The Acolyte Creator Doesn’t Believe Star Wars Series Is Purposely Queer 5

In 2019, Leslye Headland, fresh off two Emmy noms as co-creator of Russian Doll, was walking the blue carpet at the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker premiere when she was asked if she had any Star Wars ideas of her own.

Headland responded that she’s had Star Wars stories in mind since childhood and, in an Oscar-worthy performance, urged Lucasfilm boss Kathleen Kennedy to give her a shot. Well, the truth is that she was already hard at work on what would later be known as Star Wars: The Acolyte, becoming the first openly queer person to create a live-action project set in a galaxy far, far away.

Headland — whose first produced TV script for the critically acclaimed yet short-lived 2010 series, Terriers, was directed by future Star Wars: The Last Jedi filmmaker Rian Johnson — ensured that the LGBTQ+ community was well represented on her new Disney+ series. She immediately envisioned The Hate U Give star Amandla Stenberg in The Acolyte’s dual lead role of identical twins Osha and Mae Aniseya. She even had concept art created with Stenberg in mind before approaching her about the role.

Stenberg, who identifies as nonbinary and gay, is joined by Russian Doll’s Charlie Barnett (who has said he came out as gay at age 13) as the fastidious Jedi Knight Yord Fandar. And Barnett is actually one of two Russian Doll actors to play a Jedi on The Acolyte, as Headland’s wife, Rebecca Henderson, plays Jedi Master Vernestra Rwoh from the Star Wars: The High Republic multimedia project. Headland married Henderson in 2016.

Headland is elated and relieved by the early response to her mystery-thriller series that’s set 100 years before Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, chronicling the emergence of the Dark Side during the High Republic era of Jedi-controlled peace. It’s been well received by critics, and the two-episode June 4 premiere is also Disney+’s strongest debut in 2024, with 11.1 million viewers over five days.

Leslye Headland attends Disney+ and The Cinema Society host a screening of “The Acolyte” at The Whitby Hotel on June 3, 2024 in New York City.

Dia Dipasupil/Getty Images

However, as someone who generally pushes back on the notion that queer artists are capable of creating only queer or queer-coded art, Headland remains perplexed by a recent viral moment from her show’s L.A. junket. A journalist posited to her and Stenberg that The Acolyte is “arguably the gayest Star Wars by a considerable margin.” The writer-director and her star had fun with the line of inquiry, but now that the exchange has generated a bevy of responses, the question of what makes a piece of mass entertainment “gay” is one this queer artist continues to ponder in earnest. “I was surprised by the question. Amandla and I just burst out laughing because that’s our knee-jerk reaction to being asked that, but to be honest, I don’t know what the term ‘gay’ means in that sense,” admits Headland, adding, “I don’t believe that I’ve created queer, with a capital Q, content.”

Perhaps the most queer-adjacent story point is that the 24-year-old Aniseya twins were born to two moms, Mother Aniseya (Jodie Turner-Smith) and Mother Koril (Margarita Levieva), whom plenty of internet commentators are calling a lesbian couple. The two led an exiled coven of witches on the planet of Brendok, where they practiced their own interpretation of the Force, known as the Thread.

It’s eventually implied, not confirmed, that Aniseya used her brand of Force powers to impregnate Koril with the twins, but for Headland, their relationship is more circumstantial. “They’re in a matriarchal society. As a gay woman, I knew it would read that their sexuality is queer, but there also aren’t any men in their community,” she explains. “So a closeness between the two of them would be natural. It seemed plot-driven.” She adds: “I would say it’s really reductive to call them lesbians. I think it means you’re not really paying attention to this story.”

Headland stresses that she is by no means running from any material that might speak to queer audience members. “I’m proud of being a gay woman who’s accomplished this feat, and certainly, if my content is called queer, I don’t want to disown whatever queerness is in the show. I would be proud to create something that inspired queer people,” states Headland.

From left, Leslye Headland, Rebecca Henderson, Jodie Turner-Smith, Amandla Stenberg, and Margarita Levieva attend the NY Cinema Society event for Lucasfilm’s new Star Wars series The Acolyte at The Whitby Hotel on June 3, 2024 in New York City.

Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Disney

Like most creatives, Headland welcomes constructive criticism of her series. But ever since Star Wars: The Force Awakens refocused the episodic film franchise on Daisy Ridley’s female Jedi, Rey, scrutinizing Star Wars for any hint of progressivism has become an online cottage industry for combative fans who yearn for the kind of representation that was pro forma in the 1970s and ’80s. Inevitably, this contingent of the audience has eagerly put The Acolyte in the crosshairs and made a meal out of the aforementioned junket interaction. “Honestly, I feel sad that people would think that if something were gay, that that would be bad,” Headland says. “It makes me feel sad that a bunch of people on the internet would somehow dismantle what I consider to be the most important piece of art that I’ve ever made.”

Headland knows that, in culturally divisive times, polarization comes with the territory, but having the chance to play in the Star Wars sandbox is worth it: “It’s been beyond my wildest dreams.” 

A version of this story first appeared in the June 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

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