‘The Acolyte’ Showrunner Leslye Headland on Profound Effect ‘Phantom Menace’ Had on Her Identity – and Her ‘Star Wars’ Series

“I actually was very intrigued by why George Lucas had started us at that particular point,” “Russian Doll” co-creator tells TheWrap

Leslye Headland

Leslye Headland is one of several creators working on their own live-action series for Disney+’s expanding small-screen “Star Wars” universe. And just like the others, she has to remain incredibly tight-lipped about almost everything having to do with her Lucasfilm project, titled “The Acolyte.”

But what Headland, the first queer woman behind a “Star Wars” title, could tell TheWrap during a recent conversation surrounding increasing LGBTQ representation on screen and behind the scenes amid Pride Month, is what drew her to the time period during which “The Acolyte” is set to take place: The final days of the High Republic era, a period roughly 200 years before the events of George Lucas’ 1999 film “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace.”

“What I can say is the reason it did appeal to me personally is that I was 18 when ‘Phantom Menace’ came out and I was a very, very big ‘Star Wars’ fan. I remain a big ‘Star Wars’ fan, but at that particular time, right after the re-releases and the fact that I was in high school, it just kind of all coincided at a time where I was discovering who I was sexually, I was discovering who I was artistically, I was kind of realizing what I wanted to do with my life,” Headland, who is also the co-creator and showrunner of Netflix’s “Russian Doll,” told TheWrap. “And then this big, huge movie event, cultural event happened that was ‘The Phantom Menace.’”

She continued: “And I know there were varying reactions to it. And certainly there were a lot of people that had grown up with the original trilogy who were disappointed by it. But I actually was very intrigued by why George Lucas had started us at that particular point. I kind of wondered, but what happened to lead up to this? That’s kind of where my ‘Star Wars’ fan brain went was like, ‘How did we get here?’ And why are the Jedi like this? When they are in power, why are they acting this way and how is it that they’re not having the reaction that you would think they would to Anakin’s presence and what Qui-Gon Jinn is saying about how passionately he feels about training him and bringing him into the fold. It’s like, even the discovery of Darth Maul is kind of met with this like, ‘Hm, interesting’ kind of feeling. So I just think for me, my brain has always buzzed around that area and wondered what’s going on here — or what has been going on here.”

As the first queer woman to run a “Star Wars” series, Headland has been asked a lot about being the first queer woman to run a “Star Wars” series. So TheWrap asked Headland if the fact the question itself, regarding the pressure and honor that comes with being the first to hold that title, is problematic when that responsibility becomes the focus to people?

“It is an interesting question, actually, when you ask it that way… You’re right, a lot of people have asked me that and I’ve kind of given different answers to it,” Headland said. “But when you phrase it that way, I do wonder why people are asking me that. Like, why aren’t they asking Disney that question? (laughs) Like when people say, ‘Do you feel responsibility?What are you going to do about it now that you’ve been gifted this position?’ — which I feel very grateful for, for me, all I really feel is gratitude, and the pressure that comes with creating anything, period, let alone something as important as ‘Star Wars.’ But but you’re right, there is this kind of vibe of, ‘Be careful.’ Like, they hired me! (laughs) I wonder if we should be asking the artists that question, or should we be asking the studios and the corporations those questions, and the networks those questions. And actually, I think that they do get asked them pretty often. But I think that there’s more of a responsibility in that realm of hiring, rather.”

“For me, my job is to do my job (laughs), which is to create and showrun and produce a show,” Headland added. “And I think that there’s an enormous amount of pressure that comes with that, no matter what. It’s just very hard. It’s a hard job because you’re doing something creative in an industry that is not necessarily run by creative people. It’s run by economically minded people and it’s run by people that are looking at art in terms of how many subscribers you get and how much money do you make. And it’s kind of like any other industry that that folds itself into capitalism. The dollar becomes king, it becomes very important. And as creative people, that isn’t necessarily why we got into this game, but it becomes something we have to start navigating pretty quickly. So there’s always responsibility. I just think that as your world gets bigger and as you go more and more professional with your work, the pressure is going to get higher no matter what.”

Creating a diverse writers’ room for “The Acolyte” is important to Headland, not just in terms of staffing writers of different races, genders and sexual orientations, but also with varying levels of “Star Wars” franchise familiarity.

“What I noticed was that most of the scripts, the samples that I really responded to, they were Star Wars fans,” Headland said. “Most of the people that I met with were people that were either really big fans of the franchise, but maybe not as familiar with [‘The Mandalorian’ and ‘Clone Wars’ producer Dave] Filoni’s work and ‘Clone Wars’ and hadn’t played the video games. And then there were people, like myself, that have watched all of ‘Clone Wars’ and played ‘Fallen Order’ and played ‘Knights of the Old Republic.’ And I’ve also done a lot of RPGs, including ‘Edge of the Empire.’ So I kind of felt like I was very into ‘Star Wars,’ so I didn’t necessarily look for people who were as into ‘Star Wars’ as I was, as much as I was interested in why people were interested in ‘Star Wars.’ So it wasn’t I sought out people specifically who had not, it was more that I was looking for people who I responded to their work anyway, and then I was like, ‘What’s your way into “Star Wars”? What are the parts of it it that you find the most interesting?’ And everybody had a different answer.”

Headland’s reasoning for this is that when Lucas wrote the first “Star Wars” movie, “A New Hope,” he was working from a blank slate, with no previous IP to adhere to and an entire world to create ahead of him.

“You want to have people that respect the source material, who absolutely know what you’re talking about, but at the same time, I think it’s important that you have some voices who are approaching it a little bit more as kind of the way George Lucas approached Episode IV, right? When he wrote ‘A New Hope,’ he was not approaching it, like, ‘Well, in “Star Wars,” there’s this thing.’ He’s talked over and over again about his kind of inspiration for that film being from tone poems or from a school of cinema that was much more about visual representation of feelings. And, of course, the monomyth and not from a place of, ‘I have an encyclopedic knowledge about an IP,’ which I have a pretty decent knowledge of it, I have a lot of people on my staff that do, obviously, there’s people who work at Lucasfilm a that’s their only job. So I felt really well supported in that sense. It was more like, ‘Hi, you don’t know any of this. What do you think about this storyline? What do you think about this character? What do you think about this being a major set piece?’ That was important to me in scouting people out, because I felt properly supported in the other places.”

“The Acolyte” showrunner also thinks it’s important to make her series accessible to not just die-hard “Star Wars” fans, but also a viewer who is just entering this world for the first time, something she thinks was achieved with Disney+ first live-action “Star Wars” series, “The Mandalorian.”

“Jon Favreau did this perfectly with ‘The Mandalorian.’ That was a show that, in the second scene especially, really paid off if you’re a ‘Clone Wars’ fan and if you’re a fan of the IP and of other parts of ‘Star Wars’ media,” Headland said. “You’re like, ‘Oh my God, that’s great. Oh, my God, that’s great. Oh, my God.’ And then the end of Season 1 with the Darksaber, you’re like, ‘Oh, my God, that’s amazing. So it’s going to go in this place.’ You start to know where it’s going or you start to anticipate where it’s going. But also, my mom can watch ‘The Mandalorian.’ My mom, who has like a passing understanding of what ‘Star Wars’ is, can watch ‘Mandalorian’ and really get invested in the central connection between the main two characters, because it’s universal, because it’s deeply, deeply emblematic, I think, of what George Lucas wanted to to bring to the world when he created it.”


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