Last year, Daisy Ridley made her debut as Rey, the brave and loyal desert scavenger who became the first-ever female character to headline a Star Wars film. For her latest project, the actress is tackling a similar story in a galaxy not so far away.
Ridley narrates and executive produced The Eagle Huntress, a documentary about a young Kazakh girl in Mongolia named Aisholpan. For generations, Aisholpan’s family has participated in the Mongolian tradition of eagle hunting, and director Otto Bell chronicles Aisholpan’s quest to become the first female eagle hunter in her family — and to compete against the country’s top hunters, many of whom believe a woman has no place in eagle hunting, let alone a 13-year-old girl.
It’s a gorgeous, inspiring story, and one that Ridley has championed since before The Eagle Huntress premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. (Plus, it isn’t hard to draw parallels between Aisholpan’s journey and the scrutiny Ridley faced as a leading female character in the Star Wars universe.) EW sat down with Ridley to talk about the film and why it’s so important to see strong, diverse young women on screen.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: I know you’ve said that when you first saw this film, it brought you to tears. What was it about this story that hooked you?
DAISY RIDLEY: It was mainly the relationship between Aisholpan and her father, and I guess seeing a slice of life in a community that most people know very little about. It’s the amazing feeling of it being very far away but also very close, because they’re just a family around the fire, doing their thing. It just happens that most of us aren’t eagle hunters. But I’m very fortunate to be in a family where we never felt like we had limits. It was that, and then obviously the empowerment side of it, because all she wants to do is be an eagle hunter, and she ends up doing that. Plus, it’s just beautiful, in a place in the world that most people haven’t been.
Most people aren’t very familiar with the culture that comes along with eagle hunting, but it’s a story that’s so universal. Why do you think Aisholpan’s story resonates with so many people?
I guess because regardless of gender or race or anything, people do feel like they have limits. And to see a little girl who is not making a statement about anything, it’s just what she wants to do. It’s like a little boy wanting to be an astronaut, or a little girl wanting to be an astronaut, or a little girl wanting to be a football player. Children have an amazing ability to not feel boxed in by anything, so to see a story about a girl that doesn’t feel that and just wants to do what she wants to do with the support of her family, I think everyone can relate to it.
When you were that age, did you have something that you dreamed about like that? Was it acting?
I wanted to be a zoologist! That was when I was in primary school. When I was that age, I wasn’t sure. I was at a performing arts school. I didn’t know if that was what I wanted to do. I thought I was going to go to university and everything, and I was always very supported, either way. And I remember actually leaving my school at 18. My mum had paid a lot of money for me to go there, and I remember crying because I was so sad to leave, going, oh my gosh, what if I never end up doing anything? And she said, “Well, at least you were happy.” Because she’s a great mum! [Laughs] So I think that all comes into play with how I view the film. But honestly, I think anyone would, seeing that quiet determination. And she’s not being showy. She’s just doing it.
You mentioned how so much of this film is about Aisholpan and her relationship with her father. Do you see any parallels between that and your own family?
People have asked a lot about comparisons in the character that I play! But for sure, I see it more in my personal life because I always grew up like that. Someone just asked me if I ever felt there was any issue with my gender. I never, ever felt that. It just wasn’t on my radar that in any way would I be limited. In the same way that AIsholpan doesn’t think that either because it’s never been part of the conversation. She just is doing what she’s doing. The change is within her, I guess. And the family, the fact she has siblings, I live in a hut… No, I’m kidding. But the close family bond, for sure.
I know you met Aisholpan and her family a few days ago at the premiere. What was that like?
It’s weird hearing so much about a person and seeing someone’s life, and then they’re there. She’s super sweet. She doesn’t talk very much, but her English is good. And [her father] was taking pictures of his daughter. It’s an everyday thing. It just so happens they’ve been plucked out of their world and into ours. But I think they’re having a good time, and Otto said that they have started a fund for Aisholpan, and she’s got a scholarship to this amazing school. She wants to be a doctor, so there’s going to be enough money for her to study. I don’t know if she realizes the impact this film is going to have. She’s just doing her thing, just working really hard at school, and occasionally coming to America to talk about the film.
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On a different scale, is that something that you can identify with, getting swept up in all the Star Wars attention?
Yeah. Life goes on, and big things happen, and it’s super cool, and the reaction and everything is great. And then you go home and go back to your life. [Laughs]
In addition to doing the narration, you also served as an executive producer. Do you want to do more producing.
Well, I bought the rights to something, which is currently being made. But I don’t know. It’s great to be part of something that’s telling a gorgeous story because Otto put all his life savings into this film and created something beautiful, so if a few more people go to watch the film because I Instagrammed about it once, then fantastic. But I don’t know. I’m really open to things happening in life. So if it happens, it happens.
You mentioned the parallels between Aisholpan and Rey. They’re both examples of young, empowered women who may have been underestimated because of their gender. I was curious if when you were approaching Rey, if there were any female characters or real-life women that you thought about as inspiration for her as a character.
Easy answer: No, because I was trying very hard to not look to anything else within the story or the wide world. I was really just trying to do justice to my thing. But for sure, I think I’ve been influenced by people over the years, which led into that. I just wasn’t aware of it. But I grew up surrounded by incredible women, so in terms of that, yes. But it wasn’t a conscious thing.
The Eagle Huntress hits theaters on Nov. 2.