Impact. How can we possibly measure it when it comes to fictional characters? Sure, there are things like merchandise and ticket sales. But when you talk about real heart-and-soul cultural impact — a protagonist that means something to people — it gets harder to define. When it comes to Ahsoka Tano, however, impact becomes a far less nebulous concept.
Consider this: Introduced in the 2008 animated movie, Star Wars: The Clone Wars, as the 14-year-old apprentice of Anakin Skywalker, Ahsoka soon became the central figure of the resulting animated series. As such, she was the first starring female Jedi of Star Wars. (Sorry, Rey.) She evolved from an immature teen into a leader. She actually left the Jedi Order of her own accord. Over the course of the show, she grew to become, arguably, the most popular new Star Wars character since Darth Maul — with both women and men. Her return in Star Wars Rebels, as a fully-grown and powerful Force wielder, was greeted with genuine excitement throughout social media. And with a pending showdown with Darth Vader in tonight’s season finale of Star Wars Rebels, people are worried about her.
When it comes to Ahsoka, measuring impact isn’t difficult. Her impact is massive.
Ahsoka, most likely, would not be the character she is without Ashley Eckstein. As the voice of Ahsoka in The Clone Wars, Eckstein conveyed youthful doubt, arrogance, and hopefulness, wisdom gained with experience, and individuality; and in Star Wars Rebels, a commanding and calm confidence. In advance of tonight’s season finale (9 p.m. PT/ET on Disney XD) of Star Wars Rebels, StarWars.com spoke with Eckstein about getting the part, fighting Buffy, and embracing the responsibility of playing Ahsoka. (For those avoiding spoilers about Ahsoka’s fate, fear not; this interview does not discuss the outcome of the Season Two finale.)
StarWars.com: I want to talk about Ahsoka overall, and especially throughout Season Two of Rebels. But to start, I was wondering about when you were first told Ahsoka was coming back. Did you and Dave [Filoni] talk about what she might be like at this stage in her life and what she had been up to since we had last seen her in The Clone Wars, and that kind of thing?
Ashley Eckstein: You know, Dave and I definitely talked about who Ahsoka is in Rebels. I think one thing, and I get this question all the time, is that fans ask if I have anything to do with the storylines. And the answer to that is no. I’ve never had anything to do with the storylines and, quite frankly, I don’t think I should. [Laughs] Dave and his writing staff, they’re just incredible and they always come up with the most amazing stories. I mean, stuff way cooler than anything I could ever think of. So in terms of the storylines, Dave’s always worked with me on a need-to-know basis of, “Is it something that’s needed for the performance?” Then he absolutely gives us all the backstory and everything we need to know, but if it’s a story that hasn’t been told yet and we don’t need to know about it, he usually keeps that secret. Because that could potentially be a future story. So even us as actors, we’re not told the entire guide map of everything, which I know is in his head.
I know what I need to know. And I know more, kind of, mentally where she was at, personality-wise where she was at, I know bits and pieces of what happened in-between when she walked away from The Clone Wars and when she appeared in Rebels, but I really only know a fraction of what’s happened to her in those years. There’s a large part that I do not know and hopefully one day we’ll get to explore that.
StarWars.com: I hope so, too!
Ashley Eckstein: [Laughs] Yeah!
StarWars.com: So when it came to her personality and the way she just carries herself, was that up to you as an actor to define?
Ashley Eckstein: Yeah, that is one thing that I have had a say in from day one. In large part, the reason I got the part is that Dave saw a lot of my own personality in the audition that he wanted me to bring to the character. So in the very beginning, he said more of what got me the part was my talking and action in between takes of my audition versus my actual audition itself, really. And so he said, “Definitely bring a lot of your own personality to the character,” and he would often ask me [what I thought].
It’s been well documented how snippy she was in the beginning and, quite frankly, how people thought she was very annoying and didn’t like her. We knew that there was a fine line. I mean, we didn’t want her to be bratty, we didn’t want her to be annoying. We did have these certain nicknames and she would ask questions and talk back, and that very much was and became an endearing part of her personality over time. But in the beginning it was just like, “Oh, my gosh, who is this 14-year-old girl talking to Anakin Skywalker this way?”
StarWars.com: Right, but I think the brilliance of that was if you can step back and see the character’s arc, especially now, you get to see a complete person and you get to see them grow.
Ashley Eckstein: Yeah, you’re exactly right. You appreciate the arc and where she’s come from, and that was the biggest thing I asked for in the beginning from the fans, because we were always, in [the production of] Clone Wars, a season ahead from what the fans saw. We were always pretty much an entire year, an entire season ahead. So I knew how far she had come by the time Clone Wars launched and I just begged fans. I said, “Look, I hear your concerns. I hear your frustrations with her snippiness [Laughs], but just trust me, she comes so far.” With The Clone Wars, so many of those characters, we already knew their outcomes because of the movies, so they had to stay pretty true to what we already knew. But Ahsoka was just a complete blank canvas and we didn’t know anything about her. And so I told fans, “Look, we’re going to go on a journey with this character, so if she stared in this perfect place where everyone wants her to be, that would be a pretty boring story. You know, she has to grow and she has to overcome and she has to go on a journey and an arc.” Over time, fans saw that and I’m truly grateful we had so much time to tell her story.
But yeah, you know, I think in terms of my role in what I was able to bring to the character, it has always been the performance and Dave has always listened to me from day one. I have the right to speak up and say, “No, I don’t think Ahsoka would say this line,” or “I don’t think she would say it this way,” and it’s always been a collaborative effort. It wasn’t immediate; it took about six months [on The Clone Wars] before we really felt like, “Okay, that’s Ahsoka, that’s who she is.” I remember the first couple of episodes, I would be so nervous because I would get notes back and some of them were directly from George Lucas. So Dave would come back to a session and would say, “You know, George feels this,” or, “George didn’t like this, he didn’t think this quite works,” and it was still nerve-racking because there were a lot of takes and a lot of lines that didn’t quite work. I was growing so attached to her and I was like, “Oh, my gosh, am I going to be recast any day?” Because we hadn’t quite found her voice, and then six months in, something just clicked and we were just like, “Okay, this is her.” She really grew from there.
StarWars.com: Do you remember what moment that might have been? Was there a specific scene?
Ashley Eckstein: I don’t remember the specific scene but I do remember it was about halfway through Season One, and we did end up going back and re-recording a lot of the beginning of Season One once we did find her voice. But I didn’t really hit my stride with her until halfway through Season One. Matt Lanter, he actually kind of came in halfway through Season One, so like, the first half I actually didn’t record with Matt, and it makes a huge difference. That really helped solidify the character, as well. Matt and I just clicked as Anakin and Ahsoka. So once I was in the studio with Matt, we really kind of found that relationship and that bond between Anakin and Ahsoka. I think that’s a huge part of it.
StarWars.com: Regarding your performance in Rebels Season Two, the thing that I love the most about it is, you can see Ahsoka is more mature and more confident, but there’s still the young Ahsoka in there. How did you approach her this season, and how did you pull off that kind of balance?
Ashley Eckstein: Definitely with, honestly, the great direction of Dave. He really is an amazing director and, often times, even I would try and be too serious with her. The Ahsoka from Clone Wars, the Ahsoka we grew to love, is still inside of her. That is who she is, but she’s grown up and matured. It’s like any of us — that teenager in all of us is still in there, those hopes and dreams and personality quirks. We’re all the same person; who we were in our younger years is still there, it’s still a part of who we are. It’s just over time and life experience, we may react differently to certain things, think differently, talk differently, but the genesis of who we are is still there. So that’s Ahsoka [now]. I mean, her natural personality is who she is and that’s going to come through. You’re going to see those bits of attitude of snippiness and determination. That’s all going to come through. It’s just she’s had so much life experience since she’s left The Clone Wars, it’s like a whole different life that we don’t even know about yet. So that aspect has to come through, and it was tough at times for me because I didn’t explore that chapter. I didn’t perform that chapter of her life.
StarWars.com: Right, but you still have to convey it.
Ashley Eckstein: Yeah, I still have to convey it and it was really great direction from Dave. I’m really grateful to have a director that’s kind of an actor’s director that really understand stands the direction he has to give to get the performance that he needs.
StarWars.com: Let me ask — were you in the room at Star Wars Celebration when they played the season premiere of Season Two?
Ashley Eckstein: Oh, yeah.
StarWars.com: So there’s the moment where Vader says, “The apprentice lives,” and the place went berserk. I’ve been to all kinds of movies on opening night, including The Force Awakens, and I’ve never heard a reaction like that to anything. What did you make of that?
Ashley Eckstein: That moment was amazing. I honestly got chills because I had not seen that episode yet, so I was experiencing it for the first time, as all of the fans. Even though we record the episodes, you know, months up to a year ahead of time, we don’t see it. I’m very much a visual person, so sometimes things don’t click or connect for me until I literally see it, and so it was as though I was experiencing it for the very first time even though I had recorded the lines. It was incredible.
I think it speaks to an entire generation of fans, young and old, that have grown up now since 2008 with The Clone Wars. You know, there were no [Star Wars] movies [at that time]. This was even before Disney bought Star Wars so, as fans, that was all we had at that moment. For kids, that was their Star Wars. So many kids, between Clone Wars and now Rebels, actually watched the animated series first before the movies because that’s what was accessible to them. Then even for adults, that’s been their Star Wars up until The Force Awakens, and so they’ve really created this emotional attachment with these shows and with these characters. Especially Ahsoka. I think there’s this extra bond because Ahsoka was always meant to be kind of the eyes of the audience. You could put yourself in Ahsoka’s shoes as an audience member and you almost felt like that was you experiencing the Clone Wars.
StarWars.com: Yeah, she’s kind of like a surrogate, because she’s this inexperienced person who’s thrust in with all these legends.
Ashley Eckstein: Yeah, that’s how it’s been explained to me this whole time. Ahsoka’s kind of meant to be the eyes of the audience and I think that’s why you see that reaction at Celebration. Because there is such a strong emotional attachment to this character and, myself included, it’s like a family member at this point. And we didn’t know what happened to her.
StarWars.com: What can you tell us about the recording of that moment? You weren’t with James Earl Jones in the studio, correct?
Ashley Eckstein: I did not record it with James Earl Jones. That would… Oh, gosh, I probably would be so nervous. I think he was in London at the time. I’m trying to remember, but he wasn’t local in L.A.
StarWars.com: That just adds to his mystique.
Ashley Eckstein: Yeah, exactly. [Laughs] I’ve heard how amazing he was, truly wonderful. But I think that moment, I believe, I might have been by myself, because in the beginning there still was so much secrecy around Ahsoka. While, generally, we would do group records, often times in the beginning, when Ahsoka came back I would record by myself because it was just so top secret. So I don’t specifically remember that day but Dave does always warn me and lets me know, “Okay, you need to get to this kind of emotion and to this point. Be prepared when you come into the studio.” Because what a lot of people don’t realize is, often times, you don’t get the lines before, and if you do it’s the night before. I mean, you don’t have time to really rehearse much, so Dave usually just gives notes about how to mentally prepare, so when you come in you’re ready for whatever lines they give you.
StarWars.com: That makes sense because it’s supposed to be a shocking moment, so if you don’t have two weeks to think about it, your reaction can maybe be somewhat fresh.
Ashley Eckstein: Yeah. For me, I definitely feel I work better that way. Actually, in voiceover in general, for the most part you do three takes of every line and then you move on. You usually don’t do more than three takes, five at the most, and then you’ve moved on to the next line. So the recording process moves very quickly because you only have one afternoon to do an entire episode. We have to move quickly in general, but what I’ve found, especially with that much emotion, usually my first or second take is the best take because I get so much in my head and then I start to overthink it. I start to think like, “Maybe I should have read it this way,” or “Let me try it that way,” and Dave usually stops me and is like, “Ashley, I got it. Just trust me, I got it.” And I think it’s because it’s a surprise that I’m finding out what’s happening for the first time and it is that natural reaction versus overthinking it.
StarWars.com: And it’s also like, “Hey, you’re Ahsoka, you know what she’s going to do the first time around, don’t worry about it!”
Ashley Eckstein: [Laughs] I mean, I think I’m so emotionally attached to her at this point, some of our thoughts are kind of the same. So my natural reaction is kind of her natural reaction. Even though she’s in a galaxy far, far away, I’ve had a lot of similar life experiences to her, and so I tap into that real emotion because it’s kind of the same. That’s what I love about Star Wars. Even though it’s in a galaxy far, far away, the emotions are so relatable and you can relate it to something that’s happening in your everyday life.
StarWars.com: I’d like to go through a couple of Ahsoka’s bigger beats through Season Two. So the duel with the Inquisitors was a big one and something that I think audiences wanted to see for a long time, which was a fully grown-up Ahsoka at her most powerful. I just want to know how it felt to record that sequence and then see it for the first time.
Ashley Eckstein: I think, first of all, that was so cool. [Laughs] I think she’s become the skilled fighter that everyone hoped she would be and probably even better than we hoped she would be. She’s so cool and she’s so tough. I mean, when you want to talk about just power and confidence, she really exuded that. So my role in the performance is actually very small, because her fighting is all in the animation. I’ve always said Ahsoka is a team effort. I’m just one part of an entire team that brings her to life because, for example, those fight scenes, that’s an amazing effort from Dave Filoni and his amazing team of animators making that happen. So I applaud them for, literally, like I said, exceeding all of our expectations with what we wanted her to be.
I think from the performance standpoint, she has such a quiet confidence and I think that’s what I had to try and master this season. In Clone Wars, she was more outspoken because she wasn’t [confident]. She was still learning to find that confidence, so sometimes when you’re not as confident in yourself you have to almost talk more to convince yourself that you’re capable. In Rebels she doesn’t talk that much because she doesn’t need to. She knows how powerful she is, she knows how skillful she is, and she’s very confident. But it’s a quiet confidence and a quiet strength. So Ahsoka never really needs to raise her voice and she doesn’t even really need to put much emotion into what she says. Yet in that same line, you deliver it with just this extreme confidence. So there was definitely a couple lines where I had to do more than three takes [Laughs] to get that quiet confidence and have it come across.
StarWars.com: Right. Well, I love it when she points the lightsaber at the Seventh Sister and just says, “You are beaten.” I think that was a great line.
Ashley Eckstein: Oh, yeah. And for me, personally, knowing that I was fighting with Buffy, getting to perform with Sarah Michelle Gellar [was exciting]. We actually didn’t record that scene together at the exact same time, but we were in the studio at the same time, so I definitely go to interact with her and she was even more amazing than I ever thought she would be. I will always admire Sarah Michelle Gellar and she’s just awesome, she’s everything you want her to be and more. But to be like, “I just dueled with Buffy and beat her,” was really, really cool. [Laughs]
StarWars.com: I’d like to see an Ahoska / Buffy team-up. I don’t know if we can make that crossover happen.
Ashley Eckstein: Oh, my gosh, I’m sure if we’d mention that, the fan fiction that would happen would be immediate. [Laughs] It would be incredible.
StarWars.com: Let me ask you about the scene in “Shroud of Darkness” where Ahsoka talks with Anakin. I really saw that as a bookend to their relationship. What were your thoughts going into the recording and can you tell us anything about the recording?
Ashley Eckstein: Well, that day was a really emotional day for me all around because Matt Lanter was back in the studio and I hadn’t recorded with Matt in a couple of years, at this point. And, quite frankly, I didn’t know if I would ever get the chance to record with Matt again as Anakin and Ahsoka. That was a surprise for me and, honestly, I thought those days were done. So to have that emotion, that was like such a gift to have the opportunity to record with Matt Lanter again. I was already in an emotional state, and then to have Matt there, who represents the good Anakin, the hero… I mean, Matt truly embodies Anakin Skywalker so much. So to have him there, and then have that joy of getting to record with him, and then I recorded the scene where she finds out about Vader right after that… I was so emotional, because I finished my lines with Matt and then it was like, it was over. I was dealing with real emotions of like, “Wow, I got this gift of being able to record with Matt again, and now it’s over, and then here’s Darth Vader.” So it was really emotional all around. You know, where Ahsoka says, “No…no,” that’s so iconic. I love how Dave just slips in iconic Star Wars lines, and I was channeling my best Luke Skywalker, yelling, “No…no!” [Laughs]
After the premiere of Season Two, everyone was like, “Oh, Ahsoka knows. Ahsoka knows that that’s Anakin.” I, as a fan, didn’t feel that she knew. I felt like the thought that Anakin Skywalker could be Darth Vader was so terrifying to her, and really not even possible. Like, how is that possible? She blocked it out of her mind. She suppressed it so much. She loves Anakin Skywalker so much, and not to mention the guilt that she would feel of, “Could I have stopped that?” If she had stayed, could she have stopped that from happening? There are all these feelings of doubt and guilt that I think she just put away in her mind and thought that it’s not possible. So it really wasn’t until that moment that it became clear to her and, I mean, that’s just devastating. Anakin is family to her. So to find out that a family member is basically a murderer, it’s devastating. It’s just like if anyone were to find out that their family member murdered lots of people, how would you feel? It’s almost like you can’t even comprehend it.
StarWars.com: We don’t have to talk about Vader versus Ahsoka — but I’m wondering, just overall, what it means to you to take this character from being a really young, inexperienced student to someone who can stand against Darth Vader. Because it’s just an amazing journey to bring to life.
Ashley Eckstein: Oh, gosh, I’m probably going to go off in several different directions with this. Well, first of all, I just want to speak to something I kind of wanted to answer earlier on. One thing, when it comes to Ahsoka’s fighting style and also being able to even fight with Darth Vader, you realize, who trained her? Anakin Skywalker trained her. So this is explained to me by Dave — there’s probably no one better to go up against Darth Vader. And I’ve also been told that if she goes against Vader, it might not be good for her. [Laughs] So I don’t know how this is going to turn out, but if anyone is prepared to fight against Vader, it is Ahsoka, because she was trained by him. So she’s very skilled. And so it will [also] be an interesting confrontation because if anybody knows her weaknesses, it’s Darth Vader. If anyone knows his weaknesses it’s Ahsoka. So it’ll be interesting, that’s for sure. [Editor’s note: At the time this interview was conducted, Eckstein had not yet seen the finale.]
I think what people don’t realize, because we’ve come so far, but when you go back to when Ahsoka was first announced and Clone Wars first came into theaters, Ahsoka was such a revolutionary character. The fact that Anakin Skywalker had a Padawan that nobody knew about, first of all, was mind-blowing. Second of all, the fact that it was a 14-year-old girl just rocked people’s worlds and that was so revolutionary at the time, because strong female characters in this genre, aside from Princess Leia, were relatively new. I mean, now we have Rey and Black Widow and Katniss, but there weren’t strong female characters in entertainment like that. Especially a 14-year-old girl. So Ahsoka was the first female Jedi that was a lead in the Star Wars universe. That’s huge.
So she started this revolution. She honestly did, and what I think was so beautifully done was, not only did she make a statement for girls, which was groundbreaking. She put a lightsaber in little girls’ hands. So when they play Clone Wars on the playground, there was now a girl that could hold a lightsaber that she could be. So that literally started a movement. It’s almost become so commonplace now, but at the time, it was mind-blowing. And then what Dave and his crew so beautifully did is, they made you forget about the fact that she was a girl and they never pointed it out. They just created a strong character and, all of a sudden, boys related to her, as well. They no longer looked at her as the girl character. They looked at her as Anakin Skywalker’s Padawan and she then became, like I said, the eyes of the audience, where kids who grew up with her could learn these lessons through her.
And so I feel like she really kind of created this movement that now we have so many amazing [female] characters. I mean, I feel like the floodgates are starting to open and it’s such an amazing time. Rey is incredible, I’m literally obsessed with Rey. There are so many amazing characters that are female that both genders are relating to. But I do have to give a lot of credit to Ahsoka because it was groundbreaking at the time and I think she helped pave the way for other characters like her to exist. That ultimately goes back to George Lucas and Dave Filoni for breaking the mold and saying, “Okay, we have this strong character but we’re going to make her a 14-year-old girl.” And I know there was doubt at the time to do that. For what she represents in the bigger pop culture world, I think she represents the start of a little bit of a movement.
StarWars.com: I have one last question. For what it means to you, have you been able to step back and see her impact on fans — everyone from young girls who found a Jedi they could identify with to grown men who don’t want anything to happen to her. Because she definitely seems to be very, very special to a wide group of fans.
Ashley Eckstein: Yeah. I definitely am able to step back and see that, and it’s amazing. It’s amazing to see the reaction and how much she means to people. She’s literally become like a family member to so many people of all ages, and I think we see that in people’s reactions, like you said, at the screening at Celebration. We see it on social media when people are watching the episodes and they literally record themselves or their kids to see their emotion. That’s amazing to see, and the biggest thing that strikes me is how many people that just say thank you. Like, “Thank you for being a part of this character and helping to bring this character to life,” and it’s so full of emotion and so sincere when they say it. I’m just honored to be a part of it.
It is such an honor to be the voice of Ahsoka, and because I realize I am a reflection of this character, I will constantly strive to live up to the honor that has been bestowed upon me to be a member of the team that brings Ahsoka to life. Because of how much of a responsibility it is. Because of how much people care. I will not let people down because it is such an honor and responsibility. I take it very seriously. So I do get to see it and, honestly, that’s what fuels me to keep doing more. Because I see that this character has, literally, helped change people’s lives.
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content writer, and spends his days writing stuff for and around StarWars.com. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.