Maybe the greatest pilot in Star Wars history just got her own origin story and we were ecstatic to speak with the actress behind the character. On this past week’s episode of Disney+ and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Bad Batch, the action took place on Ryloth — homeworld of the Twi’leks — and at the centre of it all? One Hera Syndulla, voiced by Vanessa Marshall.
This isn’t the Hera fans know from Star Wars Rebels, though. Nor is it the one who was name-checked in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, has appeared in Star Wars video games, or turned up after the Battle of Endor in Star Wars: Forces of Destiny. This was a younger Hera. A girl unsure of her place in the world with an almost uncanny love for flying and growing conflict with her parents. A girl years away from piloting the Ghost, meeting Jedi Kanan Jarrus and Ezra Bridger, or having a son, Jacen Syndulla. And yet, this Hera is still a key piece of Star Wars history and it was fascinating to see this part of her story. So Gizmodo hopped on a video call to talk to Marshall about returning to a galaxy far, far away.
Germain Lussier, Gizmodo: I was so, so excited to see Hera on The Bad Batch, as I’m sure you were and I know all the fans were. The big question is: when and how did you hear that she’d be coming back?
Vanessa Marshall: Well, it was like most jobs. My agent informs me about them. And this was one of my favourite emails to receive. I’ll never forget when she called and told me that I actually got the part of Hera, I fell on the floor. But I was seated for the email. They said, “Would you like to?” And I said, “Yes, of course.” And then the dates were set and then I got the script and it was amazing. And I couldn’t wait to play and find where Hera would be, what she might sound like. And we just had a lovely time figuring it all out together. Wherever they led, I followed and it was just so much fun, really.
Gizmodo: I believe it. It was so great to see just so many seeds of the character we know from Rebels. Her love of flying, the conflict with her parents. What part were you most excited to explore?
Marshall: Well, I was really interested in her conversation with Omega, not only because it’s a female peer — I loved watching Hera with Sabine — but I really felt that their level of connection was fascinating to me. I didn’t know who Omega was — Vanessa, the actress, I mean. They told me who she was within the narrative. But now Vanessa, a huge fan of Bad Batch who’s watched every episode a thousand times who then gets to see the younger version of her character interact with said Omega? It was like a whole different experience.
But when we were recording it, I just, I think it’s really important that young girls have characters to look up to. That can have a dream and fulfil that dream and make a huge difference, and there’s literally nothing that can stop them. For me, that conversation solidified that. They’re two female characters helping one another learn and grow, that was just a beautiful moment that I felt was really important.
Those are issues that matter to me — I volunteer with a group called Step Up, and literally, their mission statement is “Women inspiring women to inspire girls.” So that conversation was just, I felt, really something important, not only I’m sure for Omega, but definitely for Hera to see that you can live in a spaceship. That’s a really important thing.
Furthermore, my dad is a pilot. He has an open cockpit biplane, so for me to say those words that “Flying is a feeling.” I mean, I literally felt like I was channeling my father. When I did the episode “Wings of the Master” for Rebels, when she got to fly the B-Wing, I dedicated that to my dad, and I said, “Dad, I understand flight. I understand its value for you.” It’s a completely spiritual thing for him.
I said, “Thank you for teaching me about that.” He would take me flying and we would do acrobatics, and I, of course, pretended I was in the Millennium Falcon. Because, you know, it’s what happens. So it was also really thrilling to have those words come out of her mouth and that, of course, happened in that scene. But the element of flight was so important for me personally, given my loving relationship with my dad and my profound respect for his aviation.
Gizmodo: Wow, that’s so beautiful and so Star Wars. That connection to your parents. I’m curious, as you said, you were excited to discover what Hera was like when she was a child — how much of that had you previously discussed with Dave Filoni or the Rebels team, and how much was brand new when it came to Bad Batch?
Marshall: Well, we had discussed it, but one doesn’t necessarily imagine what it might sound like. I mean, we know that she slips into her Ryloth accent when she gets in an argument with Cham. We also know that she lost that accent. Why did that happen? But yes, I believe a lot of that was known to me in the sense that she was somewhat obstinate. That she rebelled against her dad a little bit and eventually, so much so, that she left because she disagreed with his methodology. But I never considered what it might look and feel and sound like in each and every moment, so to explore that was a revelation. Then, as with every episode of Rebels, even though I recorded it and we all said the lines together, when I see the animation and hear [Kevin] Kiner’s music and just the poetry of it all, it’s an entirely unique experience that I still get to enjoy as a fan. That was the case with this even more so because I now had all the backstory having watched it. I didn’t know Kanan was in the first episode! I didn’t know that little guy was there! I was like, “Hey, what’s this guy doing here?”
Gizmodo: Kanan and Hera back together again. Sort of, but not really.
Marshall: Everything was top secret and so much more delightful to watch because I had no idea what was next. Then I had to remember, like, “Wait, what did I do again?” And I got to see it. So it was just really fulfilling.
Gizmodo: You mentioned the accent and that was the first thing that kind of threw me because I forgot about that one moment on Rebels [where she slips into it]. I had to go back and revisit it. How did you go about approaching it and also playing the character so young?
Marshall: Well, yeah, I think there are two separate issues, yet together they made it easy to play around because either could be dialed up or down. You know, [slips into French accent] “The French accent could be even more French,” but then no one understands what I’m saying… So we dialed in the exact right location for the feel of Hera. Obviously the higher-pitched voice for a younger version of her and then the flavour of the Ryloth accent. I’ve played young girls before, so I know sort of where that’s located in my register and also the things that come with that age range in terms of insecurity and curiosity, and just all the emotions of a teenage girl. It was fun to just sort of sink into those and let that lead the way, and it created the sound somewhat naturally. But I did keep checking in with them to make sure. Do you need more accent? Do you need it even younger? We figured it out together.
Gizmodo: That’s great. And it was great to see her, but kind of almost unsurprising because Hera does tend to pop up here and there now in Star Wars. She’s one of those it’s a big deal when we hear “General Syndulla” in Rogue One and or she’s in Forces of Destiny. So I’m wondering, how has it been to see her grow and appear more places and how much ownership and pride do you have in that?
Marshall: Oh not ownership. No. Not even pride. No — humility, definitely. No, I’m honoured. I feel like no one really owns any of this. I mean, George Lucas, obviously, but I’m lucky to participate in it and that I can help lift up the narrative in any way necessary. I mean, I was grateful to play Rook Kast in Clone Wars. I got to play a Mandalorian. I literally told Dave now my life’s complete. I want to build Mandalorian merc gear, I’m working on it for [Star Wars] Celebration. Don’t ask. But look for it. [Laughs] But yeah, I was happy that it was a life insurance policy. I said that earlier today. Like I’m happy to know that she’s still alive at that point. So, in that sense, I was like, “Oh she didn’t get killed.” I mean, because that’s a real possibility, given the stakes couldn’t be higher. But I am always filled with just a sense of honour and gratitude, I really mean that. However Hera is portrayed in the future, whatever that needs to be, that will be the exact right way and the right thing. So I just trust that.
And believe me, I punched my friend sitting next to me. Andrew Kishino, who played Saw Gerrera in The Clone Wars. Literally, I heard, “Paging General Syndulla” then I saw Chopper and this and that and I just kept punching. “Did you hear that?” He’s like, “Ouch!” We’re both such nerds. I love it so much. David Collins, who actually said the ADR line, told me as we walked in, “Oh, by the way, I page your character.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah. By the way, I have a token that would get you to Brooklyn. Have a good night. Get some popcorn.” Then I actually heard it. I thought he was putting me on. I didn’t expect it at all. I’m happy that her character matters, that means a lot to me.
You can see Hera in the 11th episode of Star Wars: The Bad Batch season one, “Devil’s Deal.” It’s streaming on Disney+.