Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens has made London-born actress Daisy Ridley a global superstar. But between filming that movie and returning to the big screen in its sequel, 24-year-old Ridley has made an English language version of Only Yesterday, a 1991 classic by Japanese animators, Studio Ghibli.
She and Slumdog Millionaire actor Dev Patel provide the voices for young lovers Taeko and Toshio, who Patel calls “animation royalty”.
Since its foundation in 1985 by director Hayao Miyazaki, Tokyo-based Studio Ghibli has dominated Japanese anime, and received five Academy Award nominations. Its global commercial successes include 2001’s Spirited Away and 2004’s Howl’s Moving Castle.
Two years ago, the studio announced it would take a hiatus to mark Miyazaki’s retirement, but it’s now releasing three projects – When Marnie Was There, also released this month, The Red Turtle, a co-production that won a jury prize at this year’s Cannes film festival and Only Yesterday.
Noting that the original Only Yesterday was made a quarter of a century ago, the year before she was born, Ridley describes herself as “obsessed with Japanese culture in general”.
“My mum took me to watch Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away and I was blown away.
“I was watching one of them again recently and I thought, ‘I really want to do one of these films’. Honestly, I swear this is how it happened – Studio Ghibli were looking for the English-language Taeko at the same time, and so I ended up recording a couple of auditions. Here we are now and I couldn’t be more thrilled.”
Only Yesterday is set in 1960s and 1980s Japan, as Taeko, a 20-something woman with a busy career, sets out to the countryside for a working holiday, where she meets a young famer, Toshio. Throughout, Taeko has flashbacks of herself and her sisters as children – and learns her past self may be telling her present one to be happy.
Patel says he closely resembles his character “in that he’s laid back, we both have an optimistic and idealistic outlook, and probably an appreciation for the simpler things in life,” he says.
Ridley contrasts her own upbringing with Taeko’s, even though she too is one of a family of sisters.
“The family dynamic we have is very different,” she explains. “Myself and Taeko, we have all these things in common, but actually nothing is the same. My four sisters are absolutely, definitely my best friends, even though we squabbled when we were younger.”
The actress went to a school for the performing arts in Hertfordshire, and took a number of TV roles before auditioning for the part of Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
“I didn’t give the part of Rey much thought before I took it as I was desperate to do it, although I was very aware that my life would probably change drastically,” she continues. “I feel so lucky as I was surrounded by such brilliant people, JJ Abrams in particular, and outside of the working environment my family and friends have been incredible, I am so lucky to have been brought up the way I was.
“Mentally, I was as ready as I could be for all the attention. Sometimes it can be hard though, if I’m really tired and people approach me, I can think, ‘I’m barely an adult, I’m not prepared right now!’ I really miss taking the tube, actually, being a Londoner. I’ve only gone on it a couple of times since Star Wars, surrounded by a group of friends.”
The actress has also moved into production since she got the part of Rey, becoming the executive producer of the documentary The Eagle Huntress, which follows a 13-year-old nomadic Mongolian girl who wants to become her culture’s first female Eagle Hunter.
Ridley says she takes the idea of being a role model for younger girls seriously.
“I never felt anything was out of my grasp because I was a girl, but I do know other women who have suffered,” she says.
“Sometimes I think the messages can be subliminal. What I do think has come up is a crippling wave of lack of self-esteem, borne out of social media, of girls – and boys – thinking they’re not good enough and their dreams don’t matter. What I don’t understand is why we don’t seem to teach self-empowerment to girls in particular in schools.
“I never expected the role of Rey to speak to so many girls, and goodness knows as a person myself I have my own insecurities, but the whole issue is something I’m happy to focus on.”
She won’t give away any snippets of information about Star Wars Episode VIII, but she does say she “is enjoying filming so much more and taking it all in this second time around”.
It’s also been announced that Ridley will star as Shakespeare’s character Ophelia in a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, co-starring Naomi Watts.
And Ridley says she is “open to everything”.
“I never even set out to do Star Wars and it’s been amazing. I am developing a sense of right and wrong when I read scripts, and I had that with Only Yesterday – that overwhelming sense of ‘I have to do this.’ My criterion now is telling stories that need to be told.”
Only Yesterday is released in the UK on 3 June and When Marnie Was There on 10 June.