“My life currently feels like I’m in Super Mario Kart and I’ve hit one of those acceleration squares,” says Moses Ingram. “It’s whooosh!” It’s an apt metaphor. The past two years of Ingram’s life have moved at absurd speed. At the start of 2020 she had never had a professional acting credit. Her first was in the Netflix hit The Queen’s Gambit, alongside Anya Taylor-Joy, which brought her an Emmy nomination for Best Supporting Actress. She followed it with a role in the Oscar-nominated The Tragedy Of Macbeth, for Joel Coen, then a blockbuster, Ambulance, for Michael Bay. That’s her whole CV. Every feature and TV show she’s made in her career. And now she’s in Star Wars. From nothing to Star Wars in approximately 20 months. “Whooosh” is right.
If you’ve been watching Obi-Wan Kenobi, the series that depicts the adventures of Star Wars’ beardiest Jedi in the years between the prequels and the original trilogy, you’ll know Ingram is one of the best things in it. She plays Reva, AKA The Third Sister, a Jedi-hunter, or ‘inquisitor’, who is consumed with a need to find and destroy Kenobi (Ewan McGregor). At the time of writing, it’s not yet clear why (only the first four episodes have aired) but there is definitely something personal in this for Reva. She’s not simply finding Jedi for the love of killing them and pleasing her boss, Darth Vader. Reva seethes with frustration and swells of as yet unnamed anger. Ingram has described Reva as “all heart”, an unusual summation of a character who in the first episodes is seen killing without remorse. Ingram, though, says there is purity in her intent. “I think a lot of times we get a villain who knows they’re a villain,” she says. “What’s cool about her is that she doesn’t think she’s bad. She’s just good at her job and she does it to the best of her ability. I think that is heart… In her mind, she’s the righteous one.”
“It’s like I’m in Mario Kart and I’ve hit an acceleration square”
Unlike her Star Wars character, Ingram is a very laid-back presence. We’re speaking over Zoom a week before the series debuts and can see she’s in a hotel room, but she’s curled up in a big chair as if at home. She answers questions chattily and gives no sense of nervousness about accidentally giving away too much about her secretive role and invoking the wrath of Disney. Typically when you speak to new cast members of Star Wars projects they’ll tell you how they grew up obsessed with the movies and how this is a dream come true. Not Ingram. She knew very little about Star Wars before she was cast. “I honestly only just found out what a Jedi mind trick was in making this show,” she laughs. “I always knew what people meant by a Jedi mind trick, I just didn’t know it was attached to Star Wars… I hadn’t seen the films.” She was aware of the films, of course, because she did not grow up on another planet, but beyond knowing the names of the major characters she was largely clueless on Star Wars lore. Unfortunately, because the show begins ten years after the events of Episode III: Revenge Of The Sith, Ingram’s education had to begin with the worst Star Wars trilogy: the prequels. “It was most pertinent to know where we were [in this story]… so the prequels were definitely my bible while we were working.”
Even for those who aren’t fans, there are elements of the Star Wars world that will cause almost anyone to turn into a big kid. One is the lightsaber. “Oh I had one as a kid,” says Ingram. “Even if you don’t know what a lightsaber is, who sees a lightsaber on a shelf and doesn’t want it?” Being presented with your own has caused many an actor to go a bit funny. Samuel L. Jackson, who played Mace Windu, famously requested a purple lightsaber, rather than the goodies’ usual green or blue, because he wanted to be able to spot himself in big fight sequences. When Ewan McGregor was given his lightsaber in 1999’s The Phantom Menace he had to be asked to stop making his own sound effects while filming. Ingram starts smiling broadly when she talks of seeing hers for the first time. It’s a crescent shape with one blade, although some production images show her with a circular, dual-bladed lightsaber, like that of her superior, Rupert Friend’s the Grand Inquisitor – so she may get two. “It arrives in a dope black box,” she says. “The prop master pops it open and it’s laying in this special box. It’s really cool.”
The other thing that turned Ingram into something of a fangirl was acting opposite Darth Vader for the first time (the prequels’ Anakin, Hayden Christensen, is back under the helmet). “It’s a very intimidating costume,” she says. “That sounds like [I’m joking around] but it is intimidating. In comparison to my stature (she’s about 5’5) it is large. I remember I turned around one day and I didn’t realise just how big he was going to be. Very big!”
When Moses Ingram was very small she had no dreams of being in anything like Star Wars. She didn’t even have any thoughts of becoming an actress. She enjoyed acting as a kid growing up in Baltimore, but it was a fun hobby. Mostly it was something her teachers used to try to get her to behave in class, telling her she could only go to her acting classes if she followed the rules (“It didn’t make me behave”). She credits Tina Turner with making her realise that acting could be a profession, not just a reward for sitting quietly and learning your times tables. Or rather she credits someone she thought was Tina Turner.
“I saw ‘What’s Love Got To Do With It’ (the Tina Turner biopic, starring Angela Bassett) when I was way too young to be watching it,” she remembers. “Back in those days, BET (Black Entertainment Channel) had a loop of like four or five movies. I remember watching this film and I was so enthralled. You could not tell me she was not Tina Turner. It was the first time I’d noticed the parts of a movie. How the score makes the scene flow. The lights. The shots. I think it was the first time my brain went, ‘Oh this is a thing!’”
It wasn’t until several years later, when she was around 16, that Ingram thought she could possibly become a professional actor herself. She went to see a production of A Raisin In The Sun, Lorraine Hansberry’s play about a Black family preparing to move to a white neighbourhood that would rather they didn’t. “I felt like I was in these people’s living room,” she says. “It felt like magic.” She wanted to study drama, to set her on a course towards acting professionally, but she found it was simply too expensive to do so. She had to turn down an offer to study at Howard University and instead attended Baltimore City Community College, working multiple jobs to pay her way. Just because she couldn’t study acting she didn’t give up her dream of acting. She would audition for drama schools and for plays, and eventually, in 2015, entered a competition run by the National Society Of Arts And Letters, set up to find undiscovered talent across the country.
“I won locally, so I went to nationals,” she says. It was there she met Jonathan Majors, who helped change her life. Majors is now a burgeoning movie star – he played the lead in The Harder They Fall and is set for multiple Marvel movies, as Kang the Conqueror, and second lead in the third Creed film – but at the time he was just another entrant in the same competition. “He was in his last year at Yale,” says Ingram. “He came over [at the competition]… and he pointed at me and said, ‘You’re quiet, you haven’t said anything’ – I wasn’t a big talker at auditions and stuff. He said, ‘I’m willing to bet you’re good’.” He was right. Majors told Ingram she should apply to Yale, which Ingram thought was impossible because she didn’t have a degree yet. “He said, ‘You don’t need one. You just gotta be good.’ So I applied.” And got in. They’ve stayed friends ever since. “He’s a mentor and friend of mine who I look up to a great deal.”
“The fame I feel only exists on devices”
Their careers have gone almost in tandem. Ingram was cast in The Queen’s Gambit, as the supporting character Jolene, almost as soon as she graduated. It was her first professional audition. She started getting noticed for that just as Majors was getting noticed for his role in the short-lived but much-loved horror drama Lovecraft Country. “We were nominated for Emmys at the same time,” she says with a huge smile. “It felt surreal and so, so dope.”
The success of The Queen’s Gambit came at a strange time. The show was released in late 2020, when much of the world was stuck at home in lockdown, looking for things to pass the time. That meant a huge audience across the world and a huge debut for Ingram, but it also meant she got little sense of exactly what was happening. “Because of the pandemic, it sort of all just existed in my devices,” she says, brandishing her phone. “It was this thing just happening online. Nothing in my life changed. Nothing was different in any way.” She says life has still not really changed, other than in terms of “the rooms that I’m in”, meaning she gets seen for bigger and more prestigious projects. Any fame she feels still only “exists on devices” and “when I go home don’t nobody care what I’m doing.” She has, however, already started to notice the attention from Star Wars fans. “I go to these events and people want my autograph. That’s new.”
Well before she even set foot on the Obi-Wan Kenobi set, Ingram knew there would be attention coming her way. She is well aware that being a Black woman in Star Wars makes her rare and, whether she wants it or not, there is a responsibility there.
She’s one of very few Black women with a significant role in any Star Wars venture. Arguably, she’s the only Black woman with a leading role. Thandiwe Newton played Val, a mercenary, in Solo: A Star Wars Story, but it was a part with limited screen time and very little story. Much was made of Naomi Ackie’s casting as ex-Stormtrooper Jannah in Episode IX: The Rise Of Skywalker, but it was another thin character in a film full of them. There really shouldn’t be any burden resting on Ingram’s shoulders – it’s not her fault that one of cinema’s biggest franchises mostly thinks that diversity means including lots of alien species – but it’s a simple fact that there is.
“In a lot of ways, this is bigger than me and my personal feelings”
Star Wars has not had a good recent track record with handling characters played by people of colour. After racist ‘fan’ backlash against Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran when she debuted as Rose in The Last Jedi, her character was almost entirely sidelined for the next film. Even if not intentional on the part of Star Wars’ producers, it read as a win for the trolls. Ingram was warned before Obi-Wan Kenobi’s release that racist attacks were inevitable. We spoke before the series aired, so can’t say what Ingram has experienced personally, but there has been some inevitable negative posting online. But why give them the attention? Ingram sees this as her opportunity to represent something to young Black girls and made sure that she became Reva on her terms.That included asking for changes to her look.
“Originally, the hair for Reva was doing something my hair doesn’t do,” says Ingram, whose hair is worn in long, loose braids when we speak. In the show, she has braids styled high on her head and loose down her back. She asked for the hair to be changed so it wouldn’t involve wearing a wig. Not for comfort, but for what a wig would project. “I knew I was going to be in a position where a lot of kids are going to want to be Reva for Halloween. I don’t want them to have to put on a wig because I put on a wig. I want them to be able to do what our hair does.” She hasn’t quite got her head round the significance of her place in the Star Wars universe yet. “I know it’s going to mean a lot to a lot of people,” she says. “It’s exciting…” She pauses. “In a lot of ways it feels bigger than me and my personal feelings. It feels kind of too big to fathom, but I’m happy people will have someone who looks like them.”
A lot of what’s happened to Ingram over the past couple of years has been too big for her to fathom. She says that if she heard it was happening to anybody else she’d think “God damn, that’s crazy”. And it absolutely is crazy, because careers don’t generally go like this. Given how good she’s been in her few projects so far, there’s little reason to believe her momentum will slow down anytime soon. At the time of our interview, Obi-Wan Kenobi is about to hit screens and Ingram says “the idea of people seeing it still feels like just a theory.” Hopefully she’s got used to that theory as a reality because she has become very famous very quickly. She won’t give away any projects she might have coming up, but if she can go from zero to Star Wars in her first two years, there’s no telling where she might go in the next decade of her career. Her ‘whooosh’ might only be just revving up.
‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ releases new episodes every Wednesday on Disney+