Vanessa Marshall is no stranger to voice acting, having tackled roles in dozens of animated and video game projects — from The Spectacular Spider-Man and Justice League to Mass Effect and Metal Gear Solid — and co-founding the voiceover production company Marsh-Kish Productions. A lifelong Star Wars fan, Marshall jumped at the chance to play Star Wars Rebels Hera Syndulla, the show’s levelheaded Twi’lek pilot. We caught up with the actress to talk all things Rebels, and she gave us the lowdown on the first new Star Wars production we’ve seen since Disney purchased Lucasfilm.
NERDIST: Were you a Star Wars fan growing up?
VANESSA MARSHALL: Yes, I was. Yeah, since 1977. I saw the first film in the theater with my family. It changed my life. Even back then I was so into it. It’s very strange. I can remember each premiere and where I was in my life. When The Phantom Menace came out I was so grateful there was more to see. And now to be involved in it is a dream come true. Seriously
N: Are you a fan of sci-fi in general?
VM: Yes, I’ve been a fan of comics, specifically more Marvel than DC, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve become more of a DC fan, which is interesting. I never understood why my friends were so into Superman or Batman, but now I get it. I get it. I enjoy it too. [Laughs.]
N: What can you tell us about Hera at this point?
VM: At this point I can tell you she is the leader of the group. She owns the Ghost, which is our main ship. She’s put together this crew of rebels. This motley crew if you will. They each bring something special to the table, and they each have been maligned by the Empire in specific ways. Throughout the season we discover some personal bits about them, as to why they’re so motivated to risk their lives for the cause. They’ve all come from suffering and they’ve found each other and they’re making a difference together. She’s created a bit of a dysfunctional family in outer space. [Laughs.]
N: Can you talk about Hera’s relationship with the group’s resident Jedi, Kanan?
VM: Good question. That’s interesting… Everyone brings something unique to the party, and while she is sort of a nurturing mother figure and leader to the group, and she’s also a mentor to Sabine and Ezra, the role that Kanan especially plays is to bring a spiritual element. At the end of the day, while she runs the show and she’s the getaway driver, I think we defer to the Jedi. He has sensibilities that he’s obviously teaching to Ezra, but I get the sense that Hera somewhat defers to him even though she’s sort of the nuts and bolts of the operation. He provides a kind of spiritual guidance. What’s interesting about him is that because he’s such a cowboy and a maverick — and also Order 66 killed his Jedi master; which makes his journey about sort of reaffirming that he is a true Jedi, because his training was interrupted with Order 66 — to the extent that he has Force sensibilities, I think we all defer to him as the spiritual leader.
N: Did you find yourself researching the Twi’lek culture? There’s tons of stuff out there.
VM: Yeah, definitely. I was already aware of Aayla Secura in The Clone Wars. Prior to that my experience was mostly that they were slave dancers for Jabba the Hutt. So it was interesting that while my character isn’t a Jedi, she’s a great fighter, she’s a great pilot. So she manages to embody some of the fighting capabilities of Aayla Secura, who was Jedi, obviously – she fought in the Battle of Geonosis and she was fierce. I think Hera veers more towards that version of a Twi’lek if you will.
N: Have you met George Lucas?
VM: No, I’ve never met him. I don’t know if I could breathe. I kind of hope it never happens only because I will be beside myself. [Laughs.] I’m such a huge fan. I revere him as a writer, as a creator. He’s just an absolute genius. I bow to him on every level. He’s amazing.
N: Do you record with the rest of the cast?
VM: Yes, we prefer to record together. There are some actors who have other jobs at certain times so we can’t all be there. But for the most part, at least the main cast, we all record together, and we have so much fun. It’s interesting how the characters are very much like what we are like in the booth. I’m always getting people food, so I’m sort of caretaking if you will. Zeb is always causing mischief, and Steve Blum is always causing mischief. Freddie is generally Taylor acting, in a weird way. Because Freddie can mentor him, because this is Taylor’s first voiceover job and he’s kind of learning on the job. He’s obviously been in many things in terms of being in front of a camera, but you have kind of the Jedi-Padawan relationship going on. And Tia and I are actually usually talking about football. But in the sense that Sabine is a Mandalorian and she’s so awesome, and that they’re both sort of militaristic, I guess it fits that we’re talking about sports like dudes might. We’re both New York Giants fans.
N: Did you watch The Clone Wars?
VM: Yes, I’m a huge Clone Wars fan. I watched it all along. I adore The Clone Wars, and I have sort of a reverence for all that they accomplished. I’m so glad that season 6 came out on Netflix. It was so satisfying. I mean I want more of course. [Laughs.] I’m dying for more, but things have shifted and I can only hope that Rebels lives up to the excellence that Clone Wars embodies.
N: One of the cool things about Rebels is how it takes elements from the original trilogy and mixes them up. Here, for example, has Leia’s leadership skills, but she’s a pilot like Han Solo.
VM: Yeah, when I think of her I think of the genetic amalgamation of Leia and Han Solo. I don’t know what’s ahead in Episode VII, but I’m sure that’s actually true on some level. But I don’t know yet, because I don’t anything about it. But she does have the moxie, the wit, and the skills in terms of fighting that Leia had. And the kind of bravado and skills that Han had. I still think the Millennium Falcon would win all bets. I mean, the Kessel Run in twelve parsecs — I bow to that guy. But I do think that she embodies both of those things. So it’s interesting that you mention both of those characters.
I do feel like not only elements of the characters are similar to the Original Trilogy, but there are bits in the music that Kevin Kiner has strategically placed. I don’t know if it happens for you, but when I hear those chords, I get very emotional. I’m suddenly a child and again and it’s magical all over. So not only are there writing elements that are similar to the original trilogy, but there are sort of subliminal things that go on that very much remind me of the Original Trilogy.
N: How does it feel to be the herald for the next era of Star Wars? Did you guys chat with Simon Kinberg at all to get a sense of where they wanted to take this new era?
VM: No. We wanted to get at the time between Order 66 and Princess Leia putting that information into R2-D2 for Obi-Wan to discover. Who gave her that information? We want to know about the lives that were sacrificed and the backs that were broken to get to that point. So we’re covering the little seedlings of the Rebel Alliance, the formation of the Rebel Alliance. So that we’re curious about how we arrive at A New Hope. As Obi-Wan says [in the pilot], we must trust in the Force and this will give birth to a new hope and we arrive at the first film. So it fills in a lot of blanks between Episodes III and IV. We’re all on the same page about that. But they didn’t necessarily tie in Episode VII. I have no idea.
N: Fans wonder of course if any elements will be introduced that could later surface in Episode VII.
VM: I would imagine that they will, but we are not privy to that information. We come in, Dave [Filoni] gathers us around — it’s sort of like a hockey team; he’s a huge hockey fan and player — he gives us sort of a pep talk, we break, and then we start recording. So we’re very much focused on each little segment. He tells us why it’s important in the overall narrative. But nothing beyond IV at this point. We usually just speak of A New Hope and how this leads to that. There have been certain moments where I have freaked out because I know exactly what this plot has to do with what happens in A New Hope.
N: You’re an expert in the field of voice work, having established your own company. Can you talk about what other projects you’re working on now?
VM: It’s interesting — most of the things I’m involved in I’ve signed NDAs. So I’m not allowed to say. [Laughs.]
N: So they must be really good ones then.
VM: Yeah. [Laughs.] I recently was on Breadwinners and I did a straight-to-video movie for DC, but I don’t know if I’m allowed to say specifically what genre. But yeah, there have been a lot of really fun things lately. Then yesterday I did a video game that was completely different from this world. It’s a very, very good one, and I’m very grateful to be a part of it. Eventually you’ll go, “Oh, that’s what she couldn’t tell me!” [Laughs.]
N: Favorite Star Wars character?
VM: Oh, I love Chewie. I do. I just love him. He’s my favorite action figure. I have a 1977 Chewbacca. It’s really hard to choose, because Princess Leia’s hair and strength and all that she embodies is something I’ve always tried to emulate. So in terms of female icons it would be Princess Leia. But in terms of adorability I’ll go with Chewie. [Laughs.]