The Disney+ series stars talk about their emotional link to the Jedi and the Nightsister and the magic of being cast in their dream roles.
Beyond their fictional connections to Grand Admiral Thrawn, Eman Esfandi and Diana Lee Inosanto share immense gratitude for landing in the universe of Ahsoka. Esfandi, who plays Ezra Bridger in the Disney+ series, and Inosanto, reprising the role of Morgan Elsbeth she first played in The Mandalorian, were both trying to find their footing in film when they were cast.
“Who would've ever thought? Our world is so strange and so mysterious,” Inosanto tells StarWars.com. Ten years after writing, producing, and starring in her own independent film, The Sensei, Ahsoka creator Dave Filoni and executive producer Jon Favreau found Inosanto’s indie film trailer online just as Inosanto was about to give up hope. “I've always loved acting, but I could never find my break and my voice as an artist. I was honestly thinking, ‘I guess I'll go back to college. I'll continue teaching martial arts,’” she says. “But here I am. And it's just been magical for me to be able to have this newfound career and to be able to be an actress in something I love so much. I've loved [Star Wars] since I was a child, and it's just a real miracle for me.”
Meanwhile, Ezra beckoned Esfandi from Star Wars Rebels. “I literally feel like Ezra spoke to me in my living room, which is strange, but it's what happened,” Esfandi says. That connection continued after he was cast. “It felt like anytime I was on set and wasn't sure what to do, I would in my head be like, ‘All right, Ezra, can you take care of this? You got this right?’ It just felt like he was there.”
Inosanto’s love for Star Wars and its place on her journey as a martial artist dates back to the first film’s release. “Star Wars was one of those things that I got to bond with my dad [Dan Inosanto] about,” she says. As a child, Inosanto would travel with her father as he conducted international martial arts seminars. During a stop in Aspen, Colorado, the two saw A New Hope for the first time in theaters. “And it was incredible...that kind of energy was like a rock concert.” Her father was particularly enamored with the lightsaber combat. Months later, he returned home one day with two extendable plastic lightsabers. “He goes, ‘Come on, honey! Let's work out.’ And so that's how he was training me in martial arts.”
When Inosanto grew up and became a mother herself, she introduced her children to the galaxy. “My oldest son has autism and for whatever reason he really gravitated toward the whole Star Wars universe,” she says. “I loved sitting down and watching The Clone Wars and later on Rebels. They're almost like modern-day Aesop’s Fables. There's always some cool life lesson. And I think it's even more amazing that, down the road when I would be asked to audition for Mandalorian, in the beginning, it was my son that I would read lines [with to prepare].”
Inosanto's roots helped her find Morgan’s distinctive fighting style from her first match-up with Ahsoka Tano, a beskar spear-versus-lightsaber duel. “That was a really important moment,” she says, “that defining intro for Morgan Elsbeth.” The character’s moves meld Filipino martial arts with a little bit of Wushu, and became further defined in Ahsoka with stunt coordinator Ming Qiu. “Ming came up with the idea of taking the spine of the Talzin blade and using it, redirecting the [Nightsisters] magik,” she says. And for Morgan’s final scene in the finale, “I wanted so much to have a powerful ending. I requested that [Elsbeth] would die by her own weapon.”
Beyond her prowess in physical combat, Inosanto first began building the character in her mind as if she was part of our own history of conquers. “I tapped into Julius Caesar and Catherine the Great,” she says during the auditioning process when the specifics of the story remained shrouded in secrecy. “By the time I found out that I was going to be in The Mandalorian, I switched gears and started looking at books written by Timothy Zahn,” the author who first introduced the world to Grand Admiral Thrawn. “Heir to the Empire was really important to me… And of course, Dave was always amazing about answering my questions. He was always there to explain Morgan's process and what her goals were.”
Fans and co-stars alike frequently comment on how much Esfandi is like his character in the series. To embody Ezra Bridger, the actor studied up as if Bridger and his family were real historical figures. “I did not watch Rebels ad nauseam because I didn't want to get too much of the younger version of the character locked into my body,” he says. “But I watched key episodes that Dave recommended so I could understand the relationship between Ahsoka and Sabine and the rest of his crew. And I also researched Ezra like a public figure. I read all these articles… and then watched a ton of videos on YouTube about the Force, and interviews with George [Lucas] and interviews with Dave. I inundated myself with all things Star Wars to understand the tone and the idea of the show.”
After months of stunt training, learning how to work through the obscured tunnel vision of the Bridger blue contacts, and meeting Ahsoka Tano herself, Rosario Dawson, it was time to put that knowledge to the test. Esfandi’s first day shooting was actually Ezra’s last scene in the finale. “Which was surreal,” he says.
Wearing Night Trooper armor and ambling down the ramp of a stolen shuttle was an emotional moment to portray reminiscent of an earlier role in Esfandi’s career. “I had done a film where my character’s ostracized for what he looks like regardless of his affiliation to a certain country. And in that film, they have everybody point guns at him and they explain that he is what the enemy is going to look like. That was very hard, but also very important for the telling of that story.”
In Ahsoka, Ezra’s reception is ultimately the opposite of that. “I'm in the enemy's outfit and I'm being received with guns and blasters pointed at me, except this time when I take my helmet off and they actually see who I am and what I look like, they realize that I am not an enemy. I'm a friend. And to them, and in this world, I am a hero who is not dead after all. That was a very, very impactful moment for me as a human being.” With a simple “Hi Hera. I’m home,” Syndulla and Bridger are reunited. “It really means a lot and sort of epitomizes my feeling about what it is for someone who looks like me and comes from my background to be playing a character like Ezra Bridger,” Esfandi says.
The first movie Esfandi saw in theaters was Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, and while he loved the story, he wasn’t surrounded by Star Wars fans growing up in Texas on the border of Mexico. “I didn't have a ton of friends who played Star Wars or anything, so I didn't actually grow up on Star Wars,” he says. But he was reintroduced in adulthood. “Being a part of this project, [I] now realize I'm a super fan.”
“Goodness and hope”
Through Ahsoka, Esfandi and Inosanto have had a front-row seat to the passion of the fan community and the power of storytelling. “I didn't realize Star Wars was such a conduit of goodness and hope, kindness and compassion, humanity and understanding,” says Esfandi. “Being a part of it now...is the highest honor.”
For Inosanto, Morgan Elsbeth exists in stark contrast to Ahsoka Tano, with a shared history of suffering and pain. “Ahsoka, one way or another, was able to find her way through the darkness and into the light, so to speak,” Inosanto says. “Morgan, to me, is [a different] example of what happens when people have been traumatized. They are willing to take risks in a way that can be harmful and hurtful.”
Esfandi remains grateful to the cast of Star Wars Rebels in particular for setting up his character’s journey beautifully. “I want to thank the whole original Spectre crew because we stand on the shoulders of giants in all of them,” he says. How Ezra filled his time between the animated series finale and the character’s reappearance on Peridea in Ahsoka was a source of much friendly debate on set. In his personal headcanon, Bridger introduced the Noti to the Force and music. “Very kumbaya, round-the-fire singing and dancing,” he says. “I think he tried to teach them the Force because they're defenseless. And also a lot of meditating by a lake. Just very chill.”
He hopes fans who join Ezra in Ahsoka see that the character has matured since his younger days. “It's okay to lean on your friends and to allow people who love you and who want to help you to help you,” he says. “And that's for everything in life, not just getting back to a different galaxy.”