How Does ‘The Last Jedi’ Differ From ‘The Force Awakens? Rian Johnson and the Cast Explain

Last Jedi Press Conference

A little over a week ago, at an undisclosed location in Downtown Los Angeles, there was a press conference for the most anticipated film of the year, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the continuation of the revitalized saga that began two years ago with The Force Awakens. Typically, at these types of press events the assembled media has had a chance to view the film. That wasn’t the case here, with only the sprawling ensemble cast and writer-director Rian Johnson having seen the film. For those worrying that there might be spoilers for the surprised-filled sequel can rest assured that anything in the neighborhood of revealing any important details of The Last Jedi.

At one point during the press conference, a member of the press asked a question of Mark Hamill, returning as Luke Skywalker, and how the actor approached training Daisy Ridley’s Force sensitive character Rey.

“Do I?” the Star Wars icon asked in response.

“I know. I have to be really careful,” he said with a wry smile. “People say, ‘Was it difficult to pick up and wield a light saber again?’ And I go, ‘Do I pick up a light saber?’”

But Hamill did allow one little tidbit about the film to slip, saying, “I can promise you my part is twice as big as it was in The Force Awakens.”

With J.J. Abrams having laid the foundation for this new trilogy of Star Wars films, the door was open for Rian Johnson to leave his mark on the galaxy far, far away. “It’s a second movie in the trilogy and I think we’ve been kind of trained to expect it’ll be a little darker and obviously it looks a little darker,” Johnson said of trying to strike a deft balance between the darker tone of a sequel while retaining a sense of fun.

“The thing is, though, for me I loved the tone of the original films and also that J.J. [Abrams] captured in The Force Awakens of fun, and that’s like to me it’s a Star Wars movie. First and foremost we were trying to make it feel like a Star Wars movie,” he said with a wide grin on his face. “That means you have the intensity and you’ve got the opera, but it also means that it makes you come out of the theater wanting to run in your backyard, grab your spaceship toys and make them fly around, and that’s a key ingredient to it. So we’re going to go to some intense places in the movie but I hope also it’s fun.”

As for that different feeling, each member of the cast has a different interpretation on what made Rian Johnson’s take on Star Wars different than his predecessor.

“My answer will be in direct proportion to the amount of screen time I have,” Mark Hamill said, once again showing a devilish sense of humor.

“I just think the story’s moving forward,” said John Boyega who returns as Finn. “I just feel like J.J. had a blueprint, a foundation of Force Awakens that was pretty good and now it’s about – hey, it was good – and now it’s about moving forward with the story and just challenging the characters and then all the characters are under intense pressure, and so it’s a time which everyone has their own specific reckoning, and it’s all different. It’s a lot going on. I’ve only watched it once and the first thing is that I want to watch it again because of the amount of information and Easter eggs in there as well.”

Also returning is Oscar Isaac as ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron. “Often with the second chapter in a story of three, because the first one kind of sets the tone and the world and the new characters introduced them, in the second one you don’t have to spend so much time doing that,” the charismatic actor said. “You can really just delve into the story, into what’s happening, like John said, to the conflict of each of the characters. I think what Rian’s done so incredibly well is that he’s challenged deeply every single character, including the droids, with like the biggest challenges they’ve ever faced, and that’s how you’re able to really get to learn about them, on all sides of the spectrum, from light to dark. You know, it’s like he’s found a way to get to the central point of that character and try to challenge them as best as he can. I think it’s really amazing what he’s done.”

“The biggest thing for me when I read the script, because even though you’re trying to avoid what people are saying, it’s hard to, and because people responded well to John and I as a team, I was a big nervous about not being a team so much in this one,” Daisy Ridley said of the difference between her two films within the Star Wars universe. “I think for me personally it was a challenge. The film was a challenge and I don’t know what it was like for anyone else, but to be in different combinations of people. So in itself, we’re in different situations, we’re with different people that we are learning about, we’re meeting for the first time. So yeah, felt pretty different for me.”

The Last Jedi features a number of new characters that enter the galaxy in the midst of an ongoing war between good and evil. “Holdo, I mean, Laura, I’ve been wanting to – it’s a dream just to get to work with her,” Rian Johnson said of Laura Dern who stars as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo.

“The character that she plays in all of its glorious purple-haired wonder, we were really able to dig in and do some really exciting, fun stuff,” Johnson elaborated. “And Laura, I know that like the moments on set where like suddenly you would like catch my eye and you would say, ‘This feels like we’re making an independent film.’ Those were the moments that I was like, ‘Yeah, it kind of does.’ I think that feels really good and that kind of intimacy of the process. I don’t know. If Laura Dern’s telling you that, then you might be on the right track.”

“Just to add to that, what Rian spoke to, that he does so beautifully was describing the intimacy of discovering each character’s conflict, which is just extraordinary, given the enormity of the cast,” Dern said of joining the world of Star Wars and working with Rian Johnson. “That he gave us that in the experience of the workplace, and it was shocking. Oscar and I always talked about just how stunned we were that we were in such a massive environment and did feel like we were making an indie movie and you were always encouraging us to try things and explore character, and explore this duality of the light and the dark within characters, the movie speaks to so beautifully, not just that there are alternative universes but that that lies within, which seems to be the place that George Lucas first started the mythology of that, and it’s just so brilliant.”

Also joining the cast is Kelly Marie Tran as Rose, a Resistance mechanic who quickly forms a friendship with John Boyega’s Finn. “I’m trying not to cry right now ‘cause this is so weird and different,” Tran said of joining The Last Jedi. “Yeah, I feel like Rian has said this before but it definitely feels like you have to find a way to just do the work and kind of block everything out, but then C-3PO comes up and you’re like, ‘Oh, God.’ So you’re constantly figuring out how can I figure out how to work in this environment and then you’re like, but also this is awesome. So it’s kind of a balance, right?”

From the Dark Side of The Last Jedi returns Adam Driver as the nefarious Kylo Ren and Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux, each working to curry the favor of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in a motion capture performance).

“I think it’s definitely there’s a competition and it’s maybe yet to be discovered where that comes from,” Adam Driver says of Kylo Ren’s contentious relationship with General Hux. “If anything I think that’s more of a testament to kind of what everyone has been saying of Rian’s inability to not mind a character in every moment, which seems like an obvious thing; but he does it because he knows that spectacle, it won’t mean anything if you don’t care about anything that’s going on, which again, seems very obvious but I think it’s a really hard thing to balance with this many moving parts in the scale of something like this. I love playing those scenes, especially with Domhnall, because he’s a great actor and there’s nothing is kind of taken for granted where this happens and it moves on. If anything, Rian slows the pace and there’s not a moment that’s taken for granted. It’s always broken up into little pieces and the story in our mind comes first before an explosion.”

I think it’s funny, you know, like there’s just such a huge amount of drama going on in that group of people but then also just a huge amount of bitchy infighting as well, which I think is really fun to see them kind of really hurt each other from the inside as well as from the outside, you know, the united front thing is difficult for them sometimes,” Domhnall Gleeson added of the characters’ onscreen relationship.

Knowing that this is the second installment of a new trilogy, Rian Johnson was keenly aware of the expectations fans would have because of what is widely considered the best of the original Star Wars films, The Empire Strikes Back, meaning that there would be an assumption that this film would be darker in its content. However, Empire influenced Rian Johnson is other ways than its darker story material.

“My cinematographer, Steve Yedlin, who I’ve been best friends with since I was 18 years old, we met in film school, and so to be standing next to each other on the Star Wars set was pretty surreal. I think Empire is, you know, I think it’s just the most beautiful – I mean all the films are beautiful – I think for my just tastes, I think the cinematography in Empire is the most gorgeous of the whole series,” Johnson said of how Empire influenced The Last Jedi.

“So Steve and I looked at the lighting in that it’s also kind of the most – it’s pretty daring in terms of how dark they were willing to go with some of it – literally dark, and how gorgeous they went with some of the choices they made with the shaping of the lighting,” Johnson continued. “But then in terms of like an actual visual aesthetic I made a choice very early on that I thought, well, I can either try and kind of copy my idea of what the original movies did, which was much more of kind of a formal, the camera didn’t move a ton and it was a much more formal type visual aesthetic, or I realized, you know, we’re going to take visual cues lighting wise and design wise from, you know, the previous movies, but I need to just shoot this movie the way that I would shoot a movie, because at the end of the day, if I’m not engaged with it, and I’m not trying to tell the story the way that really makes me excited, then it’s not going to be up there on the screen. So I kind of cut myself loose camera movement wise and shot wise from trying to imitate the past and just try to tell the story as excitingly as I could up on the screen.”

As the Star Wars universe continues to expand, it also continues to grow more and more diverse, and this is especially noticeable in the great female characters that make up the galaxy, none of which could be described as damsels in distress.

“When I got involved I didn’t really – like, I knew it was a big deal, but the response was so beyond anything I could have imagined, that I’m still like – it was only afterwards I was like, oh yeah,” said Daisy Ridley of the female representation in the new Star Wars films. “And it’s not like I ever took it for granted or anything but it was just so monumental, the response and how people felt about it, and obviously that’s a testament to Kathy [Kennedy], J.J., Michael [Arndt], Larry [Kasdan], everyone who created the characters in the beginning, and I think what’s great about everyone is it’s not like she’s a girl, this is a guy, this is anything, everyone’s just, it’s just great characters that happily are falling into broader categories now, so I’m thrilled.”

“I think that it feels like both an honor and a responsibility at the same time,” added Kelly Marie Tran. “I feel like from the beginning when I initially found out I got this role, I just felt like I wanted to do the whole thing justice, and I’m so excited that guys, the girls in this movie kick some butt. Every single one is so good, and I can’t wait for everyone to see it.”

“I just want to pay tribute to Rian for being one of the most brilliantly subversive filmmakers I’ve ever been able to bear witness to, and in the case of the look of my character, I was moved by the fact that he really wanted her strength to first lead with a very deep femininity and to see a powerful female character also be feminine is something that moves away from a stereotype that’s sometimes perceived in strong female characters must be like the boys. I thought that was a really interesting choice to get to witness,” Laura Dern said of her character in this world of strong women.

“I wasn’t cast in the first Star Wars film yet when I heard about the casting, and I was utterly delighted to see that there was a more representative selection of actors that were going to be in these incredible Star Wars films, and that has continued,” added Gwendoline Christie who returns as the chrome-plated villain Captain Phasma. “Everything that my amazing colleagues say is absolutely right. You get to see women that are not being strong just because they’re acting like men. They’re doing something else. And also you’re seeing a developed character or at least a developing character, that’s showing some complex character traits. And I’m just delighted about that. I’m delighted that something as legendary as Star Wars has decided to be modern and to reflect our society more as it is.”

“Well, speaking as the leader of the First Order, I would say that Snoke is very unimpressed with the fact that there is such a huge female force that seems to be growing in the universe,” added Andy Serkis. “It’s deeply threatening. It’s deeply undermining. It’s got to be stopped. It cannot go on.”

Of all the great and powerful women to appear in Star Wars, it all started with Carrie Fisher’s iconic role as Princess Leia. Sadly, Fisher passed away last year and The Last Jedi is one of her last acting roles.

“She was very significant because I was first shown A New Hope when I was six, and I remember thinking, ‘Wow, that character’s really different,’ said Gwendoline Christie of Carrie Fisher. “I watched TV and film obsessively from such a young age but it stayed with me throughout my formative years, of she’s really interesting, she’s really smart, she’s really funny, she’s courageous, she’s bold, she doesn’t care what people think, and she isn’t prepared to be told what to do. And she doesn’t look the same as a sort of homogenized presentation of a woman that we had been used to seeing.”

“People speak about people who are brave or fearless, but beyond that, I’ve known luckily a few people that would hold those descriptions, but not that they would be without shame, and that’s what moved me the most about the icon she gave us, but also what she gave us individually and personally which is to Carrie, who she was so directly and to be without shame, and to share her story, and to expect nothing less from any of us,” Laura Dern said of Carrie Fisher’s legacy. “And the privilege of watching how Rian has so beautifully captured all of that and her grace in this amazing, beautiful, pure performance, but also I think she found an equal irreverent subservice and they had this dance that gives us this performance that I was just so moved by.”

“I don’t think I can really follow that, except to just say Carrie’s daughter Billie [Lourd] is I think all of those qualities,” said Daisy Ridley.  “She’s smart and funny and shameless and wonderful. I think Carrie bringing up a daughter obviously with [Billie’s father] Bryan [Lourd], bringing up a daughter who is all of those qualities and then some, in this world, if that’s what she did, you know, just her being her, I think it speaks volumes to what she did as her in the spotlight and also her as Leia.”

“I agree with everything that was said,” added Kelly Marie Tran. “I think that something about Carrie that I really look up to is, and something I didn’t realize until recently, was just how much courage it takes to truly be yourself when you’re on a public platform or when possibly a lot of people will be looking at you, and you she was so unapologetic and so openly herself and that is something that I am really trying to do, and it’s hard. And just like Daisy said, like Laura said, like Gwendoline said, I think that she will always be an icon as Leia but also as Carrie. What an example, you know? And I am so fortunate to have met her and I think that she will really live on forever.”

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