Daisy Ridley’s earliest childhood memory is of a party hosted by her parents at their family home in west London, when she was three, maybe four. She was surrounded by grownups, towering above her, when she abruptly and dramatically declared: “I’m shy!” before running out of the room. “My mum told me I did that, so maybe I’m remembering half an imprint of someone else’s memory,” she says, laughing at the irony of both commanding attention from her audience and then immediately rejecting it. It’s a trait that has somehow stuck.
At 27, Ridley finds herself at the centre of the universe. With three Star Wars films under her belt, the actor is adjusting to multiple layers of fame: there’s the gilded A-list Hollywood kind that comes with red carpets, stylists and outfits gifted by the most sought-after designers; then the sort of fame that has tabloids tracking her most mundane moves, breathlessly documenting Ridley’s “brave” trip to the dry cleaner’s (with no makeup!) or strolling through London wearing – gasp – a daisy print skirt. And then, of course, there’s the fierce, cult-like superfan fame, where the force of millions of Star Wars obsessives will always be with her, the legacy of being plucked, as a fresh-faced 21-year-old unknown, by director JJ Abrams to play Rey, the scrappy scavenger mentored by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).
We meet on a late autumn afternoon in one of London’s grandest hotels. The Star Wars press campaign has occupied an entire floor and a corridor of suites is taken up by publicists, assistants and executives fixed on their phone screens. Ridley, wearing a dark denim Ulla Johnson boilersuit, cinched in at the waist and tucked into Christian Louboutin mesh ankle boots, takes a seat on a beige chaise longue in a very beige room, expertly low lit for movie stars. Her dark bob is slicked back, her cheekbones wide and high. She looks terrific – and when I say so, she immediately credits her stylist (Samantha McMillen, whose longest-standing clients are Johnny Depp and Elle Fanning), and a new trainer.
“I’m the strongest and healthiest I’ve ever been. I didn’t get injured once [on set]. I actually got my kickboxing green belt during filming, which really felt like something.” Ridley mugs a goofy face at her achievement. “It was honestly the best thing ever.”
The daughter of a communications director and a photographer, Ridley had done a few bit parts on TV (Toast Of London, Casualty, Mr Selfridge) and was working in a pub when she got the part of Rey six years ago. She was an ideal blank canvas for Abrams who, Ridley has said, wanted to project “vulnerable and tough, sweet and terrified” on to the character. Although comparisons to a young Keira Knightley were swift – the two look remarkably alike – Ridley held her own with fans and critics, and was heralded as “terrific in a doozy of a breakout role” by Variety. It’s obvious Ridley enjoys an ease on screen; it helps, perhaps, that she was never really a Star Wars fan – like the then-unknown Mark Hamill in the original films, she was able to play her part unburdened by the weight of the franchise. Whether this delicate alchemy works in The Rise Of Skywalker remains to be seen: nobody gets to watch the new film until its premiere.
From the start, Abrams warned her to understand the scale of what she was taking on: “This is not a role in a movie. This is a religion for people. It changes things on a level that is inconceivable,” she recalls him telling her. But Ridley, who won a scholarship to boarding school in Hertfordshire and grew up with her older sisters Kika-Rose (a former model who works in production) and Poppy Sophia (a reiki instructor) in a pretty cobbled street in west London, radiates a natural charm and confidence. She is chatty, sitcom-expressive and enthusiastic; life right now is “so amazing”, “glorious”, “fabulous”. I can see how she won Abrams over.
“It’s been hard at points,” she says of the attention that followed the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, fiddling with her earring. “I have a thing with control, but it does get a bit easier. I texted my friend the other day and I was, like: ‘Dude, please don’t put pictures of me online.’ Because it’s that weird disconnect, that people don’t ask people’s permission before they post things.”
Ridley began therapy and binned social media two years ago, considering it an unnecessary invasion of her now closely guarded privacy. She is reportedly engaged to her boyfriend, the English actor Tom Bateman, whom she met while filming Murder On The Orient Express two years ago (a ring is on her finger, but she won’t talk about her love life). Friends are reminded to put their phones away when they go to dinner together. “I’m like: ‘You can’t say where we are, not just because it’s me – because it’s not safe.’ My friend has 50,000 followers and you’re telling 50,000 people where you are right at that moment? That’s scary.”
Was that an awkward conversation? Did she worry her friends would think she was becoming grand, or difficult? “I’ve never had an issue with saying things like that,” Ridley says. “I’m not passively aggressive – I’m just directly aggressive. It is a bit uncomfortable, because obviously I don’t want to say to my friend, ‘Please don’t do that.’ But I’m not the one who should be feeling uncomfortable.” She pauses to sip on a juice shot we’ve both been given. “Fucking hell, is that just ginger? Oww, it’s just ginger.” She winces.
“ Everybody needs to be more accountable for what they post and what they share. Recently, I met someone that knew of someone I vaguely knew that knew something about me they shouldn’t have known. I was, like, ‘Yeah, please don’t talk about stuff like that.’” She exhales, before continuing.
“People think they know things about you, and that they know you – it’s a constant imbalance. I wish people sometimes would go: ‘Hey, what do you do?’ so I can say it, but people see me and are, like, ‘A-haaa!’” She is careful to add the caveat that she is “of course, grateful and lucky”. It gets to her most when the fame affects those closest to her. “Recently, my family went to a wedding and it was really uncomfortable, because people assumed they knew me and only directed questions to me. My sister who was with me was basically ignored. I cannot stand that. It’s just rude.”
I ask if she thinks it has been easier to be confident and navigate her celebrity because of the privilege in her life – of boarding school, her upbringing and so on? Ridley is suddenly incredulous.
“The privilege I have – how? No, genuinely, how?”
Well, I say, in terms of wealth, class, education – that kind of privilege, in knowing how to decode the rules in certain spaces. As a caveat, I add that both of us have privilege, and it’s not a criticism; I was simply curious to know what she thought. Things take an awkward turn.
“Well no, because, no… ” There is a very long and tense pause, before she insists that, actually, there is little difference between her experience and that of her co-star John Boyega, who grew up in south London to British Nigerian immigrant parents. “John grew up on a council estate in Peckham and I think me and him are similar enough that… no... Also, I went to a boarding school for performing arts, which was different.”
But surely nine years of private education gave her some additional confidence?
“No.” Ridley leans on her elbow while twirling a small knot in her hair. “No. I think, also, it has taken me a little while to be OK with it. I was always fairly confident, and I think that comes from being part of a big family who are all quite chatty.”
It’s an unexpectedly defensive detour, as if the mere mention of privilege is an attempt to diminish Ridley’s hard work or talent. I try to change the subject but get the distinct feeling that her publicist, sitting behind me in Ridley’s eyeline, has made some sort of silent intervention. “I’m not saying what you’re saying is wrong,” Ridley adds. “I’ve just never been asked that before, so I’m like, oh. I don’t think so.” We move on.
* * *
Despite starring in one of the biggest film franchises in history, Ridley didn’t know much about cinema while growing up and is still working through lists of “must-sees” that have been passed on to her by friends. Her cultural touchstones were the film Matilda, Disney, Pink and the Spice Girls, and musicals such as Chicago. At the wrap party for the final instalment of the sequel’s trilogy, Abrams gifted her a Lion King score signed by Elton John, “because me and John [Boyega] were always messing about re-enacting the, ‘Waahh, Simba!’ scene”. But for the most part, growing up she was, “I don’t know, just hanging out. I worked in Abercrombie & Fitch as a mere T-shirt folder.” She says this meant she was able to gatecrash nights out with the models who worked there, “going to fancy places like [Mayfair private members’ club] Maddox where I’d be on the fringes of their table, sipping my free vodka cranberry”.
Parties aren’t her thing anyway. She got invited to an Oscars one hosted by – she thinks – Madonna. “I want to say Madonna? Anyway, I was so tired and didn’t go, so my dad went. He’s great at parties and had a great time. I’m more of a dinner person, I was never really a partier.” Has she ever been out until lunchtime the next day? “No!” Ridley gags and laughs. “I don’t take drugs, so if I make it past 2am, I’m like, ‘Look at me! This is only life and a little bit of alcohol, and I am still going!’”
Ridley is vegan and doesn’t drink often – “I don’t think it’s about not letting go, I just don’t like being drunk” – but did revel in the wild anecdotes that Carrie Fisher would let slip on set. “Oh my God, she was so sassy and had all these amazing stories. I can’t mention any names but things that only happen with Americans who live in big houses in the middle of nowhere.”
Fisher famously told Ridley to be careful about who she dated after Star Wars because, as in her case, “You don’t want to give people the ability to say, ‘I slept with Princess Leia.’” Were they particularly close on set? “Oh, she was so smart and so funny. She went through things, like wearing the gold bikini [in Return Of The Jedi], so I didn’t end up having to do those things, and I’m so grateful.”
Ridley was in the cinema when she got the phone call telling her that Fisher had died. “I spoke to [my publicist] Heidi, and went to the bathroom and wailed. Someone sweetly came up to me and asked if I wanted a refund for my ticket. I said, ‘No, I’m fine’ and then I wailed more, and then I had a parking ticket and was, like, this is all awful.” Fisher had played Leia as a general leading the Resistance against the First Order in the last two films. How did they work around the loss in The Rise Of Skywalker?
“Everyone is really happy with the way the footage has been used, even though it’s difficult to do and watch. Billie [Lourd, Fisher’s daughter] is in the film, and she says it was a way of working with her mum again. It’s one of those weird things where it’s as satisfying as can be, even amid all the trauma.”
As for what comes next, Ridley says she’s “sadly unemployed, but I have itchy feet”. There are projects she can’t talk about yet, “things that are almost ready”. She is full of praise for her agent who she says deserves a producer credit on Ophelia (Ridley’s last major film, a reimagining of Hamlet also starring Naomi Watts and Clive Owen), as “she practically made that happen”. For the most part, she is now sifting through scripts. “I had an amazing script and then a meeting with the director and it was just really weird, like, a really weird vibe.” She grins. “Then Hylda had a conversation with the director and was, like, ‘Nope – no, you’re not doing it.’
“Star Wars has given me the opportunity to do smaller things and allowed me to say no, which is glorious. I don’t talk a lot about various things because there are people fighting the good fight, and I know I have safety in that the people I have worked with have loud voices.” It’s an elliptical allusion to – I think – equal pay and #MeToo in the industry. She rubs her nose, before explaining some more. “Well, there was another film I really wanted to do, but there were a number of factors that meant I didn’t believe it was right.” How so? “Well, it wasn’t equal and all that stuff, so I said no, even though that’s really scary. But how much of a blessing is it to be able to say no?”
Given that Disney owns Star Wars, is she conscious of what issues she can talk about publicly? Does she have to modify, say, her politics?
“No. I don’t feel I have to edit what I say – the things that make me angry are the things that make everyone angry. Everyone is annoyed with BoJo. Everyone has an issue with Trump – every sane person anyway.” She smiles brightly at me, almost apologetic, reluctant to expand. “It’s not that I don’t talk about this stuff, but other people are so much more articulate than me and say it better.” Our time is being signalled to a close. She bounces up from the stiff-looking chaise longue, still lively and energetic. “This [was] starting to feel like a therapy session,” she jokes, exhaling. A buzz of voices breaks out in the corridor, as the line of people looking to speak to Ridley, or get a picture of her, to find out what it’s like to be her, gets imperceptibly smaller, interview by interview. I wonder where she’s at her happiest. “On my parents’ sofa,” she replies without hesitating. “I’m happiest when I’m having a nap on their sofa, because there’s always a murmur of their voices. I find that very, very comforting.”
• Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker is out on 19 December.
Styling: Samantha McMillen/The Wall Group. Hair: Mara Roszak/SWA. Makeup: Molly Stern/SWA
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• This article was amended on 11 December 2019 to correct and clarify some family references. The original article wrongly stated that John Ridley OBE was Daisy Ridley’s grandfather.