In the last of our Star Wars: The Force Awakens interviews before the movie arrives in theaters on Thursday night, we spoke with Lupita Nyong’o, who plays the enigmatic Pirate Queen Maz Kanata. Inhabiting a castle on the planet Takodana, where she runs a bar full of strange galactic misfits that definitely is reminiscent of a certain famous cantina on another planet in the Star Wars universe, Kanata is very old, very wise and very aware of disturbances in the Force — such as the one set off when she meets one of the movie’s key characters for the first time.
Created through motion capture (although Nyong’o was on set with her fellow cast members), Maz is about as far away as one can get from the actress’ Oscar-winning breakout role as the slave Patsey in 12 Years A Slave. And as Nyong’o told us, that’s exactly the way she wanted it…
What was your relationship to Star Wars growing up?
Lupita Nyong’o: I grew up in Kenya and we had Star Wars come on TV on public holidays while I was growing up. So for me Star Wars is time off from school and I really liked that. But it was a very normal part of my childhood. I didn’t really watch it in any particular order; it was just always playing, and I’d always take it in. It was just very much a comfortable part of my childhood and the development of my imagination, that’s for sure.
Going into this movie, did you go back and watch them again with any kind of different perspective, especially knowing how the story moves forward?
I mean, yeah. I mean, for me, I definitely had to go back and watch the originals, just to do the research of what is the Star Wars universe and how am I going to fit into it. That was surreal and cool. Definitely geeked out over watching it and imagining myself in it, and now I’m actually in it, which is something that is still blowing my mind.
We’ve heard that your character is 1,000 years old. Does her age give her a different perspective on the scope of the events that play out in this film and that have come before?
If I told you that, I’d have to kill myself.
After killing me.
What can you tell us about the bar she owns?
Mum’s the word.
This is the first time you’ve done motion capture. What was that experience like and how did it challenge you as an actor?
Well, you know, the reason I took on this role was because I wanted the challenge. I wanted a complete departure from Patsey that I played in 12 Years A Slave. I would love to have a career in which I have to stretch myself and make myself grow with each role that I take on. So this was definitely a step in that direction. And for me, motion capture offered an opportunity to play something that wasn’t limited by my physical circumstances, and especially after playing a role that was so much about my body, it was quite a relief to have something that was not about that and about some other creature’s body instead.
It was super challenging, super weird, of course, at first, to be covered in dots and not have costume, hair and makeup to rely on, and it was an exercise of really stretching my imagination for sure. But I had J.J. as a director and Andy Serkis, who is the master at this, and he gave me some really good advice. His main advice was, “Go about creating this character as you would any other character.”
Who do you have most of your scenes with?
I can’t tell you that.
Let’s talk before we wrap up about some comments you made recently, in which you said you have gotten a lot of letters from young girls who see you as an inspiration. There’s a lot of changes starting to happen for women in this industry, so can you talk about being part of that change?
I think it’s really exciting and fulfilling to see women take more of a foreground in all areas of the creative arts, and I’m happy to be a part of that.
The film is directed by J.J. Abrams and stars Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Max Von Sydow. Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk are producing with Tommy Harper and Jason McGatlin serving as executive producers. The screenplay is by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens releases in theaters on December 18th, 2015, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.