After bringing Rey to life in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Daisy Ridley now stars as Miss Mary Debenham in Murder on the Orient Express, her first major non-Star Wars film. Ridley is just 25 years old, but she is already one of the most recognizable young actresses in the world, with several major projects in the works that don’t have anything to do with the galaxy far, far away.
So what’s the story behind Ridley’s out-of-nowhere success in Hollywood at such a young age? How did she end up cast in Star Wars: The Force Awakens and, later, Murder on the Orient Express? Here’s the story behind Ridley’s journey from struggling actress to face of a billion-dollar franchise.
1. She didn’t always want to act
From Westminster, London, Ridley attended the Tring Park School for the Performing Arts in Hertfordshire from the ages of 9 through 18, studying musical theater. But that was mostly because she got a scholarship there, because her parents wanted to keep her busy, and because she was “naughty in primary school,” she told The New York Times.
At a young age, Ridley wanted to be a zoologist, not an actor. But she told The Guardian that she had a drama teacher at school who really made her believe that she could become a professional actress. She also knew a bit about acting from her great uncle, Arnold Ridley, known for appearing in the British sitcom Dad’s Army.
When Ridley decided she wanted to pursue acting professionally, she auditioned for an agency, and she soon got her first acting role. But her career didn’t get off to a great start, as she was fired from this job. “It was at a workshop for a short film this poet had written, about when she used to work in a strip club,” Ridley told Elle. “After the first week, I was told not to come back.”
However, Ridley persevered and nabbed a second role as a person eating pork pie in a supermarket commercial. Her first acting credit on IMDb is for the short film Lifesaver, produced for the Resuscitation Council, the United Kingdom’s body to study and promote proper cardiopulmonary resuscitation.
2. She soon started receiving small parts on British TV shows
The first major role Ridley ever received was a small part on one episode of the British hospital drama Casualty. In a 2015 interview, Ridley said that this was her first “OMG” moment as an actress. “I was over the moon,” Ridley said of being cast in Casualty. “I grew up with it on in our house.”
That same year, Ridley acted in a short sci-fi film called Blue Season. The director of that short film told The Guardian that she saw Ridley on a casting website. The director also praised her performance — especially under the conditions, as the movie was produced in just 48 hours as part of a competition.
Ridley went on to earn small roles in British shows like Youngers, Toast of London, Silent Witness, and Mr Selfridge. One director who was interviewed by The Guardian said that Ridley showed “a combination of vulnerability and strength which gave her a complexity.” Another director said that a friend of his had also appeared in that supermarket commercial with Ridley and had recommended her.
It was during this time that Lucasfilm began casting the new Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens. As Ridley explained to The New York Times, it wasn’t until the year of the Star Wars audition that she started to get these TV roles.
3. Lucasfilm wanted an unknown actress for Rey
For the role of Rey, the lead character of the new Star Wars trilogy, Lucasfilm was specifically looking for an unknown actress and not an established performer who everyone in the audience would immediately recognize.
“What we were looking for was someone new,” Abrams explains on the Force Awakens behind-the-scenes documentary. “And this character needed to be vulnerable and tough, sweet and terrified. And to find someone that no one knew who could do all these things took a lot of looking.”
Abrams also told Vogue that they were looking for “someone whom you felt like you could know. Who was beautiful but not someone who seemed like they were from another species. You needed to love her.”
In 2013, Ridley was continuing to get sporadic work acting on television, but this clearly wasn’t enough to live off of, as she was also making a living working at a beer and alehouse. According to Vogue, Ridley was actually almost ready to give up acting at this point. However, she heard that Lucasfilm was casting the new Star Wars film and was looking for unknowns, and she just had a feeling that she had to pursue this.
“I heard all sorts of famous people were being seen for it,” Ridley told Elle. “But then a friend got an audition, so I knew they were interested in an unknown. I immediately got this weird feeling all over my body. I knew I had to be seen for it.”
4. Her audition blew everyone away
Ridley got an audition, and casting directors subsequently asked back four more times before eventually being cast. Ridley’s audition tape is available to watch on YouTube, and it makes pretty clear why the producers were interested in her. Abrams explains on the Force Awakens behind-the-scenes documentary that Ridley’s floored him.
“She just blew my mind,” Abrams said. “She’s reaching this depth of struggle, and tears are streaming down her face, and I thought, ‘This is unbelievable.’ And I asked her to stop, gave her a couple of adjustments, we did it again, and she did it again, and I thought, ‘Oh my god.'”
Despite the incredible audition, Ridley says she never felt she was doing a good job during this process. Still, she pushed through those doubts.
“The whole way through, even though I was riddled with doubts and I felt like I wasn’t doing a good job in the auditions, I’d had this feeling that something was going to happen from it,” she told Refinery29. “So it’s that weird thing of both being driven on by something and being terrified by what that might mean.”
Ridley explained to Vogue that it wasn’t until the very end of the audition process that she understood the size and scale of the role and that she would be playing the lead character of a billion dollar movie. “When I read the full script, I was like, ‘Holy shit,'” she told Vogue.
While speaking with Interview Magazine, Ridley said that she felt getting the role in Star Wars was just a matter auditioning like everyone else did and being “there at the right time.”
5. Producers announced her casting in April 2014
— Matthew Panzarino (@panzer) April 29, 2014
After months of auditions, Daisy Ridley finally found out she nabbed the role as Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. At first, the company forbade her from telling anyone other than her parents.
“You know when you’re waiting for something and then the words actually come, and you’re like, ‘Uh, okay?'” Ridley said on the behind-the-scenes of The Force Awakens.
Ridley also says that J.J. Abrams warned her that her life would dramatically change if she accepted the role. “Understand the scale,” Abrams told Ridley, according to Vogue. “This is not a role in a movie. This is a religion for people. It changes things on a level that is inconceivable. You don’t know what you’re getting into.”
Ridley found out she got the part in the movie in February 2014, and two months later, this news became public as Lucasfilm released a photo of the film’s entire cast. Filming began the following month.
In a recent interview, Ridley said that in retrospect, she felt unprepared for what everything that was about to happen to her. “I had no sense of what I was getting into,” she told V Magazine. “No sense of what was really going to happen or what anything would entail. I hadn’t done a film before, so it was a whole new thing.”
6. When The Force Awakens came out, she received universal praise
It’s by no means a guarantee that unknown actors introduced through Star Wars films will earn good reviews from critics and fans. After Jake Lloyd became famous for playing Anakin in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, fans universally hated him — so much so he immediately retired from acting. Hayden Christensen also earned criticism for his performance in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.
However, when The Force Awakens came out, one of the few things fans could agree upon was that Ridley nailed her performance as Rey and was a truly talented performer who would no doubt be going places in Hollywood. The Daily Mail praised Ridley as the “real star of the show” in The Force Awakens. Variety described her performance as “a doozy of a breakout role” and praising her as “terrific.” On the Slashfilmcast, Jeff Cannata declared that Ridley was the “find of the century.”
Obviously, Ridley’s life has completely changed since the release of The Force Awakens, going from an unknown, struggling actress to someone who hundreds of millions of people recognize. She told Vogue in 2017 that she did not handle this particularly well and started going to therapy because she was overwhelmed by the fame.
“Everything was so confusing,” Ridley told Vogue. “People were recognizing me — I still don’t know how to handle it. My skin got really bad because I was stressed. It was crippling. I just felt so seen and so self-conscious.”
7. She’s starring in seven non-Star Wars films
After The Force Awakens came out, Ridley began to rack up more and more roles outside of Star Wars. In April 2016, it was announced that Ridley had lined up her first major non-Star Wars role, joining a supernatural drama called Kolma, produced by Abrams’ studio Bad Robot. That same month, she joined the World War II love story The Lost Wife.
In May 2016, Ridley signed on to play the title character in Ophelia, a film revolving around Ophelia from William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In August 2016, Ridley joined the new film from Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity, Edge of Tomorrow), Chaos Walking, a dystopian drama in which she stars opposite Tom Holland.
In September 2016, it was announced that Ridley had been cast as Mary Debenham in Murder on the Orient Express. She also joined the cast of the upcoming animated film Peter Rabbit, which also stars Domhnall Gleeson, Sam Neill, Rose Byrne, James Corden, and Margot Robbie. Most recently, in October 2017, Ridley joined Daddio, in which she plays a young woman who has a fascinating conversation with a cab driver on the way to the airport.
There’s always a risk with actors who become famous for major franchises of being forever associated with that series and finding it difficult to get different work. But within months of the release of The Force Awakens, Ridley lined up an Agatha Christie film, a Shakespeare film, an animated movie, and a post-apocalyptic sci-fi story among other projects. So it seems that she’s on pace to have a highly successful career completely separate from Star Wars.
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