAYS SORT OF FELT LIKE I DIDN’T FIT IN.”
knew that they had looked after Emma [Watson], Daniel [Radcliffe] and Rupert [Grint] for however many years. I felt very well taken care of.”
Harrison Ford, meanwhile, reminds her of her dad (“They both have an earring and are fucking awesome”), and the first time she shot a scene with him, he gave her a hug and said, “She’s so adorable.” She felt right at home after that. (Meanwhile, when her real dad visited the set, he went up to Mark Hamill and, in classic Dad fashion, asked, “So, who do you play, then?”)
In fact, the most difficult thing about the whole Star Wars experience has been reconciling the terrible warnings she received about how life would change with the reality of what has actually happened—that, and the anxiety of shooting the second film. In the first instance, “Everyone asked me, ‘Are you ready for your life to change?’ And that gets into your mind,” she says. Throughout this period, she tried to hang on to a piece of advice given to her by the late Carrie Fisher—to not shrink away from the success but enjoy it—“and that was wonderful.” Beyond that, she threw herself back into work. “At work, you’re normal; you’re not the anomaly, unlike in other situations.”
Surely she has occasionally been star-struck herself? “Absolutely not,” she says. “I’ve never idolized anyone, really. I never had a crush thing. So when I met Barbra Streisand, for example, I was blown away, not because of her work but because she’s a fantastic woman.” It was Abrams who recommended Ridley to Streisand, who was looking for a young star with a good voice to feature in Encore, her 2016 album. Ridley ended up singing with her on the song “At the Ballet” from A Chorus Line and finding a new role model for herself. “I went to her house and we talked about [psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl] Jung because my dad loves Jung, and we were talking about dreams, and I left and got superemotional—not because she’s famous but because she’s amazing. Part of her reputation comes from being a woman. If it was a man being ‘controlling’ about his career, people would just say he knows what he wants.”
One of the things Ridley has struggled with in the wake of growing fame is the responsibility of Rey being a role model for young girls. She has been asked about feminism and has had to scramble, on occasion, to form an opinion—not because she is bland or apolitical but because everything she now says has the potential to come back and haunt her. For someone struggling with self-doubt, this can have a paralyzing effect. It is a testament to Ridley’s seriousness that she has the sense to acknowledge it.
Of course, whatever kind of attitude you have, being a beautiful young woman in Hollywood means you are exposed to constant scrutiny. Ridley, like Anne Hathaway and Jennifer Lawrence before her, will have to weather the salacious interest that undercuts anything she has to say. And if she seems less confident than her peers, it is not only part of her charm but also, paradoxically, speaks to some deep-seated security that one assumes comes from Ridley’s family—it can take greater courage to admit to one’s weaknesses than to cover them up with bravado.
She has also learned to relax a little, although shooting her second Star Wars movie, in which she had fewer scenes with her pal Boyega, made her briefly very stressed. “It’s not this big adventure that I’m on with John [unlike in the first movie]. I was thinking I did the first one because I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I was having loads of fun, and suddenly I’m realizing what this actually is, and I can’t fucking do this.”
She says all this with a smile to acknowledge how neurotic this was. “I’m highly dramatic. And Rian just said, ‘We’re going to do this, and these are the scenes, and this is how it’s going to work,’ and finally I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, this is working.’ Sometimes you’re not good at your job, and sometimes you’re better.”
Having that kind of experience helps, but Ridley still has moments when she has to check herself to make sure it’s all real. There was one night on the set of Murder on the Orient Express when she found herself sitting around playing cards alongside Sir Derek Jacobi, Olivia Colman and Penélope Cruz and her husband, Javier Bardem, who had come to support his wife. (Judi Dench had retired to bed.) The next day, she and Sir Derek sat around doing the crossword. Even Paranoid Linda couldn’t worry the fun out of that one. n
“IF IT WAS A MAN BEING ‘CONTROLLING’ ABOUT HIS CAREER, PEOPLE WOULD JUST SAY HE KNOWS WHAT HE WANTS.”