“Who are you?” asks a mysterious figure as a desert scavenger walks towards golden dunes. “I’m no one,” is the whispered reply.
She isn’t no one, of course. She is Rey, played by 23-year-old unknown British actor Daisy Ridley, one of the new, young characters in what is the most eagerly awaited film of the year – and possibly all time – Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
But the irony of Rey’s response is not lost on Ridley.
“Obviously there are a lot of people saying, ‘Who is this girl and why was she chosen?’” she says. “But with Star Wars, well, you feel like you’re standing on the shoulders of giants.
“I was terrified before we started filming and it was a wonderful thing to work with people at the top of their game.”
In a way, Ridley’s journey is the story of the new Star Wars film in microcosm. When director JJ Abrams announced that original stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill would appear, there was the fear that the seventh instalment of this iconic space opera would be a nostalgia trip into homage.
But, in the same way he successfully revitalised the other bg global sci-fi franchise, Star Trek, he seems to have avoided the pitfalls of tired rehashes by melding convincing new characters with the established Jedi vs Dark Side mythology of Star Wars, all while maintaining a sense of earthy reality.
It doesn’t look, if the trailers are anything to go by, like a story made on computers, populated by overpaid Hollywood stars.
The film was partly filmed in Abu Dhabi last year – with the sand dunes standing in for the desert planet of Jakku, a world not previously seen in the saga – and this, says Ridley, really helped to achieve that organic feel.
“This was a place that had everything people said they wanted from this Star Wars – the desert has this real, tangible dirt and grit and dust,” she says. “Pardon the pun, but for me it was like a baptism of fire, the perfect place to begin telling this story – not least because Abu Dhabi represents Jakku, which is Rey’s home planet.
“In the trailers you will have seen us running away from explosions in the desert. Those explosions were real, it was 50 degrees and we were running after a truck with a camera on it.”
The “we” she refers to includes fellow Brit John Boyega, who plays Finn, a stormtrooper that the trailers suggest is reformed and in search of redemption.
“Yes, it was boiling hot” in Abu Dhabi, he says. “But it did really help with the scenes, in terms of getting across the intensity and the fear of the character – you’re in the same environment, rather than a studio with hot lights.”
It’s fascinating watching Ridley and Boyega – also 23 years old – grapple with the enormity of their life-changing lead roles.
The audition process gave them some idea of what they were letting themselves in for: Ridley remembers the last screen test was the first time she didn’t burst into tears. Boyega likens the ordeal to “the X Factor and The Voice rolled into one”.
“You realise you’re at the brink of being a part of history,” he says. “That brings an element of fear. And I cried when I saw the script – to read a character you’re playing, whose name keeps coming up – and then realise he plays such a vital role…”
Boyega tails off. As a massive fan of Star Wars, who was exposed to the merchandise before he ever saw the films – “look, I was born in 1992, don’t judge me,” he says with a laugh – he understood the scale of the task from the beginning. It’s a matter of some amusement to him that he now has his own action figure to go with the ones he collected as a child.
Still, it’s obvious that for all the thrills of pulling on a stormtrooper costume or wielding lightsabers, Boyega and Ridley understood and respected the gravity of their task when they were filming in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere.
Perhaps Abrams picked them because he knew he would get full focus and commitment, but while they were on location in the UAE last year, there were few stories of the cast taking advantage of all the excitement Abu Dhabi has to offer visitors.
“I’d just watch Great British Bake-Off and Doctor Who, eat and sleep,” says Ridley. “Mentally, it’s tough, as you’d get picked up at 5am and dropped back at 8pm. There was just one time when J J had to say, ‘Daisy, so many people actually want to be here,’ and I was like ‘OK, I’m back.’ But it’s mainly the exhaustion – it’s not that you don’t feel excited about what you’re doing.”
Boyega certainly felt that excitement on a daily basis.
“You’re basically continuously geeked out from the moment you put the costume on,” he says, laughing. “You’re in rehearsal on an exciting new set, that’s another geek out. JJ tells you a secret about the story: you’re off again. Then he tells you something else that he’s excited about – and when he gets excited, everybody does. Seriously, this sort of thing happened all the time.”
Such enthusiasm inevitably fed into how they portrayed their characters. To avoid spoilers, they will not say too much about Rey and Finn, but it’s intriguing to hear them discuss their motivations: these aren’t simply blank, carbon-copy action heroes.
“Rey isn’t a warrior, but she can defend herself,” Ridley says. “I really like that she starts off alone but she’s open to the people she comes across. That means she doesn’t purposefully go into an adventure with Finn, she’s drawn into it – even though there are doubts holding her back.
“I can see myself in that – you can be strong at times and also totally vulnerable. All of those nuances are represented in Rey.”
“Finn is at a very interesting point in his life when we meet him,” says Boyega. “You’ve seen it in the trailer – he’s wearing a stormtrooper outfit and then this brown leather jacket. So there is inner conflict which then leads you to see how he fits into the universe.
“Finn is cool, an engaging character that I hope people relate to even though he’s in a fantasy movie – because he’s not always sure what he’s doing.”
That was part of the charm of the original movie: Harrison Ford’s Han Solo, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker were characters you could believe in – and having the veteran stars on set was a real help, says Boyega.
“They were so excited to be back, which was great, because it felt like if they were excited and enthusiastic about continuing to tell this story, what could possibly go wrong,” he says.
“I wasn’t star-struck when I met Harrison though – if you are, you miss out on the fundamental moments, like getting him to sign my action figures. You have to be calm, so you ask politely.
“But seriousl, it was cool meeting him and the others. You felt like you were doing this thing together, trying to give this gift of another Star Wars movie to the world.”
Similarly, Ridley appreciated building a relationship with Carrie Fisher, not least because she was keen to ensure that Rey wasn’t an overly sexualised female hero.
“There’s no metal bikini,” she says with a laugh, in reference to Fisher’s costume she wore while a slave of Jabba the Hutt in Return of The Jedi. “I’m actually very happy with what this new story says about women and how it represents them: Rey isn’t important because she’s a woman, she’s important and she’s a woman.”
The fact that Ridley is fielding questions about such big issues underlines extent to which Star Wars has become a cultural phenomenon. Can she or Boyega really prepare for the force that is about to be unleashed upon them when the film is released this month?
“For me, I’m just excited to dissociate myself from my performance and enjoy the film,” says Ridley, fully aware that might not be possible. “The truth of the matter is that people hopefully will really like me – and Rey – but they might not. And if they don’t, I’ll cry…”
“That’s art,” says Boyega. “You make something and let it be judged. It’s all opinion – but this film, everyone’s going to like.
“I guess in my personal life there will be moments when the Force is not always welcome,” he adds. “But that’s life. To be honest my main fixation is that I get to watch the Star Wars films in the cinema like everyone else.
“So if you hear someone at the back screaming, laughing and crying, it’s probably me.”