Bryce Dallas Howard’s career over the last few years has become quite the eclectic mix of projects, from running from the dinosaurs of Jurassic World to playing Elton John’s mom in Rocketman. But she’s also now the second-ever woman to direct a Star Wars story, making her television directing debut with episode four of Disney+’s The Mandalorian.
In “Sanctuary,” the mysterious helmeted bounty hunter is looking for a place to lie low with the internet’s beloved Baby Yoda, but when the pair arrive on an isolated planet, they get caught up in the battle between a village of farmers and the violent raiders who keep wreaking havoc on their crops.
Because this is Star Wars, Howard was sworn to secrecy about the episode until its release last Friday, but she says directing it was a joy. For one thing, she didn’t hesitate at all to take on the action-heavy episode, because her mother once managed a gun range, and so while Howard says that “in my day-to-day life I’m certainly not a big fan of guns,” by the age of 9 she had shot a 12-gauge shotgun. In addition, unlike the previous three episodes of The Mandalorian, “Sanctuary” introduced some prominent female characters who were more than capable of kicking ass, including Gina Carano as former shock trooper Cara Dune, and Julia Jones as Omera, the sympathetic widow who forms a connection with the Mandalorian.
Also, Howard got to play with Baby Yoda. Of course, Vulture asked her about that — though, as it turns out, that wasn’t exactly what they called the character on set.
Let’s start with the obvious: What was your first reaction to seeing Baby Yoda?
I think I screamed. [Laughs.] It was a physical reaction — I’m holding my face right now, I’m squeezing it, because the baby is so cute.
Something that might really be not true, but I heard recently and I was like, “Oh, I feel this is true,” is that someone told me that when you see something cute, it fires a part of your brain that’s very close to the violence part of your brain. And that’s why you say, “I just want to smush it. I just want to squeeze.” It’s that kind of visceral reaction — you get that burst [of feeling] when you see those eyes and those ears and those cute little hands.
When you’re working with an animatronic puppet, you want to see what the puppet can do and what the performers can do. The puppeteers are from Legacy, Stan Winston’s company, and I’d worked with them on Terminator: Salvation. I’d worked with them on Jurassic World. And Jon Favreau charged me with, you know, “push this as far as you can — see if Baby can walk, see how much Baby can articulate his hands.” And that was just absolutely exhilarating.
As soon as he was revealed onscreen, the internet quickly dubbed him “Baby Yoda,” but on set, how did you refer to the character?
“Baby.” Just Baby. I mean, in the script it’s the Child, but I would talk about Baby like his name is Tom. Except his name is Baby.
Beyond Baby, there are a lot of complicated elements to “Sanctuary” — crowd scenes, multiple action sequences. When you found out much would be involved, what was your reaction?
I was really excited because there were a few things that really stood out to me. Definitely the amount that Baby was in the episode — that was really, really fun. And I love action, so that was something where I was like, oh, awesome. There’s a lot of great scenes here, it’s not just one action sequence. We can have some fun here.
I would say that more than anything, I was really excited to get to direct an episode that was predominantly led by women. There’s a lot of stuff that the character of Cara Dune gets to do that was kind of wish fulfillment for me. I mean, I wouldn’t normally be cast in that role, but you can absolutely bet that when I’m on set, I want to be the one who punches the guy. But someone like Gina, it’s so obvious that she’d play a part like that because she herself is a weaponized human being. She’s a fighter. And it was very important that this character was formidable, and that you believed that she’s a warrior that Mando would seek out to help him. I mean, he goes to her and says, “Hey, I got a job, will you help me with this one?” And we needed to buy that that would be the case. Thank goodness Gina Carano fits, because had that been someone else, I don’t know if it would have been as believable.
So that was really wonderful. Then there was also the character of Omera, who is more of an archetype that we are familiar with. But the fact that she didn’t stay in the kitchen, the fact that she’s the one that has the background with weapons, that she’s the sharp shooter and is the one who takes personal responsibility and is making calls in a leadership position in the village — that is again something that I can’t help but get off on. I’m just like, “Yay!”
Not only is there an entire village of farmers, but there’s also the common house full of locals. In terms of the casting, how did you approach building out the background actors?
It was just trying to picture, all right, this is a community of people on an alien planet, and so there aren’t necessarily the same sort of visuals that we would be looking for if we were doing something that was historical in nature. And you want to make sure that we’re not actually appropriating an historical story. And so at casting that certainly becomes very interesting, in terms of differentiating this story from things that have actually happened in reality. So you want to cast just a lot of variety — like, I was looking around and I’m like, we need a redhead somewhere. That was very fun.
Omera and the Mandalorian have a couple of pretty emotional scenes — what goes into directing what’s ultimately a budding romance when one of the characters is wearing an all-encompassing helmet?
I know, it’s kind of wild. I think that if it had been scenes with two people in helmets, that that would have been more challenging. [Laughs.] But Gina’s very charismatic, and Julia is deeply connected to her emotions and you can just feel them on her face. And Ida Darvish, who played the proprietor, who’s hilarious and is married to Josh Gad — Josh came to set that day, which was so fun — these are actors who are very, very, very expressive. And so them playing off of Mando’s mystery performance is certainly a helpful counterbalance.
Also, in Westerns there’s an aspect of forbidden love, and sometimes that alone gives you enough tension to play a romance out, where you don’t really actually ever have to necessarily pay it off.