The Acolyte: Rebecca Henderson Talks Vernestra Rwoh, Lightwhips, And High Republic Robes

The Acolyte

by Ben Travis |
Published on

For the most part, everything in The Acolyte is brand new. It’s set before any other Star Wars story on screen (100 years before The Phantom Menace, to be exact), with all-new characters and worlds to explore. But, there’s one exception: Vernestra Rwoh. The one character from the High Republic novels to make the leap to live action, she’s been a fan favourite on the page for years now – and she gets a major evolution in The Acolyte.

In the High Republic books (check out A Test Of Courage, or Out Of The Shadows) Vernestra is a prodigious 16-year-old Jedi Knight who graduated from Padawan status after passing the trials at the mere age of 15. But by the time of The Acolyte, 100 years have elapsed and she’s experienced a lot in the meantime. Empire sat down with Rebecca Henderson, who brings Vernestra to life – and who, as wife of series creator Leslye Headland, had first-hand experience of seeing The Acolyte willed into being.

EMPIRE: You must have known about this project longer than anyone else. What's it been like watching Leslye turn her love of Star Wars into The Acolyte?

REBECCA HENDERSON: It has been very emotional – I'm very proud of her. It's been a really long road. It started back when she pitched the idea before the pandemic, 2019. She was basically writing in the downstairs part of our apartment in a closet that we turned into a desk situation. I was bringing her meals, and reading really early drafts. The development stage was very long and very rich. I'm very excited as to where it's gotten now. At Star Wars Celebration last year, when she went on stage and started answering questions, the energy was so incredible. She's so focused and intelligent in that arena. I was openly weeping backstage.

At what point did it become clear that you were going to be in the show?

Very early on, Leslye wanted to find something for me. But she's not just gonna give me anything – she wants it to be a perfect match. And I don't want to play something that I'm not going to excel at. I actually didn't even know who Vernestra was until we were in England [for the production] – there was another part that I was possibly going to play. And then I was reading drafts like, ‘Who is this [Vernestra]?’ Because Vernestra is so old at this time, Leslye didn't really think of me for the part. Obviously, I'm not 116 years old. But as I learned more about her – and then started researching her, and the way she's written in this series – it started to make a lot of sense.

The Acolyte

What was it that jumped out to you about Vernestra, then?

I shouldn't say too much, because of revealing things that are in the story. But she just was so self-possessed. She's incredibly wise and very, very powerful. The first scene I read is a scene with her and Lee Jung-Jae's character [Master Sol]. And I just was like, ‘Oh, I love their dynamic. I love these two together.’ That's how it started.

Once you got stuck into Vernestra, did you read the High Republic books, or did you just focus on who she is in The Acolyte? Did you speak to [author] Justina Ireland and [LucasFilm’s] Pablo Hidalgo about her?

Leslye spoke to Pablo. I met Justina at Celebration last year – I listened to the books, because I love an audiobook. You certainly don't need to know the books to be able to enjoy this series at all. But I did think it was helpful, when thinking about how a young person becomes their older self, and there are a couple [of] references in this series that people who know the young Vernestra will appreciate.

"The history of the lightwhip, I thought was was really fascinating. Purple lightwhip: cool!"

Where do we meet Vernestra here, then? Leslye said she’s been through some shit in the intervening years…

She is an elder Jedi Master holding a high level position on Coruscant.

She seems to be a more solitary Jedi here, based in the Temple – in her younger incarnation, she's off having adventures.

Yeah, I think it's because she has been around for so long. She has basically met everyone that has come through the Temple, and seen them all die their natural deaths if they're living a natural human life. So she's known Sol since he was a tiny child. She's bald [now], and she has all these tattoos over her head, which for the Mirialans generally mean that they've accomplished something, or been through something. Because all of my scenes are with [other] people, I didn't really think of her as very solitary – but she is, and as the series goes on, you can see how alone she is in having to make certain decisions.

Star Wars: The High Republic – Vernestra Rwoh

She's a Jedi Master here – what position does she hold within the Order in The Acolyte?

I can't say too much, but she's basically managing a group of [Jedi]. The importance of what she has to do grows over time.

Vernestra’s purple lightsaber is iconic in the books already – getting a purple one is rare. How was it getting a lightsaber?

Honestly, so cool. And I don't want to use the word ‘cool’ too much. You've probably heard it a lot, talking to [The Acolyte] cast. It was so cool. I have a master's degree in acting. I did all the Chekhov, the Shakespeare. I don't know if it's a fantasy of a ‘theatre actor’ to be like, ‘Star Wars!’ But actually it is, and you don't know it until you're opening a door with your mind with the Force. [laughs] Star Wars was not a humongous part of my life, but it's absolutely everywhere and permeates everything. So getting my lightsaber was so cool. And it's purple!

In the books, Vernestra has modified her lightsaber to also become a lightwhip. Are we going to see the lightwhip?

Right, that's the question.

It’s an important part of the character! What can you tell me about that?

Nothing! [laughs]

I thought so!

The lightwhip is so cool. When I first read about it, and that she’d altered the lightsaber to be able to do this, and that the Nightsisters had [used them]… The history of the lightwhip, I thought was was really fascinating. Purple lightwhip: cool!

I would love to play her again. I had such a deep experience playing someone like this.

Dafne Keen said she went to ‘Jedi School’ to prepare for The Acolyte. Did you go too?

No, I didn't go to those lessons. Not by choice. I wasn't invited! But Dafne and I did have the makeup thing in common. We were in that chair for long periods of time. I loved being that colour green. I think I definitely look better green, for sure. It was always so sad when they took it off. It was only challenging when I had the green hands – it was more challenging to pick up things. If I touched my robes at all, everyone was like, ‘No!’ ‘Sorry, sorry, sorry!’ I'd forget.

Those High Republic robes are crisp. They're gold, they're cream.

Yes. And my robe was very heavy – [she’s a] Master, has been around for a while. They definitely didn't want me to get green on it.

Star Wars: The High Republic – Vernestra Rwoh

Does it help, though, once you're green and holding a lightsaber – to look in the mirror and think, ‘I am a Jedi in this moment.’

It really did. And the sets were practically built. There was nothing to distinguish me from being an actual Jedi in the Temple. We rarely worked with blue screen at all. Sometimes I would forget that I was green, and I would look in the mirror again and be like, ‘Oh my God.’

We spoke earlier about you seeing Leslye develop the show. As it comes to fruition, what does it mean to you to see Leslye express herself through The Acolyte?

Such a good question. An important question. It actually is so difficult to do what she does, and what people in her position do. Directing and writing – there's so much more that goes into it. Also producing, showrunning, the music, the costumes – I just can't believe the breadth of knowledge she has to have, not only about Star Wars, but about all parts of how the sausage gets made. I witnessed firsthand how hard she worked – she just lives and breathes this show.

It's a hard thing when something comes out, because you really can't control the response to it. People can be so cruel. Luckily with Disney, they come out weekly. But with Netflix, they come out all at once, and you could have worked on it for years, and people are like, [dismissively] ‘No.’ And you're like, ‘…No?! But what about the years of work that went into it?’ So, may the Force be with her as this happens. She can't control what's about to happen. And I hope that- Gosh, I have so much to say about that question. You really can't control if it's going to hit with people – if people are going to understand it, and relate to it, and feel everything that I feel when I watch it. But I really hope that it does, and I hope she can feel like, ‘I did it.’

Do you hope to play Vernestra again? Would that only be in the realm of The Acolyte? If there was another chance to play her, would you take that?

Definitely. I would love to play her again. I had such a deep experience playing someone like this. It was fun to play someone so still and powerful. And a being who could see beyond. Imagining what the Force is – there's just no limits. I appreciate playing a lawyer, or the best friend over here. But [here] the imagination just goes and goes and goes. It was a really stimulating experience.

The Acolyte streams on Disney+ from 5 June

Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us