Few things in Hollywood convey stardom better than having your likeness immortalized as a toy figurine. For Naomi Ackie, 27, that moment has arrived with remarkable speed. Hers is about 6 inches high and has a torrent of hair, a fearsome crossbow and a flowing cape. “As soon as you get an action figure, you’re like, ‘OK, this is a different kettle of fish,’” says the British actress, laughing with irrepressible mirth.
The cliche “meteoric rise” is unusually apt for the actress. A scant two years after winning best newcomer in the British Independent Film Awards for her film debut in the costume noir, “Lady Macbeth,” she finds herself preparing for a gauntlet of red carpets to promote her role as Jannah in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” opening Dec. 20. “I’m kind of gobsmacked by how far I’ve come,” she says. “I’ve never dealt with something so big before, where I knew from the get-go that it would be seen by millions of people.”
The role of Jannah came with a particular challenge — to make her character both specific and universal. “You have to make everyone think they can be you,” says Ackie. “When I watch action-adventure movies, if someone does a roundhouse kick, I want to feel that I could do a roundhouse kick.”
Ackie knows her swift success is uncommon, especially for a black actress from a working-class family. Her parents are second-generation emigrants from Grenada in the West Indies — her mother worked for Britain’s National Health Service, her father in London’s transport department — and Ackie is acutely aware of the prejudice they had to overcome.
She marvels at the fact that, two generations back, “My ancestors were living on a tiny island across the sea.” That history makes her success all the more consequential. “Any time anyone from a minority community makes advances in a world that wasn’t necessarily built for them, it feels like a celebration for a lot of people,” she says.
That’s why “Star Wars” is more than just a career high — it’s a profound opportunity to change the narrative for millions of girls. “If anything comes out of this, it’s that young people, and especially young black girls, can go, ‘Oh, my gosh. That is cool, that is achievable.’” She cracks a laugh. “Well, maybe not charging into battle on a horse, but feeling capable and having courage and being at the front of the line instead of at the back.”
Ackie recalls struggling as a child to find role models on-screen, and turning instead to books such as “Harry Potter” and Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials,” with its feisty girl heroine, Lyra Belacqua. “Lyra is not a young black girl but the description of her in the book is so sparse that I could imagine myself as her,” she says. “And also, again, with Hermione in ‘Harry Potter,’ especially in the books, she just had curly hair.” She pauses to laugh. “I had curly hair.” The lesson taken from the literature of her youth is that, for characters to be universal, their color has to be irrelevant. Hollywood has belatedly cottoned on.
Ackie was 11 when she discovered the thrill of receiving applause. The unlikely vehicle for this revelation was a school show about the birth of Jesus. Ackie auditioned for the role of the angel Gabriel. “We were given a day to prepare a modern take on angels so I made up this sickening rap,” she says — deploying “sickening” in the British sense of awesome. “It was the first time that I had applied my personal creativity to something.” Ackie got the part, and with it, the itch to take on more. She recalls walking down the corridors of her school and being congratulated by other students. “I was a shy kid, but I remember thinking, ‘I’m good at this,’” she says. “For a young girl growing up in London and feeling quite anonymous, it made me feel quite powerful.”
At home she announced she was going to be an actress to her distinctly underwhelmed parents, and set to work. She joined a youth theater, recited monologues on camera to see the shapes her face made when talking, and mentored younger kids who shared her zeal. Eventually she applied to drama school, thinking it would lead to an agent, only to realize she was still in the foothills of her craft.
“There was so much for me still to learn when I got there that I hadn’t previously anticipated,” she says. “That was a whole big three-year lesson about so many different things that a young 17-year-old doesn’t necessarily think about.”
After drama school came the inevitable lull, interspersed with the occasional walk-on part in a crime procedural. She recalls working as a hot dog vendor and thinking: “What is my life?” While other high school friends found well-paid jobs, and began moving up the housing ladder, she recalls days merging into weeks while waiting for her career to begin. “You’re still exercising every day, or practicing monologues, but you don’t know if you’ll ever get to say them out loud,” she says. “You’re actively immersing yourself in a world that isn’t necessarily yours yet.”
Roles began to trickle in — notably as a series regular in the Hulu comedy drama “The Bisexual” — but nothing could prepare her for the role of Jannah. “I’ve never played a warrior before,” she says. “It was a part of me I knew was there but had never gotten to show the world.”
If she’s not quite ready to take her success for granted — “Someone once said that two plus two doesn’t equal four in this industry and it’s so true,” — she is nevertheless enjoying the sense of expanding horizons. As well as “Star Wars,” she can be seen in a “career-making performance” (per the Guardian) as Bonnie in the new season of cult Netflix show, “The End of the F***ing World,” a bone-dry, pitch-black comedy based on the graphic novel by Charles Forsman. “It came so soon after making ‘Star Wars’ that I had a bit of whiplash, going from a character on horseback to another who is really disheveled,” she says. “I really hope that’s what my career ends up looking like, that every character is different from the last, and that I never get pigeonholed.”
On the other hand, HBO recently canceled a “Game of Thrones” prequel, in which Ackie was slated to co-star with Naomi Watts — a reminder that the industry can be brutally fickle. “More than ever I find myself thinking about how much things can change from one year to another,” says Ackie. “It’s like chipping away at a piece of rock with a spoon, and now there’s blessing upon blessing.”
She is still adjusting to the spotlight, figuring out her relationship to her celebrity self. “I get so nervous on the red carpet,” she says. “I get nervous even at photo shoots — and they’re fun.” Recently, listening to a podcast called “How to Fail,” she suddenly understood that confidence was not something people learn to master — it would always ebb and flow. “Actually, the goal should be courage,” she says. “Confidence is like a sliding scale, but courage is something I can work on — the courage to show up and the courage to do things, even if it scares you.”