Gwendoline Christie really, really, really loves Star Wars.
The proof of her undying adoration — besides the repeated gushing (“It’s amaaaaazing!” “I just love it so much.” “Isn’t it the best?”) — came when she encountered a truly rare sight: R2D2, C3PO, and BB-8 all huddled together in a hallway during the recent Star Wars: The Force Awakens press day Los Angeles.
“Oh my god, is this happening?!?” she squealed as the trio, in unison, slowly made their way toward her. “I’m really freaking out right now.”
As Christie greeted the droids with a reverence normally reserved for heads of state — “Hi, how are you? It’s lovely to see you!” — she continued to sporadically scream the kind of unadulterated joy anyone who has encountered a beloved Hollywood icon knows all too well. And as Christie posed for a photo with all three, she repeated, under her breath, “No. I can’t believe this. This isn’t real.”
But it was.
That impromptu robot convergence was simply the latest in a long string of “pinch me” moments the 37-year-old actor has experienced since winning the role of fierce warrior Brienne of Tarth on HBO’s insanely popular Game of Thrones in 2012. Since then, she appeared in Liongate’s acclaimed The Hunger Games: Mockingjay — Part 2 as Commander Lyme and now finds herself in the hotly anticipated Star Wars sequel, The Force Awakens, playing the evil Captain Phasma.
But of all of Christie’s recent experiences that she’s struggled to wrap her head around, co-starring in The Force Awakens remains the most inconceivable. “I still can’t believe I’m here talking to you about being in the new Star Wars movie,” she told BuzzFeed News, every other word punctuated with a verbal exclamation point. “I remember seeing [A New Hope] when I was about 6 years old and my family presented it to me as, ‘This is Star Wars.’ There was so much excitement and they kept saying, ‘You’re going to love this.’ And I did. I loved it from the opening titles.”
Christie spoke lovingly about the film’s visual flair, enthralling action, and beautifully hopeful message, but what resonated most deeply with her young self was that, for the first time, she felt like the misfits were the heroes.
“I always felt like a bit of an outsider and here was this group of people that were all very unique in their own way, on an exciting journey together, and are getting along,” the 6-foot-3-inch actor said. “It was that combination of unique characters and misfits coming together in the pursuit of good and it being funny.”
So when Christie heard, around 2012, that a new set of Star Wars movies was in the works, she was determined to be a part of it. “I wanted to be in it so badly, I just did not stop going on about it,” she said, her retroactive passion taking over. “My agent would say, ‘There's this other project that wants you,’ and I'd say, ‘Oh, that sounds great, but I want to be in Star Wars.’ And I was told, ‘Good luck. So does everybody.’ I knew it was such a slim, slim chance that I would ever, ever, ever be in it, but I thought that there could possibly be a chance because it was about misfits. It got to the stage where I would get emails about work and just say, ‘Great, but I want to be in Star Wars.' And then my only response to anything just started being, ‘I want to be in Star Wars.’ Then, eventually, some people were worn down and I got the call.”
In March 2013, Christie was in New York City for the Game of Thrones Season 3 premiere when “the call” arrived, along with a nondisclosure agreement, which she happily signed. After a series of auditions, much to her surprise — and continued excitement — she got the part. But there was a catch: Her Game of Thrones filming responsibilities directly overlapped with the Star Wars shooting schedule, so she found herself in the thick of a major champagne problem.
“It was quite ‘Yes! No. Yes! No. Yes! No’ for a while, so I thought, Well, I just have to be in a place where if this doesn't work out, it's amazing that I got that far and I have an amazing job that I'm doing instead,” Christie said. “When it did work out, I still felt kind of nervous because I couldn't believe it was happening. Surely someone will come up and say, ‘You know what? You got away with it, but we all know the truth so please go home now.’”
Of course that didn't happen and in June 2014 it was announced that Christie had been cast in a secret role. The world now knows she brings Captain Phasma, a leader in the nefarious First Order, to life. The character’s all-chrome look is not only striking, but entirely gender neutral — a point of contention with a small subset of fans, but one of the most exhilarating elements of the entire experience for Christie.
“I was so, so excited when I realized that they had taken the step to be so progressive, to be so modern, to be so conceptual, but so relevant; I actually think it is a reaction to what people want,” Christie said. “What this does is this takes all of our preconceptions, all of our conventions about the way in which we view a woman, and strips them away. We are actually responding to this character because of her actions, first and foremost, rather than the way that she looks. I've always found it a little unusual that … there is a rating of some sort according to that random group of elements that are thrown together (DNA) and make us look a certain way — that something we have absolutely no control over should be held in high esteem.”
She continued, “I was just so excited that this idea for this female character was just so modern, relevant. … I just love that people are saying, ‘My little girl is dressing up as Captain Phasma and she loves it because she feels powerful,’ and then there are people also saying, ‘My little boy is dressing up as Captain Phasma and he loves it because he feels powerful.’ That transcends any of our restrictive conceptions about ourselves as humans within this wonderful film that represents hope to so many of us. I just think it's so smart and another reason I’m so proud to be in this film.”
"I was told 'no' for a long time ... because I looked different."
But Christie has a lot to be proud of: Star Wars: The Force Awakens caps off the single most successful year, professionally speaking, for the actor. Game of Thrones, which wrapped its fifth season in June, made Emmy history in September; Mockingjay — Part 2 has made half a billion dollars globally in less than four weeks; and there’s no doubt that when all is said and done, The Force Awakens will be one of the year’s biggest successes, possibly even history’s.
That’s all undeniable proof that, despite an abundance of doubters, Christie made the right decision in 2011 when she stepped away from the theater world she knew well, and found plenty of success in, to try her hand at film and television.
“I was told ‘no’ for a long time … because I looked different,” the actor said. “I was told the industry embraced a norm and I wasn't a part of that norm. But I just got a stage where I said, ‘I want to do screen work and I'm going to wait until that opportunity comes.’ I was told, ‘You will be lucky if that happens.’ … I couldn't help always feeling like maybe, just maybe, if I just stuck it out long enough, something might, might give. And then, as if by some sort of wonderful, it felt like a miracle, 10 months later, a friend of mine said there was something on the internet about me being on an HBO series. I'd actually said I wanted to do an HBO series and, again, I was told, ‘Good luck. So does everybody.’”
But Christie has always been dedicated — not just to the roles she already has, but also to the ones she wants. When online rumors began to link her to Brienne of Tarth in 2011, Christie began to do her homework. “I found out what Game of Thrones was about and then found out the part and googled the part and saw what Brienne of Tarth was about and I gasped,” she said, momentarily pausing. “She spoke to me. The show spoke to me. It spoke to me because it was something I'd always wanted to do and it didn't matter to me if it was successful or not, just being able to have the opportunity to explore a woman that is outside of convention, outside of the kind of woman we had seen in mainstream media… I really felt it was important for that expansion to happen, for there to be different kinds of people represented, and this just might be one of those chances.”
So Christie set out to transform herself into the kind of actor the show’s producers were likely hoping to cast to play the warrior. “I really threw myself into it: I started a fitness regime, I totally changed my diet, and I started wearing sportswear, which is something I'd never done before,” she said with an infectious, joyous cackle. “I knew I could connect with the emotional world of the character, with the psyche of the character, but the differences between me and the character were physical and I knew that's what I had to work on. I thought my chances might be increased if I showed my level of dedication to the transformation to get me as close as possible to that part. I knew that they would be seeing other people who were more experienced, better suited, and more likely, so I knew I had to work a lot harder — and my word, it worked.”
Christie’s determination to secure the role has not waned one bit since landing it and that’s made Brienne one of the show’s most compelling characters and one of its most beloved. “I never thought the character would be so embraced,” she said. “I really never expected to be a part of that show with all these people, or to be around the amazing people at the very heart of this film. I was thinking about it this morning: I've been incredibly lucky. But I think I've got to continue working really hard.”
And that’s very much the plan looking forward. Christie will be seen in the upcoming Absolutely Fabulous movie and the sixth season of Game of Thrones. Additionally, she’s currently in talks for another super-secret project that would, once again, blow her mind but “in an entirely different way,” she said. But no matter what happens, Christie will continue to seek out characters that not only inspire her, but also have the potential to inspire others.
“Growing up, I did always feel like an outsider and so the ability to time travel through art was a delight and provided, sometimes, a much needed respite,” she said of what first drew her to acting. “I remember watching Tilda Swinton in Orlando and it was a gasp moment because there was someone I could connect to acting in a film that was brilliant. She had so much integrity, so much talent, was so unique, and I really did think anything might be possible. And I took great heart from that. So, if my jobs do that for other people — offer hope — then I am over the moon.”