Leslye Headland takes on the new Disney+ TV series The Acolyte

eslye Headland is
not a tentative person. She pauses before speaking, but not because she’s waffling about what to say. More because she’s a writer and how is almost as important as what she says, and also because we’re talking about The Acolyte, her upcoming TV show set in the Star Wars universe during the High Republic (for the non-saber-pilled among us, that’s about 100 years before The Phantom Menace, the beginning of what’s referred to as the Skywalker Saga, when Sith happens). She is the showrunner, director, and writer (not to mention a cast member’s wife) for the anticipated series, which is a sort of thriller-mystery tracking an ongoing Jedi murder spree. When she pauses, it’s with the understanding there may be imperial probe droids hidden nearby if she drops any spoilery intel about a galaxy far, far away. 

And no, she doesn’t share spoilers, but she does patiently answer my very specific, very goofy long-standing questions: Do humans exist in the Star Wars universe? Is Luke Skywalker one of them, or is he an alien who just looks like a human? After one of those pauses, Headland tells me, yes, she believes Luke Skywalker is a human. She doesn’t look like she wants to slingshot me into the sun, so I press on.

But if they’re in a galaxy far, far away (from what?), then where is he from? “From Tatooine. He’s a human who lives on Tatooine now.” Firm. She’s sure.

Are there some immigration complications left to be explored in the Star Wars universe? “Oh, 100 percent.” 

We’re in the basement of Bang Bang Tattoo in New York City. Headland and I sit with her wife, Rebecca Henderson, waiting for the couple’s artist of choice, Mr. K, to arrive. They assume, happily, that they’ll be in the studio for the rest of the daylight hours on this May afternoon. “This is probably one of my biggest hobbies, getting tattoos,” Headland says. 

Leslye Headland got a new ‘Star Wars’ tattoo to celebrate getting her showrunner gig.

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Fittingly for Headland — whose eclectic body of work includes the 2015 Jason Sudeikis-Alison Brie sex-addict rom-com Sleeping With Other People; 2012’s dark comedy Bachelorette, featuring apple-cheeked Kirsten Dunst as the world’s worst maid of honor; the recent time-loop TV hit Russian Doll; and an egg carton’s worth of plays and other projects — the majority of those tattoos are movie-related and just as varied in inspiration as her work. Today, she’s opting for a design based on the cover art for the score of Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, an illustration of a woman’s face surrounded by flowers and hearts. Her ideal placement is near a fist-size, yellowing bruise just below her right elbow, a souvenir from the family’s recent trip to Quintana Roo, Mexico, to celebrate their daughter’s first birthday. (Headland walked into a door.)

Awaiting the judgment of superfans 

It’s good real estate: below the one on her biceps of Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy caught in a moment, and above the photorealistic portrait of Helena Bonham Carter as Fight Club’s smoke-wreathed Marla, just over where a wristwatch would rest. There are more, like a tribute to the “personally important” movie The Shining in the form of a Redrum tramp stamp (“a choice,” she says, smirking), a fine-line re-creation of Donnie Darko’s Frank the Bunny, a cursive “Babe” in tribute to her wife — and the Princess Leia tattoo she got on the back of her right hand, another Mr. K creation. 

It’s not a celebration of a job well done — the show won’t be released until June. There’s still time for things to go sideways, for the notoriously passionate (being diplomatic) Star Wars fan base to make their judgments. But she had the robed Leia inked when she got the job, pre-pandemic — even before the May 4, 2020, public announcement that Headland would be taking up the lightsaber in a show that she describes as “Frozen meets Kill Bill.” 

Working on Star Wars is a lifelong dream. Headland has enlisted actors like Lee Jung-jae, Amandla Stenberg, Carrie-Anne Moss, and others, whose names she recites through a genuine grin, to bring her own contribution to the Star Wars universe to life. She’s gotten to watch her own lightsaber duels happen.

“I didn’t say it out loud,” she says of the Jedi weapon’s iconic nyoom-nyoom sound, “but I could, like, hear it in my head.” 

Mae (Amandla Stenberg) in ‘The Acolyte.’

Christian Black / Lucasfilm Ltd.

From left, Yord Fandar (Charlie Barnett), Jedi Padawan Jecki Lon (Dafne Keen) and Master Sol (Lee Jung-jae) ‘The Acolyte.’

Christian Black / Lucasfilm Ltd.

‘I fought so hard’ 

Mr. K, a former graphic designer from Korea, greets us in an oversize white hoodie and platform combat boots. He commands a lengthy wait-list, a celebrity clientele, and the pricing to match; when I say something about the rhinestones on his phone case, I’m quietly corrected that they’re “probably diamonds.” 

“He always adds stuff to [the tattoo design], he’s an artist. So I’m like, ‘Whatever you want,’” Headland says of her relationship with Mr. K. “Which is strange to say about stuff that goes on your body forever, but when you trust somebody like that, absolutely. That’s honestly a great analogy to filmmaking. Once you find people that you love collaborating with or whom you trust, you don’t ask a lot of questions. If you don’t trust people, it makes it difficult to express what you need.” Her work bears that out: Above and below the line, names like Natasha Lyonne and cinematographer Chris Teague recur alongside hers. And marriage is the ultimate collaboration, so it makes sense that another trusted colleague who pops up time and again in Headland’s projects is Henderson. 

As with her inked tributes, Headland is all-in, forever, on her work. Though now, she’s trying to say no a little more. “[As] a female filmmaker, I fought so hard to have this particular experience that there is a tendency to be concerned it’s going to go away,” she says. “My frenetic energy drives my passion but sometimes blinds me from opportunities for downtime. So I’m trying to figure that out.”

Headland’s daughter was fittingly born on May 4th of last year.

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Another reason to prioritize downtime: her and Henderson’s one-year-old daughter, who in a twist of galactic fate was born ahead of her mid-May due date. 

“My wife and I were in London at the time, shooting The Acolyte,” Headland recalls. “We were like, ‘God, it would be so funny if it was May the fourth.’ And then we were in the hospital May 3 being like, ‘Is this really gonna happen?’”

Early the morning of May the fourth, it really did happen. “So we named her Chewbacca.” Just kidding. 

Baby Winona, whose name was partly inspired by Winona Ryder and its meaning of “firstborn daughter,” recently touched (and ate) sand for the first time, in Mexico. Now Headland has a “Winona Forever” tattoo that serves as a tribute to her child and a pop-culture wink. Henderson is getting a delicate but ornate W today. 

With The Acolyte done, Headland is juggling projects like the play Cult of Love, a family ensemble drama she hopes to bring to Broadway next season and which she calls “the most personal thing I’ve ever worked on,” as well as other film scripts. She’s busy, but happy-busy, not anxious-busy or scared-busy. She’s doing the work because she wants to, not because she’s worried the phone will stop ringing. “I’m feeling that less now having done my dream project, because that’s my dream, so we’re good.” 

Production Credits

Photographic Assistance by SHARMEEN CHAUDHARY.

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