Star Wars: Rogue One – the cast and director in their own words

With Star Wars: Rogue One out now in the UK, the cast and director talk about its making, their characters and its underlying themes...

Behind the making of any film, there are dozens of other stories waiting to be told. And with Star Wars: Rogue One being one of the last big, big films of 2016, we were keen to chat to director Gareth Edwards and his cast – Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed, Alan Tudyk, Mads Mikkelsen, Ben Mendelsohn, Diego Luna and Donnie Yen – about their experiences on Rogue One and its underlying themes.

What was Alan Tudyk’s backpack of shame? What’s the link between Rogue One and Edwards’ Monsters and Godzilla reboot? What does the film say about the state of the real world in 2016? Read on to find out…

Gareth Edwards on being allowed to make a dark, gritty Star Wars movie

I was waiting for some phone call that goes, “You can’t do that.” And it never came. If anything, they were encouraging us to be different. They had all the other really successful saga films, and then suddenly this standalone. And they were like, “Well, how is this different? Why is this unique? It’s got to be different.”

That’s a unique situation as a filmmaker on these big massive movies, is the studio actively encouraging you to go out on a limb a little bit more, so that’s what we did. We tried to make the most realistic version of Star Wars we could. 

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The cast on Rogue One’s documentary style

Mads Mikkelsen: It brought two styles of filmmaking together. Doing a gigantic sci-fi film but sort of approaching it sort of like Dogme 95, raw style. It’s very interesting. Obviously, it has to be very honest and truthful to that universe, and be able to create that, but at the same time, trying to make it quite intimate when we’re doing the scenes. The characters are used to being in these situations, so it should be intimate for them. 

Ben Mendelsohn: But it does provide a real sense, just for the audience, of being there. And that’s part of what really thrills me about Rogue One is the look. It feels worn, it feels like a dilapidated world to a degree. But you feel very present in it. Where Rogue One goes to, I think, is one of the things which all of us who made it are really proud of. Really, really proud. It’s a really gutsy film. Especially for one so grand as a Star Wars film.

Diego Luna: Yeah, the realistic approach to the Star Wars universe was important. It does have those epic battles and cool shots that are very Star Wars, but then you go into a very intimate journey with this Rebel team, and you believe the relationships and the dynamics of these characters. There’s a proximity that’s almost uncomfortable – you’re very close. It was important to make a film that was realistic because it’s about regular people doing extraordinary things. These are the darkest time in the galaxy; there are no Jedis around, you know? No one’s going to come to rescue you. It’s about you getting involved, or watching disaster happen. 

That’s kind of cool. It was very exciting to me at least. To make characters that live in the grey zone, they’re not black or white. War is horrible, right? War can be a cruel place to be. You witness horrible things, and you have to make choices. And war is something that shouldn’t be happening, and if it has to happen, it’s because it’s the last resort. 

Riz Ahmed: It’s got an edge to it that makes it very distinctive. This isn’t an Angel Delight, blancmange version of Star Wars. It’s got some edges to it for sure. But I think that’s what people are responding to from what I’ve seen. People feel like it’s kind of a special movie for that reason. 

Felicity Jones: With Rogue One, it’s very much an homage to A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Constantly looking at those films and trying to figure out why they’re so good, and how we could take some of those elements. But equally, it had to stand on its own, and it had to be true to the times that we’re living in. And that came out of doing this documentary style, and I do feel, particularly with what’s happening at the moment in the world, it’s keying into some of those things.

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Alan Tudyk on creating K-2SO, stilts, and the backpack of shame

The stilts were uncomfortable for the first couple of weeks until the callouses came in. They were like a new pair of Church shoes that you have to wear. That was it. I got the balance down pretty much. Certain challenges: sand, but not really deep sand. When it was really tough, they put this backpack on me, which I referred to as the backpack of shame. Because it had this telescoping head that came off of it, and it was a really lame head: it wasn’t some ILM, amazing construction – it was a piece of poster board with a crap K-2SO picture on it. Diego [Luna] hated it. 

[Launches into Diego Luna impression, with Mexican accent] “Please take it off. I can’t stand that. It looks like we’re now doing a movie in Mexico. Everyone is confused.”

I called it the backpack of shame because as soon as I put it on, [Diego voice again] “Nobody respects you anymore.” But I could run in that. I could jump and run through water. A lot of active stuff, because it’s a war movie. A lot of running. 

Luckily, the droids in Star Wars have such big personalities. So there was never a question of, “Do I have a soul?” The droids just have personalities, especially on the Alliance side of things. So the life came from the script.

The biggest thing that influenced me was that he didn’t obey everybody’s orders, and that when Jyn first meets K-2, Cassian comes in and says, “You met K-2?” And she says, “Yeah.” And he says, “I’m sorry.” He doesn’t even ask what he said, he’s just like, “Yeah… him.” He’s apologising without knowing what he said! So if you have someone you have to apologise for without even knowing what they said, that gives you as an actor an opportunity to say whatever you want. 

Gareth Edwards on keeping the cast of central characters small

I feel like scale is relative. There’s that phrase, “If one person dies, it’s a tragedy. When a million people die, it’s a statistic.” It’s like that on a visual level; if you want to make people feel something, you’ve got to be with one character, or people you care about. If you’re experiencing it too objectively, you don’t really care. I felt there was a great opportunity in this film to get on the ground level with the characters and have these epic amazing things happen, but you’re in it, and you’re trying to survive. And the camera crew, in a way, is trying to survive. So it has that realism to it, and that was the side of Star Wars that I was really excited about. 

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As a kid, it’s not like I dreamed of doing this sort of thing, but as you play, and as an adult, as you grew and saw other films, and different styles of filmmaking, it felt like, “Star Wars could work like this.”

Donnie Yen on making his character a blind warrior

[Chirrut being blind] was one of my suggestions. Between me and Gareth before we started production, I just felt, reading the script, I’d played these kinds of roles before. Very spiritual, skilful. I thought it would be interesting to make him blind – I’d never played a blind person before.

Here you’ve got this person who’s as capable as anybody else, but he can’t see. He’s full of darkness, but yet so strong, so optimistic. He has so much faith. Sometimes as a normal person living in the world today, we complain about so many things, and we’re healthy people. That’s what inspired me to play a blind person.

Gareth Edwards on Saw Gerrera’s oxygen mask

I asked the sound design people to put a bit of Vader, like, [Does impression of Vader’s breathing]. Because I wanted it to feel like this guy is trying so hard to do the right thing, and gone to such extreme levels that he’s becoming the very thing he’s fighting. Like, he’s destroying his soul and losing his humanity. It’s supposed to be very subconscious but it’s like, if Saw keeps going, he’ll become like Vader. He’ll lose his soul. It’s all subtle stuff that no one maybe notices, but you’ve got to try and put it in there.

Felicity Jones on falling back on her theatre training to play Jyn Erso

[Theatre training] helps with everything. Through to publicity, it gives you a discipline, and a grounding, and it teaches you how to do something over and over again and keep it feeling authentic and naturalistic every single time. And also, the crew are the first audience. And it’s always interesting to see actors watching playback, and with digital that’s obviously becoming more popular, but I think actually you don’t need to, because the crew will tell you everything, like a theatre audience. When a take hasn’t gone very well, literally everyone leaves! People are going to get coffee – you can sense it. You can sense that something hasn’t clicked, and then when it does click, and when it does work, nobody moves! Everyone’s ready for the next thing. So I always trust the crew’s instinct.

Riz Ahmed on putting away his character after the shoot

It’s weird. I have trouble putting characters away, if I’m honest. I still act out scenes from The Night Of sometimes. I always think about how else I could have done something. Sometimes I have quite an obsessive personality, for better and worse, so in a way, I feel they don’t leave me. But that’s okay – I don’t mind hanging out with Bodi Rook for a few more years, at least. He’s a complicated guy. He’s trying to do the right thing, so he’s not a bad person to have around.

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Gareth Edwards on the similarities between Monsters, Godzilla and Rogue One

There are things that I gravitate towards that I subconsciously went to on this film. One of the obvious ones is the Death Star: what does that symbolically represent in the real world? It’s the nuclear arms race, and trying to be the first to get the nuclear weapon. One of the little games we would play when we were trying to figure out the story is take all the science fiction away, and tell the story like a classic film. It very much easily became a WWII war movie when we did that – this race to get a super weapon.

So those themes and that imagery – even getting imagery of the tests in the South Pacific, that I’d gone through with Godzilla, some of that came to mind. Maybe that affected this film more than I realised. I find all that stuff fascinating. When science fiction and fantasy sort of reflect the real world in some way, and it’s symbolic, that’s when it’s strongest, I think.

The cast on Rogue One’s themes of diversity, unity and selflessness

Riz Ahmed: It’s 2016, you know? So if you’re telling a story, you’re telling it to the world. People have access to everything, whether they stream film and TV at home or go and see movies at multiplexes, which are now around the world, it makes sense that our stories reflect the diverse audiences that we’re telling them to. So I think it feels natural. It feels right.

Ben Mendelsohn: I think it’s very lucky when you have an enormous studio film that has such diversity, and has such richness of themes. People are already taking the viewpoints they’ve seen in Rogue One, and bringing their own take on what it’s about. And that’s enriching.

Alan Tudyk: It’s easy to be apathetic and get lost in your phone. [Chuckles] The luxuries of the day. I have a problem myself of just getting into my computer and, “Ugh. I’m upset about that.” And then the next page… “Ugh! I’m upset about that. Ooh! Shopping. Whoo! I like that.” You know? Taking action is, I think, rare.

Star Trek explored race relations and interracial romance and a lot of political things. Done with aliens, it’s somehow palatable. It doesn’t hit you right in the face. Twilight Zone was the same way. They’re great, moral stories, and Rogue One is no different. It teaches a great thing about hope, and an individual’s power to affect change. 

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Felicity Jones: Jyn’s on the outside of society. She’s fallen out of it; she feels completely disillusioned and the film, in many ways, is about someone becoming politicised. It’s someone finding a belief and fighting for something. 

Diego Luna: It’s about getting involved, about getting your hands dirty. It’s about, if something worries you, get out there. Find people who think like you do, and you might find the strength you’re not finding to do something [on your own]. So it is about that. Our strength is in our numbers, and you’re not alone. So go out there, connect with others, and do something. Yes, it’s a film about that. 

I mean, science fiction has always been a tool to make comments on reality, comments on things that matter. By starting a film, saying, “This happens in a galaxy far, far away”, I can say so many things. And when you start to get uncomfortable, I go, “No! It’s not about you! Don’t get me wrong. It’s not personal. This is in a galaxy far, far away!” It’s a very effective tool to say things, you know. 

The first [Star Wars] was a reaction to the 70s, and this film’s a reaction to 2015. These films are a great tool to reach a big audience with an idea that matters, that can trigger the right things. I love that this film isn’t just an adventure, it’s not just a very emotional journey, but it also has a very pertinent message. I feel very lucky to be part of it.