Andor's Faye Marsay Talks Preparing To Play Vel Sartha, The Real Rebellions That Inspired Her & More [Exclusive Interview]

"Andor" has taken "Star Wars" in a surprising direction. Though it was always understood that the series would focus on Cassian Andor and the rise of the Rebel Alliance against the increasing oppression of the Empire, I don't think fans expected the series to become so deadly serious. By focusing on the ground level efforts of the rebellion and how the Empire's tactics affect average citizens of the galaxy, "Andor" has become an engrossing and important piece of "Star Wars" history

So far, a key part of this integral story has been Vel Sartha, one of a handful of rebels tasked with pulling off a heist against an Imperial garrison that will send a message, both to the Empire and those waiting for more of a reason to stand up against them. Faye Marsay brings Vel to life in "Andor," giving her undeniable leadership strength, even if there's a lingering love that occasionally creates doubt in her dedication to the cause. Marsay wasn't much of a "Star Wars" fan before she landed this role on "Andor." It's not that she disliked the franchise — she just hadn't really engaged with it. So how did she prepare to join the "Star Wars" universe with such a vastly different entry point than the rest of the franchise? 

We spoke with Faye Marsay this week about her work on "Andor," including the research that went into crafting her performance, Vel Sartha's shapeshifting ways, the importance of normalizing LGBTQ+ representation, feeling much more pressure for "Star Wars" than she did during her time on "Game of Thrones," and more.

'I did a lot of reading about that and about these women that felt compelled to be part of something bigger and to be part of a cause'

I wanted to begin by asking what your relationship was like with "Star Wars" before you joined the "Andor" series.

My relationship with "Star Wars" ... I actually hadn't seen that much footage of "Star Wars." Then, as I kind of knew that I'd be auditioning, obviously I watched "Rogue One" and a couple of other films, but I wasn't super into it. Not because it's not good, but just because it was not something that I'd gotten into. I was aware of its awesome reputation and its awesome fanbase. But in terms of how many of the films I've watched, it was kind of limited really, until I became a cast member in "Star Wars." Then I did a bit more research. But yeah, "Rogue One" is the one that really stands out for me, because obviously our story is linked to "Rogue One."

As an actor, how do you go about crafting and preparing your performance as Vel Sartha? Did you do any research into real world rebellions or insurgency leaders for inspiration? Because your character honestly feels more real than what we expect from a typical "Star Wars" hero.

I think the whole series is actually about trying to ground it in something real. I think it's not just for "Star Wars" fans, it's for everyone, and particularly "Andor" is for everyone. Because what Tony Gilroy and all the amazing writers tried to do, and I think succeeded in, was just to ground it in something that people could really identify with. Whether that be someone's reasons for wanting to rise up against something that's oppressing them or wanting to be part of something. I think it's really identifiable in this series.

So I did a lot of looking at different groups. It's tricky because a lot of the literature around it calls them sort of terrorist organizations, because anything that opposes the main rule in some senses is classified as terrorism. I read a book called "Shoot the Women First," which I can't remember the author's name now, forgive me [Ed. note: it's Eileen Macdonald]. But it was all about female-led rebellions within different parts of the world. Palestine or Ireland. So I did a lot of reading about that and about these women that felt compelled to be part of something bigger and to be part of a cause. That's kind of where I drew the inspiration for Vel in some ways.

Is there a part of you that ended up in Vel too?

Yeah, I think so. I think, any actor, it's impossible for you not to bring a part of something of yourself. Because the mixing pot in which you're pulling your performance from comes from within you anyway. So there are parts you get to explore that you would never really get to explore. I think that's why a lot of actors find it fun and find it engaging. There are parts of you that you would never really act out in real life that, all of a sudden, you're given this sort of free rein, in one sense, to explore. When I really believe in something, I really fight for it as Faye. So that was a really similar connection I had to Vel. Most people do. Most people, if they believe strongly enough about something and believe it's right, will stand up for it. So I enjoyed all that side of her. 

I also enjoyed that there's a real sensitivity to Vel. We weren't afraid to show that she was scared. We weren't afraid to show that she was heartbroken. We're not afraid to show the more human side of this character, where in some cases, you would just expect to see the action and the grit and the determination to complete the mission. What I love about this character is that, the way she's written, I had a lot of freedom to explore the human side of this person who is trying to be part of a rebellion and all the things that make her human, the things that upset her and the things that frighten her.

'You never know which one is the real Vel, and you never know which one she feels most comfortable in'

"Star Wars" is famous for being very secretive about certain things, certain details. How much about Vel were you told before shooting? Were you aware of her connection to Mon Mothma before that scene came along or the relationship dynamic with her and Cinta?

It is all very secretive. I obviously can't say too much on how we get our information and how that's distributed to us, but I did know the breakdown, and I did know the actors that I'd be working with. Not entirely a full picture of what I was about to do, but certainly, before shooting, obviously you need to prepare and you need to learn your lines and everything like that in rehearsal. I did know my relationship with Cinta, and I did know my relationship with Mon Mothma as well. But that kind of comes down in a way that's quite secure. I'll say that much, that's all.

Are there any details in Vel's costume design that might provide more hints about her as a character? Things that maybe you are aware of since you're suited up as Vel but that we might not see on screen?

Well, I think what's really amazing about our designer, Michael [Wilkinson], fitted hundreds of actors, and everyone, depending on what part of the universe they're in, has a different costume. So Vel is, much like Luthen, a bit of a shapeshifter. So if you look at, for example, Vel in Aldhani, she's in her rebel getup. If you look at her in Ferrix, she blends in with the colors, the tones, and the kind of general vibe of Ferrix when she goes over there to meet up with Cinta. Then you have her over in Coruscant in a completely different style.

So you never know which one is the real Vel, and you never know which one she feels most comfortable in. To be honest, as the actor playing Vel, I'm not entirely sure of that. I think that she's so used to moving who she is around and around and around into different pockets of the galaxy that I think I couldn't say which would be her favorite. I think the costumes reflect more about where we are in the world as opposed to more information about Vel.

Which do you personally prefer? Do you like the more dressed up style of Coruscant or is it better to be in the casual rebel garb?

It's really tricky because it depends what scene you're doing. The rebel get-up was really cool, because I could run around in it, and it was just badass, let's be honest. It was all made to measure. I felt very lucky and very spoiled with that costume. But also with Coruscant, you just feel amazing. You feel good. Every other actor is in that get-up as well. It's a real motif of where we are in the galaxy and our social status, our economic status. That one takes a lot longer to get ready for, in terms of hair and makeup and costume. So on days when I'm tired, the rebel costume is a bit quicker. But I think, if I had to choose, I think — oh, it's really tricky. I'm going to say Coruscant on this one. Yeah, I'm going to say that one today.

'People love who they love, and I think it's important that we don't forget that, and we just normalize the normal'

You've taken a lot of roles that provide a lot of LGBTQ+ representation on screen, and I love that. What does it mean for you to bring that representation to the "Star Wars" universe, which has historically not been all that great with that sort of representation?

Well, I just think the sooner we get the message that there's nothing to really expose, that it's normal, that we're just portraying the normal, that we don't have to shout it and don't have to say it out loud, and we don't have to highlight it. It's just there because it's always been there. It will always be there and it always has been there. People love who they love, and I think it's important that we don't forget that, and we just normalize the normal. I think "Star Wars" is a great platform for that because it means so much to so many. Let's just normalize the normal. Let's not forget the struggles that the LGBTQ+ community have gone through and are going through still to this day. Let's not forget that. That's really important to remember, but also let's normalize the normal.

I have to ask, are you prepared, now that you have entered the "Star Wars" universe, to see Vel live on forever in comics, novels, video games? Because so many characters have had their backstory filled in decades after their introduction. Is that something that you are interested in? Does that make you a little nervous?

Do you know what? I've not even thought about it until you've just said that. I think it would be cool if someone came up with a concept of Vel's early life perhaps. I really enjoy playing her, but now she's on screen, she belongs to the fans now. She belongs to the "Star Wars" world. She belongs to everyone that gets something from "Star Wars." So if she lives on, because the fans want that, that's cool. If she doesn't, then she was there, and she was part of it, and that's cool with me.

Right on. Now, you were part of another big franchise before, obviously you were on "Game of Thrones" —

Yes, that small show, yeah.

[laughs] Yes. Did you feel more pressure joining "Game of Thrones" at the height of its popularity or starting off with a new series in the "Star Wars" universe? Or was there really not much of a difference?

With "Game of Thrones," I don't know what it was about that, I just remained cool, because it was something that was so much bigger than me. What I was being asked to do was the thing that I like doing. If you minimize your role down, and you don't worry about all the other sort of noise around it, you just kind of concentrate on what you're being asked to do, which is quite... It's not simple, but what my job is, is to say somebody else's words convincingly and create a character that means something to the script, to the way the writer wrote it, and to the people who are watching it.

If you take all the noise out of it, I found "Game of Thrones" a much easier job than one would think. Given that, at the time, it was just blowing up, and given the storyline I had with the character, with Maisie [Williams], who was the most loved character pretty much on the show at that point, and I acted horrible to. So that was hard. But I think I probably felt more pressure starting a new huge mammoth "Star Wars" TV thing in which that I was going to be one of the sort of main-ish roles. Did I answer that correctly?

Yeah, definitely.

Sorry, I'm a rambler. I'm a bit tired today

No worries.

I'm awful when I'm tired.

'What you'll find with most productions is, especially the darker they get, the more fun you have off-camera actually'

"Andor" has been praised just because of how seriously it approaches "Star Wars," including the stakes and ground level effects of the war between the Empire and the rise of the Rebel Alliance. There's not a lot of room for levity. So I wanted to ask if there was a particular moment or time on set where there was the exact opposite? Are you and the rest of the cast able to have fun and break through the seriousness every now and then?

Oh, yeah. What you'll find with most productions is, especially the darker they get, the more fun you have off-camera actually. We had all sorts of games going on where we had a word of the day. Someone said it in the middle of Scotland in the pouring down rain, and you'd have to do 20 press-ups in the mud, face down in the mud. So me and the rebels, we had to laugh, we went out for meals. It was a hard shoot. We were right in the middle of the Covid pandemic still, but we were allowed out. It was a very strange way to make a TV show considering all the kind of guidelines that we had to follow and the distance and everything like that. But where we could have fun, we did. But it was also super hard work, and it was super grueling hours. But nothing good comes out of being easy really, not in this industry anyway. It has to be hard for it to become good.

It goes without saying that there a lot of very passionate "Star Wars" fans who are super nerdy about so many aspects of this franchise. I was curious if there's anything that you feel like maybe you are equally nerdy about?

Gosh. I mean, I'm a big — you call it soccer in America. We call it football here. I'm pretty nerdy about that. I really enjoy watching the Premier League, not so much my team, which is Middlesbrough Football Club, who are at the moment, absolutely rubbish. It's been a lifetime of pain. I guess, I'm into a lot of different things. So I'll get obsessed with music for a bit, and then I'll drop that, and I'll go back to football. I like fishing.There's all sorts of things that I'm into. Obviously, I love my acting stuff and reading and all of that stuff.

But in terms of shows, I mean, I'm a big "White Lotus" fan at the moment. I watched the new one last night. I thought it was pretty good. I'm into all sorts of shows, just watched the [Jeffrey] Dahmer thing, very disturbing. But I thought [Evan Peters] was really good. It's obviously tricky with what it means to the families. "Breaking Bad." I could go on and on about the TV shows, that's what I kind of geek over, but I change my geeking often.

'What the franchise has, and what's beautiful about it, is that there's so many places it can go...'

Now that you have "Star Wars" under your belt, are there any specific roles you're on the lookout for, or filmmakers and actors that you would very keen to work with in the future?

The list would be... we'd be here all day. I really would love to work with Olivia Coleman as an actress, or Jodie Comer. I've worked with Jodie before, but it was a long time ago. Do something really, really gritty. Oh, Wes Anderson. Honestly, this list would go on forever. I love Wes Anderson films. Oh God, you know when you go blank because there's that many?

Yeah, of course.

Yeah, I'm a bit like that. I'm a bit sort of rubbish at these questions because my brain just goes too fast. But let's say that I would love to work with Olivia Coleman and yeah, let's say that.

Perfect. Just to wrap up here, I know that you only really dived into "Star Wars" after you got this part in "Andor," but is there anything that, now that you are part of it, that you would like to see come from the "Star Wars" universe? Another kind of show or genre that you think "Star Wars" could dive into?

I think if they kept building on the way "Andor" has been done, those really gritty stories and those real characters. Not to say that there aren't amazing characters across the board in this series. That's what makes it special within the "Star Wars" world. But I think, let's keep pushing, keeping the normal normalized with the LGBTQ+ stuff. But there's nothing in particular that I can think of. What's exciting about "Star Wars" is you get "The Mandalorian," which is completely different to "Andor," but I loved it. I loved everything about it. I really enjoyed watching it. I loved everything about it.

What the franchise has, and what's beautiful about it, is that there's so many places it can go and still be under the umbrella of "Star Wars" and galaxies and aliens and the Empire. So I'm just interested to see who picks up the ball next, where they go with it, which character they focus on, which backstory, and the different aliens and everything like that. The possibilities are endless with "Star Wars," and I'm just excited to see what the next person does with whoever they choose to work with.

"Andor" is streaming now on Disney+.