An Interview With ‘Star Wars Rebels’ Space Mom Vanessa Marshall

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photo of Vanessa Marshall and the author
Vanessa Marshall and Anika Dane at ConnectiCon 2018; photo: Anika Dane

Last weekend at ConnectiCon, I was lucky enough to sit down with voice actress Vanessa Marshall for a conversation that touched on family dynamics within Star Wars, sexism in Hollywood, violence in video games, and how conventions bring people together.

Marshall has a long list of credits, including many superheroines, and my favorite rebel pilot, Hera Syndulla, in the animated series Star Wars: Rebels. I loved Hera immediately because in addition to being highly skilled, ambitious, and brave, she is a mother figure to her crew. While Leia and Padmé are mothers, they are not particularly maternal, and we never see them interact with their children on screen. Beru Lars, Shmi Skywalker, and Lyra Erso all die horribly before we even get to know them. But Hera is “Space Mom” to Ezra, Sabine, even Zeb, and partner to “Space Dad” Kanan, without losing any of her edge as a rebel.

“I very much think she is sort of the mother of the crew, and I love that she’s not ‘Spectre One’ but ‘Spectre Two’. To have the humility to know that she should be Spectre Two…not only is she nurturing and maternal but she’s also quite shrewd,” said Marshall, “I love how she manages to really round that softness out with the ability to get things done, and to focus. To not take things personally, to keep her word…ethical things that, in my own life, I appreciate and try to maintain with my friends. She has that same kind of respect, and loyalty, and humility, as I said, that I think are really noble. And make her not just a good female character, but just a great character for anyone to identify with. And it was an honor to play such an iconic female role in that sense.”

Found family is a huge theme in Star Wars and especially Rebels. Something I’ve noticed is none of the main characters in the Star Wars universe are raised by their birth parents. It is all about fractured families, and lonely individuals coming together to form an ensemble. Marshall confirmed, “One of the things that they really stressed when we first got together, for our first recording, was how sometimes chosen family bonds can be stronger than blood. And that that’s what we have in this ragtag crew as they go on these adventures and fight for good and not evil together. And I think it applies to where we are in our world today.”

She expounded, likening on-screen team building to attending cons, something she truly enjoys. “I know I sort of feel that way when I go to conventions and see and meet like-minded people. I feel like I found my tribe and it means everything. There seems to be a yearning for that that’s quite basic to most people, and I think one of the great aspects of Star Wars: Rebels was the fact that these characters provided a family for all of us to join, in a way, and feel close to, and look forward to seeing. I’m grateful that they did that and I thought it was very wise. And it was fun to be, again, the ‘Space Mom’ in that dynamic.”

I love the idea of conventions as a version of found family, especially given the ongoing conversations around toxicity in online fandom, and asked Marshall to expand on it. “It’s almost like summer camp,” she said, “I don’t know if it’s because of my inner child [but] there’s just a part of me that’s just so happy and relaxed. I feel safe, and I can celebrate everything I look at. Everything is so much fun to see, even things that I don’t know much about — some of the fandoms I’m like ‘wait, what is that?’ I play Madden football, and hockey, and I have been in a number video games but … have no clue how to play and some of the characters, when I see them, I’m not even sure what they are, but it’s so much fun to learn!”

Star Wars: Rebels ended earlier this year with a flash forward that revealed Hera and Kanan had a son, Jacen. This ending wasn’t revealed to the cast prior to their viewing with fans so Marshall learned about it at the same time we did. “And then I had to speak intelligently on a panel after watching it and I didn’t even know who I was. Because I mean, it’s pretty intense that…he’s a Jedi and we’re the [Twi’lek] how does that even work? When did it happen? And it’s Jacen spelled with a c, an ode to, [Legends]. So, you know so I really hope that Dave Filoni answers all those questions for us soon.”

a photo of Star Wars 'light side' cosplayers at ConnectiCon 2018
“The Rebellion” Star Wars cosplayers at ConnectiCon 2018; Photo: Aeris Milik

Marshall has also voiced a lot of superheroes, including Gamora in Disney’s Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Widow in Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, and her favorite, Wonder Woman, in two Justice League films. “Playing Wonder Woman was sublime. I mean, I had the underoos. And my mom, actually, she was on Dallas and Knot’s Landing, and she, very early in her career was on Wonder Woman with Ted Shackelford and if you can Google it I kind of highly recommend it. [I did!] The outfits alone — they’re somewhere in outer space wearing, like, spandex silver bodysuits — it’s so epic, it’s awesome. So that kind of scared me as a child to see that, but other than that Lynda Carter really gave me the will to live a lot of the times and so to play Wonder Woman in a cartoon was a huge honor.”

Marshall is a “massive fan” of Susan Eisenberg, Diana’s voice actress in the Justice League cartoons, and initially wondered why they were hiring her to step in for Crisis on Two Earths but realized “in a weird way, I almost feel like these archetypes exist in all of us and voice actors are able to kind of get out of the way and let those best parts of themselves be revealed. And I mean, maybe it’s different for on camera, but that’s how it feels doing it at the microphone … Let my brain shut off and get out of the way so that I can let my inner Wonder Woman manifest right now. That was my experience, and it was really wild to discover that I had that kind of strength in me, so it was great.”

Marshall has a BA in English from Princeton and a MA in Acting from NYU but had difficulty booking work in Hollywood when she first returned to Los Angeles. “I was about 70 pounds heavier than I am so in the acting world, at that point if you weren’t anorexic… I mean, those rules still apply somewhat today but — Melissa McCarthy and certain people have made it okay to be exactly who you are. Which is so wonderful and empowering, but back in the ’90s, that was not so much the case and, yeah, I wasn’t greeted with a wealth of opportunities so I found shelter in doing voiceover and stuff like that.”

Including voicing video game characters, which is a very different process from animation. “For most animated series we are together as a group and it’s more like a radio play,” she explained. “We’re able to interact off of each other but with video games…I was by myself the entire time. And it’s so crazy because when I see the game play, the way they edited it together you would never know that I was in a room by myself. It really does seem like everyone’s interacting with each other. It almost requires more imagination to sort of imagine how the line previous to yours was being said or what you’re being given in that moment. I always hoped that my reaction would be an appropriate counter to whatever the [other] person did … and [I’d] give him a number of different versions.” Marshall described this kind of recording as “kind of a lonely experience, but it was also fun to be imaginative and playful and then discover it. So they’re both a lot of fun in their own way.”

She also plays video games, but mostly sticks to team sports. “Freddie Prinze, Jr. (Marshall’s costar in Star Wars: Rebels) wanted me to play Grand Theft Auto with him. So, I went and got the latest XBox and I put in the game and the opening scene is like, a bank robbery and there’s all sorts of violent things going on.” She texted him “And I was like, my man, maybe you, with the wife and kids and a great alarm system, feel really cool about playing this game but I just… I’m trying to believe that people are intrinsically good, that somehow they’re maligned in childhood and, you know Anakin Skywalker wasn’t necessarily Darth Vader. There’s a back story and everyone has a story… and I was struggling to find the sort of redemption [in Grand Theft Auto] and that just was not fun to me.”

Marshall was clear that “I’m not saying that [Prinze, Jr.] celebrates violence in any way, but I think he’s better able to detach from that sector of humanity where there’s sort of violence and evil.” Marshall prefers to avoid it. “I tend not to read for narration jobs that are like ‘these are twelve serial killers who put women in bags’ — I’m not going to read that. I’m not denying it exists, but I can’t focus on that. I really want to believe that we all want to come together and heal. I think that’s why I love conventions–because even though there are Sith and there are Jedi, we agree to disagree and we’re respectful of one another and and that means everything to me.”

The interview concluded with Marshall answering three questions submitted to me by kids. The first from Talia, 9, an aspiring voice actress, who asked a three part question related to the process: How do you act with just a voice? Do you drink a lot of water? And can you wear your pajamas?

Marshall answered, “Well the cool thing — I’m thinking specifically of the audition that I did for Gamora for Guardians of the Galaxy — what is so cool about only acting with your voice is that I can create a soundscape. I have a studio in my home. I can create a soundscape that is going to elicit images in your mind that only you can see. Other people may have a different experience, but I love creating soundscapes. And some people would say ‘but I need to wink’ or ‘I need to raise an eyebrow’ and ‘I feel so you know hamstrung that I can’t indicate things with my lip curl’ or whatever it is that you would see on camera. But I can exhale, and I can pause, and there are things that I can do with my voice that can create certain nuances that I don’t know you would hear those if I were on camera. You know, if you have a lav mic you can’t hear the sorrow in my voice as much as you can if there’s a microphone in front of my face. That’s like an ear, a human ear in front of my face.”

“And I know when I did the Gamora audition, I know I created a soundscape. [When done] I was like, ‘you know what, I may not book that job, but that sounded really interesting’. Because I could see her scaling the side of his building. I saw it in my mind’s eye. And I respected the audition and sent it off and then I ended up booking it and I said, ‘you know it’s probably because I really took the time to create dimension and activity even though it was just a sound file’.”

“And I drink a ton of water. I drink three of the 1.5 liters a day at least. [As for pajamas] I tend to like to get dressed because then I feel like I’m going to work and …it helps me look alive and be more present, I think, if I’ve taken a shower and I’m respectably dressed even though I am home. But worst case scenario, not a big deal if you’re in your pajamas. And in fact they probably wouldn’t care if you wear your pajamas to an actual job either, they’d probably think it was hilarious. There’s a lot of lee-way there. You don’t have to wait for hair and makeup, there’s no lighting. There’s a lot of upsides to the world of voiceover acting. PJs is one of them.”

The second question came from Logan, 10, who asked You have to switch characters with one other actor in Rebels so they do Hera and you do their character. Who do you pick?

Marshall answered Sabine, voiced by Tiya Sircar. “Sabine’s my favorite character. I’m a huge Mandalorian nerd and she is just the coolest character. I love how she expresses herself through her art and her painting, and she also manages to be so strong, and yet so vulnerable at the same time. There’s such a strength in that. And I don’t think I could do it as well as Tiya does it because she’s just, it’s kind of who she is as a person, so lovely and such a wonderful wonderful person, but she’s my other favorite character.”

Finally, a question from my thirteen year old daughter, Aeris, who likes to ask this of everyone, What’s your motto?

Marshall answered, “Be kind. Just be kind, honestly. I say that every morning. I mean, I say it to myself… I think a lot of women are really exposed to all sorts of things that tell us that we’re not okay as we are, that you know, when we get there we’re going to be all right, and there’s a cruelty to that. I think that is just not fair and I see kids getting bullied and it breaks my heart.”

She described, “We did a panel yesterday, there was a girl who said ‘how do you learn to love your voice?’ There’s nothing wrong with her voice, and she said that someone had said, on social media, that she has the voice of suicide. Like, in other words, that she just sounds like suicide. My heart broke to hear that, that is a terrible thing to say. And I know there are a collection of sentences that I’ve gathered throughout my life, that I have a hard time un-hearing. And they do permanent damage — that’s how I can continue to perpetrate that on myself, by repeating those sentences, wondering if they’re true? Wait, that guy said this–, is that?–, oh no–, you know.” That’s why this is her motto: “I just have hope to be kind to myself and others.” Aeris and I agree it’s a great motto and we should spread it around.

The Blu-Ray/DVD of Star Wars: Rebels season four will be available July 31 and bonus extras include audio commentary and behind-the-scenes interviews. You can find Vanessa Marshall on twitter at @VanMarshall and Instagram at @VanessaMarshall1138.