Vanessa Marshall, Hera Syndulla in Star Wars Rebels, is very much the Star Wars ambassador, like her fellow Rebel Ashley Eckstein who voices Ahsoka Tano. Vanessa was born a show biz kid in Santa Monica and raised in Los Angeles, the daughter of Knots Landing star Joan Van Ark and KNBC-TV reporter John Marshall. Before following her mother into the business, she went to Princeton for a degree in English that was followed by graduate work at New York University’s Tisch School and a stint in London’s National Youth Theatre. Early in her professional career, she was a model and stand-up comic during which time she staged a one-woman show Got Phat? that ran at the Hudson Avenue Theatre in New York. While she’s worked in all media, including television and film, her particular niche is in voice-over work— animation, commercials, promotions, trailers, narration, live announcing and radio imaging. Recently, she’s been adding writing to her many accomplishments.
John Dak Morton: Vanessa, you certainly bring a lot to Star Wars. But then Star Wars has brought a lot to you. You first saw A New Hope with your cousins in Boulder, Colorado, when you were, what, 12? How exactly did the film change your life? Was the change obvious to you at the time?
Vanessa Marshall: Initially, I remember simply having fun! This wild ride, this space opera, was quite an adventure, unlike anything I had ever experienced before! On a deeper level, however, I think Princess Leia impacted me most. She was such a unique, positive female role model. I admired her moxie, her effortless grace, and, of course, her super cool hairdo! I loved everything about her! I wanted to be her! Still do!
Dak: Isn’t that so true for many of the characters that George drew for us. I hear that so often. You’ve often said he inspired us with the mythic Hero’s Journey.
VM: And so he does. As a student of Joseph Campbell, George Lucas said he was greatly influenced by Campbell’s teachings on the power of myth. Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces discusses the various components of the hero’s journey, along with the universality of these archetypes across many cultures. Campbell’s ideas obviously played a huge role in the creation of the basic story structure of A New Hope and beyond. Luke’s sacred transformation, with its universal rites of passage, provides a narrative with which most humans—in any culture—can identify. The variables may be different, but I think his call to action, his subsequent struggle and ultimately his heroic choices can and do inspire us all. There comes a time in everyone’s life when they must become the hero of their own story, as it were. It takes supreme courage. When Luke rose to the occasion, I know I was deeply moved to do the same.
Dak: Interesting your phrase “in any culture.” How do you think Star Wars has managed to transcend cultural barriers?
VM: The universality of the mythic archetypes, as I said, makes it highly accessible to all cultures. Star Wars embodies the human experience, our search for meaning, and our deep need, in fact, to tell stories that create a context for our lives. These elements make it relatable, and the narrative’s resolution gives humankind what it craves (meaning, inspiration and perhaps even a little faith). It offers us hope that redemption is possible for anyone—in any culture.
Dak: Truly. So looking at your culture, if you will, how does your background, your daily life inform the way you portray Hera? For example, Hera’s a pilot, like your dad.
VM: I love going flying with my father, not only for the perspective it gives me, but I get to see firsthand just how much attention to detail and skill it takes to fly! When my dad does aerobatics, I imagine I am in the Ghost zooming over Lothal! I think this research helps me better understand Hera’s obstacles and accomplishments.
Dak: And then of course, you bring to her your martial arts skills.
RW: Yes. My martial arts practice gives me an acute awareness of the necessary physicality for Hera’s fight scenes. Funnily enough, I notice that I pay closer attention now, when I am boxing at the gym, often wondering, “What would Hera do?!” So in turn, ironically, Hera influences my martial arts practice!
Dak: Perhaps not so ironic. In my own little way, I too have found that I am continually living into Dak in my daily life—professionally and otherwise. Yeah. I’ve heard you say that everyone can make heroic choices every day and how those choices are opportunities to be a mini-superhero.
VM: I find that I have a better day when I simply set out to make people around me smile. When I make that my priority, my day seems to fly by! You never know when you can turn someone’s mood around, and my prayer is that they will “pay it forward.” Whether that is yielding in traffic, allowing someone to go ahead of me in line at the supermarket or refilling a stranger’s parking meter, I think these little acts of kindness create positive energy—for all parties. Giving with no expectation of return, because it is the right thing to do, that is when we can all be mini-superheroes.
Dak: Using the Force, we walk the talk, don’t we. In that regard, your work with the Step Up Women’s Network is terrific. As a father of two young women, that effort really resonates.
VM: Step Up inspires women to inspire girls. More specifically, the organization propels girls from under-resourced communities to fulfill their potential by empowering them to become confident, college-bound, career-focused and ready to join the next generation of professional women. That’s it’s specific mission. I have participated in various mentor workshops. I also enjoy helping with their social media presence and donating items for their fundraiser auctions. Essentially, I do everything I can to aid the organization as a whole! I encourage fans to go to www.SUWN.org or follow on Twitter @suwn for more information.
Dak: You also work with the Star Wars fan organizations: the 501st, Rebel Legion and Mandalorian Mercs.
VM: I adore all three. I am now an honorary member of each group—a fangirl’s dream come true! Last year, I attended the MAY THE 4th BE WITH YOU event at the Los Angeles Children’s Hospital with members of the 501st SoCal Garrison. I loved hanging out with the Mercs at San Diego Comicon 2014, as well as the Rebel Legion at the most recent Star Wars Celebration. It is a real treat to see members of all the groups during Star Wars Weekends in Florida. I often send them gifts to auction off at charity events, and I hope to attend more of their festivities in the future.
Dak: Then, you and I are part of Star Wars In the Classroom’s Spec Ops Team. You were the first to be recruited; I was the second. What’s up there for you?
VM: For years, I have seen Star Wars in everything. When I discovered that there are teachers who actually help students see the Saga in literature, science and even history itself, I felt like I had truly found my people! Even though I am not an educator, I am very proud to be a member of their Special Ops team, and I hope to carry their message everywhere I go. I was so moved by their “SERVE LIKE A JEDI” campaign. Encouraging kids to be of service is the most meaningful lesson of all. They do wise and wonderful work, and I can only hope to do the same in my own way.
Dak: As I said earlier, the amazing thing about Star Wars is how it enables us live into our characters. But your experience and mine are different. For me—I have to be honest—when I worked on The Empire Strikes Back, it was just another job. And decades later, it was the fans who pulled me into the Galaxy. But for you, you came into Rebels as a fan. Which, I might say, is why I think your generation—you, Dave Filoni, Pablo Hildalgo and all—is going to shepherd George’s legacy very well. The fans couldn’t ask for better. You knew what you were getting into and appreciated it from the get-go.
VM: Yes! I was a huge fan of the Original Trilogy, the Prequels and The Clone Wars animated television series. I had always wondered about the formation of the Rebel Alliance, which took place between Episodes 3 and 4, so to learn more each day—on the job—is wholly satisfying. I am also excited to see Episode 7. As always, I will wait in line overnight to see the film, and then see it again and again. I am so glad there is more Star Wars for us to enjoy! Still more to learn about the Hero’s Journey!
Dak: So one last observation on the Hero’s Journey, Vanessa. How have you seen Star Wars make a difference in fans—both before you became directly involved and now that you are Hera?
VM: In the past I have appreciated the strong sense of family that the Saga creates among fans. ALL are TRULY WELCOME. Since joining the cast of Star Wars Rebels, however, I have met a lot of fathers, in particular, who enjoy watching the show with their daughters. They explain that it is a special bonding time for them, and that they have yet to find an activity that unites them so completely. They are also happy to see so many strong female characters for their daughters to emulate. Overall, Star Wars continues to shape our culture, and I am deeply honored to be a part of that phenomenon.
Dak: Likewise. So, let’s do this again if you ever find yourself piloting the Ghost Tierfon- way.
Vanessa can be found on Twitter at @vanmarshall.