Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens is still enjoying its lucrative theatrical run, but always in motion is the future. Well before Star Wars 7 hit theaters, Lucasfilm hired Rian Johnson to write and direct Star Wars: Episode VIII, giving him ample time to collaborate with Force Awakens helmsman J.J. Abrams and iron out the larger picture of the trilogy. With the currently untitled Episode VIII slated for a May 2017 release, Johnson is working hard on getting all the pieces in place.
One of Johnson's top priorities is casting. Benicio del Toro appears to be on board for a mystery part, but there's also the matter of a new female role or two. It was recently rumored that Diary of a Teenage Girl star Bel Powley was in the running for one of the roles (replacing Gugu Mbatha-Raw), but now it appears to have gone to someone else.
The Wrap's Jeff Sneider was on the Meet the Movie Press podcast where he revealed that not only is Lucasfilm eyeing an Asian actress to play one of the new women characters, but principal photography has been pushed back to February 2016 instead of January, so Johnson can finish some rewrites of the script:
Last week we mentioned Bel Powely and Gina Rodriguez. Now I heard Gina didn’t get it. Now I am told Episode VIII has been pushed about a month. Rian Johnson is going to do another rewrite, and I heard an Asian actress got the role Bel and Gina were up for. But I don’t know if the Bel Powely thing will work out.
I said before there were two young female roles, now I actually heard that the rewrite will make these roles smaller. They want to get to know better the characters they already have. So the new rewrite is shrinking the new roles in order to spend more time with Rey, Poe and so on.
This is all rumor for now, but it does make a good deal of sense. The Force Awakens spent a great deal of time establishing a new core group for the franchise in Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron, and Kylo Ren, so many fans would probably want Episode VIII to feature more of them and not shortchanged for more fresh faces. In addition to continuing the stories of the young characters, Episode VIII will also have a meatier role for Luke Skywalker, possibly reveal more about Supreme Leader Snoke, and have appearances by some other original trilogy heroes. The roster of characters is quite full, even before the new additions are added.
It sounds as if the two new female roles are going to be similar (in terms of screen time) to Maz Kanata in The Force Awakens; someone who shows up for a sequence or two to help the story move along, but not be one of the most important parts. It's probably smarter to go that way. After Episode VII, Lucasfilm knows for a fact they have fan-favorites with Rey, Kylo Ren, and the others. It'd arguably be a gamble to potentially underwrite one or two of them in order to make way for a brand new character fans don't know. There's always a chance one of these female roles could come back in Episode IX and be fleshed out further, similar to Lando Calrissian in Return of the Jedi, depending on the audience reaction.
As far as the casting goes, the specification of an Asian actress is an interesting one in regards to Star Wars' global appeal. With $1.8 billion accumulated worldwide, nobody's denying the brand has widespread popularity, but one of the main reasons why Star Wars 7 is not going to top Avatar's worldwide box office record is due to a relatively lackluster performance in various Asian countries, including China. Casting an Asian actress could make Episode VIII more of a "must-see" in those territories, which have become a viable marketplace for Hollywood productions. Regardless of the reasoning, by now Lucasfilm has earned the benefit of the doubt when it comes to selecting talent for their films.
The bottom line is that fans should be pleased the studio is not rushing into anything before the ball gets rolling on Star Wars 8. Script rewrites are commonplace in the industry, and sometimes blockbusters start production without a finished screenplay (the first Iron Man). It shows that Lucasfilm is not resting on their laurels in the post-Force Awakens world and are using that film's monumental success as the bar they're trying to clear when making the next one. It's better they take their time figuring it all out now, when Star Wars 8 is still a year and a half away.
Star Wars: Episode 7 – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, and will be followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode 8 on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode 9 is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.
Source: Meet the Movie Press (via Star Wars News Net)