We had the pleasure to sit down and interview Lupita Nyong'o and Oscar Isaac as part of the press junket/press conference for a Star Wars: The Force Awakens opening in theatres December 18th. It was one of the most interesting interviews I've ever had.
Of all the press junket interviews I've done, this was the first where we didn't screen the film first, and because there was so little out about the movie, it made coming up with questions very difficult. Oscar-winning Lupita Nyong'o plays Maz Kanata, a character we know basically nothing about, although J.J. Abrams did say during the panel on December 6th that Maz and Yoda presumably knew each other at some point (Lupita “joked” Yoda was Maz's first love). Oscar Isaac plays Poe Dameron, a human male Resistance Pilot about 30 years after the Battle of Endor. He's leader in the Resistance's fight against the First Order and a member of Black Squadron, he flies using the callsign “Black Leader,” while commanding a squadron of T-70 X-wing fighters in the company of his loyal (and adorable) astromech droid BB-8.
Read on to see what Lupita Nyong'o and Oscar Isaac had to tell us about pilots, pirates, motion capture, auditioning, and on being a part of Star Wars universe.
On what they can tell us about their characters
Lupita Nyong'o: I can tell you that my character’s name is Maz Kanata and she is a pirate and owns a bar.
Oscar Isaac: I can say that Poe Dameron is a pilot, not a pirate, and he is committed to the Resistance and to defeating the First Order. He believes in the Force, and he can be a little reckless in wanting to prove that he is a leader and a hero, and I think he also has that swagger and confidence that comes from people that can soar above everyone else and do all these things at once like fighting a fighter jet and getting into these dog fights and be so close to the edge of death, and that definitely influences how he operates in the world.
On stepping into the most iconic film series of all time and if they grew up with Star Wars
Lupita Nyong'o: I was born into Star Wars. I feel it was a very normal part of my childhood. It would come on public holidays on the national television. We only had two channels, so Star Wars was on, and everybody watched it and everybody was familiar with it, because it was all there was to watch on TV, and we all loved it, and so it was just a very normal comfortable, cozy part of my imaginative folklore. And it wasn’t until being cast in it that I realized what it meant on a meta level to the world and how big the fan base is, how dedicated, how enthusiastic people are about this world that George Lucas created. And I mean, I felt it dawned on me for the first time I think stepping onto the actual set that I was a part of it, because I looked around, and these were these very expansive sets ,and there was so much detail taken into the creation of every single thing, the textures, the colors. You really did feel like you were on another planet, and I think that was the time when I realized, “Wow, I'm a part of something that has, and will continue to go down in history.”
Oscar Isaac: The first movie I ever saw in the theatre was Return of the Jedi, amazingly. It’s pretty crazy so now that I’ve done this one, I'm gonna stop doing movies now ‘cause I feel like I'm really into a symmetry, it definitely changed my mind, my life. It kind of blew my little kid brain and yeah I was a huge fan ever since, and my family were very big fans. Every time a new film would come out we’d throw themed parties and memorize the fight scenes to a T and terrorize my family with them. And so for me, Star Wars always represented and meant quite literally coming together as a family and having a great time, and it was an excuse to do that. But at the same time, it’s like that thing where there’s this ownership over it, and there’s an intimate relationship with it, and then also it just is something completely outside of my, anyone’s real reality, and then suddenly to actually be asked to join that, and not only be in it but to contribute something and create a new character, which it really was that. It was an evolution. The character changed so much from what originally was there when J.J. [Abrams] and I first met to what ultimately ends up on screen. So it really did feel like creating something. It’s kind of hard to process because you start and especially now, you really feel that receding of all the water ‘cause the tsunami’s about to hit. You know, that’s kind of what this moment is really, where it’s just about to crest over, and so yes, it’s not just a film. It’s a cultural phenomenon, and it’s just hard to process.
On the best advice for stepping into the Star Wars universe
Lupita Nyong'o: I didn’t get too much advice about it. For me, it was less about advice and I guess it was self-advice just to try to do what I was hired to do, which is not worry about that stuff so much and just try to make an interesting, compelling, hopefully truthful character and not get too overwhelmed with all the other stuff around it.
On what they did when they found out they got the part
Lupita Nyong'o: I took out my suitcase. Yeah, ‘cause I did. I really did. I got my suitcase.
Oscar Isaac: Here we go.
Lupita Nyong'o: Time to pack. I literally found out 2 days before I needed to be in London, so I had to pack.
Oscar Isaac: That’s amazing. I was in a hotel room in London, so I just blasted the Star Wars theme, and I grabbed the shampoo bottle and started using it like an X-wing. That’s what I did.
On collecting themselves as toys
Lupita Nyong'o: I know. I can’t wait, yeah.
Oscar Isaac: I have a very small apartment so I can’t really get too much stuff, but I am funneling things to the family. Yes, yes. Like sheets. There’s a cardboard cutout. There’s a gogurt.
Lupita Nyong'o: Really?
Oscar Isaac: You can drink yogurt out of my head.
Lupita Nyong'o: That’s not true.
Oscar Isaac: Yeah. And I'm an emoji on Twitter.
Lupita Nyong'o: Wow.
Oscar Isaac: Sheets. I'm on a seat. Like a beach chair type of thing. Like a beach chair and my face is right next to the butt area. Yeah.
Lupita Nyong'o: Wow.
Oscar Isaac: It’s a little disrespectful.
On playing someone so old/wise when you are so young (Maz is supposed to be 1,000 years old)
Lupita Nyong'o: I mean I can’t answer that, because I didn’t say all those things you said and I'm not allowed to say any of those things. So those are basically speculations that I cannot confirm or deny.
On the audition process
Oscar Isaac: I did. I went in and I auditioned. I met J.J. And then a few weeks later, I went in and I read with John [Boyega] and I took pictures, took some pictures next to Daisy [Ridley]. Just wanna make sure I wasn’t too decrepit looking. Apparently I am, next to the sunshine. And then I did a couple of scenes, and then that moment when I found out at the hotel, that was about an hour later when I went home.
Lupita Nyong'o: I met J.J. to audition for something that I believe may have been Star Wars the week of the Oscars when I was nominated for an Oscar, so I was in quite a whirlwind and I don’t really remember much about that audition. A few months after that, after the Oscars, I was in Morocco and I received a call from J.J. saying this is the character I'm thinking. She’s CGI, are you interested? And I said, “Yes, I would love to see the script.” So they flew someone to Morocco with the script for me to read, and I read it over about 2 and a half hours. I was immediately intrigued by it, and motion capture was something that I was interested in doing because I think it offers the actor a unique opportunity to play something that’s not limited by your physical circumstance and especially after playing Patsey who was so much about my physical circumstances. I wanted to get as far away from that as possible, so that I'm not trying to second that experience at all, and I can learn something and be in a completely new turf, and for me motion capture was that. And so I was very interested and a few days later I got the call from my agent that I should pack up.
On seeing the CGI character for the first time
Lupita Nyong'o: It’s strange. It’s difficult to process. It’s a lot of mixed emotions because you’re seeing it as a fan. You’re seeing the new thing. You’re exhilarated by that. You’re understanding what the world is because it’s one thing to see it all put together. So you’re being affected as a viewer and then also the memories of what shooting was like and what takes were used and what takes were not used and what was moved to another place and how it affects the thing. So there’s so much, so much going on that it’s a very trippy moment.
When I signed on to play Maz, they were still developing the character and her role in the film and what she was going to look like and all that, and they welcomed me into that conversation, which was really cool to see. We’re at the early stages of her and how she’s evolved over time, and because she’s CGI they’ve been working on her for a long time. And then to finally see the film and to see what became of her and somehow it’s me, but it’s definitely not me, it’s bizarre. I’ve never seen myself like that in another body all together. So it was just as confusing and bizarre and titillating like, “Oh, my god there I go.” And then you see the whole film, as well, and it’s overwhelming. I mean it’s overwhelming, and it’s beauty. My take away from seeing the film was that it is seamless. It felt to me like a seamless continuation of the Star Wars saga and because what they’ve done is they have kept the integrity of the world that George Lucas created and somehow they have managed to integrate all this new technology and these new storylines and they work effortlessly together, and it’s a beautiful, visual experience and a moving story, and I think the fans, that the franchise already has will be very happy, and I think the new fans will be equally thrilled by this amazingly creative world.
On what's next
Oscar Isaac: I’ll go back. I have to finish filming a movie called The Promise that I'm doing. Shooting it in Spain. The film takes place in the beginning of World War One in Turkey, and I play an Armenian doctor in it so I'm finishing that up.
Lupita Nyong'o: I just finished a play called “Eclipse” that is by Dania Gurira who is an actress on “The Walking Dead.” She plays Michonee, and we just finished that at the Public Theatre in New York and we’re moving to Broadway in February, so very excited about that. It’s gonna be the first play on Broadway that is written by a woman, directed by a woman, and starring just women. So that’s a great milestone. And then I have the Jungle Book coming out in April and Queen of Katwe coming out soon.
Oh, and a little known bit on Oscar Isaac, he was a guitarist and vocalist in a ska band in the 90s. Check out this fun video of his Bill Murray Star Wars theme song cover:
STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS opens in theatres December 18th.
I’ve been invited to LA courtesy of Disney for a media event. All opinions are my own.