Disney+’s plans for world domination—er, content expansion—include several new Star Wars shows to accompany the streamer’s first hit, The Mandalorian. Among them is Star Wars: The Acolyte, a live-action series developed by Russian Doll co-creator Leslye Headland. As with all things Disney (and Star Wars), details about the new series, which will be female-led, are under wraps. We do know that it’s a mystery-thriller set during the final days of the High Republic that will explore “a galaxy of shadowy secrets and emerging dark-side powers.”
Headland is best known for the critically acclaimed Seven Deadly Plays, bawdy-yet-moving films like Bachelorette and Sleeping With Other People, and the Emmy-winning Netflix series she created with Natasha Lyonne (who’s also the star of Russian Doll) and Amy Poehler. The multi-hyphenate also has her own production company, Shoot To Midnight, through which she’s cultivating diverse, underrepresented artists, storytellers, producers, filmmakers, and other creators. Even with that resume, fans have wondered what Headland will bring to the Star Wars universe. For that, The A.V. Club went straight to the source, talking with Headland about her gateway to Jedi geekery, vocal fanbases, and the power in making Star Wars your own.
The A.V. Club: You’re the first female showrunner for a Star Wars show, which is a huge development. What was your introduction to that world?
Leslye Headland: My relationship with Star Wars probably runs the span of most of my life, and it has changed over the decades. When I was younger, I devoured the films on home video and absolutely loved them—just a deep connection to the original trilogy. When I was in middle school, I read some novels, like Timothy Zahn’s Heir To The Empire, and also got into it that way. Then when I was a teenager, I moved from Maryland to Connecticut, and that’s right when the re-releases came out. So I really had this huge change in my life, both just being a teenage girl—which in and of itself is a nightmare—but then also this big geographical change.
Star Wars was this anchoring thing that made me happy, which led to me incorporating it into a lot of my writing when I was little. I guess now you would call it fan fiction. But back in my day, I wasn’t allowed to go on LiveJournal and whatever was up at the time. So I was just writing it myself, and it was this beautiful way to escape what was going on in my life. And I absolutely adored it. I loved every aspect of it, from the world-building and Ralph McQuarrie’s production design to the hero’s journey of it all—Luke’s arc and what that meant. The image that always hits me is from Return Of The Jedi, when Luke is calling out to his father and Vader is looking back and forth between the emperor and his son, and you can’t see his face. Even to this day, I get chills thinking about it. It had this huge effect on me.
I enjoyed the prequels but didn’t feel the same kind of kinship to them as I did the original trilogy. I was older. I was moving into college and getting into theater. I was moving in this different direction. But with the advent of YouTube videos and their discourse around Star Wars, I started to get back into it, whether it was critiques of the prequels or recaps of things, or just kind of this digestible fandom that I didn’t realize existed. In my late 20s, early 30s, that’s when I started to go, “Well, I’m going to go check out this other stuff.” It was very interesting to kind of come back to Star Wars through a fandom perspective, as opposed to just through the content. People were kind of putting the content into context for me, and I just got back into it as a result.
AVC: When you have such a long history with something, be it books or movies or TV, you can get possessive of it. But Star Wars is something that’s enjoyed by so many people, and there’s this really, shall we say, passionate fanbase. Is that one of the more challenging things about entering this universe as a creator? Or do you embrace the idea of engaging with the fandom?
LH: Yeah, but I would say I do it passively—meaning, I really enjoy watching what people put together, whether it’s videos or memes. The participation of Star Wars fans in social media is something that just makes me excited. I don’t know how else to put it. It just makes me feel like everybody’s got their own thing that they love about Star Wars.
To me, Star Wars has always been a little bit of a Rorschach test of a piece of art. A lot of times it is what you decide it is. I think The Matrix is a really good example of that as well. You have fans that really run the gamut, in terms of their political and social identities, and yet it’s still a piece of art that really speaks to people on a very base level. So to me, seeing a fandom as passionate as Star Wars, it’s certainly intimidating, but it’s also understandable, because it’s a great work of art. And to be a part of it is—yeah, it’s daunting, but it’s also something that, if I didn’t feel passionate about my love for it, then possibly it would be something that was too frustrating or scary. But because I feel so passionate about it, I know that my love of it is rooted in a strong point of view.
AVC: For as long as there has been Star Wars, there have been LGBTQ+ fans and people of color embracing it. I know I was excited to learn that you were going to be the showrunner for The Acolyte. When you have queer people making anything, it creates a certain anticipation for more meaningful representation. How do you balance making your story more inclusive, while also just kind of keeping in mind the considerable history involved?
LH: Well, I love that interview that Mark Hamill [did], where he says, “If Luke is gay to you, then of course he’s gay.” That’s such a strong, beautiful thing for him to say. I mean, I use the example of The Matrix as well. Neo is a character that, if you’re going through an experience of coming out or transitioning, that is a character that 100% appeals to you, and you can completely track that journey in a way. The confirmation of his status is something that is less important in my opinion, in the first film, because it’s trying to reach the audience at a level that’s almost subconscious or unconscious, which I think is something very important with fairy tales.
You have to feel like this is speaking directly to you, regardless of what you might be going through, at what point in your life you’re going through it. That being said, as somebody that is a lesbian, every time I see gay or queer representation in media, I scream with happiness. There is just nothing like seeing that out in the world. I literally was behind two mothers with their children at the airport and I was crying. It is so unusual to see it. And as someone that was raised very religiously and very heteronormatively, I mean, I could almost get emotional talking about it now.
To have the power, when you’re creating media, to just put in certain types of people that maybe aren’t necessarily in normal mainstream content or media is just… I know that for people who don’t identify that way, it doesn’t seem that important, but to us, it’s huge. I literally saw an Orbitz commercial with two women going on vacation, and I was like, again, crying. It just hits you on a level that you don’t know you’re missing it until you see it. My wife tells this very famous story of when Ellen [DeGeneres] came out on her sitcom way back in the ’90s. When she saw that she was like, “Oh, I’m gay. That’s what I am. Until I saw it, I didn’t realize that’s who I was.” I didn’t see a lot of media like that and so I didn’t come out until much later in life. But when I look back at the way that I consumed Star Wars and the types of characters that I gravitated toward and wrote fan fiction about or identified with, could they be seen as gay or queer characters? Probably. I mean, one of the things we did in our writers’ room to kind of break the ice was ask who’s your favorite Star Wars character? And you could tell that people, when I said mine, they were like, “Yeah, well, you’re gay. That’s because you’re gay.” But it’s true.
It’s a beautiful conversation to be having. Sometimes people think that representation just completely within media—meaning within the story—makes up for representation behind the camera, and that’s, to me, even more important. Like I said, media representation is wildly important, but there’s also this kind of nuanced conversation that I wish more people were having about people behind the camera, and behind the scenes. Because I think that’s really where you see real change occur, and the real seismic shift in culture.
AVC: Now you have the opportunity to both talk the talk and walk the walk with this show. Obviously, I don’t know if there’s going to be any queer characters, I can only hope. But you have put together a writers’ room. What were your guiding principles there? What you were looking for in a writer?
LH: First of all, I really wanted people that were different than me. I certainly didn’t want a room full people that were just agreeing with me vehemently. Not ideologically, but artistically—people that kind of had different writing styles or were interested in different things, all that kind of stuff. But there was a certain intention, in terms of putting together a room that I felt like were people that I hadn’t been in a room with before, if that makes sense. I don’t think I can go much further into that, but like, “Oh, I haven’t had this experience yet, and because I think it’s weird that I haven’t had this experience yet.”
Having worked in this industry for over a decade now and having been in a couple of writers’ rooms, I felt like the demographic breakdown of rooms, it’s not something you actively take into consideration. For example, on Russian Doll, we ended up having an all-female writers’ room, but I don’t know if that was really something that we said at the front: “We were only going to hire women.” I think when you have a dictate like that, you’re closing your mind to, again, people that are going to challenge your particular artistic POV. Mostly what I looked for were people that I felt could execute a great script, number one. And then in the job interview, just really talking to people who had different life experiences than I did, and had different connections to Star Wars than I did.
What I also learned about hiring my room is that everyone’s fandom was very different. No one had the same experience with Star Wars. There were people like myself that were like later-in-life [Dave] Filoni acolytes. I literally had one writer that was like, “I have never seen any of them. I’ve never seen any Star Wars media.” And she’s texting me before we started the room, she’s like, “Luke and Leia are brother and sister, what the…?” [Laughs.] And it was so great, because I would really love to know from someone who is not fully immersed in this fandom, what do you think about the pitch we just made? So while she did her due diligence and did a lot of background work and research, at the same time, she was somebody that we would kind of talk to and say, “Okay, so if we take all the kind of signifiers out of it, and this is Star Wars version of X, what does it mean to you?” She would be able to give some feedback: “Well, I’m kind of wondering what’s going on with this character. And in this scene, I’m wondering why so-and-so isn’t saying this.”
So that was what I really wanted—an active conversation between my writers and myself, and not so much a room full of people that would kind of just automatically agree with what I say. Which is good sometimes; sometimes it’s nice to have everybody love my pitch. It’s not Star Wars, but I think a lot about [Jean-Luc] Picard, and the way that he would utilize his crew and say, “What do you guys think? Any suggestions? What should we do next?” And kind of hearing the debates and the sort of Socratic conversation that would result. I wanted to put the room together in that way. That also means hiring people that are not necessarily the die-hard, cutthroat fan that I am when it comes to Star Wars stuff. It is weird to be the person who’s going, “Well, in 325 BBY,” and everyone’s like, “What are you talking about?” “Hold on, I’ll send you a link.” Everyone’s like, “Should that be another person that’s doing that? Why is the showrunner doing that?” And I’m like, “Here’s a picture, this is what he looks like.”
To me, that kind of stuff is so fun, because I also played some Star Wars RPGs. And that’s my favorite version of Star Wars, the Star Wars where you get to make up your own Star Wars. So when people are like, what’s your favorite film? And what’s your favorite piece of media? I’m like, “I just really love the RPGs.” To me, that’s what Star Wars is, is being able to walk into a universe and start playing. If you can’t do that with the movie, television show, novel comic book, video game, then I’m not sure you’ve done what you need to do as a creator of Star Wars material.
AVC: This universe has expanded so much in both official and unofficial ways, so it does seem like RPGs are a great entry point for people because, as you said, you’re making it your own.
LH: That’s exactly right. Even the words you just used, like the “point of entry,” I think weirdly with women, it’s not something we’re introduced to when we’re younger. We’re definitely introduced to certain books and pieces of media and dolls and Barbies and blah, blah, blah. I don’t want to speak for you, but I used my imagination a lot when I was younger, without a lot of screentime or a lot of pop culture. My friends and I, we would create things all the time. I think it’s one of the reasons I ended up becoming a writer and a director. It was just like, we’re going to create this story together. So it’s not that different from that, but it is interesting that it’s not promoted as a female game, you know?
When I started playing [the RPGs] in adulthood, I was just like, “Oh my God, if I had known this existed when I was 14, I might’ve had a different life.” I just couldn’t believe that this was something that, for whatever reason, whether it was the protectiveness of my parental figures or just culture kind of saying, “You’re supposed to be interested in this stuff. You’re not supposed to be interested in this stuff.” I don’t know what it was, but it is an incredible way to get into Star Wars, because you literally create. You create your own characters. You go on these campaigns and most of the time—it depends on who’s running the game, I’ve had some really mean people—but most of the time it’s pretty friendly.
AVC: A lot’s changed, but even now, a lot of nerdy or geeky things are still coded as male—often, specifically white male. And I say this as a woman of color who, every time I write about any kind of genre thing, it’s like, “Well, actually—”
LH: [Laughs.] Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Which is why it’s fun to do RPGs, because you’re like, “Well, I created this person, so you can’t tell me or police me, in terms of how to play them, because they’re my character.” I mean, you can challenge it and all that kind of stuff, but it is interesting. I do think it’s different now, at least from when I was younger. I saw a video of a little girl dressed up as Rey at Disney World or Disneyland or whatever it was. My wife sent me the video, it was so cute. I’m watching it, and I’m kind of like, “Okay, cute. Yeah. Got it.” And then I just started crying again. I don’t know why I’m crying all the time [Laughs.], but I just started crying because I forget how powerful this stuff is when you are younger. That level of coding of “girls can be Jedis as well,” that’s just something that wasn’t necessarily available to me when I was that age. Now, I didn’t necessarily need a female Jedi character in order to feel like a Jedi or to play with it within the confines of my own imagination. But I will say, watching it now, I wish I’d had that.
And I think that goes for even stories that are coded queer, like Frozen, a movie that would have changed my entire life if I’d seen it when I was eight. I think I would have had a completely different experience in the world, if I’d seen that movie when I was younger. When I sat in the theater, it was like, “I’m 32, I’m miserable.” I saw it with my sister and was like, “We’re going to see this movie. I heard it’s good. We’re going.” Then it was just waterworks. And she grew up with me, so she said, “Elsa—that’s you. That is absolutely you. That’s who you were when we were little. That’s who you are now.”
AVC: We’ve been talking about taking ownership of Star Wars, in a sense, which also applies to the different types of shows being made. The Mandalorian is part neo-Western; they all fit into different genres. A lot of people are intrigued by the idea of The Acolyte adding a mystery-thriller to this universe.
LH: We’re all just following in George’s footsteps. He is such a deep worshiper of film, and not just the medium of film, but the history of film and the way film has been used, and all the different genres that he infused the original trilogy with is something that only he can do. He was such a believer of “film as tone poem,” that it only makes sense that people who are doing their own side stories or their own series or their own standalones. It makes sense that they’re kind of taking one aspect that he may have been interested in, or are taking inspiration from and infusing it into their particular content.
When you watch his original trilogy, you can kind of pick out all the different references, all the different things that he pulled from. And then there’s the kind of gestalt of how everything comes together and is so much greater than just the reference, which is what kind of ended up happening in the ’90s. There were all these references being made and recognized. It’s the same with being online—we’ve either seen a clip of it or we’ve seen the movie. Whereas, someone like George, he had to be a dogged admirer and ardent devotee to the art of cinema, in order to be cherry-picking the way that he did.
In a way, that’s why that ends up happening. I don’t know for sure, but if I had to take a guess as to why the standalones and the series ended up feeling like we’re going to move just into this particular space or we’re going to lean into this particular genre, which we know inspired George. And that goes for ideology as well. I mean, it’s funny, because a lot of the feedback that I’ll get—and I use the term feedback very lightly—but when I do go on social media, the feedback is “Don’t make Star Wars political.” I’m like, “George Lucas made it political. Those are political films.” War is, by nature, political. That’s just what’s up. It’s truly what he was interested in talking about and looking at and digging into. So it’s kind of impossible to tell a story within his universe that doesn’t have to do with something that has to be that the characters see externally reflected in whatever’s happening in the galaxy at that particular time period of when it takes place. You know? That’s another thing that we all kind of inherited from him as well, and hope to kind of keep reflecting in the work, hopefully.
AVC: I know the show is still under wraps, but if there’s one takeaway about what you bring to this universe, it’s that it’s never too late to be part of Star Wars.
LH: I have never regretted loving Star Wars. It’s always given me something, at some point in my journey, whether it’s just creative inspiration or some sort of emotional catharsis or something that just makes me realize and become a better version and a more fuller version of Leslye. It’s always been a source of incredible fun, excitement, and joy for me. But I also think that, as a result of that, people can feel a certain ownership over it—not unlike religion, where someone says “Well, that’s not really what they meant.” Again, having been raised in a very Christian household, I know people get nervous. “Well, what are you saying? What do you mean? Are you saying that what I believe is not right?” And it’s like, “Well, what we’re saying is that it’s up to interpretation.” My goal here would be to create something that people can interpret in a couple of different ways, as opposed to there being one right way to love or consume a Star Wars product. I think you should, hopefully, be able to utilize it depending on where you are in your life and where you are in your fandom.