How the Cast of ‘The Acolyte’ Trained to Become Jedi Masters: ‘We Had to Run Them Through the Gamut’

When assistant fight coordinator Lu Junchang conducted lightsaber training for “Star Wars: The Acolyte,” the actors often demanded “more danger” from the stunt team, urging them to swing the prop sabers faster and closer to their faces.

“Some actors will say, ‘Get closer, I want more danger.’ [Lee Jung-jae] on set always said, ‘More danger, please,'” Junchang recalls. “I get worried because if we get too close it’s not safe but, he kept saying, ‘More, more, more.'”

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For Junchang and the rest of “The Acolyte” stunt team, taking the cast from Jar Jar Binks to Jedi Master was no easy feat. It required months of coaching from over a dozen trainers, encompassing lightsaber practice, force training, movement work and hand-to-hand combat.

“Usually on a production, you’ll either have hand-to-hand or sword-based combat — this requires both,” says action designer Chris Cowan. “It was pretty difficult and intensive, because we had to run them through the gamut.”

“The Acolyte” — created and directed by Leslye Headland — takes place in the High Republic Era, 100 years before any previous “Star Wars” story, and follows identical twin sisters Osha and Mae (Amandla Stenberg). After being separated at a young age, Mae transforms herself into the deadly Jedi assassin known as the Acolyte. When Mae kills Jedi Master Indara (Carrie-Anne Moss) Osha is blamed, and forced to search for her sister before she can kill again.

Jedi training for “The Acolyte” was scheduled three times a week in three-hour blocks. For the first month, it was “just basics,” according to stunt coordinator Mark Ginther. “Kicks and basic punches,” he says. “When we start doing fight choreography, or if we’re on set and we got to make a change, we’re going to need to know they have the basics.”

After mastering the fundamentals, each cast member worked with a designated trainer to learn their character’s specific moves. Sparring sessions were also frequent, during which the actors donned pads and fought their instructors in full-contact simulations.

(L): Amandla Stenberg behind the scenes of Lucasfilm's THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.
Amandla Stenberg

“We want them to feel the real pain [of the hits], so their muscles can get used to it,” Junchang says. “Once they feel the pain, they know, ‘Oh, this is real. If they kick me, I have to block, I have to move. Otherwise, I’m getting hurt.'”

Along with the Jedi training, many of the series’ leads took on extra “Star Wars” homework to get themselves in the Jedi mindset. Charlie Barnett, who plays Jedi Master Yord, pulled inspiration not only from the canonical films but also the “video games and fan stories” to bring his character to life.

“[The fans] are so integral to creating the stories of ‘Star Wars,'” Barnett says. “It was really important for me to figure out what they were wanting from their Jedi, what was missing in the last few movies and what was accepted and loved.”

When it came time for lightsaber training, the cast was first given only hilts to build wrist strength and to practice essential motions. Carbon fiber tubes were later added, but the stunt team realized they were too heavy, and replaced them with prop lightsabers they purchased online. “As soon as we got those in, all of our faces lit up. All of us are nerds,” Cowan says. “[The actors] were like, ‘Oh, yes, this is what we’re talking about.'”

Once they were confident with the weapons, the actors again paired up with an assigned instructor. Each with a saber in hand, the actor would react to their trainer’s strikes from afar, as if they were fighting face to face. As they improved, they would inch closer together until the actors were forced to block the incoming saber strikes.

“We just let them stand there, and we swung the saber in front of their face, let them feel how close the weapon gets,” Junchang says. “And then we get closer, closer, closer — until they feel like, ‘If I’m not dogging this, I will get hit.'”

Dafne Keen, who plays Master Sol’s (Lee) padawan Jecki Lon, says her stunt work was pivotal to discovering her character. When reading the script, Keen had a “completely different” idea of who Jecki was. It wasn’t until she got a lightsaber in her hand that she felt confident about how she would portray the young Jedi in training.

“I approached [my character] from the physical side, from how she moved within a fight,” Keen says. “Is she a showy warrior? Using the Anakin example, he’s very arrogant in fights. It’s all about deflecting and showing off. Is she that kind of person or is she more pared down? We found a fun balance.”

(L-R): Amandla Stenberg, Lee Jung-jae and Director Leslye Headland on the set of Lucasfilm's THE ACOLYTE, exclusively on Disney+. ©2022 Lucasfilm Ltd. & TM. All Rights Reserved.
Stenberg, Lee Jung-jae and Leslye Headland.

Series director Headland was instrumental in the stunt prep, working hands-on with the actors to weave their character development into physical training. According to Lee, one of her main points of emphasis was bringing a “humanistic approach” to the action, despite all the fantastical elements of the “Star Wars” universe.

“I’ve done a lot of action in my past projects — but what was unique to this show was that Leslye really wanted the action to feel as realistic as possible,” says Lee, the star of “Squid Game.” “When I was utilizing the lightsaber, [it was] something that someone would actually be able to do. So I found that aspect really interesting.”

Junchang says his 25 years of martial arts experience made working on “The Acolyte” feel “natural,” even when teaching the force. To help the cast understand the mysterious space magic, he encouraged them to tap into their own internal spiritual energy, which Junchang called “chi.”

“Once you feel that chi, you can feel the force. When [the cast] does the moves they believe they have that chi, and that’s why it looks real,” Junchang says. “So we let them meditate, we let them feel their body, feel the ground, feel the nature.”

“I told them, ‘You have to just feel yourself, and then release.'”

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