HERA Speaks - STAR WARS REBELS' Vanessa Marshall on Pilot, Plot, and Family Dynamic

Hera from Star Wars Rebels
Credit: Lucasfilm Animation

As the information about Star Wars Rebels continues to trickle out, the last two weeks have been a font of new details. A series of "meet the cast" videos introduced individual crew members of The Ghost, the primary ship in the show, letting fans get to know the characters and voices behind them. After Kanan the "cowboy Jedi," Ezra the young thief, Zeb the alien scrapper who's both the brawn and the brains, and Sabine the Mandalorian graffitti artist, came last but not least the pilot and owner of The Ghost, Hera.

Voiced by genre voice acting veteran Vanessa Marshall, Hera is a Twi'lek pilot and serves as the Captain of her ship, The Ghost. She's "strong-minded," a "guide" to the crew, and also "warm and nuturing," as described in her initial introduction video. But that's about all we knew about her, until now.

In an exclusive first interview with Newsarama, Vanessa Marshall sat down for an extended conversation, being the first cast member interviewed about Star Wars Rebels. In the conversation, Marshall's love for all things Star Wars is readily apparent - just wait until her deep dive into Lekku and a couple of her Expanded Universe references. Perhaps even more telling, however, is her immediate love for Hera and the rest of the Rebels crew, and the way it has already affected her both professionally and personally.

Newsarama: Vanessa, let's jump right in - tell me what makes playing Hera Syndulla exciting to you!

Vanessa Marshall: First of all, let me just say, it is an honor to be a part of the Star Wars universe. But I also really admire her leadership qualities – her integrity and her passion for the Rebel cause. It motivates me to stand up for my own convictions in my daily life!

She truly walks the walk. She puts her life on the line, and comes through for her crew consistently. She’s sort of the getaway driver, if you will. What I love is that her bravery is just quietly noble.

Oh, and one more thing – I love that she’s a pilot! My dad is actually a pilot, and I enjoy flying with him in his open cockpit biplane. He does aerobatics and I just pretend like we’re on the Millennium Falcon. (laughs) So this is – I don’t have my pilot’s license, so this is an opportunity for me to unleash my inner pilot. It’s a ton of fun.

Nrama: You have quite the voice acting resumé, and our readers certainly know your voice, whether it’s as Wonder Woman, Black Canary, Black Widow, many others. What's it like playing larger than life, super heroic characters all the time? Does it ever make regular life feel a bit mundane?

Hera from Star Wars Rebels
Hera from Star Wars Rebels
Credit: Lucasfilm Animation

Marshall: Oh, absolutely, I mean, I don't have any gold bracelets, but I do have the underroos.

In a weird way, the principles that these characters live by – Wonder Woman, Black Canary, Black Widow – they match my own. So even though my life is more mundane, and I don’t have super powers – or as I mentioned the gold bracelets – I do have the excitement for fighting for peace, and justice, and equality in my own way, in all areas of my life. That keeps things interesting. So it’s not always so mundane!

In a sense, everyone can make heroic choices every day. There are those opportunities to be a sort of mini-superhero.

I do train with an MMA fighter, and have studied both French and Thai kickboxing. So from a physical standpoint, I do enjoy pushing the limits in combat. I find it really empowering. It also keeps my life quite interesting! (laughs) I don’t fight crime, and I’m truly non-violent, but I do understand the combat scenes a little better!

Nrama: Okay, so you’ve got a little bit of the pilot and a little bit of the butt-kicker in you, that’s good!

Marshall: There you go! (laughs)

Nrama: I do find it interesting, you've worked with Greg Weismann on Spectacular Spider-Man and Young Justice - how does someone you've worked with before like that influence you in choosing a project? Does it make it easier to jump into a major role like this, one with some long-term implications like Star Wars Rebels?

Marshall: Well it’s interesting that you say “choose a project,” because it seems that more on-camera actors have the opportunity to choose projects. I find that in the world of voiceover, it is a little more that we audition, we hope and pray, and then sometimes we book the job. It’s not so much we “choose to do this” as “the phone rings and you book something” and it’s just oh, I’ll be there. Most of us are such fans of these genres, we’re all blessed to participate.

But with all the projects you mentioned, I was thrilled every time to earn the opportunity to bring those amazing characters to life.

Now when I got the call for Star Wars Rebels, that I booked Hera, I hyperventilated, fell to the ground, I think I was sobbing, and my agent then asked if she should call an ambulance. (laughs) Truly, of all the roles I’ve ever played, this is by far the most epic. I look forward to the long-term implications of interacting in the Star Wars universe. It’s really, really thrilling.

Hera from Star Wars Rebels
Hera from Star Wars Rebels
Credit: Lucasfilm Animation

Nrama: Well then, let’s go for this one, because I’m sure you’re dying to answer this, the obligatory question for anyone's first Star Wars project: what was your first Star Wars experience?

Marshall: Well, it’s interesting. I grew up as an only child, here in Los Angeles. But my parents met in Boulder, Colorado, so their brothers and sisters and my cousins, they were all out there. So they’d kind of ship me out there for the summer. I remember going to see the first movie in this crazy, beat-up station wagon, obviously now referred to as “A New Hope.” But I remember going with my cousins in Colorado, and from the moment those opening credits scrolled into outer space and the heart-racing music began, I was hooked. I will never forget that moment. I knew my life would never be the same after that.

Then when I finally got to see more of Princess Leia, when she says, you know, “Well somebody has to save our skins! Into the garbage, flyboys!” and “Will someone get this walking carpet out of my way?” These amazing quippy remarks that she made, she literally became my higher power! I wanted to be Princess Leia forever and ever. We had a good time and I think fondly of that.

I actually emailed my Aunt this morning and said, “thank you for kicking off what would be the most impactful moment of my life, that went from that day to this time!” I love her very much.

Nrama: Yeah, that’s a nice thing to be able to tell her now “here I am in it now!”

Marshall: Yeah, she wrote back, “well Hera is calm, collected, and holds everyone together when they’re about to fall apart – that perfectly describes you!” It’s a good fit, and I’m very grateful.

Hera from Star Wars Rebels
Hera from Star Wars Rebels
Credit: Lucasfilm Animation

Nrama: I find it very interesting, the ongoing conversation about female characters in action-oriented properties. Even coming down to the fact that at the Disney Consumer Products presentation, they referred to these as “toys for boys.” As someone who has built a career off of that, why do you think there's still a stigma of "female characters" versus "male characters?"

Marshall: You know, it’s interesting – I would say from a marketing standpoint, I know how it serves them to target an audience, whether it’s male or female. I do know there are a ton more female sci-fi fans – there always have been, but perhaps now they have a greater visibility, so I predict that some of that stuff will change.

I will say that in a greater sense, I’m not so sure that there’s a stigma for the people who are buying those toys. In a real way, I think that George Lucas kind of destroyed the stigmas as far as gender is concerned, and raised the bar for future filmmakers. The fact there are female Jedi straightway levels the playing field. There are so many alien races that gender is sort of the least of the issues (laughs).

You look at Princess Leia, and Mon Mothma, Ahsoka Tano and Asajj Ventress – even to go to the games and EU [Expanded Universe – the Star Wars stories that are told in novels, comics, and video games], Jan Ors or even Mara Jade - the women in the Star Wars Universe just kick butt, in a way that transcends gender. And each in their own way.

I’ll say, even the female characters in Rebels each have their unique strengths – it’s another reason I’m so excited to be a part of this show. Just to get into Hera a bit again, she’s strong-willed, but she’s also nurturing. She really knows how to bring out the best in her team. She leads with humility. Her agility and physical skills are admirable; she can pull just the right punch at just the right moment and get the job done, and that’s how she delivers. Her very personal reasons for rebelling against the empire, I think, are things viewers are going to delight in uncovering each season.

All that richness that I just described – I don’t think anyone will be sitting there going “oh, it’s a girl action figure,” or, well, a female Twi’lek action figure. But with all those rich details, it’s that story about the internal struggle for each of us to make those heroic choices on a daily basis, that kind of shatters those stigmas in a practical way, I think.

I do understand, like I said, how marketing need to consider their demographic – those conversations are all fiscal and advertising. I’m talking about the passion of the fans, and I don’t think we care! Any alien race, gender, I’m all over it – I can’t wait to have all the action figures!

Nrama: It was interesting to see in her intro video that she's described as the commander of the Ghost. I found that interesting, since Kanan was presented as the leader of this team; is Hera going to be sharing those duties?

Marshall: Well, like I said, she’s the getaway driver. She owns the Ghost, it’s her machine, so in that sense, she runs the ship. Kanan is the leader, 100%, and he has to be, but as far as the nuts and bolts, keeping the characters emotionally grounded and connected and on point, Hera is a leader in that capacity. But yeah, Kanan, as a leader, as a Jedi, he’s the man!

From the Left: Sabine, Chopper, Ezra, Kanan, Hera, Zeb, & Inquisitor in the back
From the Left: Sabine, Chopper, Ezra, Kanan, Hera, Zeb, & Inquisitor in the back
Credit: Lucas Siegel

Nrama: Obviously, pilots have played major roles in this franchise. As the pilot of the Ghost, Hera definitely has a central role - how does she compare to the other great pilots in the Star Wars mythos?

Marshall: Oh, man.

Nrama: How fast is her Kessel Run?

Marshall: (laughs) exactly! 12 parsecs. We bow to Han Solo, ladies and gentlemen.

I think she maneuvers the Ghost with grace and ease under pressure, and I know she’s picked off quite a few TIE fighters along the way. But seeing as she’s not a Jedi, I don’t think she’ll have the force-sensitive abilities of say a Luke or Anakin Skywalker. I definitely think she can hold her own. She’s very skilled!

I think what she lacks in force-sensitive abilities, she makes up for with a true passion and a desire to see her mission through to the other side. I think that love for the cause will fuel her in a way that will make her a great pilot.

But Luke flying over without any sensors, just using the Force to blow up the Death Star – I mean, come on. I don’t think Hera could manage that. But she’d come darn close, and she’d definitely have Luke’s back no matter what.

Nrama: Something you brought up as well, that she is a Twi’lek. They’re in and out of the Star Wars universe a bit, but Hera is the first Twi'lek to take a true starring role outside of the expanded universe of comics and novels. Is the fact that there's not as much known about that race something that will come up, or is her alien nature not much of a focus, is she just another alien that’s a part of the crew?

Marshall: Well, perhaps it’s an opportunity to, I dunno, come clean on a few things – I’ve had friends ask me “why does she have legs coming out of her head?” I say, “Um, those are Lekku – brain tails – they’re advanced organs for communication and cognitive functions – those are not legs.”

Then they’ll ask me, “wait, are you the one who dances for Jabba?”

Look. While many Twi’leks have been enslaved, Hera is not a dancer. She is an ace pilot, a supreme fighter, perhaps approaching the Twi’lek Jedi Master Aayla Secura, who fought in the first battle of Geonosis, as we know. Obviously, Hera’s not a Jedi, but you see that Twi’leks have the capacity to fight, and fight very well. So she’s in that category.

So yes, it may shed more light on the diversity of the Twi’lek community. But I don’t think there’s a focus on her alien nature so much, not only because all the characters are equally antagonized by the Empire regardless of their race, but also because the Ghost crew really creates a cohesive family – one that truly transcends any and all racial distinctions. I think race becomes irrelevant. So while it will elucidate some things, it will also equalize others, and unite us all in the fight against the Empire!

How’s that? (laughs)

Nrama: That was a great buzz quote there, nice work! You’ve done this before, haven’t you?

Marshall: (laughs) I just love Star Wars so much, I could go on forever!

Zeb, Hera, Kanan, and Stormtrooper Minifigs from LEGO
Zeb, Hera, Kanan, and Stormtrooper Minifigs from LEGO
Credit: Lucas Siegel

Nrama: Well, you just brought up that family dynamic. I know it's early on – Freddie Prinze Jr. let loose that you’re about half a season in on recording, but what little tidbits can you tell us about Hera's relationships with each member of the crew, and have any of those relationships surprised you already?

Marshall: That’s a great question. I would say universally, that Hera is a maternal figure to the members of the Ghost. She mentors Sabine, she encourages Ezra, and manages Zeb’s temper at times (laughs). And I know she has the utmost respect for Kanan and believes in his Jedi capabilities. Ultimately, I think that she guides and inspires everyone to dig deep and discover the kind of ruthless selflessness that’s necessary to fuel and complete the mission.

I would say I’m most surprised by my interactions with Chopper ! It is so much fun! I’m reminded by C3PO and R2-D2 interacting, and how without words we always knew what R2 was saying. Whether it was just a “wheeeeoooo” as he went flying across the room or whatever. Similarly, Hera interacts with her astromech, being fluent in his language, and there’s that similar instant comprehension. It’s hilarious! I just love it. I love watching him interact with Zeb, too, they taunt each other and it’s just fun.

That’s not something you usually experience in a cartoon, so that was surprising.

Nrama: And you guys are recording radio play style, right? With all the actors in a scene recording in the booth together?

Marshall: Yeah, we’re all together. It’s so funny, in a weird way we're all becoming our characters. I’m constantly feeding everybody. I’ll be like, “Do you need water?” Sabine’s actress Tiya Sircar, if she gets low blood sugar I go off to get her, there’s always invariably some sort of Star Wars-themed treat that’s been provided for us like Darth Vader scone balls or something. But it’s funny, I do act like Hera.

And sometimes Freddie pulls Taylor (Gray, voice of Ezra) aside and he’ll tell him, “no man, you need to do this that way” or something – and that’s exactly how Kanan and Ezra interact on the show.

Then most of the time, Steve Blum and I are just cracking up – he’s done just about every stormtrooper in every game ever done, in addition to now playing Zeb. So we’re constantly making stormtrooper jokes.

Nrama: Yeah, he’s also played a lot of “random monster #7”…

Marshall: Yeah, he’s the man. He said something the other day, and Taylor turned to him, very earnestly, and said, “is there any sound you can’t make?” It’s just amazing.

But yeah, we get to all interact, we really get to know each other, and it’s a really tight cast already. It’s so wonderful to be involved in a project where everyone not only loves the work but we really all get along and love each other. It’s great!

Nrama: Yeah, I’d love to get Steve Blum, Dee Bradley Baker, and Fred Tatasciore in a room together for an hour and see what noises come out of that.

Marshall: Oh my gosh (laughs) I want to be there. A-ma-zing.

Hera screencap by @RebelsReport on Twitter
Hera screencap by @RebelsReport on Twitter
Credit: Lucasfilm Animation

Nrama: There’s a Comic-Con panel right there. Well, you are now officially part of the Star Wars family! What are you most looking forward to, now that you're part of that family? What does the next six months, year, few years look like from your point of view?

Marshall: Well, for starters, I am so relieved and grateful that I can finally talk about this! I have been sitting on my hands trying desperately not to unleash my inner geek. When I’ve collected different things from [Hasbro’s toy line] the Black Series like a Han Solo or a Leia or Luke, or whoever, I’ve had to really be quiet. I didn’t want to tweet anything about Star Wars at all, even “look what I got!” because I have had to maintain for quite some time.

Now, I can dance around like an idiot because I am so happy! I really honored the NDA religiously, so it’s a relief to let my inner fangirl rock on.

As far as the future, I’m really excited for Comic-Con in San Diego this summer. It’ll be really cool to go in the context of this franchise – I’m assuming we’ll be there!

Thanks to the article that you wrote, that the female action figures [for Sabine and Hera] will be revealed at Comic-Con, I’m really excited to see those. I figured those would be somewhere, but there was so much cool stuff teased as it is! I was looking at everything from Toy Fair and weeping. (laughs)

Star Wars Celebration: Anaheim in 2015 should be so much fun. And of course I live for Star Wars: Episode VII. I cannot wait. There was talk about going up to the Lucas Ranch and seeing the archives and everything as a cast. If that goes down, I am definitely going to need a paramedic (laughs). It might not behoove them to allow me on the property. I will literally be crying.

Yeah. So obviously, I am enthralled with this. I would’ve been at Comic-Con anyway, because I’m a fan of comic books! To go and have a reason to be there, especially this one, is amazing to me!

Vanessa Marshall recording Hera lines
Vanessa Marshall recording Hera lines
Credit: Lucasfilm Animation

Nrama: Well, it’s certainly easy to tell you’re a fan. Anything else you'd like to tell the Star Wars fans about your role, or your fans about why they should try out Star Wars Rebels?

Marshall: I will say, I adore the tone of the original trilogy films: the witty banter, the biting comments back and forth, as well as the unconditional love beneath all that bickering. I would say Star Wars Rebels has that exact same pacing, energy, and endearing quality. As I said, Hera has assembled this motley crew – they’re slightly dysfunctional and brutally honest with each other. This chosen family, whose bond is almost stronger than blood, they face impossible odds, they learn to trust each other, take action in the face of injustice and oppression… and all the while, it’s wisecracks galore! So at once the stakes are incredibly high, the bickering is crazy intense, but the underlying love itself is there. That adds up to a whole experience that’s both fun and funny! I really think people are going to care about these characters and the fate of their mission. I know that every episode delivers on a spectacular adventure!

So whether you’re a fan of the Star Wars universe or not, I’d say buckle up, because it’s going to be a wild ride. It will be fun for anyone to watch, no matter where their allegiances lie.

Nrama: Well let me ask you one more thing, then I’ll let you go – I’m sure you have more scripts to drool over, I hope they’re giving you laminated copies!

Marshall: I know! (laughs) I really have to contain. I just breathe deeply and contain.

Nrama: Let me just ask you this then. Star Wars has really become almost its own storytelling method – people try to figure out how they can tell stories the way that Star Wars does. What is it about that storytelling method that has not just lasted for three decades, but grown so much that it works so well in all these different mediums?

Marshall: You know, I’m a fan of Joseph Campbell. I know that George Lucas studied with him – he was one of his star students – and Campbell’s work focused on the Hero’s Journey. There’s a person who is given an opportunity, a moment, and they have to choose whether or not they’re going to take that journey. Lucas provided that opportunity. Obviously, I think in the first three episodes, Anakin’s arc is insane!

But it’s that opportunity, and that struggle that we all share, to become the hero in our own lives. I think people identify with that, connect with it. I’ve heard people go on and on about the primal myths like King Arthur and how they’re encapsulated with all the common dynamics in Star Wars and all these great myths. Again, I think it just draws us in, in a way that transcends cultural barriers. There are fans all over the world! I think it speaks to the human condition, it inspires us, it unites us.

I met someone on twitter the other day, he said “I’m sorry, I’m a Sith;” so it’s not all loving good times (laughs).

But I think people care about doing the right thing, independent of their ethos. I think Lucas invites us to take that journey in our own lives, and we can’t get enough of it! I know I can’t!

I also write, and I love telling stories in the way that he does, as well, embracing the Hero’s Journey.

Not only does Lucas inspire us with the mythic Hero's Journey on an individual level, but perhaps more importantly (on a group or collective level), he shows us that together we can make a difference. That’s why I love Star Wars Rebels so much! We see how the brave sacrifices of individuals can bring forth a "New Hope!" (laughs) Indeed, "All it takes is a single spark!" [as the promo trailer said].

Nrama: Got a little Hera “one-liner” to close us out?

Marshall: Oh my goodness. I don’t know if I can do that! Not because I’m not capable, but because I don’t want to give anything away. (laughs) How about – if you want to hear a Hera one-liner… tune in! (laughs)

Star Wars Rebels premieres Fall 2014 on Disney XD

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