Amandla Stenberg is a Force to Reckon With

It’s easy to see why Amandla Stenberg is perfectly cast as the dual lead in the new Star Wars series, The Acolyte. The 25-year-old has a strong head on her shoulders and is wise beyond her years, she tells me how Star Wars has always been an allegory of how we move through life with complex parts of ourselves, but it’s how we respond to fear that dictates our destiny.

Fear is something she feels too – holding the responsibility of a massive franchise on her shoulders – but she calmly tells me that she sits with it: “If I do get overwhelmed at moments, that’s okay, too… Fear often needs acknowledgment from yourself and when I do, I think it can transmute into something else that’s not fear. That’s excitement, maybe,” she says in an interview while in Toronto to promote the series.

Star Wars: The Acolyte, which premieres today on Disney+, follows an investigation into a shocking crime spree that pits a respected Jedi Master (Lee Jung-jae) against a dangerous warrior from his past (Amandla Stenberg). As more clues emerge, they travel down a dark path where sinister forces reveal all is not what it seems.

Stenberg, who previously starred in The Hate U Give and Bodies, Bodies, Bodies, plays dual roles as twin sisters Osha and Mae, and she crafts the nuances between the sisters with impressive subtlety. I spoke with the actress about the duality of roles, tackling fear and the force, and the world-building of Disney Studios.

Marriska Fernandes: Leslye Headland said that exploring good and evil encourages you to find duality within your protagonist and that you understood that on an intellectual and spiritual level. How so?

Amandla Stenberg: “This was an amazing opportunity for me to confront different parts of myself through two different characters. And I think that Star Wars has always been a wonderful allegory to explore those different parts. Despite the message that we have those different parts inside of ourselves, it’s just how we navigate the world that allows one of them to reign supreme over the others and that’s the point of contention between Star Wars fans like what is the true balance of the force. But I think that the narrative, particularly the Anakin Skywalker story, always speaks to how we move through life with complex parts of ourselves but it’s when we stray from our sense of morality due to fear that we cave into darkness and it’s okay to have fear. But the way that you treat fear, move on from fear, is the most important thing.”

To follow up on that, there is a line in the show, when Master Sol says do not let fear affect your judgment. Did you ever feel at any point of this doing the fear of stepping into a massive franchise? How did you get over it?

“Well, I think running away from fear, or denying fear, or suppressing fear can be a lot more dangerous than accepting fear because fear is a very human quality. So I think oftentimes, whenever that feeling pops up, and it continues to pop up, I try to just sit with it and acknowledge it. Fear often needs acknowledgment from yourself and when I do, I think it can transmute into something else that’s not fear. That’s excitement, maybe.”

If every character is a little bit of the actor who plays them, how much of yourself do you see in Mae and Osha?

“I feel like I put different parts of myself into each one… It’s kind of a hard question. Osha? I think that Osha kind of has more of an emotional journey to go through in this story. She’s learning a lot about herself, kind of related to the things that we were talking about. She’s learning not to fear certain parts of herself, and to sit in her emotions, and let herself feel them. I think a lot of her struggle is not being able to process her emotions. I think that’s something that I’ve learned a lot throughout my life. If you don’t allow yourself to feel something entirely sit in the discomfort of it, and let it pass and move through you, then it shows up in a different form.”

You’ve gone through this incredible journey of taking on the weight of two huge roles. How do you think you’ve grown as an actor or person after you took on such a significant role?

“This was a very different type of acting for me to do because I think sci-fi fantasy universes, like this, require a different sort of physicality. I think I’m more used to naturalism but because this is Star Wars, there’s a lot of movement, there’s action, and there’s the character archetypes that are important in this universe. So I think I was pushed to think about that sort of physicality of what I thought an action hero or action villain would look like or move like.”

With this being your first foray into the Star Wars universe, what surprised you about this world that Disney put together?

“Well, I thought initially, because of the previous Star Wars series that we were going to be shooting on a volume, and so I was really surprised to learn that we were going to be on practical sets. Once I was there, and observing how these sets are built, because we got there six weeks in advance, and many of them were still under construction, I got to see the process of how they’re built, which starts with the scaffolding and then these additional elements added. In general, I just got to observe how on something of this scope, there is a machine at work that consists of so many different departments and within those departments, so many different artists who are very skilled at very specific things, whether it’s 3D printing, or working with certain metals, or working with textures, or fabrics, or putting a patina on to the side, or building props or costume. There are just so many different people that contribute to it, including puppeteers. It’s my first time working with puppets. I loved witnessing that process. I had a puppet who was on my body the whole time and his name was Pip. He’s an adorable little droid that’s remote-controlled. He’s always responding to the things they do or say. And our puppeteer, Jack came in for an audition of the show, filming and he went up against a couple of other people. But it was just clear by the way he knew what the personality of this droid was. When I asked him about it, because there was just such an emotionality to how he maneuvered this tiny machine, he said, he based it off of his newborn daughter and oh, I learned a lot about how puppeteers wear equipment to imbue it with a narrative emotion.”

I’ve heard you say you love the women of Star Wars, like Princess Leia and Padme. What do you especially love about the portrayal of women in this universe?

“I love that the women in Star Wars are leaders. They usually have a lot of responsibility and are a part of some larger community or responsible for a larger community, which I think is often true of women. Women are such integral parts of communities and are kind of the backbone of them, generally speaking.”

Having done this, what are the goals you’ve now set for yourself as an actor? 

“I mean, I would love to do this role again, especially because where we arrived at the end of season one has constructed something that lends itself to a much larger narrative. Hopefully, I get to continue because the particular kind of work I did on the show took a lot of time. Also, I just got a lot more comfortable by the time that we finished shooting nine months later, so now I feel like I have such a wonderful foundation to explore even more if I have the chance to come back.”