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‘Star Wars: The Acolyte’ Creator Leslye Headland Talks the Unique Perspective of Her Upcoming Series

Star Wars: The Acolyte creator Leslye Headland is currently putting the finishing touches on a four-year journey that started with Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy buying her overall series pitch in the room. At the time, her hook was “Frozen meets Kill Bill,” and now the first trailer provides a few more of the puzzle pieces. Set a century before Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Amandla Stenberg’s mysterious character appears to be hunting Jedi during a time of peace near the end of the High Republic era.

The trailer kicks off with Lee Jung-jae’s Jedi Master urging a group of Padawans to not trust their own deceitful eyes, and perhaps the same can be said of the trailer and the series’ overall narrative. The show will be taking a page out of Rashomon’s playbook, exploring different perspectives on the same events.

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“One thing to know about the show is that we’ve been talking about it as a mystery-thriller. It is a serialized story, so each episode gives you more information about the story,” Headland tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We were obviously influenced by samurai films and wuxia films, but also films like Rashomon, where you see one story and then you see it done a different way. So, what separates [Star Wars: The Acolyte] from some of the other Star Wars series is that it’s told in that particular way.”

Apparently, Jung-jae and Stenberg’s characters have a history, and so Headland adds that both parties will offer their points of view on their shared conflict.

“You definitely get the point of view of the Jedi, especially in terms of Amandla’s character and trying to stop her and hunt her down. But you also get enough of Amandla’s character’s perspective that you can also see how both of them exist simultaneously,” Headland shares

Russian Doll co-creator Headland’s first job as a writer was on FX’s short-lived cult classic series Terriers (2010), and her first produced TV script, “Manifest Destiny,” happened to be directed by Star Wars: The Last Jedi filmmaker Rian Johnson. Headland was not only inspired by Johnson’s work, but also his demeanor on set.

“I love Rian. He was the first director I ever watched work. So getting to see him work on that show was, oh my god, it was just a dream,” Headland recalls. “He was so kind and so quiet, and yet he was so clear about what he wanted. He never seemed stressed out, and I wish I was more like him. He’s like the patron saint of calm directors.”

Below, during a recent conversation with THR, Headland, who directed Star Wars: The Acolyte‘s first two episodes that debut on June 4, also explains why it was important to have a writer on staff who was new to Star Wars. [Writer’s Note: Stenberg goes by both she/her and they/them pronouns.]

Congrats on Star Wars: The Acolyte and its impending arrival. Where are you in post at the moment? 

We are done! I mean, there’s a few things getting wrapped up. We were a little late on the ADR because of the actors’ strike, but as far as I know, I believe all of that has been approved and delivered.

I must say that it’s awfully interesting that the two people [Headland and Rian Johnson] who brought us Terriers’ “Manifest Destiny” both went on to make Star Wars.

Isn’t that insane? It tickles me all the time.

What’s the CliffsNotes version of your way onto this project including your pitch?

The CliffsNotes version is that I love Star Wars. I absolutely adore it. And as soon as Russian Doll came out, I was like, “I’m calling Lucasfilm. That’s where I want to work. That’s what I want to do.” So I pitched them. My elevator pitch was Frozen meets Kill Bill, which I said at [Star Wars] Celebration, and I went through what I believed would be a rough season one outline and then an overall series bible, essentially. And Kathleen [Kennedy] bought it in the room and said, “I love it. I want to start working on it.” And we did. We did a lot of development on the scripts. We had a really great writers’ room. It took a while to get prep going because these are such huge projects, and we did a lot of our stuff practically in London. We didn’t use the Volume at all, so it was a lot of prepping for the show.

And then the shoot went really smoothly, actually. It was long, and there was, as you can see from the trailer, a lot of martial arts. So we had an incredible stunt team that did some incredible wire work, and the talent did a lot of their own action. A lot of them had either done it before, like Carrie-Anne Moss, Lee Jung-jae and Dafne Keen. And then Amandla [Stenberg] just threw herself into training and did incredible work in a short amount of time. It got to the point where we started calling her Bruce Lee because she was too fast. (Laughs.) We were like, “You have to slow down because we can’t tell that it’s your face. You look like your stunt double because you’re going so quickly. We have to actually catch the move.”

The Acolyte
(L-R): Jedi Master Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss) and Mae (Amandla Stenberg) in Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE

So Star Wars: The Acolyte takes place towards the end of the High Republic and 100 years before Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. Now, I’m presuming Amandla Stenberg is playing the title character, but can it be said what her character is an Acolyte of? The Sith? The Jedi? Or is it open to interpretation at this time?

It’s open to interpretation at this time, but you will discover it when you’re watching the show. It will be revealed. One thing to know about the show is that we’ve been talking about it as a mystery-thriller. It is a serialized story, so each episode gives you more information about the story. We were obviously influenced by samurai films and wuxia films, but also films like Rashomon, where you see one story and then you see it done a different way. So, what separates [Star Wars: The Acolyte[ from some of the other Star Wars series is that it’s told in that particular way

Yeah, the trailer puts us in Amandla’s character’s shoes, but it also shifts back and forth to the perspective of the Jedi and how they’re reacting to this mysterious entity that’s killing them off. So whose point of view is our anchor here?

What’s interesting is that you get both. The way I see Star Wars, the dynamics are either underdog versus institution or institutional threat, or it’s father-son, sibling-sibling, master-apprentice, father-daughter. It’s a familial dispute. So I would say that our show is more on the latter. It’s more about individualized relationships. You’re in the headspace of a lot of different characters. People who are good guys can be bad guys, and people who are bad guys can be good guys. There’s a lot of moral ambiguity, which is why Jodie’s [Turner-Smith] line in the trailer is so important: “This isn’t about good or bad; this is about power and who is allowed to use it.” And I believe, of course, that the Jedi are a benevolent, well-intentioned institution, but they are an institution and they have amassed all the power. So the question becomes when did that happen, and since we know where they’re headed in Phantom Menace, what went wrong? What are the cracks in that? So you definitely get the point of view of the Jedi, especially in terms of Amandla’s character and trying to stop her and hunt her down. But you also get enough of Amandla’s character’s perspective that you can also see how both of them exist simultaneously.

The Acolyte
(Center): Master Sol (Lee Jung-jae) in Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE

Fan service is always a complicated subject with Star Wars. Some people want to see as many familiar faces as possible, while others prefer uncharted territory. By taking place a century before The Phantom Menace, does that inherently mean that the show won’t be loaded with cameos?

That’s right. But, for example, you will see a little bit of Vernestra Rwoh from the High Republic novels. She ends up being live-action for the first time, so that’s definitely a cameo for that audience, I would say. You see a lot of cameos of alien species that I don’t think I’ve seen in post-Disney live-action, meaning a Zygerrian Jedi and a half-Theelin, half-human Jedi. So there are species that you will see, but they aren’t necessarily like, “Oh, it’s that guy from that movie. Oh, it’s that character from Return of the Jedi: Special Edition.” It’s more like references to Star Wars that I think will excite fans, but they aren’t specifically named characters that exist there. There’s also a lot of stuff from the EU that I got to utilize. Nobody stopped me, so I did it. (Laughs.) So if you’re a fan, there will be a species that you might recognize. There are also certain narrative elements. Basically, there are enough Easter eggs if you’re a fan of the Original Trilogy, the Prequels or The Clone Wars. And then there’s some EU sprinkled in. So you could definitely watch this series without knowing anything about Star Wars, but if you are a Star Wars fan, you will notice all of the things that we’ve put in there.

Andor creator Tony Gilroy proved that you don’t necessarily have to be a lifelong Star Wars fan to be a great Star Wars storyteller. So I thought you made a wise choice by having a varied writers’ room with fans of different eras and then someone who never flocked to it at all.

Yeah, I just thought it would be good to have the perspective of a person that had literally never seen Star Wars until she was in the room. And she said to me, “Why do you want me in this room? I’ve never seen Star Wars. I have no idea. I think there’s a dog in it, but I don’t know anything.” And I was like, “First of all, you’re an incredible writer, but that’s why I want you here. I want you to be questioning narrative. I don’t want myself, who’s a lifelong fan, to just be relying on particular references in order to create emotional beats. I want those emotional beats to be earned and checked by someone that isn’t super familiar with it.”

And it was really funny because she finally watched the Original Trilogy over that Christmas. She watched the Prequels, too, but she kept texting me [about the Original Trilogy] and was like, “Luke and Vader are …” All those things that we’ve known forever were blowing her mind. She was like, “Luke and Leia are brother and sister!? What the fuck!?” She was writing all these things to me, and I just thought it was so funny. So she educated herself in order to be in the room, but it was really fun to have somebody like her to help collaborate.

The Acolyte
(L-R): Amandla Stenberg, Lee Jung-jae and Director Leslye Headland on the set of Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE

Well, I still reference your Terriers line, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with that,” and I look forward to seeing what you have in store for us with Star Wars: The Acolyte.

Oh my god, I loved doing that show [Terriers]. I love Rian. He was the first director I ever watched work. I had been on a set, but I had never been next to a director, watching them direct. But he was so inspiring to me, and I was such a huge fan of his. So getting to see him work on that show was, oh my god, it was just a dream. It was like I understood. He was so kind and so quiet, and yet he was so clear about what he wanted. He never seemed stressed out, and I wish I was more like him. (Laughs.) He’s like the patron saint of calm directors.

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Star Wars: The Acolyte premieres June 4th on Disney+. Watch the trailer below.

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