On paper, Moses Ingram doesn’t seem much like a villain. At least, not the kind of villain we’re used to seeing in Star Wars. Standing next to the 6ft 6in frame of Darth Vader (as embodied by David Prowse), Ingram – 5ft 5in, according to IMDb – might struggle to cultivate quite the same air of menace. But you’d be a fool to underestimate her.
The actor is best known to TV viewers through her Emmy-nominated role in The Queen’s Gambit as Jolene, the orphan peer of Anya Taylor-Joy’s chess savant, a part she won straight out of drama school. Her latest role is of a far higher profile: opposite Ewan McGregor in Obi-Wan Kenobi. In the series – the newest and most feverishly anticipated of several serialised Star Wars spin-offs on Disney Plus – Ingram portrays Reva, a lightsaber-wielding baddie and underling of Vader’s in pursuit of McGregor’s weathered Jedi.
Speaking from a nondescript media room in Hollywood, California, Ingram is clever, quietly confident and pragmatic in her answers. If she’s perturbed by the exposure that Kenobi is about to surely bring, it doesn’t show. Even within the world of Star Wars fandom, when every cameo player and briefly glimpsed alien suit can become a full-bore obsession, Ingram is guaranteed a special significance. She is a Black woman, taking on a prominent role in a franchise that has historically given non-white actors short shrift. “Obi-Wan is going to bring the most diversity I think we’ve ever seen in the galaxy before,” says Ingram. “To me, it’s long overdue. If you’ve got talking droids and aliens, but no people of colour, it doesn’t make any sense. It’s 2022, you know. So we’re just at the beginning of that change. But I think to start that change is better than never having started it.”
Playing a Star Wars villain is a tall order for an actor still so near the start of her career; one need look no further than George Lucas’s prequel trilogy to know the toll that such a role can take on a buzzy young thespian if the reviews don’t go their way. Hayden Christensen (who will, in fact, appear in Kenobi) saw his career nosedive after playing a young Anakin Skywalker. Others, such as Ahmed Best and Jake Lloyd, have spoken out about the devastating toll the prequel hatred took on their mental health. There’s probably a reason that Disney’s more recent Star Wars properties have tended to cast established stars to be their charismatic bad guys: Adam Driver; Ben Mendelsohn; Paul Bettany; Giancarlo Esposito.
But it’s not just the size of the world’s most popular sci-fi franchise that poses a problem for Ingram. Actors of colour have received a disproportionate amount of abuse online from Star Wars fans; John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran are two of the highest-profile stars to have spoken out about the torrent of racist online abuse they received when they starred in the franchise.
Ingram says she was warned by Lucasfilm, Star Wars’s production company, to brace herself for a similar reception. “It was something that Lucasfilm actually got in front of, and said, ‘This is a thing that, unfortunately, likely will happen. But we are here to help you; you can let us know when it happens.’”
The actor credits director Deborah Chow, as well as others throughout Lucasfilm, for “putting the proper systems in place so I feel safe as we do the work”.
“Of course there are always pockets of hate,” she adds. “But I have no problem with the block button.”
Navigating the depressing realities of social media is just one of the sacrifices Ingram is having to make for the sake of Kenobi. Before shooting started, she was enrolled in four months of training – regular gym work five days a week, as well as three days a week of something she calls “Jedi School” (“You fight, you run, you jump, you flip, you get on hanging wires… it kind of felt like one giant playtime”).
But then there’s the other side of things – dealing with the press. As is the norm with higher-profile franchises, Kenobi is swaddled in impenetrable secrecy; she’s forbidden from revealing many specifics about the series or her character. “You know, my interview [after my casting announcement] was so bad,” she recalls. “I didn’t know what I could say, so I said virtually nothing. But the more you do, it gets easier to learn how to talk around things. It becomes a game – you thought you got me but you didn’t.”
If such a game was being played during our interview, I certainly wasn’t the victor; any hopes of walking away with a “Luke, I am your father”-sized spoiler under my arm were thoroughly (if predictably) dashed.
Bigger strides need to be taken in terms of allowing women of colour to be as limitless as white women in our storytelling
The conversation soon pivots to The Queen’s Gambit. Last year, Ingram hinted at a frustration with the lack of leading roles available to Black actors, despite the success of her part in the Netflix series. “Jolene is a supporting character,” she told The Washington Post. “It’s complicated, because we need more stories where people who look like me aren’t just supporting. But this was not that story.”
Reflecting on those remarks, Ingram muses: “I think we have to open up our minds about who can tell what story. We are making strides, but bigger strides need to be taken in terms of allowing women of colour to be as limitless as white women in our storytelling.”
She speaks warmly of working with Joel Coen during her stint as Lady Macduff in The Tragedy of Macbeth (“A very gentle hand” – “It doesn’t take him much to get what he needs; he’s already edited it all in his mind”), saving particular praise for co-star Denzel Washington, whom she peppered with questions during her relatively short stay on set. “It was something I’ll remember forever,” she says. “I wanted to know about different choices that he made; if there were things that he would have done differently. About his life and growing up, and the mantle that he carried for so many people. He answered every question I had. Every single one. He is a person who practises what he preaches.”
Washington isn’t the only actor to have provided a guiding light for Ingram. She grew up in Baltimore, Maryland; after studying at Baltimore City Community College, Ingram was working three jobs, taking the bus to New York at 4.30am at the weekend to try to glean professional advice from actors. It was on the advice of another young thespian, Yale graduate Jonathan Majors – later the star of Lovecraft County – that she applied to the same college, earning admittance to their master’s drama programme.
Still, the question of access to the arts remains a difficult one. Ingram’s rise has been down to her own grit and merit, but it’s easy to imagine a world in which it never happened. “I think the arts fundamentally belong to the people, right?” she says. “You can do the arts, at any scale, and they will still be the arts. But if you want to do something, on the macro level, it takes support. And because of that, the arts have become something very elitist. There’s so many people who don’t have access, and I was one of those people. So you providing me with money, and introducing me to people who will give me more money, has made an extreme difference in what I’ve been allowed to try to accomplish as a young artist.
“I love this Martin Luther King Jr, quote, where he talks about the bootstrap mentality. Everybody’s like, ‘Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.’ But you can’t say that to a bootless man.”
With our time coming to an end, I can’t help but wonder if Kenobi seems a little frivolous to an actor with Ingram’s theatrical-academic background. But Ingram, as ever, is measured in her response. “In a time when the world is heavy and rough, it’s important to have escapist theatrics,” she says. “People want to feel the opposite of what we are actively feeling every day. I think that franchises are serving their purpose – just as everything else does.” For millions, Star Wars is a world unto itself, popcorn escapism at its most vividly imaginative. For Ingram, of course, it’s even more than this: the galaxy is hers to conquer.
‘Obi-Wan Kenobi’ premieres on Disney Plus on Friday 27 May