Xena Duncan talks cosplay, Forces of Destiny, and what Star Wars means to her.
Back in April, I had the honor and the privilege of taking my four children to Star Wars Celebration Orlando (SWCO). Needless to say it was one of the most memorable days we’ve ever had as a family. As the apples do not fall far from the tree, my kids loved every aspect of the experience: the exhibits, the panels, the art, and of course the souvenirs.
However, I think what they loved most was being fully immersed in the Star Wars Universe by being surrounded by countless brave souls dressed up in a myriad of different Star Wars costumes from Orson Krennic to Jawas, and I believe we even saw a certain Dave Filoni doppelganger walking around. But there was one, a particular Twi’lek, that caught their eye each time she gracefully strode by. She was performing cosplay as Hera Syndulla, and my kids continually tugged at my arm, saying, “Daddy, look! There she goes again!”
It turns out that Twi’lek doubles as Xena Duncan “in real life,” and I was fortunate enough to make her acquaintance via twitter. Xena graciously accepted my request to “virtually” sit down and talk about cosplay, Forces of Destiny, and what Star Wars means to her.
So how in the world did you get into cosplay? Even though I love Star Wars, I don’t know if I’d ever be brave enough to get into costume like that.
To be honest, I’m very new to cosplay. I’ve kind of come at it in a very round about way as I am a professional costumier working in the film industry, and have a degree in costume. The Star Wars prequels were one of my biggest inspirations and influences in my career choices, so it was inevitable that I would eventually venture into Star Wars cosplay. It’s just surprising that it took me so long; I only really started cosplay a little over the year, but I mostly say since the start of 2017 as that’s when I started making Hera and was really focused on recreating and translating this character in the best way I possibly could to wear and share at Celebration Orlando.
It is obvious you truly love Star Wars. How long have you been a fan?
For my entire life! Literally! My parents are both big sci-fi fans, so one of my first memories — if not the first memory I have — is me explaining to my dad that the Millennium Falcon was pretending to be rubbish to get away from the bad guys. We had the original trilogy THX remastered editions on VHS and we watched them all the time — I have always felt such a thrill at that moment in Return of the Jedi when Leia rips off her helmet and says ‘Someone who loves you.’ That scene, that whole story of Leia disguising herself to rescue Han, was so important to me. I saw all of the rereleases at the cinema, and I still remember the first time I saw the trailer for The Phantom Menace: the gungans looming out of the mist, all that imagery and then the music kicks in and I was blown away! This was Star Wars!
There are so many cool, powerful female characters to choose from in Star Wars — so why Hera?
Because she’s the best pilot in the galaxy!
I kind of fell out of love with Star Wars for about ten years sometime after Revenge of the Sith. It was always there, always a part of me, but I wasn’t engaging (and I had no time for The Clone Wars, eep!) But then one day I was racing about at work and dove into HMV to grab some new headphones when I saw the DVD for this new Star Wars show. It looked stupid and childish, no thanks, but it’s cool that there’s a Twi’lek lady on the cover. I ended up circling back and picking it up based solely on the Twi’lek, but then I didn’t watch it for about two months. When I did finally put it on I was hooked from that first banter scene with Hera and Kanan and ended up sitting and mainlining season one so far there and then. Hera literally brought me back to Star Wars and immediately became my favorite character.
On a deeper level… Hera is an inspiration and a role model but also a fallible walking disaster. She is such a late-twenty-something and that really speaks to me. She’s focused on her goals, passionate and brilliant and fierce. But sometimes she’s blindsided by that passion and forgets what really matters. She’s warm and loving — that runs really deep in her — but sometimes she loses sight of what she’s fighting for, who she’s fighting for. She’s so focused on the forest she completely forgets about the trees. Her arc over the show has been about her learning to balance the personal with her work, even as she powers her way up the ranks of the Rebellion.
I identify with her and aspire to be like her. Cosplaying as Hera lets me share that with other fans and she always gets the most incredible response from people of all ages, but especially children.
I know you focus on Hera for the most part. Have you cosplayed as other characters before?
I did a Bellatrix for the midnight launch of the last Harry Potter book — I was in fandom but I’m pretty sure I had never heard the word cosplay before so it was just ‘dressing up’. Then a few years later I did a closet cosplay Ramona Flowers just because I had blue hair!
The first time I actively decided that yes, I am going to cosplay, was for Celebration Europe last year when I did Ahsoka from Star Wars Rebels. It was kind of a disaster! I worked on the headpiece for weeks, but forgot to bring the crown to the hotel so I had to rustle one up out of cardboard. The rest of the costume was rustled up in maybe 48 hours, so it was an insane rush job and was constantly falling apart. I ended up doing a casual Ahsoka on the first day because I just couldn’t cope with it!
Looks like you’ve mastered Hera as far as I can tell. Are there other characters you’d like to try to become in the future?
My cosplay to do list is frankly horrifying! Right now I am in the middle of a Rebels Numa cosplay, and hopefully she will done very soon. After that… either ARC Trooper Fives or Rebels Bo Katan will be next up. Probably Bo Katan, but I need the show to hurry back so I can get some clear reference images! I grew up on the films and will always adore them, but the shows are where my heart is. Particularly with Rebels coming to an end, I want to celebrate the show and its characters for as long as possible.
Other characters on my list are bounty hunter Ventress, Ursa Wren, a lady Anakin, and I’d love to try my hand at Latts Razzi.
What would you say is your proudest moment while in costume?
My proudest moment… I’ve had so many incredible experiences as Hera. So many. I got the chance to share my costume with Dave Filoni, the lovely Vanessa Marshall, and Freddie Prinze Jr at SWCO and they all gave me such an incredible response which was immensely gratifying. But really, the moments that are just incredible are the moments when you connect with kids who just love your character. When they come racing over with parents desperately chasing after them to excitedly talk about how much they love BB-8 and want to join the Rebellion when they grow up; or when you convince them to join the Rebellion because their favorite color is orange; or when a little girl is so nervous but you manage to get her to chat to you and confide in you, and you remind her to be brave and that every day she is a hero. All of those moments add up and inspire me even as Hera inspires them. It’s these moments that really matter.
Okay, how about your most embarrassing?
For most embarrassing, well. The entire falling-apart Ahsoka was little embarrassing, but even that was full of incredible moments. Mostly all of my experiences have been immensely positive.
At SWCO, Dave Filoni announced that this would be the last season of Star Wars Rebels. Are you looking forward to that?
I am! I am trying to avoid the impulse to wallow and be maudlin about the show ending. Do I wish we had another couple of seasons left? Of course! I was devastated during the Rebels panel in Orlando, to the point where I ruined my make-up. I was mortified when my reaction to the cancellation was included in the SWCO closing ceremonies reel! But Rebels has been such a bright gift and has given me so much. I think that we should celebrate the story and the characters. They’re getting the opportunity to close out the show on their terms rather than the sudden cancellation of The Clone Wars, and that’s fantastic. It’s going to be a dark road this coming season, but I think that we should all focus on the journey rather than the end point.
What do you think about Forces of Destiny? I don’t think we’ve seen Hera yet!
You’re right, we haven’t seen Hera yet. Boo! She’s been confirmed to be showing up in the next block episodes, I think in at least two episodes? I’m very excited to see her the art style, and even more excited to see what her doll looks like whenever that gets revealed.
I love Forces of Destiny! I think it is such a beautiful concept — moments of everyday heroism! The personal can get drowned out so much in the vast galactic scales of the main stories, so getting to see these women doing the ‘small’ but important things like helping out strangers, stopping assassinations while planning a dinner party (multitasking!), and rescuing tookas is such a great thing. It reminds us all that we can be heroic every day. And the tie-in merchandise is wonderful — I am so jealous of kids these days! There have been some very loud and unpleasantly cynical voices shouting out about the project, but it’s too bright and inspirational for that to matter.
You have any final thoughts on cosplay and the future of Star Wars?
The ever growing representation in Star Wars is so exciting. There’s a long way to go yet, but important things are happening on the big screen, small screen and off screen. I am so excited for everyone that we have these incredible, inspiring women, and that more are joining them all the time. Being able to cosplay as Hera and share that inspiration really warms my heart. Finally deciding to leap into cosplay was definitely one of my best recent decisions, and I am so grateful to Vanessa Marshall, Dave Filoni and all the wonderful people at Lucasfilm and Disney for inspiring me to do so.
Xena, I want to thank you so much for taking the time to do this. It has been incredibly enjoyable for me and I hope the readers feel the same way. So how can folks get a hold of you?
JFK historian and assassination researcher. Member of Citizens Against Political Assassinations and Assassination Archives Research Center.