This week, after a steady stream of leaks threatened to become an out-of-control geyser, Disney announced the cast for their forthcoming, as-yet-un-subtitled “Star Wars – Episode VII.” Alongside returning favorites Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhem and Kenny Baker, were a whole host of talented newcomers introduced to the franchise this week, many of whom had a background in independent cinema. Most people who saw the list of potential Sith Lords and Jedi Knights (John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis and Domhall Gleeson – plus Max Von Sydow), probably said, “Who?” But if you’ve visited an art house cinema in the past few years, you’re aware of them.
So we thought we’d rundown the independent film past of each of these new actors, who are about to break into the mainstream in a very profound way, once the new “Star Wars” film (directed by J.J. Abrams) arrives in cinemas everywhere in late 2015.
Back in 2011, Boyega, a theater student at South Thames College, was given a lead role in “Attack the Block,” a sci-fi comedy written and directed by Joe Cornish, a radio personality and confederate of filmmaker Edgar Wright (the two would go on to co-write “The Adventures of Tin Tin” for Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson and “Ant-Man,” for another cog in the Disney machine, Marvel). The film was a micro-budgeted lark that had its world premiere in the midnight program of the South by Southwest Film Festival, where it became an instant cult sensation. After a couple of performances in films so small they barely attracted any attention at all, he co-starred in “Half of a Yellow Sun,” a Nigerian/British co-production that played at the Toronto International Film Festival and starred Chiwetel Ejiofore and Thandie Newton (it has yet to receive a domestic release). He has a couple of projects in the can, but has yet to star in a film of any size. Around the time that he started the process for “Star Wars” he was being courted by a pair of big projects: “Race,” a Jesse Owens biopic, and “Terminator: Genesis,” where he would have played a younger version of the Dyson character from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” (previously essayed by Joe Morton). But even projects as prestigious and potentially lucrative as those pale in comparison to being given a plumb role in a “Star Wars” movie.
The lone new female cast member announced thus far, Daisy Ridley is the freshest-faced actor to join “Star Wars: Episode VII,” especially for those of us on this side of the Atlantic. Ridley has mostly starred in British TV series that will probably remain obscure to even the most ardent Anglophile – “Youngers,” Silent Witness,” “Mr. Selfridge,” and the long-running British medical drama “Casualty,” mostly for just an episode or two. She is set to co-star in “The Inbetweeners 2,” a sequel to a hit British comedy (itself a spin-off from a popular television series), which will see release in Great Britain later this summer.
When more substantiated reports of potential “Star Wars” cast members started to materialize, Driver was one of the first names to leak. The actor, who will supposedly play a very bad man in the new film, is also one of the more high profile new additions, thanks to his prominent role on HBO series “Girls,” the brainchild of beloved independent filmmaker Lena Dunham. As far as independent cinema goes, he co-starred in independent comedy “Gayby” and “Not Waving But Drowning,” which premiered at the Sarasota Film Festival in 2012. He also had a role in “Bluebird,” which had its debut at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival and “What If,” a comedy that premiered at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where Driver also co-starred in “Tracks,” a larger budget Australian film that will get a wide release in America this summer. Last year also saw Driver contribute small roles in two of the bigger art house sensations (small as they might be) – Noah Baumbach’s black-and-white bauble “Frances Ha” and, alongside fellow “Star Wars” newbie Oscar Isaac, the Coen Brothers’ brilliant “Inside Llewyn Davis” from last year. Before he blasts off into the farthest reaches of the galaxy, he will have a role in another work by a darling of American independent cinema – Jeff Nichols’ John Carpenter-indebted chase movie “Midnight Special,” which completed principle photography in March.
Isaac is an actor who has flirted with the mainstream before – he co-starred in two Ridley Scott movies and was widely considered to be the frontrunner to replace Matt Damon in the “Bourne” spin-off film “The Bourne Legacy” (he ended up in the movie, but the lead went to Jeremy Renner) – but whose impact was always more deeply felt in independent films. Isaac had a small role in the first section of Steven Soderbergh’s troubled (but deeply rewarding) “Che,” and was one of the few worthwhile aspects of Madonna’s indie “W.E.” Fans of a particular kind of movie probably first remember being dazzled by Isaac in Nicolas Winding Refn’s hyper-stylized “Drive,” playing a character called Standard (“Where’s the deluxe?”). Isaac also co-starred in independent historical drama “For Greater Glory” and indie comedy “Revenge for Jolly!” But his breakout roll was for the Coen Brothers in their acclaimed musical drama “Inside Llewyn Davis.” That singularly powerful performance led to roles in forthcoming, modestly budgeted movies from “All Is Lost” filmmaker J.C. Chandor (“A Most Violent Year,” out later this year) and “The Departed” screenwriter William Monahan (“Mojave”). Isaac is one of the actors cast in the new “Star Wars” whose admission into the mainstream doesn’t just seem deserved; it feels long overdue.
Even if you don’t know what Serkis looks like, chances are that you’ve seen one of his performances. In recent years the British actor has made a name for him self thanks to the amazing performance capture work he has done in films like the “Lord of the Rings” films, “King Kong,” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” leading to speculation that Serkis could be playing a performance capture character in “Star Wars” (and leading to many violent, Vietnam-like flashbacks to Jar Jar Binks from “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”). But before Serkis became known for his otherworldly creations, he was an actor that worked mainly in independent cinema, starring in films for Mike Leigh (“Career Girls,” “Topsy Turvy”) and Julien Temple (“Pandemonium”) and even after his mo-cap success would star in things like the indie British horror film “Deathwatch,” Michael Winterbottom’s Day-Glo period comedy “24 Hour Party People,” and whatever John Landis was going for with “Burke and Hair.” (He also won widespread acclaim for his work in the TV movie “Longford,” directed by future Oscar winner Tom Hooper.) Considering the amount of time “Star Wars” will undoubtedly take up, plus the recent news that Serkis would be directing an adaptation of “The Jungle Book” for Warner Bros, and his independent film work may be far behind him. Thankfully, he’s left a lasting legacy.
Gleeson’s father is Brendan Gleeson, the great Irish actor, and the apple, from what we’ve seen, didn’t fall far from the tree. Gleeson has only been acting in movies for the past few years, but he’s made his mark already. In 2010 he starred in Mark Romanek’s low budget literary adaptation “Never Let Me Go,” about a group of wayward clones and in the same year had a small bit in the Coen Brothers’ “True Grit” (which had a bigger budget than most of their films but was hardly astronomical). While 2010 and 2011 saw his star rise slightly thanks to a role in the final installment of the “Harry Potter” franchise, Gleeson continued to do exceptional work in smaller films, like the underrated sci-fi film “Dredd,” Joe Wright’s stage-set version of “Anna Karenina” (he played a heartbreaking Konstantin Levin), indie spy film “Shadow Dancer,” and “About Time,” a British romantic comedy that might have had an epic run time and movie star co-lead in Rachel McAdams, but cost a paltry $12 million and was produced through mostly independent means. This year he led a motley crew in brilliant rock world comedy “Frank” (it’s already played Sundance and South by Southwest) and co-starred in Irish dark comedy “Cavalry” (that played Sundance and Berlin), before turning in a role in potential Academy Award favorite “Unbroken,” written by the Coen Brothers and directed by Angelina Jolie. It was only a matter of time before he got cast in a big movie, although few probably expected him to be cast in the biggest movie. Like ever.
Max Von Sydow
He played death with chess one time.