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Vanessa Marshall reflects on her character Hera Syndulla’s growth and the big unknowns of season 3.
Vanessa Marshall is one of the most prolific voice actors around, but as she’ll readily admit, few of her characters affect her as profoundly as Twi’lek pilot Hera Syndulla, captain of the rebel ship Ghost, on Disney XD’s Star Wars Rebels.
Hera saw her ragtag band of freedom fighters go on perilous journeys in the second season of the pre-A New Hope animated series, which ended on March 30 with a killer cliffhanger. With the benefit of several weeks to think about it all, Marshall had a lot to say about where Rebels left things and what might be next.
In case you forgot how “Twilight of the Apprentice” ended, here’s a quick refresher: Kanan Jarrus, the “cowboy Jedi” whose own training was cut short by Order 66, had taken his apprentice, the Force-strong and headstrong teenager Ezra Bridger, and their new ally, ex-Jedi Ahsoka Tano (from Star Wars: The Clone Wars), on a mission to a Sith stronghold, where they hoped to find the knowledge necessary to defeat a group of Sith Inquisitors.
Instead, they came face to face with Darth Maul, who, after supposedly dying at the end of The Phantom Menace and being reborn in The Clone Wars, was now on a mission to steal the Sith planet’s ultimate weapon. Maul tried to seduce Ezra to the dark side, hoping to gain his aid, but thanks to Ezra’s training, Maul’s plan failed just as Darth Vader arrived to take possession of the weapon. Ahsoka, Vader’s former apprentice, stepped up to duel him, and the season ended with the outcome of their long-awaited lightsaber battle tantalizingly unclear.
The Daily Dot recently spoke to Marshal about the season finale and everything that preceded it in season 2, including Hera’s tense reunion with her father, her complicated feelings for Kanan, and her approach to leadership during dark times for the Rebellion.
Let’s start with the season finale. What was your first reaction when you saw the way Ahsoka’s fight with Vader ended?
I stopped breathing. And I felt hopeful, ultimately. It wasn’t until the second viewing, at home, that I broke down sobbing. [laughs] Just because it was so poignant and perfect, and I was really able to get more into the details of exactly what I was looking at. It was more like a state of shock. It was almost like a massive car accident [laughs] the first time around. I felt physical shock and awe.
Can you elaborate on the “hopeful” aspect? That’s interesting to me.
Yes. Well, here’s the thing: I understand that she walked away from the Jedi Council. I know, also, that Yoda sent her to Malachor. My feeling is that Yoda is aware of who Anakin has become, and the only person, quasi-Jedi, who may have righted the Force would have been Ahsoka. Not only could she handle it, but perhaps she could turn it around. And worst-case scenario, given what we learned in season 6 of The Clone Wars with the Yoda arc, in terms of the afterlife and Force ghosts and Qui-Gon and all that—[I thought] that even though she’s not technically a Jedi, perhaps she could intuitively embrace some of those ideas of being a Force ghost.
All of that being said, I’m not sure which version of what I just described is going on, but I didn’t feel that she died, and that made me very hopeful. It wasn’t a finite ending. It was very open-ended, and I appreciated that.
As a matter of fact, I think it was perfect for Clone Wars fans, because if [executive producer, former The Clone Wars supervising director, and Ahsoka co-creator Dave Filoni] actually killed her, I don’t know that … I don’t know that I could function. So that’s kind of him to have left it open. And I think in a weird way, that’s the only way you could win with that ending.
Well, I think I know Dave Filoni well enough to guess that he hasn’t told you and the rest of the cast what happens next for Ahsoka—
—he wants to keep that close to his chest. But what do you think would be a cool way for her to reappear, if she does?
Oh, boy. That’s a really great question. I haven’t even journeyed that far. I really don’t know. I mean, here’s the question: Would she become a Force ghost? Would she transform into a different kind of energy, and have the ability, like Obi-Wan, to sort of come and go? [doing Alec Guinness impression] “Luke, use the Force.” Would she? I don’t know.
Some would argue [that] she was never officially made a [full] Jedi. She says [in the season 2 finale], “I’m no Jedi.” Would that even be possible, given what I’ve said before—that she may have been so close to becoming a Jedi that she may naturally have an open heart to that kind of transformation. Perhaps Yoda would know that, given what he has learned [about the nature of the Force in The Clone Wars].
Somehow I don’t necessarily see her coming back in a physical form. [I think] that she will be of assistance—she’s more powerful now than we can imagine, if you will, and that she would return in ways that would be quite mystical. But again, I have no idea. I really don’t know. And it’s hard to even conceive of it. I mean, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, really.
Well, I don’t even know where to start with that. We could talk for a whole hour about just this subject. But that might be a conversation for a different time. I’m sure a lot of good fanfiction is coming out of the end of season 2.
Well, not only do we not know what’s next. We don’t even know what just happened.
Yeah. It was left unclear, and I think that was a very interesting way of handling that.
Yeah. I think it was awesome.
Another big unresolved part of the season finale is what Darth Maul will be up to after re-emerging from hiding, trying to mentor Ezra, and barely escaping Malachor with his life. Were you a big fan of him when Dave Filoni brought him back from “death” in The Clone Wars, and what do you make of what he’s become?
Oh, I love every second, every moment, that [Maul voice actor] Sam [Witwer] speaks or breathes. He is a genius. I loved that entire arc in The Clone Wars with him. And it’s funny to watch the background footage on the DVDs where they show him sort of performing the role—the way he would contort his body, I mean, it’s such divine commitment to a bit. I think he’s an absolute genius. You’d think he couldn’t do any better, and he just … he killed it [on Rebels]. He really did. It was brilliant.
I’m happy to have [Maul] back, and I’m curious to see where he goes as well.
When Hera and Kanan reunite after the Jedi mission in the season finale, it’s a very emotional moment, because Hera is worried about how Kanan’s injury, his blindness, will affect him. Do you think Hera wishes she had overruled his insistence that the mission was Jedi business and gone along to watch his back? How are her conflicting feelings—her respect for his customs and her care for his safety—warring within her in that moment?
I think she would consider it selfish for her to do anything other than what she did. I think she considers the highest good for the group, as well as the Alliance and the [establishment] of the Rebel base and their overall goals. These are the costs of standing up to such immense evil, and I think she has known that all along. To get selfish, petty, and needy at this point—in terms of asking him to stay with her or let her go—I think, would really be completely counter to everything she’s built up until that point.
She may sort of inwardly feel many of the things you described, [but] there’s no way on Earth she would ever ask any of that of [Kanan]. I think she feels deeply sorry for the loss of his sight, but I don’t think she second-guesses what transpired, and I think she’s grateful he’s alive.
Do you think that Hera is insecure about, or uncomfortable with, being unable to offer Ezra the Jedi training and wisdom that Kanan gives him? Because those two have something that the other members of the Ghost crew can never understand, and that kind of separation can cause anxiety or tension in a tight-knit group. Is that something that Hera has to wrestle with, and how do you see her doing it?
No, I think that [the members of the Ghost crew] were chosen specifically for the way they fit together. I think she knew that Ezra would complete Kanan’s [unfinished] Jedi [training] process, in the sense that … once [Kanan] becomes a teacher, he’s no longer a student, therefore he must have learned something to boost his confidence. That strengthens [the rebels’] cause.
But Ezra, I think [Hera] sees that ability in him, and while she maybe embodies Jedi principles, she’s not Force-sensitive. Deferring to [Kanan] to let them both blossom in that way and mutually benefit one another—again, I think it’s Hera’s understanding of the bigger picture, not about her own abilities. She’s very good at delegating and putting the proper people in charge and letting them do what they do best.
I’ve often said that she brings out the best in people and helps them discover things about themselves that they didn’t know they had. In a weird way … that’s what she wanted all along, was for [Kanan and Ezra to develop a special Jedi bond].
But that’s a great question, because, indeed, she can’t give Ezra what Kanan so clearly can.
Speaking of Ezra’s growth, the finale leaves his situation very ambiguous. At the very end, we see him opening a Sith holocron, and Jedi aren’t supposed to be able to do that. Is there anything you can cryptically tease about how Hera will react to whatever’s going on with Ezra?
Honestly, I have no idea. I wish I could comment or tease. I’m ill-equipped. I’m ill-equipped to philosophize about Ahsoka or Ezra. I’m equally clueless—which, I guess, is a great way I still get to be a fan of the show, because it’s always a discovery for me.
Just in general terms, obviously, if something like were to go down, where he would go down that path [toward the dark side], I think it would break her heart—not only because it’s a loss for the Rebel Alliance. It’s like, you can either use your powers for good or evil, and you can walk toward life or you can walk toward death. Not to denigrate the Sith path, by any means. [laugh] Sorry, I know there’s power in passion. But I do think that that would be very sad.
[It’s] almost as if you would lose someone to an addiction or something like that—where they could have many different things had they not done that. I would imagine it would be very sad for her to see that, especially after Kanan had put all that effort in. But I don’t know. I can’t wait to see. I pray that that does not happen. [laughs]
Well, I think a lot of fans would be very surprised, because I don’t expect them to go in that direction with Ezra. But of course, he is young and impressionable. You never know.
Yeah. I’m hoping it’s sort of like the middle-school bully who comes around, and everyone wants to be accepted and validated [by him], and maybe for, like, two minutes, you think you’re going to be cool with him. And then you realize, like, “Oooh, hey now.” I mean, I love the way Ezra kept [telling Maul], “Uh, yeah, my master’s not really into the last part of that” [plan]. You know? [laughs] He still manages to have a backbone pulling him to the light side, if you will.
They’re very different paths, and they’re both very powerful—and means to very different ends. So…that would be interesting. We shall see!
Obviously, a big moment for Hera in season 2 was encountering her father, Cham, who doesn’t see the rebellion the same way she does. He just wants to fight the Empire on their home planet of Ryloth. He doesn’t care about the broader galaxy that she wants to save. And she’s willing to jeopardize their relationship to pursue her mission, which shows tremendous resolve. But do you think that single-minded approach has its downsides, or will have its downsides in the future, in terms of Hera’s wellbeing?
Well, I think that episode was particularly healing for her. Because I think she longed to be understood by her father. And that’s the most painful place to be, I think, is when you want to be understood. Because that’s just a resentment waiting to happen. You’re sort of putting your serenity in the hands of whomever you’re seeking the validation from.
If you look at it very simply, Cham focuses on Ryloth—that’s very local—and Hera is focusing on the galaxy and the Empire taking over at large. Both are fighting for the same thing, neither better nor worse, but I think because there is more destruction universally, Hera really, truly believes that her way—while Ryloth is important—it should be Ryloth and the various other places, [like] Lothal and so on, [that] are being exterminated.
It kind of follows. It’s sort of like, maybe your dad played the piano or something, and you’re in a huge orchestra, [and] your dad thinks you’re an idiot for playing with other instruments. Like, ‘What the hell?’ You know? But at a certain point, maybe the dad hears the music [as a group effort] and for once sees the child’s point of view. I think they both expand.
I didn’t expect Cham to betray [Hera and the Ghost crew]—when they finally got onboard [the Imperial ship they were working together to steal] and [Cham’s people] all turned on [Hera’s] rebels, that was like, ‘Wow, dude.’ I mean, Hera, I don’t think, would ever harm her father per se. That was pretty cold [of Cham]. But even despite that, I’m really glad that they eventually came to fight side-by-side, literally, saving the ship.
But you asked about her losses. I think it’s been quite lonely for her. I think when one sort of turns away from everything they’ve ever known—I mean, look, she’s lost her Ryloth accent, she sort of reinvented herself to assemble a motley crew to conquer evil. Reading [the Rebels prequel novel] A New Dawn and some of the other books and short stories about Hera, [it’s clear] that she moves in a very stealthy fashion all around, witnessing things and bringing people together in a way that—if anything, I think the cost would be loneliness, ultimately.
She has sort of, up until this point, been auditioning everyone for this crew. These people finally got the parts, and now she’s here, and now the cost of that is that she may lose members of her family. The stakes are higher.
To answer your last question, [about] how does she lose in this, I think it’s loneliness. The danger increases, and the losses seem to be greater as well, around her.
Another thing I found interesting about Hera in season 2 is that she was given command of Phoenix Squadron, an A-wing unit. She’d already had responsibility as the captain of the Ghost, but how do you think her new role as Phoenix Leader has changed her? We don’t really see her in that capacity very often; she’s mostly still with the Ghost.
Well, I think, once again, [just as] it was important for her to be recognized by her father, I think it also feels great to be recognized in that capacity as well. I don’t know that it really changed anything for her, other than she was recognized [by her commander] and that was an enjoyable experience. I don’t really see her role changing that much. Maybe I missed something. It seems, pretty much, that she calls the shots, people listen, sometimes they argue, but at the end of the day, it’s still the “motley crew” I described a moment ago. At the end of the day, it seems like [she’s Phoenix Leader] in title only; [it’s] not necessarily a [full-time] job change.
I don’t know. Did you think that she behaved differently afterward?
No. In fact, I was kind of expecting there to be more A-wing missions. But it’s sort of the same old Hera.
Yeah, exactly. Well, I think it was cool for her to be recognized.
Yeah, even if it’s just honorary or a minor thing, it’s a reflection of the trust that the rebel movement puts in her.
Right, right. She’s got a number of nice moments this season, I thought.
And one of them isn’t even in a Hera episode. In “The Forgotten Droid,” when the Ghost’s cantankerous droid, Chopper, makes a droid friend, he tells him about how Hera rescued him after his ship was shot down during the Clone Wars. And in “Homecoming,” when Hera reunites with her father, she’s very protective of Chopper. We don’t know much the early part of their relationship. Have you talked to Dave about how that started?
I think she has a real soft spot for him. Once again, she’s collected these specific people, or astromech [droids], for her cause. I mean, Ezra was on the streets and she gave him a life—they all did, in a way; [they] gave him direction. Chopper also was given a bit of a life and a family, even though he’s sort of a grumpy astromech.
[Dave] didn’t really talk about it much more than it’s written in the script, so I was pleased to see that episode and learn even more [about Chopper and Hera’s relationship]. And hopefully we’ll learn more in the future as well, as to the specific circumstances. They have a special relationship, and I love that.
I feel like Chopper is the least explored member of the team, and yet, now that we know how he came to be part of that group, I’d love to read a comic book or something that explores that in detail.
Yeah, yeah. Well, maybe we’ll learn more. Hopefully we will. Maybe they’ll have a flashback or something.
Switching gears a bit…I was surprised that Hera was so adamantly opposed to trusting the purrgil, those so-called “space whales” that initially frightened the crew when they encountered them in “The Call.” Ezra sensed through the Force that they meant no harm and could help the crew find their destination, but Hera brushed him off, saying she’d heard legends about their destructiveness. It seemed unlike her to refuse to listen to Ezra’s Force instincts like that. Did that surprise you when you read the script? Can you talk about how you see that scene fitting into her character?
You know, I asked Dave about this, and there’s a couple things. One, I think she lost friends due to purrgil flying in the path of her fellow pilots’ ships. I felt that she had personally experienced suffering at the hands of the purrgil. The legend part seemed to be whether or not they had something to do with the concept of hyperspace.
Dave said that he specifically wanted to illustrate, in that episode, that someone could have an opinion at the beginning of the episode and change their mind and learn something by the end. And he felt that that was a really important lesson for people—[for them] to notice that, in the Star Wars universe, there are lessons like that, and that people are capable of changing.
When I hear about these drones that are flying in the path of commercial airliners in the U.K. or Europe, it’s sort of the same concept. “Uhhh, I’m a little wary of those things. That’s not good!” [laughs] If [you think] you’re going to be shot down out of the air or [experience] some sort of collision thanks to some drone … the apprehension there may come from empirical evidence that, if they get in the path of a ship, the ship will cease to fly. [laughs]
There were a lot of people, on social media, who were like, “Whoa, purrgil-hater!” I’m not necessarily a drone-hater. I just am aware of the danger that, if they fly in front of an airplane, we might have an issue. I think it’s a similar kind of disdain or apprehension [from Hera about the purrgil]—the purrgil are the purrgil, but you put them in space, flying near ships, and we have a massive problem that could mess up a rebel base or have serious consequences and loss of life and friendships.
I thought it was cool that Dave wanted to demonstrate that—that we can learn things in the Star Wars universe. And in fact, [the purrgil] did have something to do with hyperspace, as is illustrated by the end of [the episode], so [Hera] could see more of the beauty in that and side more [with] the wonder of that, if you will, as opposed to whatever she had witnessed or experienced in the past with them destroying ships in flight.
It occurs to me that perhaps, in these other encounters with purrgil, people thought the creatures were hostile and panicked and made things worse for themselves. The Ghost crew was fortunate to have a Jedi aboard who could sense their pacifism and react accordingly. Maybe the ships that met grisly fates weren’t that lucky.
My dad is a pilot, and he loves seagulls. When he’s in the air in his open-cockpit biplane, he’s not really a fan of seagulls [laughs] because unfortunately, they do collide with pilots. Never my dad, but I remember flying with him one time, and I said, “Dad, are those seagulls?” They were flying very near to the plane, and he said, “Ah, yeah, I’m moving.”
So when we did that episode, I was thinking of the seagulls and my dad being apprehensive or cautious around them. Because that’s not going to be a good thing if you [slam into] one mid-air. God forbid, that’d be horrible. But I viewed it as something similar: I love seagulls in general, but not when I’m in an open-cockpit biplane. [laughs] At that point, I’d like for us to keep in our own lanes.
I likened it to that flying experience that I’d had with my dad.
You’ve mentioned before how your dad’s experience as a pilot helped inform how you played Hera when she flew an early prototype of a B-wing starfighter. You had to play her as someone exhilarated by the joy and the freedom of flight. Has your dad’s experience helped you play Hera in other ways?
I think it’s with me in every episode, as she makes these maneuvers that are mind-boggling. My dad does that, too. My dad does these hammerheads. He does the aerobatics. I mean, it’s a kind of fearlessness, with an attention to detail, that cannot be reckless. It’s so many things all at once that it’s mind-boggling to me personally. If you put me in a plane, it’d be like, “Wooo, shiny beads!” It wouldn’t necessarily be my first choice ever. So I’m always impressed with his ability to be so disciplined and so focused and pay such close attention to detail, while equally trusting gravity, and whatever else, to right the plane by doing a nosedive and all these other crazy things.
Whenever [Hera] does those in any episode—and they do have them quite often—I think of my dad and his ability to do those things without having a heart attack [laughs] and freaking out like I would.
I don’t know, man. I think life’s hard enough. I don’t need to do a nosedive. I’m alright. [laughs]
Speaking of those maneuvers: Obviously those are animated after you record the dialog, but when the twists and turns are important to the scene, does the script ever lay out some of those details?
Absolutely. And when we record it, we have to envision the stakes and the sounds—it always seems like we’re schmacting, it always seems like, “Oh, that’s way too much.” But it actually isn’t. When you put it with production, it requires—when Han and Chewie are screaming at each other, that’s how you have to get through those very tense times. We have to bring that level of energy to the acting and the lines.
What it ultimately looks like, I see that on television with you guys—we all watch it together—and it’s always better than I can imagine. But I do have a sense of it, and I think back to those times when I was doing crazy aerobatics with my dad.
To wrap up here, do you have a favorite way that you think the second season of Rebels expanded or enhanced the Star Wars saga?
I don’t know if I can say without crying.
When Anakin’s face [showed through Darth Vader’s fragmented mask] … when we see Anakin’s face, and Ahsoka [sees] his face. For me … [pauses to collect her breath] … that moment will live with me forever, much like when Ahsoka walked away [from the Jedi Order] in Clone Wars. There was so much in that [Rebels scene] that finally came together for me—that was a very mythic moment. And I’m not sure what transpires with Ahsoka following that, but that was immensely rewarding for me, as a Star Wars fan since the first film, going through the prequels and through Clone Wars. Yeah.
It’s an incredibly powerful scene, and it’s clear from your answer that you’re a diehard fan of Star Wars and someone who can appreciate these nuanced, mythic story beats.
Yeah. That was really … whoof. I’ll never forget that image. Ever.
Well, I don’t know how you guys are going to top that next season, but I’m very excited to see it however it happens.
Yeah, I don’t know, man, but leave it to Dave Filoni, leave it to Lucasfilm. Trust me. I don’t put it past them. I have no idea how they do it. It’s just really amazing.
Eric Geller is a politics reporter who focuses on cybersecurity, surveillance, encryption, and privacy. A former staff writer at the Daily Dot, Geller joined Politico in June 2016, where he's focused on policymaking at the White House, the Justice Department, the State Department, and the Commerce Department.