Katy O’Brian isn’t someone who sits back and lets things happen to her. Bullied by an older boy at school, she took up karate and learned to defend herself (“I found out that you can kick people in the groin”). After college, she wanted to be more confident so she became a bodybuilder. And at her lowest ebb, disgruntled with life as a cop in smalltown Indiana, she quit and moved 2,000 miles to Los Angeles to start an acting career. “I can’t just sit around and feel sorry for myself,” she tells NME. “I have to find ways to improve.”
You might have spotted O’Brian not sitting around in The Mandalorian, Star Wars’ hit series on Disney+. She plays Elia Kane – a reformed imperial officer sent to work for the New Republic, which was set up by Luke Skywalker’s good guy Rebels after they defeated the evil Empire in Return Of The Jedi. Kane isn’t really reformed though. Not content with being quietly shuffled back into society, she’s been secretly working to bring down her new bosses from the inside. She’s sinister, slippery and, just like O’Brian, she makes things happen.
We’re speaking with O’Brian on Zoom a week before the show’s explosive season three finale airs and can see she’s at home in LA. A big, fluffy dog keeps wandering into frame, and O’Brian’s wife, screenwriter Kylie Chi, has to gently drag them out of shot. Their apartment is bright and tidy, and some tasteful fairy lights hang from the wall. It’s a far cry from the cold, metallic aesthetic of the Empire. O’Brian can’t comment on the finale, which you’ll have seen by now, because spoilers – but she’s keen to tell us how much she’s enjoyed making the show. “I really love this character. I’d be so sad if I didn’t come back… I hope there’s more to her,” she says. “Elia could be a chaos agent, you know, someone who is not loyal to anybody… That’s such a fun person to be.
She first got the gig last season. Back then Kane was just ‘Comms Officer’, an Imperial henchman who carried out the nastiest wishes of chief big bad Moff Gideon (Giancarlo Esposito). She was such a minor role that Lucasfilm, the company that makes Star Wars, didn’t even bother to give her full scripts. “You only get your dialogue,” she says. “So even [if another character] gives a speech in the same scene, I don’t get that.” To make her feel even less important, ‘Comms Officer’ was seemingly killed off in a climactic battle featuring Luke Skywalker. So when several months later O’Brian got a call from her agent asking about availability, she was confused. “I was like, ‘I’m available, but what do you mean? I thought I was dead?’,” she remembers, “and they were like, ‘Well, you’re not. Congratulations!’”
“I was really frazzled on the first season”
Not only is Kane not-dead in the new episodes, she is a much bigger deal. She has her own almost standalone episode, which has never happened on The Mandalorian before. All of the other storylines revolve around Baby Yoda getting captured, rescued or maybe eating a bug. That doesn’t leave much room for human actors (unless they’re wearing a helmet). “I was really frazzled on the first season and a bit intimidated,” admits O’Brian. “I didn’t think I deserved it. And then I found out the part was getting much bigger! I was rereading the email, like, ‘Is this for real?’”
Quite a bit of O’Brian’s life to this point feels slightly unreal. As a child, she had “several run-ins with potential death”: a bad case of Scarlet Fever as a baby; falling through a glass table aged two and needing 100 stitches; checking herself out of pre-school to wander the streets of her hometown Indianapolis. When she was three, she got into the habit of stealing her grandma’s Mercedes and joyriding it around the neighbourhood. “I was really impulsive and adventurous,” says O’Brian. “She would leave the keys in front and say, ‘Don’t drive the car when I get out, I’m just gonna check something [in the house].’ And I was like, ‘Obviously I’m gonna do it…’”
Keen to teach his daughter some discipline, O’Brian’s dad put her name down for martial arts lessons at his local dojo. She’s now a black belt in Hapkido and says those skills help her “stand out a lot” with casting directors. At the time, it just helped her whoop bullies. “These fifth grade boys would huddle around me every recess and harrass me,” she says. “One day I fixed them all… Then they left me alone.” Fast-forward to college and O’Brian’s physical training made her an ideal recruit for the Indiana University Bloomington Campus Police, who paid her to keep its rowdy student population in line throughout her studies.
After college she joined the police force proper, moving up the road to a small town called Carmel. It wasn’t her dream scenario though. “I wasn’t happy,” she says. “So I thought, ‘OK, what would make me happy?’ and one thing [on my list] was getting in really good shape.” A less-determined person might take up yoga. O’Brian took up bodybuilding. “I went to a gym and I never, in a million years, would have considered bodybuilding,” she says. “But they showed me there’s lots of different types. It doesn’t have to be, you know, ‘roided-out and super massive. I found figure competitions… I got stronger. I was very confident with how I looked. It felt great.”
“I quit my job and moved to Los Angeles”
The other thing that O’Brian thought would make her happy was to get back into acting. She’d been involved with local theatre all through school, but had let that slide in college to focus on building an “actual career”. She signed up to a local class, loved it, and decided there was only one thing to do. “I quit my job and went out to Los Angeles,” she says. “Like a crazy person.”
Success came slowly at first, but eventually O’Brian started booking small jobs on TV. Her first recurring role was in Z Nation, an action comedy that capitalised on the late 2010s zombie boom. Then there was superhero series Black Lightening and a big Marvel movie, Ant-Man And The Wasp: Quantumania, which came out earlier this year. It’s only very recently though that O’Brian has experienced what it’s like to be properly famous. “Since this season of The Mandalorian has come out, I haven’t left the house without being recognised,” she says.
Being recognised is something Star Wars actors need to get used to. It says a lot that even Marvel, which is in the middle of a box office blip, has been unable to avoid franchise fatigue like Star Wars has. Forty-five years, 11 live-action movies and four TV series down the line, the Galaxy Far, Far Away still boasts the most dedicated fan base arguably anywhere in popular culture. Unfortunately, it could also be argued that it is the most toxic.
This is particularly true when it comes to people from marginalised communities. John Boyega immediately received racist abuse when he was unveiled as a lead in the trailer for 2015’s The Force Awakens. As did Moses Ingram before last year’s spin-off show Obi-Wan Kenobi. Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran was so traumatised by online harassment following The Last Jedi that she deleted her Instagram, and wrote an open letter in the New York Times detailing her abuse. It’s a sad fact, but there is a vocal minority of Star Wars fans that thinks only aliens and straight white people should experience the Force.
“If you can accept space magic… you can accept someone who’s not white in star wars”
To their credit, the Star Wars producers have got better at tackling these people. Previously, ‘problem’ characters like Boyega’s Finn and Tran’s Rose Tico would just get shunted to one side in later movies. This gave the trolls a win and likely encouraged them further. Not a good look. Now, the likes of Ewan McGregor (Kenobi himself) will rally support for Ingram via official social media channels and diversity efforts are redoubled. In Andor, the grown-up political sci-fi that took the franchise in an exciting new direction last year, we got Star Wars’ first explicitly gay relationship. O’Brian, who is biracial and part of the gay community, says she can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want that. “It’s crazy to me that people still need to feel better than other people because of something as simple as skin colour or sexuality,” she says. “It just doesn’t compute… I don’t want to say [Star Wars] shouldn’t be celebrated for it, but it’s like, you should just do it. This is how people are, this is the reality that we live in. This should be the norm.” If you can accept “an alien or space magic”, she rightly argues, “you can accept someone who’s not white showing up on screen without losing your mind.”
On the positive side, O’Brian says she hasn’t actually had much negative attention from fans. They’ve been “very positive and friendly” so far. O’Brian should probably expect more attention in the future because she’s got a very big project on the horizon. It’s a queer bodybuilding drama for A24 with megastar Kristen Stewart called Love Lies Bleeding. She plays, unsurprisingly, a bodybuilder – one who “wants to win a national championship and winds up in a small town… and falls in love with Stewart’s character.” Technically still an independent studio, A24 now releases enough films to rival the majors and they all seem to get rave reviews. It won its first Best Picture Oscar last month for Everything Everywhere All At Once, so O’Brian should be very excited. She is. “When I read the script, I was blown away,” she says. “It was something I related to so much, but also the writing was unbelievable… I think [the director] Rose Glass is going to change film.” With O’Brian’s track record of making things happen, she’s probably not the only one.
Photographer: Daniel Prakopcyk
Styling: Kevin Michael Ericson
Grooming: Courtney Housner