Photo: Lucasfilm; Jason Merritt/Getty Images
As an actress, Gwendoline Christie is used to keeping secrets — she is, after all, Brienne of Tarth on Game of Thrones, meaning she knows a lot more than you do about whether Jon Snow is alive or dead. Her striking six-foot-three frame and sympathetic onscreen presence have gotten Christie cast in a range of major sci-fi and fantasy franchises like The Hunger Games and Star Wars, but when talking with the press for those highly anticipated projects, she’s usually not allowed to say much about her characters for fear of inadvertently spoiling something.
When I sat down with Christie yesterday to discuss Star Wars: The Force Awakens, then, she surely wasn’t expecting to make any news. The film, which features her as chrome-polished Stormtrooper baddie Captain Phasma, hasn’t screened for press yet, and what little is known about her character has been carefully parceled out by director J.J. Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan.
But what neither of us were counting on is that just before I met up with her, I’d managed to extract a scoop from Kasdan that was so secret, even Christie herself didn’t know about it: Captain Phasma, who’s set to make Star Wars history as the big-screen franchise’s first female villain, was originally conceived as a man.
“Really?” Christie said, her mouth dropping open. We were perched on two white couches in one of the cavernous conference rooms at the Los Angeles Convention Center, and she immediately hopped towards me, giddy about the revelation. “No. No!” she said, laughing in disbelief. “It’s so interesting, because I’m really uncovering more about this film from people like you than I knew before! Please just tell me everything he said!”
I happily obliged her: Kasdan had just recounted the whirlwind process of writing The Force Awakens, where he came onboard after a script from original writer Michael Arndt had been thrown out. Hundreds of people had already begun working on the film, and time was of the essence: All these top-tier technicians would be marooned without a compelling document to guide them.
“We were just casting about for all the characters,” said Kasdan, who conceived with Abrams a set of new, younger adventurers that would become entangled with old-guard Star Wars figures like Han Solo and Princess Leia. “I mean, we were making them up at that moment, as costuming and everything else was happening! It’s not like there was a finished script sitting around for months.”
Quite the contrary: Less than three weeks before the movie began principal photography, Kasdan and Abrams still had several key roles to cast as they brought the actors who had been hired to London to participate in the film’s first table read. A photo from that session quickly made its way online, and while Star Wars fans were thrilled to see actors like John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson had been added to the cast, only one new actress was pictured at the table read — Daisy Ridley, as the film’s new lead Rey — and that didn’t offer much for a big-screen franchise that can boast less than a handful of significant female characters. “Hey Star Wars,” said a peeved io9.com headline, “Where the Hell Are the Women?”
It was around that time that Kasdan and Abrams, who were still attempting to cast Phasma (and, it’s rumored, had been talking to Benedict Cumberbatch for the role), had their gender-flipping brainstorm. “Everything was happening simultaneously,” Kasdan told me. “When the idea came up to make Phasma female, it was instantaneous: Everyone just said, ‘Yes. That’s great.’”
Christie concurred yesterday, delighted by the bombshell. “I think that’s great of them, don’t you?” she said. “That there was a discussion about that, and an evolution?”
To Christie, there’s an added significance to the character even beyond what she represents to Star Wars. “It’s that we’re so used to relating to female characters primarily through how they have been made in flesh,” she said, “and with Captain Phasma, our initial relationship is based on her character and her actions, rather than that random group of elements that comes together and makes us be born in a certain way.”
Ensconced in chrome armor, Phasma is bereft of most markers of gender, aside from the clipped orders that Christie sternly issues from inside her helmet. “That’s what I found interesting about the costume,” she said. “It’s armor, and it’s entirely functional, and it isn’t sexualized in any way. I remember when I first saw it, I said, ‘Wow’ — not just because it looks incredible, although come on — but because I thought, This is new. I mean, in my own small bubble, this represents the way I think and the way I see things, but it’s not always the way of the world. So for that evolved thinking to be in a Star Wars movie, I think people love that! People have responded so well to that.”
“It feels fresh,” I ventured.
“It is,” Christie said, “but I also think it’s representative of our society. I would imagine that audiences are 50 percent women, so why not utilize that?”
That’s why when Christie was offered the role, “I just lost it,” she said. “I could not believe that a Star Wars film was doing something as progressive as this, I really couldn’t. And I don’t know if you agree with me, but I really do feel like an evolution of sorts is occurring. Entertainment projects like Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Star Wars have a more diverse range of characters — male and female, but particularly female — and what audiences seem to be saying is, ‘We like this and this is what we want to see. We want to see something more unconventional than all the things we’ve seen before.’”
If that means that more writers and directors will give a second thought to their female characters — giving them all the agency and complications that come to them so easily when scripting men — then Christie is all for it. “It should be everyday,” she said, adding simply, “Because it is everyday.”