Star Wars: The Force Awakens: J.J. Abrams explains origins of character names
Star Wars names are their own kind of art form.
Yeah, they may sound a little like John Travolta announcing people at the Oscars, but that’s their magic. They have the cadence of real names, but they’re like nothing we’ve ever heard.
They also tend to have deeper meaning that pushes subconscious buttons in our heads. Luke Skywalker is an obvious one: The last name is a bit on the nose for a tale about space adventure, but “Luke” also comes from the Latin lucere, which means light (although, remember, the devil started out as Lucifer).
Darth Vader, famously, comes from a variation on “dark” and the Dutch word for “father.” Han Solo, well… It suggested a roguish, loner quality, even if the smuggler was kind of a gadabout.
During Entertainment Weekly’s interview with Star Wars: The Force Awakens director and co-writer J.J. Abrams, we ended up talking about names a lot. At the start, he revealed something unexpected about the new villain played by Adam Driver – Kylo Ren is a name the character “came to” when he joined an order called the Knights of Ren.
I asked how he came to some of the other new names joining the Star Wars universe, and here’s what Abrams had to say …
Click each one for their stories:
FINN AND REY
When Abrams first revealed the names of his new characters, by way of mocked-up Topps trading cards last December, two were notable for being… singular.
The runaway stormtrooper played by John Boyega was known only as Finn, and Daisy Ridley’s desert scavenger was identified only as Rey.
I finally got to ask: Is that deliberate? Is there a piece of information that’s being held back there about their names — perhaps because their last names are ones we may already know?
Abrams isn’t ready to reveal their full identities, but did confirm that this theory was getting warm. “I will only say about that that it is completely intentional that their last names aren’t public record,” he says.
I wish there was more to offer on that, but it sounds like it ventures into spoiler territory. So instead, let’s identify someone else — someone new.
EW released this image already of Rey cutting BB-8 free from the net of a fellow scavenger in the dunes of Jakku, and here’s what Abrams was able to share about that shot: BB-8 was snagged by a surly little sand-dweller known as Teedo, who is riding atop what looks like a rhinoceros fused with metal boxes.
That beast of burden is known as a luggabeast, a never-before-seen creature from the universe.
Teedo also lacks a last name, but I’m guessing that doesn’t mean he’s Han Solo’s long-lost son. And it is a he — at least if you go by the actor inside the suit, Kiran Shah.
You’ve probably seen the 58-year-old Kenyan-Indian actor before, even if you didn’t realize it. At 4-foot-1, he holds the Guinness World Record for the shortest working stuntman, and has played an Ewok in Return of the Jedi, doubled for Christopher Reeve in the 1978 Superman film (when they needed to create forced perspective shots) and also helped make Frodo seem small beside Ian McKellen’s Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings movies.
Teedo sounds a little like Greedo, but if the little fellow is lucky (and hands over the ball-droid) maybe he won’t share a similar fate.
Again, back in December, when Abrams debuted those Topps trading cards with the names through Entertainment Weekly, my first instinct was to try to divine some meaning from the IDs.
Poe Dameron, the X-Wing pilot played by Oscar Isaac, seemed especially confounding. Poe… Was that a reference to spooky old Edgar Allan? And Dameron… something about it was familiar. Like it was right in front of me.
Turns out, it was.
Others theorized that it was a warped spoonerism on Nicolas Cage’s hero from 1997’s Con Air — Cameron Poe. It’s an eerie coincidence, but it also didn’t make sense. Would J.J. Abrams really go out of his way to pay homage to a cheesy old movie?
Then I looked at the email of his assistant, who had sent the images of the Topps trading cards: Morgan Dameron. Mystery solved!
Almost. There’s a little more to it.
“Dameron came out because it was, obviously, a name that I know, and it just musically felt right,” Abrams says. “There was no sort of deep reasoning behind it, and I also knew it would make Morgan blush if we named a character that. So she had this giant smile on her face.”
He thought he might change it eventually, but then got used to it. “We kept it for awhile, and it just stuck like things that work seem to,” Abrams says.
As for Poe, Abrams says it was also one he switched back and forth on.
“We went through a bunch of different names, and Poe ultimately felt like the right name,” he says, though he admits there may have been a deeper meaning than he realized. “Someone reminded me recently that my daughter had had a polar bear named Poe [or Po’ — short for “polar”], and that might’ve been why it felt right. There was a kind of sweetness to, and a charm to that name.” (The polar bear also suggests shades of Lost.)
NEXT PAGE: BB-8 – the bouncing, baby droid.
So if Oscar Isaac’s pilot was named after Abrams’ longtime assistant, was there a chance some other characters were homages to friends or family?
Another individual who has been aligned with Abrams for years is Bryan Burk, a producer on The Force Awakens, who first joined with the filmmaker back in the middle of the run of ABC’s Alias. He co-founded Bad Robot productions with Abrams and has been involved in every one of his projects since.
Bryan Burk. BB. Is that how BB-8 came to be?
Abrams draws in a deep breath — and exhales a laugh. “No!” he says. “But don’t tell Bryan that.”
Abrams chose the droid’s name because it looked round and bouncy. “I named him BB-8 because it was almost onomatopoeia,” the director says. “It was sort of how he looked to me, with the 8, obviously, and then the 2 B’s.”
A lot of names were second-guessed into oblivion, but this is one they never changed, from very early on. “It’s funny how sometimes, the bad ideas, you try them out and kick the tires a little bit, and it just kind of falls apart and you can go somewhere else, you’ve just got to know it’s temporary. And that one, he never had another name. But Bryan Burk, whom I adore, is not the father of that name.”
So no love for his producing pal?
Abrams laughs. “I throw him love in other ways.”
NEXT PAGE: General Hux, a name from the grave …
This powerful figure from The First Order is played by Domhnall Gleeson, and little is known about his plans or motivations. He’s eager to reveal them, however. (Even if Abrams is not.)
Hux is young for a general, according to the filmmaker, who says that in this scene the military leader stands in his command center, longing to reveal the full might of The First Order’s military power to an unsuspecting galaxy.
His name doesn’t have the same meaning as the others. In fact, it’s hard for Abrams to remember the origin, although he thinks it came to him during the long storytelling walks he would take with co-screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan (who previously penned The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.
“Larry and I would walk all over the place when we were breaking the story, and we would record our conversations,” Abrams says. “We were walking through a cemetery that’s near the Bad Robot offices, and we would often, as we were talking about characters, sort of just be glancing at names to see if any of them stuck. I don’t believe that Hux came from there, but it may have.”
An online search of the cemetery database FindAGrave didn’t turn up anyone named Hux buried in the vicinity of Santa Monica, but the character identifier may also have come from a portion of a name they saw – or it may simply be a new Star Wars legend.
Another villain in The Force Awakens, Captain Phasma, has a much more definitive namesake, as you’ll see.
Turns out, Abrams sometimes does go out of his way to pay homage to unusual pieces of cinematic pop culture. The proof is Captain Phasma, a First Order warrior garbed in mirror-like armor, played by Game of Thrones actress Gwendoline Christie.
During preproduction, Abrams was reminded of Phantasm, a 1979 horror film that featured a gaunt, terrifying figure known as The Tall Man and a flying, silver sphere that bores into its victims’ bodies like a bullet crossed with a drill-tip.
“Phasma I named because of the amazing chrome design that came from Michael Kaplan’s wardrobe team. It reminded me of the ball in Phantasm, and I just thought, Phasma sounds really cool,” Abrams says, but as he was telling this story, I remembered the last time I’d seen The Tall Man actor, Angus Scrimm.
It was an episode of Abrams’ TV show Alias.
“He was in Alias!” Abrams says. “I think, maybe two episodes, but definitely in the pilot.”
Then, we venture far from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but it’s a testament to Abrams’ love of old-time movies – and old-time actors. “I have a funny Angus Scrimm story, which is we were shooting at like two in the morning one day, and he’s a very tall, older guy, one of the sweetest people ever,” Abrams says. “His voice, he’s got this great sort of British accent. He sounds just like James Mason. He speaks like this,” Abrams says, breaking into a stately accent.
“I remember we were just sitting there, waiting for the cameras to be ready, and I said to him, ‘So, Angus, where are you from?’ And he goes, ‘Kansas City!’” Abrams says with a laugh. “It was just like, he had this [accent] of an actor, it turns out.”
He also learned during that downtime that the creepy Tall Man from Phantasm had a side career. “He won a Grammy award for writing liner notes for a classical music album!” Abrams says. “So he is a Grammy Award-winning scary guy.”
There probably isn’t a character in The Force Awakens named Scrimm, but maybe there should be. Either way, you can see that Abrams’ love of Phantasm runs deep enough to name his own scary stormtrooper after it.
For more Star Wars: The Force Awakens news, check back tomorrow at EW.com. (Hint: Thursday is Han Solo day.)
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