How “complex” prequel ‘Andor’ turned Star Wars serious

Tony Gilroy's new TV show brings much-needed grit to the galaxy far, far away. He, star Diego Luna and the cast tell us more

Boba Fett. Obi-Wan Kenobi. Baby Yoda in The Mandalorian. All Disney’s Star Wars shows so far have had a familiar character – or a cute facsimile of a familiar character – to hook you in. They tempt you with a hit of nostalgia, then hope you’ll stay for a new story. The latest Star Wars TV effort, Andor, is taking a braver route. No lightsabers. More talk than action. And at its heart a character even mid-level Star Wars fans may not remember. For the first time, a Star Wars TV series is going to have to survive on the strength of its plot alone. This is Star Wars trying to prove it can be ‘grown up’ telly.

Andor is obviously not entirely unfamiliar territory. Star Wars projects never are. If you’ve seen 2016’s Rogue One, the prequel to the original Star Wars, you should be familiar with Cassian Andor. Played with simmering discontent by Diego Luna, Andor was a founding member of the doomed group that stole the plans for the Death Star, setting the stage for its destruction at the hands of Luke Skywalker. If Rogue One is the story of how the Rebel Alliance planned the destruction of the Death Star, Andor is the story of how that Rebel Alliance was formed. It’s the journey of a man going from apathy to giving up his life for a cause.

Andor
Diego Luna as ‘Andor’ protagonist Cassian Andor. CREDIT: Disney/Lucasfilm

“Disney came to me and said they wanted to make a show about the five years before [Rogue One],” says Tony Gilroy, Andor’s showrunner. Gilroy co-wrote Rogue One and directed its significant reshoots (uncredited), but he’s best known for writing the first four Jason Bourne movies. That series is a better indication of what he wants Andor to be. It’s another espionage story and a chance to pick apart how a man can be completely transformed.

“You look at the Cassian Andor in Rogue One and there are these little satellite pieces of information – ‘I’ve been in this fight since I was six-years-old’; ‘I’ve done terrible things and if I don’t go through with it everything I’ve done will be wasted’ – and then you see he’s trusted by his people and he’s a perfect leader… How did he get there?” Gilroy could immediately see the potential of the idea and questions the show could answer, so signed on to write his first ever TV series. Originally, he was going to shape the overall story, write some scripts and direct some episodes, but 18 months into development, in April 2020, he was set as showrunner, when original boss Stephen Schiff (The Americans) left. This is very much his baby.

Andor is riveting even if you don’t know Star Wars”
–showrunner Tony Gilroy

“The idea of starting a story five years ago and placing a character as far away as you possibly could [from the hero in Rogue One] and filling in all the blanks on the way – that’s fascinating,” he says. It was his aim to make something as complex as one of his Bourne movies and trust the audience to keep up. In fact, for his first TV show he wanted to be able to get more complex than he can in his movies. “You get a chance to go down the back alleys and the side streets,” he says. “I always start with too many characters and wind up whittling them down. This time I don’t have to. We have 25-30 characters that [are central to the plot] and we have 190 speaking parts in the show.” Among those 190 speaking parts, there is one that matters far more than most.

It’s very fortunate for Girloy that Diego Luna is remarkably well preserved. Luna shot Rogue One seven years ago. With Andor set five years earlier, that means the 42-year-old is now playing 30. In person he’s still very boyish. There’s a touch of grey in his beard, but his bouncy energy and ready smile mean he can easily pass for younger. He’s been doing most of his Andor interviews via Zoom and today he’s excited about speaking to someone in the same room. “It’s very nice that you’re not just a square,” he laughs, enthusiastically shaking hands. We offer to occasionally freeze if it will make him more comfortable.

Diego Luna
Diego Luna reprises his role from 2016’s ‘Rogue One’. CREDIT: Disney

It had never occurred to Luna that he might be going back into the Star Wars universe, given his fate at the end of Rogue One. About five years ago, he got a call from the studio, Lucasfilm. “They asked: ‘Would you be interested in exploring the possibility of doing something more with Andor?’ and I thought, well that’s very vague,” he says. He didn’t see how a film would work but he could see the possibility of a TV show, “because the long format would allow us to do what film would never allow you to do, which is explore the complexities of the storylines.”

He pretty much forgot about it, bar the odd check-in from Lucasfilm, until he got a call from Gilroy. “I was stuck in traffic in Mexico City (where Luna is from) and we had this 45-minute phone call,” he says. “It was at that point that I realised this <i>had</i> to happen, because if it didn’t then it would be a waste of a great story.”

“This is complex Star Wars”
–Diego Luna

When we meet Cassian Andor in this show, the Empire rules the galaxy without contest. “There’s no Empire versus the rebellion,” says Luna. “It’s just complete control, marginalised people and oppression. Cassian is at a very cynical moment in his life. He doesn’t believe in anything: himself, his community, change. He’s just surviving in selfish mode.” He’s looking for the one person he truly cares about, a sister he hasn’t seen since a terrible event on their home planet. During that search he gets involved in a scuffle with two imperial officers, a scuffle that leaves him wanted for murder. On the run from Imperial officers, he’s approached by mysterious Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård) and invited to join a growing rebellion. He has little choice.

“I just told Diego, ‘Look man, I’ve got this crazy idea’,” says Gilroy. “And I told him about this plan.” The plan is that the initial 12 episodes will cover one year in the life of Cassian Andor. The already announced season two will cover the next four years (three episodes per year), leading up to the beginning of the events of Rogue One. Luna has been part of the planning since that first call, which is more than just polite collaboration from Gilroy. Luna had already done a lot of work on Andor’s backstory, just for himself, to prepare for Rogue One, so he had ideas ready to go, which Gilroy could use. “I always thought of him as someone that has to keep migrating,” says Luna. “I thought of the stories we hear living in Mexico, of people going to the north, either escaping from violence or just looking for new opportunities… And nobody else has his accent, so clearly he comes from somewhere else. What does belonging mean to someone like that?” All of this is core to the Andor in the show.

Andor
Genevieve O’Reilly plays Mon Mothma. CREDIT: Disney

Cassian Andor is not the only familiar Star Wars character. Andor will be, technically, the fourth time Genevieve O’Reilly has played Mon Mothma, a Republic senator who helps form the Rebel Alliance. We say ‘technically’ fourth because O’Reilly has never really got to do much with the character before. Her scenes were cut from Revenge Of The Sith, she had a few lines in Rogue One and she voiced Mon Mothma in five episodes of the animated Star Wars Rebels TV show. Now she finally gets to dig into who Mon Mothma is. She appears only briefly in the first four episodes (that NME has seen) but her storyline has the potential to be one of the most interesting. Where the rest of the rebels work through force and violence, she does her work in the political realm. She rubs shoulders with the people she’s trying to bring down.

“We’ve always just seen her sending rebels off on a mission,” says O’Reilly. “Very public. Very professional. But now we get to reveal the woman”. She describes her as “steeped in Empire… having to navigate the Imperial Senate.” A senator since she was 16, Mon Mothma has spent years trying to build a rebellion. “When we meet her in Andor, she’s just hit the wall of Palpatine’s autocracy. She’s lacking allies. She has no diplomatic routes left to travel, so she has to find a way to rebel.” And every rebel needs someone – or someones – truly awful to rebel against.

Andor
Stellan Skarsgard and Genevieve O’Reilly play undercover rebel sympathisers. CREDIT: Disney/Lucasfilm

Denise Gough approaches her time in the Star Wars universe exactly as you’d hope someone would. At our interview in a London hotel, she’s glammed up as if off to the Oscars, she keeps searching around the hotel suite for official merch she might redistribute to small relatives, and she’s making friends with everybody she comes into contact with, because she never gets to do this sort of thing. Introducing herself to NME as we loiter in a corridor – “And what’s your job here?” – she is mock-horrified to learn that we’re here to interview her. “I didn’t know! I’ve just been over there gossiping and now you’re going to report all my secrets.” We weren’t listening, honest. This bundle of easy charisma and upbeat energy is, of course, playing a villain.

“It was never my dream to be in Star Wars,” says Gough. “It was my dream to be on Broadway.” She’s done this several times, in plays like Angels In America. She is a phenomenally good actress. “So I wasn’t all, ‘Oh my god, I’m in Star Wars!’ until I got on set and there were Death Troopers and stuff and then it was like, ‘Oh yeah ok, that’s quite cool’.” She plays Dedra Meero, a supervisor at the Imperial Security Bureau, the division of the Empire charged with finding Andor. She is utterly committed to the Empire and wants the rebellion crushed before it grows. She is emblematic of the villainous element in this show. She doesn’t brandish weapons but works in less visible ways to destroy people.

Andor
Diego Luna, who plays Cassian Andor. CREDIT: Disney

In rare candour for a Star Wars cast member, Gough tells us firmly that she is all baddy and has no chance of redemption. “I asked Tony, ‘Where does Dedra go? Am I setting up this really dark woman to eventually apologise for herself, fall in love and move to the space suburbs?’ And he said, ‘No, you can really go for it.’” She was initially expecting her arc to be the usual “woman in a man’s world” drama, but Gilroy wrote more than that. “This woman is a person wanting to get to the top of a fascist empire. In fact, she’s wanting to save it from itself. She thinks she knows better than this Empire. Doesn’t matter what gender you are, that’s a scary person to meet on the street – in space.”

We’re interviewing Gough alongside the other villain of the piece, Kyle Soller, who plays Syril, the Imperial officer who pursues Andor even though his superiors tell him to sweep the officer deaths under the carpet to save paperwork. It’s usually the case that actors on these things are paired when there’s a danger they’ll give too much away. The idea is one will stop the other blabbing. (“Oh that makes sense because we tell everybody everything,” says Gough. “But we actually encourage each other when we’re together”). It seems Soller may have some secrets. He’s more circumspect than Gough about whether Syril is entirely a bad guy. “He could go here, he could go there, I don’t know,” says Soller. “Maybe he’s got some good. Maybe he’s all bad. Maybe the percentages are constantly shifting.” Like Dedra, Syril is power-hungry but “has this human doubt that creeps in and a human desire for acceptance.” Dedra is untroubled by such things.

Andor
Tony Gilroy, showrunner for ‘Andor’. CREDIT: Disney

None of the cast, nor Gilroy, really agree with our argument that this is ‘adult Star Wars’ – even though it definitely is (there’s a brothel in the opening scene). “I don’t want to say mature or adult,” says Luna. “I think it’s complex, but I think young audiences are looking for complexity too.” They all use the word complex (a cynical person might think they’ve been briefed to talk up its fun-for-all-ages credentials). Calling it more adult is not to call the rest of the Star Wars output childish or say this won’t appeal to teenagers, but there is a definite shift in tone. It’s adult in the way Game Of Thrones is adult, still fantastical but with themes that speak to real world issues of rising fascism and the immigrant experience. The other shows have been adventure serials, about finding bad guys and usually killing them. This is more layered. The good guy/bad guy roles are less defined. Many of the most interesting scenes have no action at all. It’s feasible that someone with no interest in the broader Star Wars story might give this a go. “That’s an absolute buy-in for us,” says Gilroy, “that someone could watch this show, without ever paying any attention to any other Star Wars, and still have a riveting adventure.”

Disney will certainly be hoping so, because there’s that second season already announced. Luna isn’t worried. “Come on, the audience of Star Wars goes from my father down to my kids,” he says. And there is the test. Does everything in the Star Wars universe have to be for everybody who likes Star Wars? If Andor doesn’t interest the youngest audiences but grips the older ones, and maybe even the non-fans, it could open up a whole new world of possibilities for the future of the franchise, with less tie to the stories we already know. Like Andor himself, this show is trying to forge a difficult path and make way for a more interesting future.

The first three episodes of ‘Andor’ are streaming now on Disney+, subsequent episodes will arrive weekly