Imagine you've just been cast in Star Wars. You're going to want to tell everyone, right? Spare a thought, then, for Naomie Ackie, who had to keep schtum for four months. "I am getting better at keeping secrets," she says. "Although non-disclosure agreements help. My best friends should have used them years ago."
Known to her mates as Nai, the 28-year-old East Londoner broke through as the housemaid in acclaimed drama Lady Macbeth. She went on to turn a lot of heads as the vengeful teenager pursuing the lead characters in season two of Netflix's The End of the F***ing World.
She is about to become a household name as freedom fighter Jannah in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. A role in the world's most famous movie franchise will do that – although she's not allowed to say exactly what it involves.
Naomie, where were you when you found out you got the role?
In bed. I love my bed. Also, it was 7am and it was quite a whirlwind audition process. It happened very quickly: there was a first audition and then a long wait where I kind of forgot about it. Then my agent called and said, "JJ [Abrams] loves your tape; he wants to see you again." From that call to getting the part was about two weeks. It was lightning fast. I did the test the night before, so it was a fast turnaround to find out I'd got it.
Did you get a phone call or an email?
I got a phone call from one of my agents. My dad was in the house and we celebrated together. I was lucky to have a confidante who I knew wouldn't tell anyone and I kept it a secret from everyone else I knew for four months. It was magical. I could [see] that my life was going to change but it's been nice because it's happened in incremental bursts, not so quick that I've forgotten my head.
You originally just sent an audition tape basically into the ether?
Into the ether, yes – and you have no idea of the script or your character's story or how much they're going to be in it. You're trusting that... but then when Star Wars calls, you answer. You give it your best shot.
So, you play Jannah...
Yes. We've had a lot of people calling her Hannah. I'm like, "No! Hannah? It's a nice name but it's not the same."
What can you say about her?
The first time I saw myself in the mirror with the hair and everything in place ... maybe it's the same as the way people look at themselves on their wedding day. I was in a wedding dress but not at all in a wedding dress.
Did you spend a lot of time with John Boyega on set?
I love John! It's weird because he's younger than me but he feels like a big brother. He's been in the industry for longer than I have, and I felt very protected by him.
Did he have any advice?
He was like, “Enjoy this and take from it everything you can. There are so many experiences that you're privileged to have when you're welcomed into a family like this, that to spend time worrying about it can ruin what is a really fun day or a fun trip.” The world around me is changing but I'm still Nai from east London.
Are your friends all getting action figures for Christmas?
[Laughs] I have a toy of John in my room, weirdly. It's cute when it's someone else but what I don't want to see on my mantlepiece is me. What if it wakes up in the middle of the night and stands over my bed?
It might send the wrong message to people who come to your house, if it's just posters and toys of you.
I mean, yeah. If there's toys of me and pictures of me in my own room, I think that's quite strange. Maybe if I'm a Lego person.
I'm sure they'll be making you into a Lego person.
With a little Lego afro? Oh my god, that'd be so cool.
Have you seen the whole script?
I have. You're put in a room and given it on a tablet and given the time to absorb it. It took me ages to read it, just trying to take notes.
Is it true you got teary on the first day on set?
I'm an emotionally very open person, so I find it very easy to cry but it was a mixture of things: I'd never encountered that many people on set before, I was on a horse – an Orbak in the film – and there was so much attention on me. As an actor, you spend a lot of time internally and alone so when you're suddenly having to show this stuff you've been working on to everyone, it's a real release of pressure. Sometimes you've got to take a little second, shed a few tears – happy tears, nervous tears, whatever they are – and then get back to work.
It must be meaningful to think that you'll be giving kids a role model to aspire to.
It's very meaningful and I take it seriously. The job itself can be silly and fun and overwhelming at points, but that is something I really take to heart. The influence of being able to see yourself in the media you consume is more meaningful than I think we give it credit for. We want diversity to be such a part of our industry that it's not even talked about anymore.
Did you always want to be an actor?
Yeah, I've been so stubborn about it. I decided I wanted to an actor officially and seriously when I was 11 years old. I was very intense and serious. I've spent years immersing myself in different areas of the work: I've done things from theatre directing to mentoring kids in theatre to creating my own theatre shows, and obviously filmmaking. Right now it feels like a fast track and right now no one knows who I am yet: it can feel like you come out of nowhere but it's been more than 15 years of working towards this.
Finally, do you have a favourite Star Wars film?
The fifth one, Empire Strikes Back. [Does Vader heavy-breathing] "I am your father." I used to do that on the playground. When I got this part I rewatched it with my friend and it breaks so many boundaries, considering the time it was made: from having Billy Dee Williams in it to Princess Leia, a woman who's leading a rebellion. It was properly ahead of its time.
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens Thu Dec 19.