In the opening minutes of Star Wars: Andor, the Disney+ series that premiered on September 21, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) enters a brothel searching for a woman. Star Wars fans might find it hard to square these opening scenes with the cinematic universe created by George Lucas. They seem darkly reminiscent of Blade Runner instead of the rollicksome galaxy inhabited by the likes of Han Solo and Chewbacca. And that’s exactly the intent of this new installment in the science-fiction saga that just joined Disney’s other Star Wars spinoffs: The Mandalorian, Obi Wan Kenobi and The Book of Boba Fett. Instead of offering a lovable Baby Yoda (The Mandalorian) to enchant viewers, Andor adopted a different tone and a very effective narrative arc to continue the galactic epic. “We have an obligation to be different. The story is more complex. It’s darker and overtly political, because it’s about a revolution, about a reaction to a totalitarian system. It’s a political spy thriller and it has a different tone,” Luna told EL PAÍS in Los Angeles.
Andor is a prequel to Rogue One (2016) and tells the origin story of the Rebel Alliance that fights back against the Empire and steals the Death Star plans. Rogue One was well received by Star Wars fans and critics alike, and grossed more than $1 billion at the global box office. Its success was due in no small part to the very late addition of Tony Gilroy, an experienced filmmaker who has demonstrated a special talent for combining action scenes with complex characters. This talent was on display in his screenplays for the original Bourne trilogy and his directorial debut, Michael Clayton, a thriller in which George Clooney plays a second-rate lawyer who challenges a big corporation. A final cut of Rogue One was in the can when the film’s producers asked Gilroy to write and shoot additional scenes. Gilroy turned Rogue One into a film about sacrifice and ultimately won a screenwriting credit after a brief dispute.
After Rogue One, Gilroy made no secret about his lack of interest in the Star Wars universe. But the Hollywood prequel and spin-off machine came back at him like a boomerang, and convinced him to lead this new project as creator and showrunner. Gilroy wrote and directed the first three episodes, and his scripts for episodes 11 and 12 will close out the first season of the series. Gilroy says he’s obsessed with making this fantasy world feel as real as possible. “We didn’t hire any Star Wars production designers – we hired Luke Hall, who did Chernobyl. We had to fight to make it real. The entropy of film inevitably leads to shallow artificiality. It’s the easiest path to take, so it’s hard to make it all real,” said Gilroy in an interview. Filming for the second and final season will begin in November, and will cover the four years leading up to the events of Rogue One.
Tasked with making a fiction about rebels, Andor stretches the rules of this universe without completely breaking them. As he sits in front of a plate of huevos rancheros in his Bel Air (Los Angeles) hotel, Luna tells us that no one has buttons on their clothing in this universe. It’s one of the unwritten rules of Star Wars production design. “In this series, if you show someone holding a bag, there has to be something inside, something you’re eventually going to use,” he said. Other Rogue One alums that reprised their roles in Andor include Genevieve O’Reilly (Mon Mothma) and Forest Whitaker (Saw Gerrera). New characters include Adria Arjona (Bix Caleen), Fiona Shaw (Maarva), Denise Gough (Dedra Meero) and Stellan Skarsgard, who plays Luthern Rael, an espionage and counterespionage expert who might turn out to be the puppet master behind the rebellion. There are 195 characters with speaking lines in Andor.
Chekhov in the galaxy
Unlike most Lucasfilm productions that use an imposing set of LED walls created by Industrial Light and Magic and known as “The Volume,” Andor was shot on location outside London during the height of the pandemic. “I don’t think I’ve ever read so much while filming. No one really wanted to sit around and chat all day,” said Luna about the shoot that maintained very strict protocols to avoid coronavirus outbreaks. The production indirectly benefited from pandemic quarantine measures. When stages were closed around the world, it freed up many actors and actresses with strong theatrical experience, including Denise Gough, who won an award in 2016 for her lead role in People, Places and Things, and Kyle Soller, an American who graduated from Britain’s prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA).
“Actors need to be reminded all the time that they have been hired for who they are. They’re not here to do Star Wars or put on a costume. They’re here to do a Chekhov play or a Ken Loach film. That’s what they’re here to do. We’ll take care of the rest,” Gilroy says about the way he directed the Andor cast. He also established a framework that enabled writers and directors to put their own stamp on the series. Each director was responsible for three consecutive episodes that have their own coherence but still advance the overall narrative arc.
The Andor landscapes we see on the screen seem more like working-class, industrial Sheffield (England) than the sand dunes of some distant planet in another galaxy. While the Lucas universe brims with the political intrigue and powerplays of a mighty empire, Gilroy has placed the birth of the revolution in the hands of the lowly working class. The people of Andor work as mechanics, junk dealers and garbage collectors. The only reminder that this is Star Wars is the occasional appearance of an alien.
The 501st Legion, the world’s largest Star Wars fan club, arrived in full regalia for the series premiere at the El Capitan movie theater on Hollywood Boulevard. Many of them are well into middle age, but they proudly donned their costumes as spaceship pilots, Jedi, Star Troopers and sexy Twilek warriors. Diego Luna believes that this is the series for them. “That audience has already lived much of life. They’ve fallen in love, had their hearts broken and had children. Things like that happen to the characters in Andor. It’s cool to see a universe you’ve loved for so long, but with a story that can touch you.” And if the series bores them, Luna won’t take it personally. His daughter fell asleep at a screening of Rogue One. “But I’m going to really watch this one,” she promised him.