WARNING: This post contains SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Fans of the galaxy far, far away are currently enjoying J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, quickly making it the highest-grossing film in North American history. While all that's going on, Lucasfilm is busy preparing the franchise's future. Director Rian Johnson is gearing up to start principal photography on the currently untitled Star Wars: Episode VIII, which is slated for theatrical release in May 2017.
Like the Star Wars movies before it, Episode VIII will be adding to the series' rich roster of characters. Oscar winner Benicio del Toro is reportedly on board for a mystery part, and Lucasfilm is allegedly looking to add two female roles in casting. Prior to The Force Awakens coming out, it was implied that actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw would be joining the franchise, but now it looks like she's being replaced by a relative newcomer.
While on the Meet the Movie Press podcast (hat tip /Film), The Wrap's Jeff Sneider stated that Mbatha-Raw is no longer attached to Episode VIII, and Bel Powley (star of Sundance hit Diary of a Teenage Girl) is in the running to replace her. This is apparently the same role that Gina Rodriguez, Tatiana Moslany, and Olivia Cooke were once on the shortlist for. It's important to keep in mind that this is still a rumor, meaning that moviegoers should keep their grains of salt handy.
Considering this does pan out and Powley joins the film, she would be a welcome addition to the Star Wars universe. Many were impressed with her turn in Diary of a Teenage Girl and she earned her fair share of awards nominations, including nods from the Independent Spirit Awards and the BAFTA Awards. Powley is certainly a talent on the rise - the type of actor Star Wars is known for casting. Dating back to the original film in 1977, the franchise has handed vital, franchise-defining roles to virtual unknowns and watched them become global superstars.
Given all the secrecy that surrounds the Star Wars brand, there are currently no clues as to what Powley's would-be part might be. A prior report on the matter indicated that a group of actresses would be conducting screen tests with Force Awakens star John Boyega, suggesting that the new mystery woman will be an ally to Finn and the Resistance. Given what transpires in Episode VII, this is a distinct possibility. With Daisy Ridley's Rey likely spending a majority of her time with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on a remote planet, the Resistance could use a helping hand or two as they continue their war against the First Order.
Production on the movie is expected to begin later this year (not counting what has already been filmed at Skellig Michael in fall 2015), so fortunately it seems like there will be official word on the Episode VIII cast soon. No matter who ends up receiving the role, Lucasfilm has arguably earned the benefit of the doubt. After the Force Awakens newcomers firmly established themselves as the faces of the franchise moving forward, the studio has demonstrated they have an eye for who's best for each part and there's no reason to think that has changed.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, 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.
Source: Meet the Movie Press (via /Film)