As we gear up for another end-of-year holiday season filled with ‘Star Wars’ mania, we can’t help but get a sense of de ja vu, in a good way! This time last year we were fan-girling over ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ starring Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, a female and black male playing the leads in arguably one of the world’s biggest and most popular film franchises.
And if you think Disney and Lucasfilm decided to employ a diverse cast just to jump on the female empowerment bandwagon, it should be noted that ‘The Force Awakens’ is now the 3rd highest grossing film of ALL TIME, behind ‘Avatar’ which came out in 2009, and ‘Titanic’, released in 1997.
This year’s ‘Rogue One’ is drumming up the same kind of hype and we are excited to see how this film will fare with audiences. Again, we see a female lead, Jyn Erso, played by British actress Felicity Jones. The story is set more than 30 years prior to Rey’s rise as the adventurous scavenger who discovers she has The Force running through her veins. In Rebel Alliance fighter Jyn, we see another bold, fortuitous, and complex protagonist – a welcome scene in a film world where women are not often given permission to play characters outside the social norms.
While we are yet to see a female director at the helm of one of these major blockbusters (Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, despite employing a 50% female executive staff, still hasn’t given a good enough reason why a woman has not been considered for this job even though MANY qualified women exist therefore all slated ‘Star Wars’ films are being helmed by men), it is important that at least on screen we are seeing the franchise further its representation of female characters. And in surprising news, The Hollywood Reporter released details of the salaries of the ‘Rogue One’ cast, and it turns out Felicity Jones is the highest paid actor by far.
Though of course, they tempered her 7-figure salary news with the warning that ” she takes the hardest PR hit if the film doesn’t match Force Awakens‘ numbers” which is a dubious statement at best. We can’t remember the last time a male lead was blamed or never hired again when a major blockbuster film tanked at the box office. But we digress…
In an interview with Glamour Magazine, Felicity spoke about Hollywood’s equal pay issue, and also mused on her character’s feminism and the way she didn’t have to be sexualized in order to be considered a box office attraction. Given that the ‘Star Wars’ brand is now under the Disney umbrella, Felicity talks about playing a Disney Princess of a different kind.
“The first film I ever saw at the cinema was ‘The Little Mermaid’, so I wanted to be Ariel. Now I am playing a Disney princess. A very contemporary, kick-ass Disney princess!” she said.
When her agent first told her about the role of Jyn Erso, she jumped at the chance to audition, especially because the description of her being “reckless”, “aggressive” and “undisciplined” are traits normally praised in male action movie leads, and we scarcely get to see female characters offered the same kind of space.
“The opportunity to play someone determined, who’s trying to find her skills as a leader; to be in a fantasy movie; to be able to do a leading female role in a film of that scale—that’s very, very rare…She’s a bit of a wounded animal when you meet her. There were moments when she’s been blown over, she’s scrambling to get up, and she falls. It’s important that she’s not perfect. [The director] Gareth [Edwards] and I, we want to see her being a human being,” she said.
As Glamour’s Karen Valby points to ‘The Force Awakens’ character Captain Phasma, played by ‘Game Of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie, and how she was portrayed as a very utilitarian, non-gendered role, Felicity expressed how thrilled she was that Jyn wasn’t forced into any sort of overt sexualization with her aesthetic.
“I felt like [she] was a rather beautiful blend of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo—and that came up in discussions around designing the costume…Everyone wanted to create a character that was not in any way objectified. We didn’t want to sexualize Jyn...We don’t even see Jyn’s arms! That’s not her priority. She’s a survivor, and she has a mission to complete,” she explained.
A clear departure from the iconic image of Princess Leia in a gold bikini being held captive in chains by Jabba the Hutt, Felicity says the desire of director Gareth Edwards was for Jyn to be an on-screen character admired and aspired to by girls as well as boys.
“Gareth said very early on, ‘I want guys to watch it and be like, ‘I want to be Jyn!’’A female friend of mine said, ‘I love that Jyn looks how we look, with trousers and a long-sleeved top.’ We aren’t in hot pants. When do women walk around wearing hot pants?” she said.
That is an important and pivotal role for a lead female character in such a big franchise, and could potentially set a new standard in Hollywood. If we are seeing more women portrayed in roles and careers that traditionally men have occupied on-screen, it will have a major impact on the imaginations of girls growing up, knowing that their gender does not inhibit their capabilities or choices.
Glamour suggests ‘Rogue One’ easily passes the Bechdel Test, based on the trailer alone, and Felicity says the film definitely enabled her to stretch her feminist wings, something which she looks for in all the roles she plays (she can also currently be seen playing a doctor in ‘Inferno’ alongside Tom Hanks, and was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Jane Hawking in ‘The Theory of Everything’).
“I’ve always been a feminist, and what I love in my work is being able to explore a full-sided woman and not patronize her. Particularly with Jyn, it’s such a rare opportunity to be able to play a female who’s not just thinking about [romantic] relationships…And I hope now with ‘Rogue One’ we’re in a place where of course women are going to be leading action films as well as men. I feel like Sigourney Weaver in ‘Alien’ and Jennifer Lawrence in ‘The Hunger Games’, and then obviously Daisy in ‘The Force Awakens’, all passed on the baton,” she said.
She credits her upbringing as important in shaping her view on female characters and a woman’s place in the world. Her mother worked in advertising, and her father was a journalist and outspoken feminist and always made sure she grew up thinking about school, work, and her identity beyond the physical, as did her mother.
“I was a tomboy running around in the garden. I used to play on a local cricket team. I grew up with all boy cousins, for the most part, and my brother. My mother was in the kind of late-sixties, early-seventies origins of female emancipation. And she was very much like, ‘You’re not going to be defined by how you look. It’s going to be about who you are and what you do’,” she recalled.
Because of these values and her feminist leanings, she brings this onto the movie set in a way where she can make small everyday changes in the ever-present “boy’s club”. One area in particular is working with the director on the types of lines her characters have, and how they impact the greater story.
“I’m keen [to make sure] that the woman isn’t asking too many questions. Sometimes that can be an issue—she’s always asking questions and never speaking in statements...So you have to think: I know the answer to this question. I don’t need to ask. I can state. But I’ve been very lucky. Directors I’ve worked with have been very amenable to changes,” she said.
Her negotiating skills don’t just end there, as they clearly extend to her salary. Glamour mentions other lead actresses like Jennifer Lawrence and Robin Wright who have spoken publicly about not being paid equally or demanding a paycheck on par with that of their male co-star, and Felicity admits these women coming forward will embolden others to do the same.
“I want to be paid fairly for the work that I’m doing. That’s what every single woman around the world wants. We want to be paid on parity with a man in a similar position. And I think it’s important to talk about it…. It’s brave of those women to come forward and make a point about it. Now younger actresses will have a confidence in those discussions with their agents and be able to say, ‘Can we make sure that I’m being paid the right amount for the work that I’m doing?'” she said.
And with a seven-figure salary appropriate for her lead role in ‘Rogue One’, Felicity’s experience gives us hope that with more and more women speaking up, cultural change within the film industry is definitely happening, albeit incredibly slow.
We have the power to show the big Hollywood studios they need to be creating more films with awesome female leads. Vote with your wallets, go and see this film, and continue supporting movies that have a diverse cast and crew in key areas such as writing, directing and producing.
“We have hope. Rebellions are built on hope.”