We’re inching closer and closer to when director J.J. Abrams will start production on Star Wars: Episode VII, which explains why there’ve finally, finally been some things closer to concrete news on the casting front of late.

As it stands, Adam Driver (Girls) appears to have the role of the central antagonist in the bag; meanwhile, fan-favorite original trilogy stars Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford remain officially unconfirmed, though Fisher has now asserted on multiple occasions that all three are coming back. (And, frankly, if there’s anyone connected with this project that you can trust to tell the truth, it’s Carrie Fisher.)

Most recently, Fisher revealed that she’ll be spending around six months in London for the Episode VII shoot. That might seem trivial, but that tidbit lends additional credibility to the rumor concerning Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan’s (The Empire Strikes Back) rewrite of the earlier Episode VII script draft by Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) – namely, that the pair’s revised version of the screenplay features Luke, Leia and Han in prominent roles, while the film’s young protagonists (relations of the Skywalkers and Solos, in all likelihood) have had their screen-time reduced.

On the plus side, that eases the pressure on Abrams to cast actors with greater recognizability in the lead roles, simply for marketability purposes – a move that certain Disney/Lucasfilm executives probably wouldn’t have minded (see: those not-so-popular rumors about someone like Zac Efron being eyed for Episode VII). According to a new report from Variety, there are currently five actors at the top of Abrams’ shortlist for the male lead role – none of whom are big name stars, and a couple of which come from a theater background (rather than a movie/TV upbringing).

The actor shortlist includes previously-reported candidate Jesse Plemons (Breaking Bad), along with four people who’re new to this conversation: John Boyega (Attack the Block), Ed Speleers (Downton Abbey), and theater actors Matthew James Thomas and Ray Fisher. (Interesting tidbit: Latino Review is claiming that 300: Rise of an Empire star Sullivan Stapelton – who was previously rumored for Episode VII – was actually up for the role of Luke’s padawan, which may no longer exist in the film’s current script draft.)

Boyega, Plemons and Speleers shortlisted for ‘Episode VII’

Last time Speleers was cast in a prospective franchise-starting role – in Eragon – the final outcome wasn’t so great, so a lead role in Episode VII would be a second shot at tentpole stardom for him. Boyega, on the other hand, arguably showed real leading man potential in the critically-acclaimed Brit sci-fi/thriller Attack the Block, but has not yet been given an opportunity to try and breakout larger than that. As for Thomas and Fisher – actors with a strong theater background are nothing new for the Star Wars franchise, so their casting seems plausible in that regard (with nothing else to go on, that is).

Variety is reporting that part of the reason for the slow casting process is because – similar to (part of) the reason behind certain recent superhero movie casting announcements – the creative minds and money people behind Episode VII – Abrams included – are interested in assembling a more diverse cast, if only for demographic-satisfying purposes (though, there are other, more admirable reasons to have a diverse cast). That in part explains why non-white actors like rising star (and Plemons’ ex-Friday Night Lights co-star) Michael B. Jordan was approached at one point, along with the respected character actor David Oyelowo (The Butler) and – if you believe the rumors – Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), who may’ve been in consideration (or remains in the running) for a role in the film.

Billy Dee Williams (who’s expressed an interest in Episode VII) is one of multiple Star Wars vets rumored to return for the seventh movie, so it’s certainly possible that a member of the younger generation of characters that’s going to be introduced in Abrams’ film is the son of Lando Calrissian. Hence, the chance that more than one actor from this shortlist – like Boyega and one of the other four potentials – could end up securing different roles in Episode VII, assuming that Abrams and Co. are sufficiently taken with them.

Last bit of food for thought – Variety‘s report also mentions that Episode VII will feature “more recognizable stars for supporting parts,” included the aforementioned original trilogy players. That lends just a tad bit more credibility to those rumors about Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness star Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman – who’s confirmed that he has been approached for Episode VII – might be among those headed to a galaxy far, far away…

Star Wars: Episode VII opens in U.S. theaters on December 18th, 2015.

Source: Variety