“I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people. I see your eyes. I know your eyes.”
One thing we haven’t seen, at least not in any detail, is the character speaking these words in the recent TV spot for Star Wars: The Force Awakens: Maz Kanata, the diminutive alien played by 12 Years a Slave Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o.
But she’s been hiding in plain sight, and many fans have already guessed: She’s in the center of the movie’s poster, sporting a small smile and a large pair of dark goggles.
“That’s Maz,” says director J.J. Abrams. Although we don’t know who she’s addressing directly in this narration, the footage focuses heavily on Daisy Ridley’s Rey. It actually reveals a lot more about Maz than we realize.
Her eyes have special meaning and power. “I had some specific ideas about how she would work and what she would do,” Abrams says. “I had this pitch about these goggles that she wore. Her eyes are an important aspect of her character, and you’ll see how it plays out.”
Nyong’o couldn’t go into the specifics about Maz’s eyes and their capabilities, but said their traits gave her something compelling to explore. “As an actor for films, your eyes are a lot of the way you communicate anyway,” says Nyong’o. “So it was definitely a gift to have that be the means to her magic as a motion-capture character.”
Abrams was willing to go a little further and reveal some of the backstory behind Kanata and the castle she inhabits with a court of misfits and miscreants. “Her history is that she was a pirate for a long time,” he says. “She’s lived over a thousand years. She’s had this watering hole for about a century, and it’s like another bar that you’d find in a corner of the Star Wars universe.”
What kind of species is she? What is her homeworld? “All that backstory will be forthcoming,” Abrams says. “In the movie, you don’t learn these things, but I know that these are things that are coming out in other venues.” So keep your own eyes out for more of Maz’s past to be fleshed out in books or games.
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Maz seems to serve as this movie’s wise, ancient alien with connections to the mystical side of the galaxy. “I wanted to do the creature as a puppet originally, but once we figured out the things that she was required to do, it felt like [performance capture] was the way to go,” Abrams said.
Maz is one of the few creatures in her court who is not a real-life, practical effect, and Abrams said the digital artists had a high standard to meet to make her blend in.
“Maz needed to look and feel and be just like one of those creatures. And given her mobility, and given the role that she played, it became clear that that was one creature where we should use the tool of CG,” he says. “But the performance was all Lupita. She was there on set, and we did capture sessions afterwards as well, and I can’t say enough about working with her.”
Nyong’o was also a newcomer to performance-capture work, but she was coached by Andy Serkis (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes) at his digital studio, The Imaginarium. He also co-stars in The Force Awakens as Supreme Leader Snoke, another character we have yet to see (more on him later), and although they don’t share any scenes together as characters, they worked closely behind the scenes.
“The biggest advice he gave me, that was so important to hold on to, is a motion-capture character you develop the same way as any other. You have to understand who the character is and what makes them who they are,” she says.
So who is Maz? Besides a (literally) small businesswoman?
“You went to the big man himself, when you talked to J.J.” Nyong’o says with a laugh. “So you have gotten as much as you’re going to get, I’m afraid.”
For more on Star Wars, follow @Breznican.
Later today at EW.com: Why is Luke Skywalker missing? And more on Supreme Leader Snoke.
To continue reading more on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on newsstands Friday, or buy it here.