Giancarlo Esposito on What It’s Like to Play a Person of Colour Among Star Wars’ Fascist Villains

Giancarlo Esposito on What It’s Like to Play a Person of Colour Among Star Wars’ Fascist Villains
Moff Gideon emerges with his stolen weapon at the climax of The Mandalorian's first season. (Image: Lucasfilm)

When we first met the Empire in Star Wars’ original trilogy, their fascist roots in the real world iconography of forces like the Nazis were immediately apparent: not just in their stark uniforms and the dehumanising armour of the Stormtroopers, but in the whiteness of their officers. But when we see Star Wars’ villainous Empires in the present day, that latter part doesn’t quite stand out so much.

Ever since Star Wars began returning to our screens big and small since its acquisition by Disney, both the Empire and its neo-Nazi-influenced successor, the First Order, have been portrayed as abjectly villainous, yet also newly diversified factions. In the books, we saw Black women like Ciena Ree and Rae Sloane rise through the ranks of the Empire, the latter becoming one of its most prominent figureheads in a post-Return of the Jedi world.

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In the sequel trilogy, the ranks of the First Order were filled with almost as many people of colour as the Resistance, in stark contrast to the racial makeup seen in the original trilogy and the prequels — from background officers to defecting heroes like John Boyega and Naomi Ackie’s Finn and Jannah. And now, in The Mandalorian, we have returned to the final days of the Imperial Remnant with the sinister Moff Gideon as the show’s major antagonist, played by Italian/African American actor Giancarlo Esposito.

“It means a lot to me because I’ve strived in my career to be colourless. I am of mixed race, half Italian, half African American, and I grew through the period of time where I was relegated to playing thieves and thugs,” Esposito told Indiewire in an interview about what it meant for him to join the Star Wars galaxy. “I learned how to do a Spanish accent, to play Spanish street characters, who were murderers, killers, robbers, the like. So for me, it’s a crowning moment when I could get a phone call from Jon Favreau, to say, ‘I wrote a role for you.’”

But aside from the personal privilege Esposito felt in getting to be part of The Mandalorian, the actor also reflected on the uncomfortable clash as a biracial man playing a role in an organisation that, if it was part of the world in which we live, would despise him for his skin tone. “Certainly I’m captivated and in wonder and enthusiasm that this character could be, and is, me; someone who has an understanding of what race and status mean here in America and has suffered of that as well,” Esposito continued. “But my Hollywood family has grown throughout the years to become more and more understanding that we are special, because actors are actors, and you don’t have to be a colour to play a role.”

While the old Expanded Universe doubled down on the Empire and its remnants and splinter factions as explicitly xenophobic — Grand Admiral Thrawn’s arc within the Empire was always a push and pull between being admired for his tactical genius and loathed for his alien nature — modern interpretations have filed down the racial aspects of those fascist leanings (and, arguably, many ideological interpretations beyond that) to a more general villainy. The fascist roots are still there and clear, but they’re more simply “the bad guys” than they are obliquely fascist forces.

That’s something Esposito also sees in his role as Gideon, in that Star Wars’ presentation of fascism is more about power and control than it is the white supremacy that is part and parcel of fascism as we would recognise it in our society: “Fascism, communism, for me, can be colourless, because it really boils down to power and money.”

It’s rare to see someone involved with modern Star Wars — especially someone as prominent as Esposito — explicitly address such an uncomfortable part of the fiction’s villains, especially as Star Wars itself in recent years has found itself mired in almost ceaseless culture wars as the franchise aims to bring a better range of diversity to its creators and characters. Even if it’s more of an indicator that Star Wars itself will continue to approach its fascist parallels with delicate hands, it’s still a rarity to see it addressed all the same.