When Daisy Ridley says taco with its short a in her Estuary English accent, it sounds more like a planet in the Star Wars galaxy than the filled tortilla. The actress will conclude her run playing Rey, the flinty heroine and suspected Jedi, in the third film of the trilogy, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, out in theaters December 20, and she and I are having lunch at Los Angeles vegan restaurant Nic's on Beverly to discuss the end of the epic sci-fi saga, the trajectory of her still-nascent career, and the push-pull of navigating a private life with a public persona.
The sprightly brunette suggests sharing several plates, including tempura-avocado tacos and eggplant-Bolognese gnochetti. Ridley forsook meat products after watching Simon Amstell’s cautionary mockumentary Carnage, though she calls herself a “chegan” due to the occasional sushi cheat. The Londoner is in town for Disney’s annual behemoth D23 Expo, which gathers all of its stars in Anaheim to address fans and press. There, a newly released clip showing Rey draped in a dark robe and clutching a red lightsaber had fan sites erupting in furious and urgent speculation: Does Rey cross over to the dark side?!
Fans will have to wait and see, but on this late-summer afternoon Ridley, 27, seems far from the dark side. Her face is lightly made up, her chin-length hair tucked neatly behind her ears. She chopped it off after going blond last year following a tough 2017, when she made Ophelia, a feminist retelling of Hamlet that was released in June. “I got really, really run-down the year of Ophelia, went straight into [filming] Chaos Walking, then promoting Star Wars, and got home and just had nothing left. Emotionally, I was done.” She took six months off in early 2018 before filming The Rise of Skywalker. “I just chilled the fuck out. I saw people and did things. And that was when I was like, You cannot just go from one job to another.” Which was exactly what the young actress had done. Since landing the role of Rey five years ago, after bartending at a pub, Ridley has made three Star Wars films, Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express (2017), Ophelia, and the Doug Liman–directed sci-fi flick ChaosWalking (out next year), among other projects.
There has been a learning curve for Ridley in figuring out how to walk the tightrope between being a public figure and harboring a natural inclination for privacy, and she says nothing can prepare you for the Star Wars melee. She describes herself as an introvert who presents as an extrovert: “My mum said when I was little, there was a party, and I ran in and shouted,‘I’m shy!’ Quite loud. And then I ran out,” she recalls, laughing. Two years ago, she shut down both her public and personal Instagram accounts and never looked back. She reportedly shares an apartment with her rumored fiancé, Tom Bateman, whom she met while filming Murder on the Orient Express in 2016. I know all this not from Ridley but from the Internet. Suspicions about an engagement have flourished this summer, but she is not about to confirm or deny them now. When I ask her about the delicate diamond solitaire on her ring finger, she smiles coyly, saying only, “It’s a really nice ring that I wear.” She then sighs good-naturedly and explains, “Oh my God. It’s the first time I’ve publicly been asked this one.” Then she offers a rare pause. Ridley speaks in rapid ellipses; there is an ease and enthusiasm to her cadence as she flows quickly from one thought to the next while remaining careful about what she is trying to articulate. “The thing is, I’ve never talked about my personal life. So I won’t talk about it now. I’m so aware of how much information about my life is out there, so if there’s one thing I don’t want to talk about...” She trails off, adjusts the tie of her Urban Outfitters daisy-printed blouse, which is teamed with light-wash Levi’s, black leather Chanel espadrilles, and gold Missoma earrings, and changes the subject. “I’m constantly trying to be a better, glammer version of the person I am,” she says of her fashion choices. “I’ve never liked my wardrobe. I think I’m just more scruffy. But I love wearing heels and fancy clothes.”
“The confidence of the character has grown as, I think, the confidence of the actress has grown,” says writer and director J.J. Abrams of Ridley and Rey. “It is hard for me to separate Daisy from Rey, and I know that when writing the character, I have Daisy and her rhythms in my head. Luckily, she is as sharp and thoughtful and funny as they come, so knowing I am writing for her always raises the bar.”
“The third one for me was the best,” says Ridley of shooting The Rise of Skywalker in the U.K. and Middle East. “It’s a big film for everyone. I did all of the emotions: I did frowns, I did smiles, it was the sort of biggest breadth, and I think that’s also why I had such a good time, because I got to do so much shit—like, physically, emotionally—and I got to work with so many people.” A six-day-long shoot of a fight scene between Rey and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), teased in the trailer, was the most demanding week of the seven-month shoot, admits Ridley. Water cannons blasted at them in chilly November U.K. weather, and Ridley relied on daily banana and peanut butter sandwiches and the fact that the lightsabers weighed less this time around. “If they had been heavier, I don’t think we would have been able to do it,” she says. “It’s just really epic.” Also teased is a tearful embrace between Rey and princess turned general Leia, played by Carrie Fisher, who died after the filming of The Last Jedi (2017). The resulting scene is a creative manipulation of unused footage from that film and reshooting Ridley’s part of the sequence. The majority of filming took place at Pinewood Studios, 20 miles west of London, but in the Star Wars tradition of remote planet-like locations, two and a half weeks were spent in the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan. Ridley got to sneak off to Petra on the last day, narrowly missing flash floods in the ancient city, and the cast was invited to dinner with King Abdullah II and Queen Rania at the summer palace. “Rania is fabulous,” gushes Ridley. “She is so glam and so smart. She is all of the things I wish to be.”
The actress has become well-versed in the subject of strong female heroines. Her biggest roles to date have been women subverting traditional female character tropes and flipping the damsel-in-distress narrative on its fair head. She is the first female Star Wars character to be doing the saving rather than needing to be saved. In 2015’s The Force Awakens (Ridley’s first Star Wars film), when Harrison Ford’s Han Solo offers Rey a lightsaber, she retorts, “I think I can handle myself!” His reply: “That’s why I’m giving it to you.” In Ophelia, which reimagines Shakespeare’s tragedy from the point of view of Hamlet’s doomed lover, Ridley treads similar territory. “I was impressed by [Daisy’s] strength and vulnerability,” says Naomi Watts, who costarred as Queen Gertrude. “She’s capable of carefully balancing the two in the same moment, showing a range of emotion with such precision and clarity.”
Ridley says she hasn’t sought out these powerful-women roles. “I think in general there are more stories being told,” she says. “There’s been a surge of really good parts recently because more are being written.” She also executive produced and narrated the 2016 documentary The Eagle Huntress, which tells the story of a young Kazakh girl who takes on the historically male role of eagle hunter in her community, and, among other projects, Ridley is slated to play Virginia Hall, the real-life World War II heroine once referred to as the Allies’ “most dangerous” spy, and a CIA operative in an as-yet-untitled George Nolfi film. In Chaos Walking, she plays Viola Eade, the last known woman in a dystopian future.
I rewatched The Force Awakens this summer with my two nieces, who are great fans of the franchise but more specifically of Rey. After Ridley’s character turns to John Boyega’s Finn during an escape and snaps, “I know how to run without you holding my hand,” nine-year-old Daphne explained proudly, “She likes to be the leader,” while 11-year-old Eloise added, “She’s also a bossy pants.” And, to me, for the first time, hearing that about a woman didn’t sound like a criticism. Ridley nods.
“The thing is, at the time this all came out, people were talking to me about how Rey made them feel and going, ‘Oh, my daughter wants to be like you,’ and I didn’t know how to take that. I kept saying, ‘That wasn’t me. J.J. [Abrams] wrote that.’”
Adjusting to the immensity and ferocity of the Star Wars fame machine was not easy for Ridley. After the first film, she felt unprepared for the emotional toll the relentless attention would take, including on her family, with whom she is extremely close. “It’s been really hard for them. It’s super invasive. We went to a wedding recently, and it was uncomfortable for me because people were really rude. They don’t act like normal human beings. And then, not only did I not have a good time, but then my mum was upset and then my sisters are upset. So it’s tricky.”
At the beginning, she was more focused on protecting her family than herself. “I was so aware of how difficult it was for them, I wasn’t actually dealing with how difficult it was for me.” She describes being in New York in 2017 with her mother and sister when a stalker fan followed their car. She got them out of the car, but he followed Ridley into her hotel lobby. “He is a really big guy, so physically he’s scary, and I was alone and it was the middle of the night, so I started shouting at him because I was scared.” She sighs. “And then I got a bit of therapy after that ’cause I was like, ‘I’m not dealing with this shit because I’m too concerned for other people.’” Two years later, she’s gotten better at taking care of herself. “I just treat myself really nicely,” she explains.
The youngest of three sisters (all with flower names: Poppy, Rosie, Daisy) and two half sisters on her father’s side, Ridley was raised in West London, in the same home where her parents still live. She has never lived more than 10 minutes away from them, and she talks to her sisters and parents every day: her mom by phone, her dad on email, her sisters via WhatsApp. Her mother works in cyber security, and her father is a photographer. Everyone in her family, she says, is intensely creative. Her mother bookbinds and mosaics in her free time. Ridley is thinking about taking a calligraphy course with her. Ridley’s flat is where she likes to hunker down when she isn’t working. “It’s very calm,” she says. Healing crystals line the shelves (she also travels with a set), and a wire tree with amethysts as leaves sits next to her bed (a gift from her eldest sister, a Reiki practitioner). On the walls are photos from the different Star Wars sets—“I was given so many framed Star Wars pictures, and I want them to be up, but I don’t want to look like an arsehole,” she says—as well as a Quentin Blake illustration of the Roald Dahl character Matilda lying in bed, a gift from Ridley’s close friend and hairstylist Flora Moody and a nod to Ridley’s insomnia in 2018 (“I don’t know how I dealt with it, but it finally went away”) and Ridley’s favorite childhood film.
She’s been going to the movies, most recently to see Toy Story 4, has been binge-watching Game of Thrones—“Finally!”—just finished reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things on the flight to L.A., and is now moving on to the author’s most recent novel, City of Girls.
She would love to do a musical. Her favorite is Chicago. “I’ve asked everyone,” she says. “Every meeting I’ve gone to, every studio I’ve been to, every director I’ve met, every producer. Bless J.J., when people come to visit set, he’ll be like, ‘Daisy can sing!’ It’s like, ‘Thanks, dude. Appreciate that.’” And while she has learned to embrace and enjoy her downtime, she did have moments of anxiety when The Rise of Skywalker finished filming. “It is weird because the thought of not having anything solid—and I’m hoping something will be solid after December—but when we wrapped, I was like, ‘Oh my God,’ because that’s been my structure that I work around. Now I’m like, ‘It’s back to [being] a jobbing actor.’”
This article originally appears in the Holiday 2019 issue of Marie Claire.
Lead image credits: Miu Miu dress, Foundrae diamond baguette ring and cigar band ring, Julie Lamb New York gold nested stacking rings.
Photographer: Nicole Nodland / Fashion Editor: J. Errico / Hair: Christopher Naselli for R + Co at The Wall Group / Makeup: Molly R. Stern for Epicuren at SWA Agency / Manicure: Emi Kudo at Opus Beauty for Nails Inc / Production: Liz Komroy for 3 Star Productions