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Daisy Ridley: “Japan is way ahead of the curve in terms of gender in cinema”

Star Wars star Daisy Ridley on cinema's emotional power, the wonder of Studio Ghibli – and why people don't talk about periods

Daisy Ridley, aged 24, has shot to stardom faster than the Millennium Falcon makes the Kessel Run (which is less than 12 parsecs). This time last year the highlights of her CV ran to a cadaver on Silent Witness, a girl in Casualty who has an unfortunate accident riding a ghost train, and a part in The Inbetweeners 2 that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Today, however, she is the biggest name in the galaxy (or to be precise, a galaxy far, far away) after playing Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which blasted box office records around the world. Currently filming the yet untitled Episode VIII alongside The Big Issue’s special correspondent Mark Hamill, Ridley takes a break from lightsabre training to talk to Steven MacKenzie about how fantasy films help us deal with reality, her latest role as a Studio Ghibli heroine in Only Yesterday, a blockbuster in Japan 25 years ago but not released in the West until now, and our mutual colleague…

Daisy Ridley: I have The Big Issue in my hall with Mr Mark Hamill on the front interviewing Ray Davies, who he is the biggest fan of.

The Big Issue: During the interview he said he used to sing a lot of Kinks songs onset while filming the original films. I don’t know if he still does that…

Yip. He is so obsessed with Ray Davies, it’s hilarious. And he does the most amazing impression of him. It’s brilliant.

DID YOU KNOW…

The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.

You provide the voice for the Studio Ghibli film, Only Yesterday, being released for the first time next month. After Rey, is it exciting to play Taeko, another strong female character?

It’s funny that people don’t say: “This film had a really strong male protagonist, how do you feel about that?” Obviously because the conversation’s happening it’s something that’s still a problem. I’m very pleased to so far have represented two wonderful, nuanced, three-dimensional female characters in my short career and I will continue to hopefully do that.

Only Yesterday is 25 years old so obviously strong female characters have existed for a while, they just seem to have taken a while to catch on.

It is very weird. And Only Yesterday would be groundbreaking in its portrayal of a woman now. It does seem kind of crazy. It’s probably just another example of Japan being way ahead of the curve in terms of that – gender in cinema.

Only Yesterday would be groundbreaking in its portrayal of a woman now

Where does your love for Japan come from?

 My mum, when she didn’t know she was pregnant with me, had sushi and got very sick. Maybe it’s some weird cycle. The history and the culture is incredibly rich and so far-reaching. In a week-long visit I literally couldn’t have fitted in more things. We went to Harajuku – where the girls are so modern and stylish in their own incredible way – and we went to Kyoto, which is steeped in history. Going to Japan honestly felt like coming home. I don’t really know where it comes from but it’s only grown.

I’m not a Japanese girl who grew up in the 1960s…

Neither am I.

… but the story of Only Yesterday, about a girl reaching a crossroads in life, is completely universal.

 Absolutely.

What do you think the message of the film is?

 Um. I don’t really know. I think the message is going to be different for different people. The message is… even if you feel like you’re missing something from your childhood you can find it in your adulthood. The message is… if your family thinks you’re over the hill you can still find someone and fall in love. But I don’t know. I wish I had an answer.

What did it mean to you?

 The thing I liked about it was that Taeko feels so held back by the burden of her memories, then [her childhood self] says it’s okay and lets her go. And it’s kind of amazing. Once she is free of that she can move on and make the changes in her life that she wants to.

What are the main differences between Studio Ghibli films and other animated films?

 I don’t know… This is a great interview, isn’t it? “I don’t know, I don’t know, jabber jabber.” The main difference is it’s hand-drawn, which is how Disney and everything started. And the stories tend to be a wonderful mix of magic and reality that takes you on a journey.

It was like something I’d never seen before, this insane otherworldly thing

It’s also quite different to most animated films you see in cinemas here. For example, your character asks at one point: “Are market reforms making agriculture difficult?”

 The conversations they have, you don’t think you’re going to be entertained but they’re obviously saying so much more. And her talking about periods – which are never talked about… It literally makes no sense. Half the population experiences them. Why on Earth aren’t they talked about more?

Only Yesterday is animated, Star Wars is a science fiction film – they are clearly not real and yet the emotions you feel while watching them certainly are.

It’s like falling in love. You’re looking at a person and you grow feelings for them but the thing you feel is not tangible. You know what it feels like, you understand where you feel it in your body and you understand there’s some kind of connection. God, this is getting philosophical. People meet and sometimes they have an amazing connection and sometimes they don’t. It’s that unwritten stuff that the best film-makers can display.

What was the first thing you watched that you fell in love with?

 It was Howl’s Moving Castle. My mum took me and my sisters. It was like something I’d never seen before, this insane otherworldly thing. It’s the wonderful world of cinema – in different languages and different cultures it touches you no matter what.

It is strange that fantasy films can have a stronger emotional impact than a documentary or the news on TV.

Maybe that’s because people are able to express themselves more easily when it’s tied to something that’s not totally real. People reveal more in a casual conversation than they would if you sat down and asked them about things because then you overthink it – ‘What am I thinking, what am I feeling?’ When you watch something you feel removed from, it becomes that incredible thing of it feeling very close and very far away. You experience all this stuff at the same time and probably have a bigger emotional reaction than reading a newspaper and just seeing facts and figures. Instead, you see someone’s life play out, their soul, and the way they react and respond to the world around them.

[MASSIVE SPOILER ALERT!] Is that why Han Solo’s death in The Force Awakens seems sadder than the thousands of people who die in the real world every day?

No, I don’t think it’s any sadder. It’s just that people die so awfully every day that if you experienced every grief the whole world would be a dark, dark place. So many awful things happened last year, and I guess Han Solo dying, which was one of the last moments of the year, is some weird way of people experiencing that. People are weighed down by awful things that are happening and what they see on the news. If everybody puts a piece of themselves into Han Solo and Han Solo dies – in the cinema, where it’s dark – you can express it and it alleviates some of the pain. His death is obviously not as important as actual lives that are lost but people probably use it as some kind of carrier for the grief.

That was very philosophical.

If it makes sense. People will be like, this girl is so annoying. I’ve never said that before so next time I’ll hone my answer.

Only Yesterday will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on August 15