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Vanessa Marshall On Playing Hera Syndulla on STAR WARS REBELS

Every spaceship needs a pilot, and when it comes to getting Ghost around the galaxy in Star Wars Rebels, it’s Hera Syndulla. The kick-butt yet caring Twi’lek is voiced by Vanessa Marshall; You may recognize her from her roles in Young Justice (Black Canary) and The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (Black Widow). Portraying smart and strong female characters isn’t new for her, but Marshall is very excited to be part of the Star Wars universe. We caught up with her at WonderCon to discuss how she got involved with Rebels and how Hera and her fellow rebels are faring in a universe where the Empire is taking control.

Nerdist: How did you get involved in Rebels?

Vanessa Marshall: I got an audition for a project called Wolf, and I was thinking about the Wolf Pack and I wondered. Then I read the description of the character: She was a pilot, she wants to see the tyranny fall, that was the term they used. And there were different lines that were typical fighter pilot lines and there were caring, nurturing lines that made me see that there’s something really important going on here. So, emotionally, I put myself in a place of saving people who are being persecuted somewhere, and I was able to deeply plug into that. Then I got a call back, and I saw the drawings on the wall, I saw Dave [Filoni], and even if I didn’t get the part, I just felt so blessed.

Then time passed, but I got a call, and my agent said, “So how would you like to be a series regular in Rebels?” And I started crying and saying thank you. Anytime I have any sort of negative thought about anything, I go, okay, hold the phone, you’re involved in Star Wars Rebels – you don’t get to complain about anything at all ever. This is a gift of a lifetime, and I walk around every day so grateful.

N: You’re playing Hera, and she’s a pilot and a leader. But you’ve also played Black Canary, Black Widow – what’s it like to get to portray these kick-ass characters?

VM: It’s awesome. I am a boxer myself, and I also shoot guns. I don’t own a gun; It’s really a focus in meditation, in terms of target practice. It’s not a violent thing whatsoever. So, studying martial arts and things like it, principles of nonviolence actually factor in more, and it’s important to know when to fight and when to yield. And those superheroes, they choose their moments. But when they do or someone threatens them, they totally jump into action. So, I sort of access that part of my own psyche and plug into some of the really feminine archetypal powerful parts too.

N: We saw a brief clip featuring Hera, and from what I’m seeing, she has a take-charge attitude and she’s not afraid to rib Kanan. They’re both leaders of the team; what’s their dynamic?

VM: I think they’re very good friends, and it’s interesting how they work off of each other. I know Hera deeply respects his Jedi abilities. He’s Force sensitive, and much like if I were traveling with Anakin or even Aayla Secura or any female Jedi, I would defer to the Jedi, because obviously they are living in a universe that’s far more vast than the one that I’m able to have access to as a Twi’lek. While she’s sort of the brass tacks of the operation, meaning she can fly really well and she’s also a great fighter in hand to hand combat and also with her blaster, Kanan brings sort of a spiritual element to it, which is almost like a male-female role reversal.

But I think what’s really cool about Rebels is that we’re all so universally oppressed by the Empire that issues of gender or roles or even race – they really fall away and become irrelevant in an interesting way because we are united. There’s not so much a delineation of a power hierarchy; We’re all in it together. And I think what’s so moving about the show is seeing ordinary people accomplish great things and just standing up against what is cruel and awful. It’s really inspiring, and so it’s not necessarily as well-defined as brother/sister or boyfriend/girlfriend. We are one band, sort of a motley crew, and we’re there to get the job done.

Much like the getaway scenes in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, there are those moments, those high stake moments. They’re throughout. They [crew of the Ghost] are constantly running away and getting out of jams. And I totally hyperventilate when we’re doing the battle scenes. I can’t even explain the way lines are volleyed. There’s that humor, that biting humor, where they’ll say something really harsh, but it’s funny. They can talk to each other in that kind of shorthand because they love each other like a wacky family. I think that’s something people will want to tune in for because they’re going to feel like part of the rebel band.

hera concept art

N: It does sound very much like it will have those elements of the original trilogy with snappy dialogue – like the way Han and Leia threw lines back and forth. When you started working on Rebels, did you go back to A New Hope specifically to listen to the rhythm?

VM: Absolutely. The way Han solo calls out things to Chewie and gives an order – it’s so fast how he says things. It helped me understand how quickly I needed to articulate things to save our lives, basically. And we definitely have all watched the original trilogy over and over again for that reason. Because he is — Dave Filoni is really serious about making this in the same world so that it logically makes sense that it flows into A New Hope.

N: Ghost is Hera’s ship; Will we learn how she acquired it and is she attached to it in the same way Han is to the Millennium Falcon?

VM: I don’t know that there’s anything Lando Calrissian about it. They haven’t gone there, so I don’t know exactly how she acquired it.

N: And what is the universe like for the crew of the Ghost right now? What challenges are they facing?

VM: Well, the ones that you would imagine. I don’t know if you noticed in the Ralph McQuarrie-inspired drawings they have of Lothal, half of the picture was white and half was a darker grey. That was meant to symbolize how the Empire is taking over Lothal. The Empire is creeping in and taking things over. We saw that in The Clone Wars as well; It’s similar to that. That’s why I focus so much on the Ryloth arc, because it shows the way the Empire just comes in and takes what they want. So, there are a lot of races being exterminated in some of the deeper outer-rim planets.

I know Hera is very upset about the lives that have been lost, and from what I can tell that seems to really motivate her. It’ll be interesting to see how… because if we’re going from Order 66 to the destruction of the Death Star, how do we get there? There’s just so much at stake that I truly I am moved by how much they care about people who are being oppressed and that they go on missions to help them. And, there’s a lot of secrecy around what we’re doing or trying to do. We have to get food, we have to get fuel – we’re like scavengers. We have to make it work. It’s fun to see how they do that and stay alive and keep on keeping on until the Death Star.

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