A jolt hit the internet this morning with the announcement that Academy Award winning actress Lupita Nyong’o has officially joined the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII. The news comes on the heels of the first cast list Disney and Lucasfilm unleashed a little over a month ago, one that noticeably did not include the 12 Years a Slave breakout (who had been rumored before the announcement). Also joining the cast is Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie, marking a hopefully significant course that J.J. Abrams’ take on the classic space opera will be one of the most female and diversity-friendly of Hollywood franchises.
For the most part, the announcements seem to be positively received. Yet, perhaps this is an item a bit long in the tooth for those with an interest in all things Star Wars related, or, more relevantly, in Nyong’o’s post-Oscar career trajectory. There was speculation even before Nyong’o’s Oscar win for her blistering performance in 12 Years a Slave that the Kenyan-born, Yale Drama School trained actress was in the running for a part in Episode VII. After months of rumors, online think pieces and red herrings, the casting is confirmed and whatever the hold up was, there’s a hopeful refrain in Nyong’o’s casting that will likely sound off positive reverberations throughout the industry on matters of gender and race.
Typically, post-film breakthrough, post-Oscar win (and this is especially true for young, attractive actresses), the offers overflow like wild fire. Yet in Nyong’o’s case, there was a chilling silence (save for the Star Wars speculation.) In that time, she has only be committed to a voice part in Jon Favreau’s upcoming update of The Jungle Book and, most recently speculated as a candidate for a role in Southpaw, an upcoming boxing drama directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) – the actress was featured in a tiny role in the spring hit Non-Stop starring Liam Neeson, but that filmed long before she became a household name and media darling.
That’s a tiny morsel in what should have been a feeding frenzy, post-Oscar win. Not to get too bogged down on the issue, but contrast Nyong’o with another attractive, young actress that broke through in the latter end of 2013 with a buzzy role like Margot Robbie. Robbie didn’t become an awards player for her acclaimed trophy wife role in Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, but in the wake of her breakthrough performance, she garnered four high-profile parts that range from popcorn genre films (Tarzan) to highbrow prestige films (the untitled Luca Guadagnino drama co-starring Ralph Fiennes and Tilda Swinton.) The difference is in skin tone.
Which is what makes Episode VII suddenly appear all the more interesting. There was spinning above and beyond that Abrams and Lucasfilms president Kathleen Kennedy were hoping to diversify the Star Wars universe and with added sensitivity coming in all forms over portrayal of women in features (a study recently conducted stated that in 2012, women represented only 28.8% of speaking characters in the top grossing films of the year), this seems like heartily good news indeed. “I could not be more excited about Lupita and Gwendoline joining the cast of Episode VII,” said Kennedy. “It’s thrilling to see this extraordinarily talented ensemble taking shape.” Of course, we’re getting ahead of ourselves as it’s unclear as to who Nyong’o or Christie will play and how exactly they will impact the Episode VII proceedings.
Episode VII started shooting last month, with filming taking place in London and Abu Dhabi. Nyong’o and Christie join the already announced cast that includes John Boyega (Attack the Block), Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver (Girls), Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis), Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings), Domhnall Gleeson (About Time) and legendary actor Max von Sydow. Original trilogy stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew and Kenny Baker will also appear. The screenplay was written by Abrams and The Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence Kasden. The film is expected to hit cinemas December 18, 2015.