The Star Wars voice actor -- and superfan -- dishes on how it felt to leave her mark on the history of the Rebellion, Hera's family ties, and more!
This article kicks off a series of interviews featuring the cast and crew of Star Wars Rebels. Stay tuned for more insights leading up to the highly-anticipated Season Two finale!
A veteran in the voice acting world for both television and video games, Vanessa Marshall has brought life to many beloved characters -- including the captain of the Ghost crew herself, Hera Syndulla. Hera has had a pretty exciting season thus far. She piloted the first B-wing, took a nasty hit while dog-fighting some Mandalorians, and met up with her estranged father who just so happens to be an esteemed Clone War general. And on top of all that she received a promotion. StarWars.com got the chance to chat with Marshall about her take on the courageous Twi'lek leader, from show conception to the ending of Season Two. French accent, included.
StarWars.com: First, I want to start at the beginning and go back to when you were first approached to voice Hera. What were your first impressions of the character, what she was like, and how has that changed now that you’re all the way through Season Two?
Vanessa Marshall: Well, when I first read for Hera, obviously I didn’t know that it was for Rebels. We were told it was a “Wolf” program, but somehow I sensed the Force in the writing. No, I really did! [Laughs] So I applied the ideology, the story of Star Wars, to the words on the page. These characters were fighting some sort of rebellion, so I just plugged right into say, Empire, you know what I mean? I simply put that narrative on to the text itself. Then when I went to the callback and saw a picture of a Twi’lek on the wall, I realized that there really was FORCE in the writing! This actually was a Star Wars script! As far as her character goes, once I got the job, I discovered there was a kind of moxie to Hera that I really admired. She has amazing focus, impressive military skills, and, of course, she’s an ace pilot! I am constantly blown away by her maneuvers when I see them animated! Hera is incredibly proficient, but at the same time, she manages to have such a loving and nurturing spirit. I think that she’s a positive role model for all of us. She inspires me, definitely.
Where she’s at now, it’s interesting with Season Two. The [rebellion] has grown in numbers, and it’s much stronger. The Empire, unfortunately, has done the same. With these changes, Hera has less of a secretive position. She’s no longer just communicating with Fulcrum on her own, and there’s more of a militaristic structure. She obviously gets promoted, and that’s fantastic, but I feel like things are organized in a way where there’s less pressure on her. She can sit back and trust that everyone is on the same page a little bit more. They’re all improvising together!
But I do think she cares more deeply for her crew members now, and she is really grateful for the sense of family that she feels. Obviously, she’s for justice and liberty and everything she learned on Ryloth with her father, but I get the sense that even she is surprised by how much more deeply she loves her crew. She is still very much the leader, but I think her heart has opened a bit more now that she has the time and space to feel those things…without letting them compromise her mission!
StarWars.com: Hera gets this big promotion to Phoenix Leader this season and there’s this great moment in that episode where it’s actually Kanan who went to Commander Sato and recommended her for that position, which is so great. What does that say about her relationship with Kanan and how it has evolved from when we first saw them together in Season One?
Vanessa Marshall: I really appreciate how much he’s in her corner. I really enjoyed reading A New Dawn for that reason, because I learned so much more about his respect and admiration for her. I think [at first] he was being the Jedi cowboy, like, “Hey, who’s this lady…,” but, in the end, I think their connection has transcended all of those elements and gone one step deeper. As they face the battles together, their affection goes beyond any typical definition. They make a great team.
I think it’s very noble of him to respect her in the ways that he does and, again, I think there’s a deeper sense of love between all the characters in Season Two, so perhaps that sort of falls in line with what I was saying earlier, where Hera is growing to love them all. I think Kanan, even though he’s apprehensive about the militaristic structure, his heart may be opening a bit to her, too. When there’s time for it, obviously the stakes are pretty high.
StarWars.com: We also see that bond with Hera and Sabine in that great moment in “The Protector of Concord Dawn,” where Hera’s injured and we see how much Sabine really cares about Hera and values her on the Ghost crew. Would you say they have a sort of big sister/little sister bond going on?
Vanessa Marshall: It almost feels like cousins or something because they’re a little more equal than that I would say. Although… Well, I guess sisters. I think previous to Season Two, Hera simply had more information and Sabine wanted to know everything. Sabine felt that her not knowing was a sign of this operation being a little too similar to her schooling, which she detested. I think now, as I said, everyone’s sort of improvising together with the exact same amount of information. I think Sabine finally sees that Hera actually meant what she said in that very cool episode [“Out of Darkness”], that she trusts Sabine with her life, and the reason Sabine wasn’t made aware of certain things was to protect her. She’s now seen evidence of Hera’s explanation, and I think this means a lot to Sabine. There’s mutual respect and admiration. I know Sabine is personally my favorite character [Laughs], so there’s that!
StarWars.com: So Hera gets this promotion after she gets to be the first member of the rebellion to pilot the B-wing, which is amazing, and I’m sure it’s amazing for you to have your character fit into such an important part of the rebellion. What did this mean to you as a Star Wars fan?
Vanessa Marshall: I freaked out. I have many, many Star Wars fan moments like that. Also, on another level, my dad is a pilot, and he very much embodies the exact same philosophy and worldview that Hera describes in that episode -- why she wants to be up in the air -- so I really tapped into that. I secretly dedicated my performance to my father, and when he watched it, I hope he felt it, because he has said so many similar things. And I believe [executive producer Dave Filoni] said that his uncle is a pilot, so he knows that it’s a certain kind of person who takes to the sky. It’s really kind of cool, it was very meaningful for me. I could not wait to see it animated, and it was even better than I could have imagined. I really thought it was great.
StarWars.com: That was an amazing scene when the B-wing goes down and she, just like a boss, brings it back up. That was great to watch. I was like, “Yeah, Hera!”
Vanessa Marshall: Yay! I know -- it was awesome!
StarWars.com: Another big part of Season Two, of course, is Cham [Syndulla]. I’m sure a lot of people, when they saw Cham was coming up, were hoping for a happy father-daughter reunion and that’s really not what we saw. Did you know early on that Hera was going to have this sort of strained relationship with him or was that a surprise to you?
Vanessa Marshall: That was a surprise. That was absolutely a surprise. I mean, I assumed there must have been some melodrama for her to not be by his side but I wasn’t sure what the exact details were, so I was thrilled to learn more. Definitely.
StarWars.com: Do you think that it says anything about Hera that her bond with the Ghost crew is actually stronger than the bond she has with her own father?
Vanessa Marshall: Well, I think that happens a lot, and I think that this show is very much about that phenomenon that sometimes friendship bonds can be stronger than blood. I don’t know if this is the case for everyone, but it seems like when one individuates from say their family of origin, they become part of a [friendship-bonded] family. It’s almost like a rite of passage, choosing your new family, so it’s not that unusual. What they’re fighting for, obviously, is quite unique -- forming the rebellion and stuff like that. But yeah, I think she’s such an ethical person or Twi’lek [Laughs], that I think those things mean the most to her, so for her to find like-minded individuals, and to bond so intensely with them, speaks volumes about her. That who she’d rather spend her time with is with people who care about the right stuff. And what’s weird is that it’s exactly what her father cares about. It’s just a different context. Whereas Cham only wants to do that for Ryloth, Hera wants to fight for universal justice. I am glad that Cham and Hera ultimately saw eye to eye, given this inherent similarity.
StarWars.com: I have to ask this, because on our social channels we saw so many comments about the French accent and there were a lot of people who were surprised and trying to figure out why the accent came out. Was this your first time with the French accent or have you done it before? Was it an organic thing that you decided to put in or was it Dave’s decision?
Vanessa Marshall: Well, first of all, I’m fluent in French. So that was not a problem. And I’ve been doing French accents for video games and different cartoons over the years, so that wasn’t necessarily a stretch, but prior to even seeing the script, I got a random email from Dave Filoni saying, “If Hera went back to Ryloth, do you think she would speak in the local [tongue]?” And I said, “Only if she’s angry.”
StarWars.com: Yeah, that makes sense!
Vanessa Marshall: And so when I got the script, I wondered, “Gosh, where would that go?” And it seemed to me, in that area where Cham’s pressing Hera’s buttons, triggering her childhood issues, this is perhaps what Hera’s childhood sounded like! So I think she reacts from a very authentic place and slips back into it, much like I have Jamaican friends who go right into Patois when they argue with family members, even though they’ve just been speaking American English. They easily go back and forth, and it doesn’t phase them at all.
I think I said to Dave, “Should we do that there?” And I can’t remember if he put that in the script exactly, but I remember we recorded it with and without. And they were going to see whether it worked or not, and so we were kind of playing with it on the day. I wasn’t sure if she was supposed to stay in that accent for the remainder, but the final scene I didn’t do with the accent. So yeah, I was learning with everyone else who was watching the episode [Laughs] as to what was chosen. As a matter of fact, they might have cobbled the two takes together for the one place where she does go into the French accent, and then says, “Yeah, I’ve noticed,” without the accent, that may have been from a different take.
Dave directs in that way. He’s very open to whatever we feel moved to do, and we take the time to play with things, and then when they get all the takes together and look at the animation, they really see what fits best or what feels the most like Star Wars. So that’s why it’s always a surprise for us ultimately when it airs because we finally get to see what they chose! [Laughs] But I think it did work, and I think it showed a kind of vulnerability in Hera that we haven’t seen yet.
StarWars.com: I feel like in Season One, Hera was very buttoned-up, very put together, and in Season Two we start to see she does have flaws and she is human… Well, Twi’lek. Do you think it’s easier playing her as this strong, unflawed character or do you prefer the more human character that has problems like all of us?
Vanessa Marshall: Well, I kind of feel like they’re one in the same. I think her temper, even in the animated shorts initially released, when she yells, “Chopper!”, there’s something vulnerable about that. Granted she’s barking out an order, but she’s talking to Chopper like the house cat that drives us nuts! Where it’s sort of endearing. It’s very much, “Get this walking carpet out of my way!” But she is definitely more buttoned up in the first season.
I don’t think there are many moments where she yearns to be understood as deeply as she did in that moment with her father in Season Two, that’s for sure. I think she can live with the contempt and disdain of others, look at her dealings with Lando Calrissian. She punches him in the stomach. She doesn’t need to be understood by him, and she doesn’t care, but I do think it was important to see [in Season Two] that Hera shares that kind of universal vulnerability -- that there are some wounds that can really get us all going. Perhaps that’s beneath all of her other dialogue, as well, so I don’t know that they’re separate in a way. I enjoyed playing every moment of Hera’s evolution!
StarWars.com: Yeah, I see what you mean. Even in her irritation with Ezra or Chopper it’s still vulnerable, she’s still showing she’s a person and that she doesn’t have it together all the time.
Vanessa Marshall: It’s an interesting way to rule. In the Tao Te Ching, Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu describes what makes a great leader, that there’s power in yielding, and I kind of feel that Hera embodies more of a Lao Tzu attitude about things, and that takes a lot of emotional maturity at the end of the day. She is naturally wired that way, which is really remarkable.
StarWars.com: She’s a very interesting character; I could talk about her all day!
Vanessa Marshall: I know! [Laughs]
StarWars.com: I just have one last question for you. Who would win in a fight: Hera or Gamora from Guardians of the Galaxy?
Vanessa Marshall: Oh, hmm. What kind of fight? Perhaps a game? A little sabacc?
StarWars.com: It could be sabacc! Or wherever you want to take this one.
Vanessa Marshall: Wow, that’s a really interesting question. You know, as I said, I think Hera, as skilled as she is, her center is her heart, and she’s organized around her caring and very noble principles. I think Gamora’s center is much lower, deeper down. Gamora seems, in a weird way, almost more animalistic. Her fighting has historically been quite dirty and ruthless, and she’s coming back from that, redeeming herself. She maybe wants to be more like Hera and find a family. I think at the end of the day, Gamora…she’s not kidding! She’s really…yeesh. The reason I ask what kind of fight is because if it were in the air, Hera’s piloting skills would beat Gamora all day, but on land, Gamora might do some serious damage! [Laughs]
StarWars.com: I mean, Hera did punch Gall Trayvis and Lando, and I think she hit Azmorigan a couple of times, but yeah. I think Gamora might have it.
Vanessa Marshall: The only reason I say that is because Gamora was brainwashed by Thanos to be a sociopathic killer, and she is undoing that teaching, but those impulses have lived in her, and I think they’re still there. She hates those impulses and is trying to flee from them and take control of her life again. But if her life were threatened, I don’t think it would be so difficult for her to plug right back into that very ruthlessness, and that’s just not even a way that Hera would ever think. Here’s the thing -- Gamora would pick up a gun and shoot to kill someone without hesitation. Hera would only pick up a gun and fire it if she had to protect someone. In a weird way, Gamora might have more Sith principles [Laughs], and Hera a little bit more on the Jedi side of non-violence. I think Hera would probably sit Gamora down and make a cup of caf and talk it out with her and really try and figure out what’s going on with her! Maybe try to get Gamora to join the rebellion. I don’t think they would end up fighting at all!
StarWars.com: No, I think they would be a good team. Actually, I could see that crossover!
Vanessa Marshall: [Laughs] That’s such an interesting question, though, because they’re both so skilled at different things. It would be fun to watch for sure!
Dana Jennings is Lucasfilm’s senior content coordinator for StarWars.com. You may remember her from such polls and quizzes as, “Who Wore it Best?” and “Which Star Wars Character Should You Invite for the Holidays?” When not acting as chairman of the Nien Nunb Appreciation Society, she can be found working hard to make sure StarWars.com stays fully operational or dressing up as Crocker the cantina alien. Follow her on Instagram for all these things and more!