Ahsoka awakens: Rosario Dawson’s journey from Star Wars ‘fangirl’ to lightsaber-wielding warrior

Barbara Merkley

The first time Rosario Dawson saw herself as Ahsoka Tano, she couldn’t sit still. The actress joined the Star Wars galaxy for a single episode of The Mandalorian in 2020, and three years later, she still has the video of that early costume test saved on her phone. Ahsoka had already been a fan favorite in animated shows like The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, but Mandalorian marked the character’s live-action debut — a test run for potential appearances down the line. 

Even Mandalorian series creators Dave Filoni and Jon Favreau weren’t sure how the colorful Togruta alien would translate as flesh and blood. At the time of the fitting, the look wasn’t quite right yet: Prosthetic technicians would later lengthen Ahsoka’s signature striped head tails, a.k.a. lekku, and Dawson still had to cover her brown eyes with icy blue contact lenses. But as the actress looked in the mirror, she saw Ahsoka Tano beaming back at her.

“I was literally doing jumping jacks,” Dawson says with a laugh, speaking to EW in late June of her excitement. “I remember seeing Jon and Dave’s faces, like, ‘Ooh, did we make the right decision? She’s a little bit… hyped fangirl.'”

Now, that hyped fangirl is donning Ahsoka’s blue-and-white head tails once more, this time as the star of her own show. Dawson headlines Ahsoka, a new Star Wars series debuting Aug. 23 on Disney+. If her appearances on The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett were a test of how audiences might react, Ahsoka is the final exam, making Dawson the first woman to topline a live-action Star Wars show. It’s an ambitious, galaxy-hopping saga of lightsabers, lost friends, and familiar faces — and a story Filoni has wanted to tell for years.

“I was very fortunate,” Filoni told EW in April at Star Wars Celebration in London. “The whole thing kind of came together for me with Rosario when we talked with her and when she put on the costume and became Ahsoka. I was like, ‘You know, this is going to work.’ It really was as simple as that.”

It’s been 15 years since Ahsoka joined that galaxy far, far away, first popping up in the 2008 animated film The Clone Wars. Voiced by Ashley Eckstein, Anakin Skywalker’s young Togruta Padawan was smart, resilient, and a little bit snarky, the franchise’s first female Jedi lead. Between the Clone Wars TV show (2008-2020) and Rebels (2014-2018), fans followed Ahsoka as she evolved from reckless teenager to powerful warrior, eventually walking away from the Jedi order and losing her former master to the Dark Side.

For years, the animated shows and live-action movies were kept separate. Prior to Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012, the company had explored making a potential live-action TV show, set after 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, but it never grew past the planning stages. Lucasfilm head of development Carrie Beck says the company didn’t seriously pursue live-action television — let alone an Ahsoka show — until the launch of streaming service Disney+ in 2019. Still, as early as the Clone Wars days, she and Filoni  “wondered if one day we’d actually be able to make Star Wars in live-action and episodic,” explains Beck, who serves as executive producer on Ahsoka and co-executive producer on shows like The Mandalorian, Book of Boba Fett, and the upcoming Skeleton Crew. “It was something we had talked about for years, before making a streaming show was even a possibility.”

At the top of that list was Ahsoka. Filoni co-created the character in 2008 with Star Wars mastermind George Lucas, who famously wanted a female heroine his daughters could relate to. At the time, Filoni was best known for helming Nickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender series, and Lucas essentially took him on as a Padawan of his own. A decade and a half later, Filoni is one of Star Wars’ most trusted voices, launching powerhouse Disney+ shows like The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fett with Favreau. (He’s also developing a Star Wars film for the big screen.) But Filoni has long held a soft spot for Ahsoka — and Beck points out the parallels between the young Padawan and the cowboy-hat-wearing director who helped bring her to life. “He’s telling the story of the student of Anakin,” Beck adds, “and he himself was a student of George.”

Prior to The Mandalorian, Ahsoka’s last chronological appearance was in Rebels, an ambiguous ending that left her future uncertain. Eckstein’s voice makes a brief cameo in The Rise of Skywalker, alongside familiar Jedi actors like Hayden Christensen, Samuel L. Jackson, and Frank Oz, but the character never actually appears on screen. “There’s always been a big open question,” Beck says. “We don’t see her in the original trilogy. We don’t see her in the sequel trilogy. What did she end up doing?”

The storytelling opportunities were endless, but there was one hiccup: Lucasfilm still lacked the technology to bring Ahsoka to life. “I don’t just mean visual effects, but the prosthetics we needed,” Beck explains. “How do we have a lead actress that can actually sit [in a makeup chair] for hours every day?”

The answer? Rosario Dawson. The actress’ journey to playing Ahsoka has been well-documented. At this point, the now-44-year-old Dawson has told and retold the story on countless talk shows: She became a fan of the character through The Clone Wars, and in 2017, artist BossLogic shared fanart imagining Dawson in the role. Dawson retweeted the image, catching the attention of Filoni. Years later, once The Mandalorian went into production, she got the call.

“It goes back to a quote that [Lucasfilm president] Kathleen Kennedy gave me when I was really going over the casting of Ahsoka,” Filoni recalls. “I said, ‘How do you know when it’s the right person?’ And she just looked at me and said, ‘Dave, you just know.’ And she was right. I just knew when it was Rosario, and that kind of brought Ahsoka together for me, and off we ran.”

Speaking to Dawson about Ahsoka is a bit like talking to a human Wookieepedia article come to life. She references Ahsoka’s journey in specific Clone Wars episodes or one-off appearances in the Disney+ animated anthology Tales of the Jedi. She also speaks of Eckstein’s voice performance with reverence — and one of Dawson’s favorite days on set was when Eckstein came to visit, gleefully tromping through the mud in sparkly tennis shoes.

When Ahsoka begins, the now-adult heroine is no longer a naïve Padawan, having faced plenty of trials that would vanquish a lesser Jedi. She’s certainly one of the few Force-users to duel both Darth Maul and Darth Vader — and one of the fewer to survive. (Might we see her cross lightsabers with Vader again in Ahsoka, reuniting Dawson with her Shattered Glass costar Hayden Christensen? Only time will tell.) Dawson was particularly interested in how Rebels left the character: The animated series ended with a shot of Ahsoka in all white, returning to the physical world after navigating the ethereal Force dimension known as the World Between Worlds.

“In the animation, you saw her go to the white, but what I loved is the idea that there was even another level to her,” Dawson explains. “Dave and I talked a lot about Gandalf the Gray and Gandalf the White — talking about that transition and how she’s someone very capable and excellent and looked up to as a leader, but she still has levels of development to go.”

The actress approached every new challenge with wide-eyed joy, whether it was spending hours in the makeup chair or months perfecting her double-lightsaber fighting stance. Many of Ahsoka’s gravity-defying moves were easy to execute in animation, but much trickier for an actual human to complete, and Dawson had to essentially train herself to fight ambidextrously. (She still remembers the first compliment fight coordinator Ming Qiu gave her, after months of training: “That one didn’t make my eyes hurt.”) Even amidst all that hard work, when EW spoke to Dawson’s costars, every one of them singled out her seemingly boundless energy on set and her penchant for singing between takes, repeatedly describing her as human “sunshine.”  

“I don’t have a single memory of her looking tired, which is crazy considering we’re on the same schedule,” says Natasha Liu Bordizzo, who plays Rebels alum Sabine Wren. “On the weekends, she’s always doing work for charities that she’s passionate about and flying off and doing speeches at events — and I’m just in bed. And I’m still tired.”

When the series begins, Ahsoka is lonely. She’s crossed paths with other Force-users like Grogu and Luke Skywalker, but Dawson describes her as a “lone wolf,” a ronin-like wanderer committed to a single goal: hunting down the villain Thrawn (Lars Mikkelsen) for clues to help her find her missing friend Ezra Bridger (Eman Esfandi). It’s a vow she made in the Rebels series finale, and in Ahsoka, her journey continues.

Fortunately, she’s not alone for long: Ahsoka soon reunites with the graffiti-artist-slash-Mandalorian-warrior Sabine. The Australian Bordizzo, 28, remembers auditioning for an unnamed project, and she and the friend she rehearsed with noted a distinct “Han Solo vibe” to the character. But after Bordizzo sent in her tape, she immediately put it out of her mind — until she got a call telling her that 1) it was a Star Wars series and 2) she had landed a major role.

Sabine is already an accomplished fighter, but Ahsoka finds her picking up Ezra’s old green lightsaber, and Bordizzo spent months training to learn to wield the blade. “Sometimes you do stunts in projects, and it feels performative or more like it’s for the fun of the action, which is fine,” Bordizzo says. “But every action scene in our show is very, very parallel to the story. Every move is thought out, to where they would comment that a certain move did or didn’t feel like Sabine. Everything is intentional, and I hope that shows on screen.”

Also joining the cast is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as General Hera Syndulla, the green-skinned, Twi’lek captain who pilots the Ghost starship. She’s accompanied by Chopper, the Ghost’s loyal but curmudgeonly astromech droid. (It also seems likely that the final member of the Ghost crew, Zeb Orrelios, will make an appearance on the show after the former Lasat Honor Guard captain showed up in CGI form in a March episode of The Mandalorian.) Winstead binged episodes of Rebels once the Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey actress landed the role, and she found herself drawn to Hera’s resilience.

“What I love about her is that she’s such a strong leader and fighter, and she’s also so maternal and nurturing,” Winstead, 38, explains of her character. “We don’t often see that depicted on screen. We see army generals being these very masculine, hard figures. And Hera has that, but she also has this softness to her. She really wants her crew to be loved and looked after, and at the same time, she’s pushing them to be better.”

Winstead is no stranger to the Star Wars galaxy: Her husband is Ewan McGregor, a.k.a. Obi-Wan Kenobi himself. Before she was cast, Winstead would visit him on the set of the Obi-Wan Kenobi show with their infant son. (She wonders if it was Obi-Wan director Deborah Chow who first suggested Filoni cast her as Hera.)

Today, the McGregor-Winstead house is filled with Star Wars merch, especially now that they have two galactic rebels in the family. “In terms of our son’s favorite toys, he’s got his Grogu, he’s got Lola from the Obi-Wan series, and there’s a lot of Dadas around from different eras of Obi-Wan,” she says with a laugh of her son Laurie, now 2. “He always knows that if he sees any sort of Obi-Wan figure around, that’s Dada. That’s what he knows it as right now.”

Ahsoka pits its heroine against a whole host of villains. Diana Lee Inosanto reprises her role from The Mandalorian as the powerful Magistrate Morgan Elsbeth, who has close ties to Thrawn. The daughter of martial arts legend Dan Inosanto and goddaughter of Bruce Lee, the actress jumped at the chance to return to the Star Wars galaxy, and she found inspiration for Morgan Elsbeth’s imposing stature in powerful historical leaders like Julius Caesar and Catherine the Great.

Morgan previously clashed with Ahsoka in a brief fight scene in The Mandalorian, but here, the 57-year-old Inosanto gets to show off even more of her skills. After all, she says with a smile, she’s sort of been training for it all her life. As a young girl, her father took her and a group of martial arts students to see the original Star Wars, and when they got home from the theater, he immediately ran out to buy some plastic lightsabers for training.

“I love the irony that he was training me with these double-staff, plastic lightsabers, and who knew that down the road, I would actually be doing this fight scene with Rosario?” Inosanto says, laughing. “Maybe the Force is really out there.”

Also hunting Ahsoka are the red-lightsaber-wielding Baylan Skoll (played by the late Ray Stevenson) and his apprentice Shin Hati (25-year-old Ivanna Sakhno). “She’s very calculated,” the Ukrainian Sakhno teases of Shin, adding that Filoni encouraged her to help flesh out the character’s backstory. “She’s impatient, but she’s a seeker. She’s only in the beginning of finding her own voice.”

The Irish Stevenson, known for his roles in Punisher: War Zone and the Thor films, died unexpectedly in May at the age of 58, after wrapping his role on Ahsoka. (No cause of death has been revealed.) The actor had previously voiced Mandalorian commander Gar Saxon in Rebels and Clone Wars, and when he spoke to EW in April at Star Wars Celebration, he was giddy about starring in Ahsoka. Giggling, he remembered the first time he turned on his red lightsaber, and he couldn’t help but make the signature “fwoosh” sound on set.

“One of the things that was so overwhelming at first was the costumes are works of art,” Stevenson said. “And the set designs. You think, Who designed this? And then you look at the set construction that is surrounding you — the technical and creative talent is quite breathtaking. And you’ve got to summon it up from the balls of your feet, stand your ground, and own the space.”

When EW spoke to Stevenson’s colleagues in June, they were all visibly shaken by his passing. Dawson calls him a gentle giant, whose ferocity onscreen was only outmatched by his kindness in real life. Sakhno says she and her onscreen mentor were “inseparable” on set, recalling how he made her laugh between takes, singing “Who let the Shin out?” to the tune of the Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out.” “His impact on my life is immeasurable,” she says. “And so is the ache of losing him.”

“Ray really was so excited for this character to be released into the world,” Inosanto adds. “He was just an extraordinarily kind human being. I used to call him poetry in motion on the set. He really was walking poetry, and I know I’m going to be thinking about him when we’re watching these episodes.” 

There’s one final villain who Ahsoka will face  — and he’s got a Star Wars history even longer than hers. Danish actor Lars Mikkelsen, 59, plays the blue baddie Thrawn, reprising his voice role from Rebels. The ruthless Imperial officer has been terrifying Star Wars fans for decades as a brilliant tactician, ever since he battled Luke Skywalker in Timothy Zahn’s beloved 1991 novel Heir to the Empire. The character officially joined the canon in Rebels, and now he’ll appear in Ahsoka in all his blue-skinned, red-eyed glory.  

“He’s brutal to a certain point, but he’s not stupid,” Mikkelsen says of his calm and conniving villain. “He utilizes the creativity around him, and I like that. He doesn’t just kill people off for the fun of it. He’s sort of seven pages ahead of everybody else.”

Mikkelsen says he assumed his time as Thrawn ended with Rebels, but he remembers Filoni making a cryptic tease in 2020, when he wrapped recording on his final episode. The director asked if Mikkelsen had ever been to Los Angeles, and when the actor said no, Filoni replied, “Well, let’s see if we can make that happen.”

“I didn’t really understand what he meant by that,” Mikkelsen says now with a laugh. “But then, about a year and a half after, he phoned me up, and I was game.”

Mikkelsen’s involvement was kept strictly under wraps until Star Wars Celebration, and speaking to EW after stepping off stage, he admitted that the raucous fan reaction made him tear up. (He also jokes that he looks forward to comparing Star Wars notes with his younger brother Mads Mikkelsen, who played Galen Erso in 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.)

But bringing Thrawn into live-action required a bit more effort than just hanging out in a recording booth. Like several of his costars, Mikkelsen spent hours in the makeup chair getting smeared in thick paint. “I mean, I’m not the only one with various colors,” Mikkelsen says. “There’s green and orange. Everybody goes through it.” Still, he admits, he wasn’t sure Thrawn’s menace would truly work in live-action… until he first stepped on to set in full makeup, red eyes glinting in the stage lights. “I really wanted to see it in the camera,” he says. “But it worked. And I was quite amazed.”

‘Ahsoka’ stars Natasha Liu Bordizzo, Rosario Dawson, and Mary Elizabeth Winstead | Credit: Rachell Smith

When Ahsoka premieres later this month, it will debut with a built-in audience, presumably attracting the legions of young Star Wars fans who grew up on The Clone Wars and Rebels and are hungry for the next chapter. But all that backstory can be both a blessing and a curse. The Mandalorian and Andor have drawn massive new audiences precisely because they don’t require seasons of homework to understand. So, how do you tell a story that charms new viewers while also satisfying the hardcore devotees who’ve watched every single frame of the animated shows? After all, the Force is all about balance.

“That’s been the challenge of the series,” Beck admits. “But Dave was very thoughtful about crafting the narrative in a way that could invite people in. The show tells them everything they need to know along the way.”

For the actors new to the franchise, that meant staying true to what came before while also feeling free to forge their own paths. “After five seasons of watching Rebels, those characters are real already,” Winstead says. “It becomes a different challenge of stepping into some shoes that have already been filled one way and bringing them into literally a different dimension.”

The result is a show the cast and crew hope all can enjoy — whether you’ve memorized every member of the Ghost crew or you don’t know your Twi’leks from your Togruta. After all, they say, this is a show made by Star Wars fans for Star Wars fans.

“I was a little surprised by how much it permeates into your personal life,” Bordizzo says. “Most jobs I’ve done have had an effect on me, but this franchise is more than just a job. I feel like I was adopted into this family. Every single person on set is a huge Star Wars fan that genuinely goes to Star Wars Celebration on their own dime as a fan or wears Star Wars merch on their days off.”  

“The set was hopeful,” Sakhno adds, “and our show is as well.”

So, given all that fierce commitment, might an Ahsoka season 2 be in the works, or is this a true finale for everyone’s favorite head-tailed heroine? The cast and crew are tight-lipped. But if Dawson gets her way, she’ll keep sitting in that makeup chair, slathering on the prosthetics for a long, long time. “If more comes next, I’d be really excited and grateful,” she says. “I feel like every time I get to step into her shoes, I learn more. I experience what I could never experience otherwise, and I feel like I keep getting better.”

When EW spoke to Dawson in June, she still hadn’t seen the final versions of the episodes. (She jokes that Disney is so secretive, she’ll probably have to watch them with everyone else when the premiere drops on Disney+ at midnight PT.) The person whose approval she craves the most is Filoni. But after that, “I really, really hope the fans love it,” she says. “That means A) we get to do more and B) we’ve honored the legacy of this character and this journey, and I know that’s what we intended to do.”

Until then, she’ll be counting down the days until Aug. 23. If all goes well, there might even be jumping jacks.

All interviews for this story were conducted prior to the start of the SAG-AFTRA strike.

Motion photography: Lucasfilm

Photo Director: Alison Wild; Head of Video: Kristen Harding; Creative Director: Chuck Kerr

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