Interview: ‘Star Wars’ Voice Actor Vanessa Marshall; Her Thoughts on Possibility of Live-Action Hera and More
We recently took part in a virtual roundtable interview with Star Wars actress Vanessa Marshall (Rebels, The Bad Batch), who is best known by fans as the voice of Hera Syndulla. We were able to ask Vanessa questions about anything, which we took the opportunity to ask her about her thoughts on Hera joining Ahsoka in main Star Wars characters making the jump from animation to live-action. Check out her answer to our question and questions from all of the other participants below!
SWNN: If you don’t mind I’m going to pitch you a scenario and you can give me one answer to it. We call this segment “One with the Force” on our show, and here’s the scenario, you ready? Hera Syndulla has just been bumped to live-action, but only in one Disney Plus series. Which one would you like to see her show up in? Obi-Wan Kenobi, or maybe The Mandalorian, or one of the spin-offs. Which one are you picking and why?
Vanessa Marshall: Oh boy I can’t even answer that question. I mean, I would defer to Dave Filoni… I wouldn’t even know the answer to that question, honestly. I trust him so much that wherever he would want to see Hera, is where Hera should be. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge Mandalorian fan. I love seeing Ahsoka, Bo-Katan… If Hera just rolled up, that would be outstanding. But again, I trust Lucasfilm’s judgment. Every time I imagine what could be, when it’s executed, it’s far better than anything I could ever come up with. So, wishful thinking, she ends up in any of them that works for me.
Coffee with Kenobi: Your voice work is always outstanding, you’ve taken it to another level here with a younger version of Hera than you portrayed in Star Wars: Rebels. If you could please talk about your process and direction for bringing Hera to life for The Bad Batch?
VM: I got the email asking if I would be interested in doing the job. I said yes, we set a date, I got the script and I loved it. I had no idea who Omega was but I looked forward to having an imaginary conversation with her, because this was recorded in the pandemic so I was by myself in my recording booth. I will say parenthetically that as a huge Bad Batch fan who’s fallen in love with Omega to finally understand exactly who I was talking to. Then we consider her age and sort of the pitch of her voice, and of course, the accent, because this is her hometown and she gets back to her hometown accent with Cham as we see later in Rebels. It was interesting to discover exactly how young exactly [she was], how much of the accent… I rehearsed it many different ways and then brought all of that to the recording session and trusted that wherever they directed me I would follow and we found her together. When combined with the animation, I was blown away and I could not believe I was talking to Omega. Just couldn’t believe it.
Endor Express: My question is that we’ve started to see a lot of the characters in the animated series show up in live-action and I just wanted to know if we can hopefully see Hera Syndulla in live-action but with you as the actor?
VM: Oh gosh only Dave Filoni knows the answer to that question so I have no idea. I would love to see her anywhere in a book, in a comic book or you know actually any Star Wars content at all. It thrills me, but I am very curious personally as a fan [to see] what happens with Jason. Does he have Jedi abilities, you know, does he suddenly grow as a teenager? I mean, I don’t understand… I don’t know, I have so many questions and you know, what did that kid turn out to be like? And I want to know where Ahsoka went, and Sabine, and where is Ezra…. these are all questions that I pray get answered in some form, a comic book, a novel, you know, a Disney Plus show… I don’t care where it is, but I will be so satisfied as a fan to know how that all turned out. I mean, it did have a resolution, obviously, at the end of Rebels, but my mind wonders sometimes and I pray that someday we all get to experience that. But do I know anything about it? Not a thing. But we’ll all pray together.
Jedi News: My question is obviously you’ve been playing this character for a long time now, and all of us are very much in love with the character. When did you first learn Hera’s backstory? Is this the first time or you know, had Dave actually sat you down and said “this is where I came from before”?
VM: Well, yes, Dave did tell us much of this in our first session for Rebels. A lot of this was mapped out a long time ago but I really didn’t know what it would look or sound like so to really consider inhabiting that time period given all the differences. As I just said, her age, the pitch of her voice, the accent… All of that was one thing to hear about it and it was another thing to live within that narrative. And it was really an amazing experience, so I’m so grateful that we got to do that.
Fantha Tracks: When Rebels was on the air, you occasionally had guest stars from The Clone Wars drop by, and now you’re the guest star from an earlier show turning up on the current show. How does that feel?
VM: Amazing! Are you kidding? I would show up as… I don’t know, as anything. I was so thrilled, truly, in any capacity. When I got to play Rook Kast in The Clone Wars, I was sobbing, and I really felt that I needed nothing else in life. I was so thrilled to play a Mandalorian. But yeah, there are no small parts, only small actors. I’m constantly playing with my action figures, so whether I’m playing in my Star Wars room or actually working for any of the Lucasfilm cartoons, it makes no difference. It’s all an honor and I was really grateful to be asked and so thrilled that it all worked out.
Fan Girls Going Rogue: You’ve played other characters and you voiced so many different characters throughout your career. What makes Hera different from the other roles that you’ve played?
VM: I think she is made out of the very best parts of me, and she inspires me to be more consistently the best version of myself, and she really is just so close to my heart. I’m organized in the same way. I’ve said before, my father is a pilot and aviation means a lot to me. I love doing aerobatics with my dad and his open cockpit biplane. I have an affinity for strong female iconic characters and the fact that she is one, I think as an Italian who likes to feed people, and make sure that people are happy, I don’t have children but I do have an instinct to nurture and make sure that people know how much they matter. I really feel like she is very close to my heart and soul.
I’ve said before that I practice martial arts and I feel like I’ve had a physical transformation since learning how I’m not a violent person, but I will protect my friends and family. And I’m grateful that I have the capacity and the know-how, so when Hera is in those different situations, I feel that I have a physical awareness of exactly what that would necessitate, and so my own spiritual journey on the planet of self-empowerment has luckily complimented where Hera organically lives. I tend to be a little bit more silly. I’m good friends with Theresa, she can attest to the fact that I’m kind of goofy and Hera is not. So there are elements of my personality that do not exist. I’m sure Hera doesn’t eat as many brussels sprouts as I do. I really do have a thing for brussels sprouts but I don’t know, you never know what she has a thing for.
I love that she created her own family. As an only child I feel like I’ve done that. Theresa is part of my family, Aaron, Mark, Dan there are many people. I love you guys and I’m grateful that the Star Wars universe has brought us together, and whether you like it or not we are together until this doesn’t exist anymore. I have that same capacity to build a family of choice, and I’m grateful that it’s synonymous with my love for Star Wars.
Skytalker’s Podcast: The mother-daughter relationship is not [something] we see as much in Star Wars. What kind of approach did you take to Hera’s relationship with her mother?
VM: First of all you have to remember that I am recording this in a pandemic in a box by myself. I would have answered your question very differently if we weren’t in the middle of a pandemic, because I probably would have sat down with the director and that was usually the case where we would all sort of huddle before recording and sort some of these things out. And then dive in and discover things together, but this experience was quite different. I had no knowledge of how my mother was going to sound. I didn’t know.
I was fascinated to hear the way she even says my name “Hera”. Cham doesn’t say my name that way. My dad doesn’t say that “Hera”. It’s lighter but she was intense and I loved hearing how much she sounded like an older Hera, and she nailed, and the fact that it all came together, and I had no clue about any of that, I mean the director read the lines with me so that I would have someone to act off of, but you know luckily it all came together, and it also allows me as a fan of Bad Batch to be able to continue to watch the series and be sort of surprised and delighted by all of it. So you know what is the mother-daughter relations. It was one thing in my imagination and it was quite another to see exactly what it was. When it was all put together and both experiences were fantastic, and like I said, I’m just grateful in the pandemic that we were able to create Star Wars content no matter what. Nothing will stop us!
Star Wars Bookworms: I had two questions I was planning to ask but both have already been asked, so I’ll just go a little bit more fun. What was it like to work with Chopper again?
VM: It was awesome. First of all I should say all throughout Rebels I would imagine I would have to interact [with someone]. No one would sit there [as a placeholder]. There were sort of the parentheticals of what it is he was saying and I would pause and then pretend that I could hear that and whatever else. What was fun in this particular episode when we see them at the very beginning, they already have this very close relationship. I don’t know if you remember in the animated short for Rebels, Dave said that R2D2 was like a little dog and Chopper is a cat. You know how cats are. They just are, right? And Chopper, they just have that relationship that takes many different ways to sort of talk them off the tree if you will, and that one line where the Imperials come and find her and she just says “Choppeeeer”, you know, to sort of call him over. We recorded that many different ways, and so it was interesting to see which version that they use, and I think it was the perfect one because it was sort of calling to him without calling to him, you know. But yeah, it made me so happy. I totally cried like complete nerd. I was sobbing. I was just so happy to see them again. I missed them and it was great.
Coffee with Kenobi: One of the best things about Devil’s Deal was of course the reintroduction of Hera, but talk about the beautiful metaphor of flying in this episode and what we learn about Hera through it.
VM: As I’ve said my dad is a pilot and I’ve flown with him before. It’s interesting my dad, he worked at NBC for many years as a news reporter and when he retired, he said: “I was in the Air Force but I only worked for the radio station there. I never got to fly a plane.” And I dared him to learn how to fly. I did not expect him to not only learn how to fly, but learn how to fly an open cockpit biplane and do hammerhead maneuvers over kern county. I mean my dad is out of control. But having said all that, equally there is a spiritual element to it that he always taught me that it’s important to get perspective on the earth below, and that there’s nothing like flight to help you really see things as they are. So when she says that specs are only half of it, that flying is about the feeling, and that ultimately it helps her feel free. For a teenage girl to understand that, to me spoke volumes of exactly why she had the capacity to become a really great pilot.
And when I did “Wings of the Master” I dedicated that episode to my father. It meant so much to me and in turn it meant a lot to him, because he knew that all of those words, once again they nailed it, that is the value of flight for many pilots. It is that sort of feeling of freedom, and I’m grateful that they echoed exactly what she said in “Wings of the Master”. That she used to look up to the sky and feel free. When we got to see that here in Bad Batch it was just beautiful, and I love that she was having a conversation with another female character. For me these girls imagining their lives in ways that perhaps they don’t often consider it.
And Hera is – you need to be a good girl and stay on the ground or whatever it is. They have the capacity to realize their dreams. I think it’s really important to see that, and that they support each other in that, and there was no hater energy like “oh you get to live on a flight, you get to live on a ship, oh I’ve always wanted to do that” or whatever it is, and that they could dream together. I think that that’s really powerful and I’m grateful that they model that for other young girls or for humans in general.
Endor Express: I wanted to get into the process of getting into the younger voice of Hera. What notes may you have been given? Over the times of a couple of episodes you kind of go into the accent and out. I was wondering if you could talk about that process. What you were thinking about or just just the kind of the journey of getting it to what we hear on the finished episode.
VM: Well we wanted it to be understood, so too much of the accent might make it too foreign to the listener. I speak French so I’m able to dial it in or dial it back. I have played teenage girls in the past, and I tend to try and base characters on people I know. I think I based Hera on myself but as far as applying the accent on top of it, and also the youth I reflected on my playing Mary Jane in the Spectacular Spider-Man, which took place in high school. I was curious about taking some of Mary Jane’s sound and lending that to Hera’s moxie, and the way she’s organized. And then of course putting the accent on top of that.
As I said, I prepared my script with a thick accent, a thin accent, medium accent, very very young, very sort of a scraggly teenage, because she could have had more texture in her voice, like we could have gone any which way and I was prepared. Usually when I go to any audition or any job, I bring three options and because I want them to think of things they hadn’t thought of before. I come prepared, and with her I had different dialed up or dialed down versions of those things and so we were able to discover it together. But again I wasn’t able to hear what my mother sounded like and I did know that her accent was so thick and I didn’t realize that I landed somewhere between Cham’s accent and my mom’s accent, which I thought was actually kind of cool, especially when she’s rebelling against it and chooses to lose it.
Jedi News: How does it feel to be such a strong inspirational character in the Star Wars galaxy?
VM: It’s an absolute honor! Truly an honor. I have no words. Having been an only child, the Star Wars story saved my life. I think Star Wars fans understand how much the narrative can mean. It’s so rich that we’ve talked about Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey, and you know how all of these dynamics come together for each and every one of us. To go from our family of origin to the family of man. To use that phrase and that how we do find our chosen families and I think Hera comes to collect some very special souls and they’re all great Star Wars characters. Kanan’s story of being sort of a partially formed Jedi that sadly we saw what happened to his Jedi master. Each character that came together on the Ghost had a very emotional past. Sabine with the Empire and even Zeb had his difficulties where he came from.
The fact that she had the foresight to bring those very unique souls together, it’s something that I like to do in my own life as I’ve said. And I’m grateful that I was able to lift up any and all parts of the story, and especially to that end I feel in a weird way, the way the Rebels show impacted me as I’ve said, there are many people on this zoom right now I care very deeply about, and you know life imitated art, and that I was given an entire family, and as Hera left all the world of Ryloth behind, and found her family when her calicore is taken away, it doesn’t matter because she has her family in that ship. Much the same way all throughout my life Star Wars has done that for me and never more so than with receiving the role of Hera, so I’ve said before it feels like I came home and I found my real friends, so it’s an honor.
Fan Girls Going Rogue: We all know you’re a huge Star Wars fan, so as a Star Wars fan how are you enjoying the Star Wars content on Disney Plus?
VM: I’m so grateful. Friday is my favorite day. During The Mandalorian finale I freak out. It’s almost like the Super Bowl. When the Super Bowl happens I’m like – what are we gonna do for the rest of the year? That horrible day after the Super Bowl. I’m just so grateful that there’s so much content coming and the new hotel at Disney World. And by the way, notice I did not wear black Theresa. My uniform is usually… I wear all black. I think no one knows what’s going on if you just wear all black, you’ll be fine, but anyway. I went out of my way to not do that today so that’s in honor of you and I love your sweatshirt – go Ashley go! I am so excited for all that is happening right now, the fact that it just keeps getting better and better. The Mandalorian was just mind-blowing. When we got to see Ahsoka Tano I lost it, and The Bad Batch having Cad Bane come back, me personally huge fan. If only we could get Asajj Ventress back somehow or how about Plo Koon? Let’s start a petition for Plo Koon right now. Not gonna happen but anyway. I am loving The Bad Batch and I really cannot even believe that young Hera was born. It’s just so incredible. I was completely sobbing. I really can’t wait for all that is ahead for us. And Celebration is coming you guys, just saying. It’ll be here before we know it, we’ll all be together again.
Skytalkers: I wanted to ask you about last week’s episode. Emphasized how complicated people’s responses were towards the end of The Clone Wars, with members of Hera’s family all taking different approaches about how to serve Ryloth best. What do you think Hera learns from her parents and her uncle?
VM: I think obviously she has incredible disdain for Orn Free Taa and with that in mind I think we see that she allies herself with her uncle, and I think we see that continue as we’ve said the argument that they have later in life, that they talk about what it means to fight a rebellion, and it was so touching when he said I hope you never have to live a life like mine. It’s just a very nuanced understanding of rebellion that her father has and that Hera has. And I think we see definitely that she’s more aligned with Goby and it gets her in trouble but she can’t help it and I think it’s impossible for her to be anything other than who she is and she’s organized around doing the right thing. Not that Cham isn’t but I do think when Cham says that the clones have come in and they’ve helped us and this is, you know going to his speech is magnificent, I think he wants to believe that and that’s a respectable opinion. But I obviously see that Hera wants to be a little bit more hands-on about creating change and I love that about her, and I love that we saw seeds of that and that they grow and she becomes the incredible influence of the Rebel Alliance that we all have come to adore and celebrate.