The HoloFiles

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: ‘The Acolyte’ Creator Leslye Headland Discusses New Star Wars Series

By George & Josh Bate

(L-R): Director Leslye Headland and Lee Jung-jae on the set of Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

Since its announcement during Disney Investor Day in 2020, The Acolyte has remained one of the most anticipated and talked about Star Wars projects. Russian Doll creator Leslye Headland was said to be developing a mystery Star Wars series that takes place 100 years before The Phantom Menace and focuses on the dark side. After much anticipation, Headland’s series is finally arriving. Recently, The Acolyte had its red carpet premiere and generated rave initial reactions, suggesting Star Wars are in for a treat as the series debuts on Disney+.

The HoloFiles recently had the opportunity to speak with The Acolyte creator Leslye Headland as part of a roundtable interview alongside Jedi News, Skytalkers, Fantha Tracks, Skywalking Through Neverland, Father.Son.Galaxy, Fangirls Gone Rogue, Ion Cannon, Coffee with Kenobi, Triad of the Force, and This Dad Reads. In the interview, Headland discussed being influenced by George Lucas, The Acolyte‘s connections to other Star Wars stories, creating the villain’s mask, introducing a new perspective on witches to the Star Wars galaxy, how a specific episode of The Clone Wars greatly influenced the show, whether the show requires knowledge of the High Republic era, and more.

Leslye Headland is widely known for her work on Russian Doll, the acclaimed Netflix series about a woman who is caught up in a mysterious loop in which she dies at the end of the night each time. Although narratively quite different from Headland aimed for in The Acolyte, she noted ways in which her work on Russian Doll influenced her new Star Wars show. “[Russian Doll] was an intricate story obviously, with the Groundhog Day element,” Headland said. “Having to keep track of this storyline that sort of spiraled down into the heart of what the story was about. And I hope we’ve achieved sort of the Star Wars-version of that with this storyline, with the Rashomon elements and seeing things from two different sides…This is the point of view from one character. This is the point of view from another character. I would say this prepared me really well for the story we ended up telling here.”

(L-R): Amandla Stenberg, Lee Jung-jae and Director Leslye Headland on the set of Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

Of course, Headland was also influenced by the franchise creator George Lucas. Headland spoke about how she leaned into Lucas’ filmmaking sensibilities and storytelling themes to craft The Acolyte. “You want to hit all the particular tropes that make something feel Star Wars,” Headland detailed. “Those practical sets, the familial clashing, the struggle between master and apprentice, father and daughter, sister-sister. All of these things are elements of George’s stories. You know, Ahsoka and Anakin. Luke and Anakin. Obi-Wan and Anakin. I was hoping to embody…all of those particular tropes and elements. It was daunting. Hopefully, we’ve achieved it in way that feels both fresh and reverent to what George has created.”

The Acolyte features all sorts of connections to Star Wars that have came before it, including the High Republic publishing initiative, the prequel trilogy, and the original trilogy. Headland noted regarding this, “If you’re a Star Wars fan, I hope that you will notice the different elements of…other Star Wars media that we have brought into The Acolyte. We’re referencing the High Republic with the design of the robes, by including the character Vernestra Rwoh.” Headland continued, “I think we’re definitely referencing Clone Wars when we explain the witches and coven that Jodie Turner-Smith leads. So, there’s that. I think a lot of the fact that we’re using practical elements, we’re using real sets, that really lends itself to the original trilogy. And then where the Jedi are in their trajectory is very close to what ends up happening to them in The Phantom Menace. Hopefully, we’re merging a lot of those storylines to feel more diverse and hopefully exciting, because of that.”

Headland expanded on the ways in which The Acolyte was inspired by The Clone Wars. Dave Filoni introduced Nightsisters, a coven of witches including Asajj Ventress and Mother Talzin, into canon with his animated series. Headland explained that she was influenced by Filoni and George Lucas’ work on witches, but that the coven of witches seen in The Acolyte are different. “Of course there are witches and that is an element that George and Dave created with The Clone Wars,” Headland commented. “But I do think my version of it is more about a collective that utilizes the Force differently than the Jedi do and would rather be left alone so that they can develop their own way of manipulating it, use it. Whether it’s for good or bad is left up to the audience’s interpretation of them.”

Although taking place during the later days of the High Republic era, The Acolyte does not require that viewers read High Republic books and comics before watching the show. “Pitching The Acolyte to people who are unfamiliar with the High Republic, I would say this is a fresh entry point,” Headland affirmed. “It can definitely elevate the show if you have had the experience of immersing yourself in that beautiful world, but you certainly don’t need to have read anything or know any references to it, because we’re taking place a bit out, a bit closer to the prequels than the High Republic. So, hopefully, we have enough referencing of the High Republic, but we’re not leaning on it narratively to support our story. I would like to think our story stands on its own.”

Headland had a delightful message to send to fans of the High Republic publishing initiative. “I want to say that I love you,” Headland joyfully remarked. “Thank you for investing in a world and an era that I think is so new and I definitely had that experience working on [The Acolyte]. You’re diving into something that isn’t referencing the live-action canon or the Skywalker Saga so you’re willing to dive in at a particular entry point and enjoy the stories of the Jedi and what George created in a different context. So, I would hope that you have a similar experience watching The Acolyte.”

To create The Acolyte, Headland assembled an immensely talented group of individuals, very much in line with Lucasfilm’s enduring commitment to collaboration. Headland spoke specifically of her work with artists and production designers on making the new show. “I worked so closely with my designers and all of them were very well-versed in either their fandom for Star Wars or their understanding of it aesthetically,” Headland stated. “And also they were very familiar with the aesthetic of the High Republic as well. So, we did a lot of trial and error. We did a lot of collaboration. We did an enormous amount of presentations to each other so that all the departments were on the same page. So, I do think that really was the key to making a show like this one. You can’t do it on your own.”

Helping to bring this world to life was Star Wars veteran Neal Scanlan. Scanlan, who received an Oscar nomination for his work on The Force Awakens, designed many of the unique creators in The Acolyte. Headland commented on her collaborations with Scanlan for the show. “Neal embraced me immediately, which I was so grateful for,” Headland discussed. “He was very supportive of my ideas and my requests. He does so much when you get to work with him. Whether it was the mask with that element of horror with the smile. That was something we worked on for a really long time in terms of how to construct it.”

Headland also spoke of working with Scanlan to create a new character named Basil. “The character of Basil was someone that I said, ‘I want to do this with a guy in a suit like the old days. I don’t want this to be a CGI character. What do you think? How can we execute it?’ And he worked so hard for months on creating the design of that character, making that character work.”

(L-R): Amandla Stenberg , set PA Taylor Young, director Leslye Headland and director of photography Chris Teague on the set of Lucasfilm’s THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2024 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.

It wouldn’t be Star Wars without a quirky droid, and The Acolyte is no different. In recounting her work with Scanlan, Headland told a funny story about how star Amandla Stenberg worked with the droid Pip. “The droid Pip was so much fun to work with,” Headland remarked. “Amandla [Stenberg] would joke that to was like a little Mercedes Benz in her pocket, because every time she was done with a take they would come and take it from her, because it was remote controlled by puppeteer, who was excellent and actually worked with Amandla in rehearsals so that the droid felt very much like a character….Neal was instrumental in all of that.”

John Williams started a precedent for resounding, emotional music to accompany Star Wars stories. Since Williams, the likes of Kevin Kiner, Michael Giacchino, Ludwig Göransson, and Natalie Holt have crafted music for a galaxy far, far away and now, with The Acolyte, it is Michael Abels’ turn. In the interview, Headland discussed her collaboration with Abels in crafting the musical score for The Acolyte. “I didn’t really start giving any direction to Michael,” Headland said. “He is brilliant. He is a Pulitzer Prize winning musician. He obviously worked on Jordan Peele’s films, which is how I was introduced to him. There was an element in the show that I felt needed to feel like John Williams, but also had to have an eerier, darker edge to it to tie into the tone of the show. Initially, I didn’t really give him a lot of direction. It was more once we got into specific themes that I would say I would give certain direction like, ‘This just doesn’t feel very Star Wars-y to me.’ Or he would say, ‘I think this is a really huge moment, because a lightsaber is being pulled out.’ And I would say, ‘Yes, but it’s a bad guy pulling out a lightsaber.’ So, we’d have these really spirited conversations about how to…support choices that were elements of Star Wars that we’ve seen before, but be specifically in his perspective and voice and point of view as a composer.”

Clearly, incredible thoughtfulness and adoration for Star Wars went into Leslye Headland’s creation of The Acolyte. The new Star Wars series has impressed those who have had the opportunity to watch some of the first episodes and will surely do the same to a wider audience when its two-episode premiere hits Disney+ on June 4.

Listen to the full roundtable interview with Leslye Headland below…. Of note, spoilers for Episode 1 of The Acolyte are discussed in the below interview.

Stay tuned to The HoloFiles and Star Wars Holocron for continued coverage of Star Wars: The Acolyte, including weekly reviews, analyses/discussions, and easter egg breakdowns.

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