Vanessa Marshall is a superhero. Or, more accurately, she’s been several: Wonder Woman in Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, and the Infinite Crisis video game; Black Widow in Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes; Poison Ivy in Batman: The Brave and the Bold and several DC LEGO movies and games; Black Canary in Young Justice and Injustice 2; Gamora in the animated Guardians of the Galaxy; and Mary Jane Watson in The Spectacular Spider-Man (and yes, MJ totally counts as a superhero in my book). After studying drama in college (with a master’s degree from NYU), her career in Hollywood began as a stand-up comic and former plus-size model, where her performance doing fifteen different characters in a one-woman show led an agent to suggest voiceover work. Since then, she’s been a regular in dozens of video games, television shows, and animated films.
One of her highest profile roles is as the Twi’lek pilot Hera Syndulla in Star Wars Rebels, where she leads a Rebellion cell from her starship the Ghost. We were able to chat with Vanessa Marshall about her role as Hera via telephone shortly before the release of Star Wars Rebels Season 4 on Blu-ray.
TOONZONE NEWS: So doing my research for this, I learned you are a Princeton alumna. You started acting there, correct?
VANESSA MARSHALL: Yes I did. I majored in English with a certificate in theater, when Alan MacVey was head of the theater department there. I was in a play called Cloud 9, which was directed by Carol Elliot. They’re both now at University of Iowa, and I was so close to them that I’m actually godmother to their daughter. I did tons of theater while I was there. I actually wrote plays and did all kinds of creative writing. That was my tribe at school.
TOONZONE NEWS: There was a quote I read in an interview with Lupita Nyong’o where she says something like, “I went to acting school thinking I was going to learn how to be other people, but it taught me how to be myself.” How do you feel about that sentiment, and what did you learn about yourself in playing Hera?
VANESSA MARSHALL: Oh, wow. I started to notice that I have a lot in common with her. I am incredibly focused, driven, compassionate. I have a sense of humor, and ethics are key as far as I’m concerned. I have always been the person to make people feel welcome. I talk to everybody. And if I sense that there’s any injustice anywhere, I don’t know why I think it’s my job to fix it (laughs). I think I bring a lot of those qualities to the microphone and feel very close to Hera. She is a stronger female character to a certain extent, and I am human so there’s that. I feel like she’s better able to not take things personally and get distracted by shiny beads or hurt feelings. I learned from her not to sweat the small stuff and to be impeccable with my word at all times…pretty much all the things she does unfailingly. Whenever I just thought, “Oh, I’m worried about this or that or the other thing,” I would just re-focus and recalibrate myself the same way she always did, and get back into a positive mind frame and get right back at it. A lot of times, she taught me that if I have the capacity to do that while acting, surely I can make those choices in my own life. Where did I begin and end, and where did she lead, I’m not sure. Maybe they’re one and the same, but I do feel like she just wouldn’t worry about half the things I worry about (laughs). I sometimes pretend I’m Hera and then I get through it.
TOONZONE NEWS: I saw you mention in other interviews that Hera is a combination of a few different figures in your life. Can you expand on that a little bit? Are there any specific people or traits that you remember?
VANESSA MARSHALL: Well, my father is a pilot. He was in the Air Force and he also flies an open-cockpit biplane and does aerobatics. He continuously inspires me. His name is John Marshall and he worked at NBC as a news reporter for many years, and when he retired I dared him to get a pilot’s license and he did. He took me up flying, and we did hammerheads and this, that, and the other thing. I met all sorts of female pilots out at the airport, and I just loved how jolly they were. How kind they were, how respectful they were. When you’re in the air, you don’t have time to be selfish or, again, distracted. They are so thorough, and they have to be. Their attention to detail is impeccable, and all they do is laugh. So I learned a lot from several of the women out at the airport, and also of course from my dad. One of my favorite episodes was “Wings of the Master,” flying a B-Wing and where we learn about Hera’s love of flight, but there are many people throughout my life.
My aunt Carol Kuykendall, believe it or not, was the one who took me to see my first film back in the day. I never would have thought, but she said, “Oh, yeah, we’re going to see this movie, it’s a space opera,” and I was like, “Oh, NO, what is that?” And from the moment the music began, my heart was just enraptured and I’ve been a massive fan ever since. But Carol is an amazing writer, and she survived ovarian cancer for 12 years now when they gave her a half-hour to live. She is no joke. Her generosity of spirit is endless. She has about a billion grandchildren and she’s there for each and every one of them. And she inspires me in my daily life, but she does the right thing effortlessly, and a lot of times Hera reminded me of her.
Also as a Star Wars fan, she would have been a combo pack of Han Solo and Leia. So sometimes in my mind, I would ask, “What would Leia do? What would Han do?” And then create a hybrid of that to create Hera’s mode through a particular scene. She certainly had a lot of moxie and was incredibly fearless, and …I don’t know. I think she was built on a number of the women I’ve studied with, particularly at Princeton as well. There have been a bunch of people who have inspired me to co-create Hera.
TOONZONE NEWS: I think we’re about the same age and it sounds like Star Wars was the same kind of formative experience for both of us. How does it feel now to see so many more female leads in the movies and the TV shows, and even get to be one of them in Star Wars Rebels?
VANESSA MARSHALL: Oh, I am so honored, I could literally start bawling at any moment of the day. That’s been the case since we began in 2014. It just gets better and better. It’s the best time to be a Star Wars fan right now. I feel like there’s just endless content and so many things to look forward to. I’m not sure how I’m going to deal with Christmas without a movie this year. It’s sort of made Christmas Christmas, so I don’t know dude (laughs). My best friend’s birthday is December 18th, and the movies always come out right around then, so that’s what we always do for her birthday, but not this year. But we will pull through. Luckily there’s tons of literature, we’ve got Forces of Destiny, Clone Wars, Resistance…I think I have enough to chew on until the next film comes out. But believe me, it’s just been a way of life for a long time, and the cool thing about it now is that I’ve made so many friends on Twitter and what have you. Social media has really afforded me the ability to connect with people, and when I meet them, I feel like I’ve known them for a thousand years and we’re still friends. I just feel very fortunate in that way.
VANESSA MARSHALL: Billy Dee Williams was recording Dancing with the Stars when he was on Rebels, so he wasn’t there but I didn’t care. I was just fangirling out to think that I would be doing a scene with Lando Calrissian. The fact that I got to punch Lando Calrissian, and have him owe me a favor that I pray had something to do with Lando’s choice on Cloud City to help the Rebels, or at least that’s what Freddie and I determined (laughs)…that was amazing. I was able to experience the joy of that when I watched it edited together, as if we did record it together, and that was just sublime. Really sublime.
TOONZONE NEWS: What is the most surprising way that being Hera has come up with you outside the studio?
VANESSA MARSHALL: I’ll tell you, just recently Saturday night I was at Comic-Con and I walked into a bar and someone said, “You’re AMAZING!” And I said, “I don’t know you…uh…what?” And they said, “No no no…you’re AMAZING!” And I said, “Well, yeah, so are you!” And he said, “No. You’re Hera! You’re amazing!” And I said, “Oh! I’m sorry! I forgot I’m at San Diego Comic-Con and people actually know who I am.”
TOONZONE NEWS: “They recognize my face, they watch the bonus features!”
VANESSA MARSHALL: (Laughs) Yeah! And then we hugged all of his friends and we all determined that we were all amazing. This is what I’m saying is so cool about Star Wars fans. We are connected in that way, but I did not expect someone to tell me I was amazing for no good reason when I walked up those stairs. That was kind of weird but lovely to hear. In Los Angeles, I’m not really recognized. People say to me, “You look familiar, do I know you?” And I’ll say, “I don’t know, do I sound familiar? Because you probably wouldn’t know me unless you listen to things.” But Star Wars fans are the best.
VANESSA MARSHALL: Well, of course the Blu-ray of Star Wars Rebels coming out July 31, I’m excited for the fourth season coming out. There are more episodes of Star Wars: Forces of Destiny. I’m actually in the Teen Titans Go! movie that also comes out this weekend, and there are a couple of other cartoons and several huge video games that I can not wait to announce. Folks can find me on Twitter @VanMarshall, or on Instagram @VanessaMarshall1138 and I will announce those things as I’m able and I look forward to it.
Toonzone News would like to thank Vanessa Marshall for taking the time to talk with us, and to the PR teams at Lucasfilm, Disney, and Click Communications for making it possible. Star Wars Rebels Season 4 is available now on DVD and Blu-ray.