Erin Kellyman Conquers Hollywood, One Universe at a Time

The Star Wars and Marvel actor discusses her valiant role in the enchanting Disney+ show, Willow.

by Emily Maskell

A black and white portrait of Erin with her hands clasped together by her face
Photograph by Elias Tahan; Image treatment by Ashley Peña.

Across the filmic cosmos, Erin Kellyman plays intergalactic, courageous heroines. In our reality, that spark materializes in the 24-year-old actor’s transformative ability to portray rebellious young women pushing the boundaries of their worlds. Starring in two of the biggest cinematic franchises, Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe, she has credits seasoned professionals dream of, a fact Kellyman confesses remains “surreal.” As she settles into our Zoom call in an oversized black hoodie with her hair pushed back, she brings a calming presence at odds with the professional whirlwind on which she’s embarked.

Kellyman’s latest project is Disney+’s Willow (premiering on November 30), a rare non-Star Wars Lucasfilm endeavor based on the 1988 fantasy-adventure film of the same name released a decade before Kellyman was born. “I’d not heard of Willow before,” she admits. But after a cast bonding watch party, she was immersed in her character's captivating world. In the upcoming sequel, set 200 moons since the initial narrative of two kingdoms against dark forces, Kellyman plays Jade, a headstrong knight whose unwavering loyalty to best friend and princess Kit (Ruby Cruz) knows no bounds. Together, with some loveable misfits, the unwieldy heroes venture past the end of their maps to unfathomable lands in search of a missing prince.

Speaking from her hometown of Tamworth, England, Kellyman recalls she got her first glimpse of the acting industry through her sister, Amelia Kellyman, (who is now a skeleton bobsled athlete) who appeared on BBC’s Doctors in 2003. Did acting run in the family? “No, not at all. I would watch her through the window and that was my worst nightmare: talking to people–terrifying!” At thirteen, she revisited modeling; during one shoot, she didn't pose for photos, but was instead instructed to improvise for an ad. “I came out like, ‘Whatever that was, I want to do that,’” she remembers.

Spending her teen years across British TV, a time she looks back on fondly, Kellyman was on the cusp of adulthood when she landed roles that shot her into movie star galaxies. Uniting her characters in Star Wars’s Solo: A Star Wars Story (Enfys, surprise hero of the Rebel Alliance) and Marvel Studios’s The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (Karli, the gender-swapped Flag Smashers leader) is a sense of rebellion. Enfys and Karli consistently forge their own paths—and Kellyman has come to realize this as an extension of herself: “I can’t imagine not playing a person like that. I always want to play that rebellious side.”

At the heart of Willow’s period fantasy stand three interwoven tales of ambitious femininity. Alongside Kellyman’s brave Jade, Cruz’s Kit and Ellie Bamber’s maid Dove stand as monoliths of young women’s perseverance. The trio of actors’ instant onscreen chemistry is a mirror to real life. “I don’t think I could’ve been paired with two better women for this role,” Kellyman says with sincerity. She’s “joined to the hip” with Bamber, having just returned from a regularly scheduled sleepover at her co-star’s place for our call. That intimate closeness is also apparent between Cruz and Kellyman; they’d practice sword fighting in each other's apartments, have discussions about their characters, and create backstories, realizing “we’re literally them, this is what [Kit and Jade] would’ve been doing: twirling their swords and catching up.”

Jade was written by Jonathan Kasdan with Kellyman in mind, an honor usually reserved for the most established of actors. The actress imbues Jade with irrefutable magnetism, harboring a formidable attitude and proudly wearing armor as the first woman to join the brigade. “I’m glad that young girls are going to be able to see that,” she says with a smile. “When you talk about the costume, I love that she doesn’t lose her femininity… it pulls from both the masculine and the feminine.” With months of stunt training for the role, Kellyman’s particularly proud of her sword-fighting confidence and maintains a soft spot for Tornado, her stunt horse.

Not only is Jade breaking ranks as a woman in a man’s world, but the character embarks on an earnest exploration of gender and sexual identity. “I spent a lot of time with John Kasdan going through [Jade’s] backstory: her past, her family, and how she truly feels about things and people,” she explains carefully. “She’s very private, so, in her honor, I want people to experience her blossoming into her own person.” Kellyman is openly gay; I note the silent journey of self-acceptance is very raw in her grounded performance. The actor then opens up, becoming reflective as she recalls how she felt “so weird and so different” growing up, adding, “I don’t want people to feel like that.” In fantasy works, a genre she could never see herself, queerness and gender non-conformity remain bizarrely absent from endless, imaginative galaxies. Willow, Kellyman notes, “feels very different, it feels very human,” and Jade is a chrysalis of that representation.

While Kellyman expresses her desire to play more roles that exhibit “the queer experience fully, and understand it wholeheartedly,” the desire for the visible representation she longed for collides with being the new face of a beloved franchise with die-hard fans and high expectations. “[It is] kind of scary, to be honest,” Kellyman admits. “I call it a triple threat, being a woman, and queer, and mixed race.” She’d seen how Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, faced a barrage of online hate—so Kellyman drastically limited her Twitter presence following her casting. However, the actor still sees the comments. “My mum stalks me a lot and sends me things people have said,” she says with a laugh. “She went through a phase of wanting to let me know she is very supportive of me being gay—there were lots of comments about that and she was just sending them all through.” Bolstered with support from peers and fans alike, and with more projects dawning on the horizon, Kellyman is a rocketing star. Time will tell what universe is destined to fall in love with her next.