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The cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens talk about a new generation of Star Wars women

"People want to see a more diverse reflection of society."

"I am the beginning of girl power. Deal with it!"

Carrie Fisher is not shy about Princess Leia’s groundbreaking place in Star Wars — and movie — history. During yesterday’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens press panel in Los Angeles, moderated by Mindy Kaling, she and the cast and crew of new film naturally had to tiptoe around spoilers and plot details, even with the film’s release less than two weeks away. But if there was one theme to the panel, it was Carrie Fisher handing the baton to a new generation of women, who are creating a stronger, more female-driven version of the space opera saga than George Lucas ever dreamed of.

Princess Leia had a strange arc in the original trilogy. We were introduced to her as a strong leader that took no bullshit, but by the time Return of the Jedi rolled around the actress was forced to starve herself down to 98 pounds to wear the infamous "slave Leia" costume. (She’s recently mentioned being forced to lose weight for The Force Awakens as well, something co-star Mark Hamill also reportedly had to contend with.) Recounting her time on the original films, Fisher described how she was "the only girl on the all-boy’s set." Things are clearly different this time around, and Fisher highlighted the strength of Daisy Ridley’s Rey as an example. "She takes the physical power, and then I scream at [the men] until they pass out."

Star Wars: The Force Awakens press conference

Daisy Ridley and J.J. Abrams.

"She transcends gender. She’s going to speak to men and women, too."

Ridley, who was cast out of relative obscurity to take the starring role in the new film, said she did hope that her character becomes a symbol of empowerment much like Princess Leia had to an earlier generation, but stressed that focusing simply on gender roles is almost missing the point. "[Rey] doesn’t have to be one thing to embody a woman in a film. And for me, she’s not important because she’s a woman. She’s just important," Ridley said. "It just so happens that she’s a woman. She transcends gender. She’s going to speak to men and women, too."

The diversity of the casting in The Force Awakens — despite some fleeting moments of shameful internet idiocy — has been a welcome step forward for a franchise that has historically struggled not only with gender roles, but with racial diversity. But ever since Kathleen Kennedy took charge as the new president of Lucasfilm, she’s repeatedly voiced the importance of having bigger, better roles for women in the Star Wars universe. (Felicity Jones is playing the lead role in Rogue One, for example, and according to the Los Angeles Times, the company may also finally be finally backing up the talk behind the camera by hiring female writers and directors for some of the upcoming Star Wars spin-offs.)

"People want to see a more diverse reflection of society."

But it was Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie — who has only appeared in the trailers in a chrome-plated helmet and armor — that provided the clearest reason for why changes like this are so overdue: audiences want them. "I think JJ has been open about the fact that he wanted to respect the origins of the films and celebrate them, but to bring them into the modern day, and confirmation of that seemed to be to me in this amazing character of Captain Phasma, who is Star Wars’ first on-screen female villain," she said to applause. "This is a character who, so far, we have related to due to her choices, due to her character, and not due to the way she has been made in flesh. And conventionally, that has been how we have related to female characters. So this to me felt very progressive, and the response from the audience and the fans has been so celebratory, it makes me think that this is the kind of thing people want to see. People want to see a more diverse reflection of society."

From the way she spoke about the character, it certainly sounded like Christie will get a chance to take Phasma past the end credits of The Force Awakens. "Without horribly ruining everything for everyone, I think it’s interesting to see where my character may go," she teased, shortly after Kennedy had referred to several of the actors on stage getting ready to head to London to begin shooting Episode VIII in January. (Kennedy tapped Boyega on the shoulder when she made the comment, but the way the cast was seated, she may have meant Oscar Isaac and Christie as well. Take that as you will, spoiler fans.)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens press conference

Oscar Isaac and Gwendoline Christie.

It was almost impossible to avoid hints and plot details during Sunday’s panels, and the cast and crew often found themselves in an awkward position of having to talk about something that they really couldn’t talk about. That secrecy is another hallmark of this new Star Wars era, one Abrams has tried to uphold from the beginning. "While we were working on the movie I realized how engaged with the fans and forthcoming Lucasfilm had always been, and my nature to just keep things quiet was something I was certain we were going to have fights about," Abrams said. "But Disney, to my shock, was arguing to not ruin, not reveal, not show every story beat."

"We have so few things that surprise us anymore when we walk into a movie."

Having the chance to go into a movie fresh, without having major twists or turns revealed ahead of time, isn’t just uncommon in the era of overeager trailers and tweet-heard-round-the-world instant reactions; it’s almost impossible to achieve. "We have so few things that surprise us anymore when we walk into a movie," Kennedy added later. "It’s all told in the trailers; it ends up online way in advance. I’ve even had people say to me ‘I don’t want to read anything at all’ so they can get in the theater and actually have a pleasant surprise."

"The last time I went to see a movie that I didn’t know anything about was Boxing Helena," Isaac said, referring to Jennifer Lynch’s 1993 film in which an obsessive surgeon removes the limbs of his ex-lover so he can keep her in a box and prevent her from leaving him.

"Make sure they know that does not happen," Kennedy prodded.

"That doesn’t happen," Isaac said. "No Jar-Jar. No female limbs cutting."