How Daisy Ridley landed the biggest role in Hollywood

Daisy Ridley has been on a rollercoaster ride since 2014, when she was plucked from obscurity and cast as Force-sensitive scavenger Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Coming seemingly out of nowhere to claim one of the most coveted roles in Hollywood, she was placed at the forefront of one of Hollywood's biggest franchises—instantly becoming the face of the new Star Wars trilogy. 

2017 has been a huge year for the London-born Ridley. She was part of the star-studded ensemble cast for Kenneth Branagh's Murder on the Orient Express remake, and she looked right at home as she rubbed shoulders with her A-list castmates at the premiere, but the biggest date in Ridley's calendar this year was always going to be December 15. This marks the release of The Last Jedi, the eighth film in the Star Wars franchise and Ridley's second outing as Rey. Her monumental ascension has been a real-life fairytale, but it wasn't just handed to her. Here's how she landed the role that changed her life.  

She dropped out of school to pursue acting

Ridley honed the skills that would eventually impress Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams while she was a student at England's Tring Park School for the Performing Arts. She graduated with a concentration in musical theater in 2010, though her path wasn't immediately clear to her at that stage, despite assurances from her drama teacher that she could make it as a professional actor if she really wanted to. Unsure about what to do next, Ridley enrolled in London's Birkbeck University where she studied classical civilization, but she kept going to auditions all the same.

Before long she decided that if she wanted to take acting seriously, she'd give it all of her attention, and dropped out of school to pursue it as a career. One of her very first jobs was on an interactive first aid film in which she demonstrates how to administer lifesaving CPR in a high-pressure situation. "This role was particularly important to me as my godfather had suffered a cardiac arrest some time before, and his life was saved because there was someone with the knowledge to use the right CPR techniques on him," she told Reconstruction Council UK, the organization who funded the project—and of which Ridley is a patron.

She worked for free in student films

Believe it or not, The Force Awakens was only Ridley's second-ever feature film, the first being a 2012 movie created by filmmaker and lecturer Peter Hearn. Ridley was one of a handful of aspiring actors to regularly visit Andover College and work with the film students on their various projects, and all she got in return for her efforts was a refund on the cost of her expenses. It was all good experience, however, and Hearn (who cast Ridley as a comic book drawing come to life in his film) recalled being particularly impressed by her strong work ethic.

"I think she just wanted to work," he told The Guardian. "I'm pretty sure she was working in a bar at the time we cast her. She was overwhelmed with the fact people were offering her work." The lecturer revealed that Ridley had become a favorite among his students and that they were all rooting for her to make it big in the industry. "Whenever she got cast in anything we all applauded," he added.

She did commercials

Ridley would have never gotten the chance to work with the film students at Andover College if she hadn't cut her teeth doing commercials first. It was on the set of a 2012 spot for British supermarket chain Morrisons (Ridley can be seen perched on the edge of a couch, grinning as she eats a pork pie) that she met a friend of Peter Hearn, who was so impressed with what she brought to her tiny role that she recommended the lecturer consider casting her.

"She said Daisy seemed to have bundles of energy and that if we needed any more young actors, to look at her," Hearn said. After meeting Ridley in person, he decided that his friend was right and he wrote a part especially for her. Ridley also took part in an advertising campaign for fashion retailer ASOS around that time; in 2014, the company invited her back for a cover shoot alongside her Star Wars co-star John Boyega.

She did a sci-fi short

In a bid to bulk up her showreel, Ridley accepted the lead role in a short film being created as part of the 2013 Sci-Fi London 48-hour challenge, which gives contestants just two days to write, shoot and edit their entries. She played a woman named Sarah in Georgia Higgins' Blue Season after the director spotted her on a casting website, and Ridley made a lasting impression on the aspiring filmmaker in the short time they worked together.

"She worked incredibly well in the time we had, creating her character," The Guardian quoted Higgins as saying. "She was focused and giving and open, asking if there was anything she should change or do. We didn't have much time for rehearsals and she worked really well with that. For the first part of the film, she was mostly hanging upside down." Ridley also branched out into music videos in 2013 to expand her portfolio further, playing the part of Kim in Wiley's "Lights On."

She started landing TV roles

Her hard work was soon rewarded with a guest part in Casualty, a watershed moment in Ridley's career. The BBC show became the longest-running primetime medical drama in history in 2011, and like countless British families, the Ridleys tuned in every week to see what was going down in Holby City Hospital. It was an extra special experience when they sat down to watch the season 27 episode "And the Walls Come Tumbling Down," in which Ridley played a young woman named Fran.

She later admitted during the Star Wars: The Force Awakens press tour that even after being catapulted to fame, winning her part in Casualty remains her "first 'Oh my God' moment as an actor." She told reporters (via Metro) that she was "over the moon" when she got the call from the show because she "grew up with it on in our house." She made her debut on rival network Channel 4 a few weeks later, playing Jessie in an episode of their comedy drama Youngers.

Bigger roles started to come her way

By 2014 Ridley had impressed TV producers enough to start being considered for bigger roles. She popped up as an enthusiastic shopper in a season 2 episode of popular Jeremy Piven-led drama Mr. Selfridge, and she also bagged a role in a two-part Silent Witness special, which involved a rather graphic autopsy scene. She wasn't fazed by this and managed bring "a kind of intuitive integrity" to her character, according to director Dusan Lazarevic, who was impressed with her already advanced range.

"I had this gut feeling that she was right," Lazarevic told The Guardian. "She showed a combination of vulnerability and strength which gave her a complexity, and there was an intelligence in her eyes that was an indicator she could play quite a complicated part. Her eyes and face can one moment radiate joy and a lust for life, and then suddenly there was strength in it, and another moment she could be brave, then defiant, then racked with guilt and despair. There was a whole range where she could go with authenticity and conviction."

Abrams wanted an unknown

While all of this onscreen experience was a good start for Ridley, she was still a million miles away from being able to audition for a Hollywood blockbuster—or so she thought. Luckily for her, Star Wars: The Force Awakens director J.J. Abrams wanted to cast unknown actors, just as George Lucas did with the original Star Wars trilogy. "That's something I remember loving about the original trilogy: not having seen these people before," he told Elle.

"For our purposes, it was exciting but also terrifying because we knew that there was going to be a certain level of scrutiny and expectation on who these people were going to be," Abrams continued. "So they needed to be actors whom the audience could discover as these characters, not as actors they'd seen elsewhere. Ideally, it needed to be people like Daisy—somewhat experienced, but mostly new to the game."

They didn't discover her until the last minute

Finding someone who was an unknown quantity but still had the ability to take on such a demanding and high-profile role wasn't exactly a walk in the park for Abrams and company, who took their time with their search—to the point that producers were close to panic when Ridley finally came to their attention. "You always feel like you're going to run out of time, but our casting directors Nina Gold, April Webster and Alyssa Weisberg just did an incredible amount of work," co-producer Michelle Rejwan said.

The reason Ridley didn't come forward as soon as the casting call was put out was that she believed the part was way out of her league, though a conversation with a friend in the field changed that. "I heard all sorts of famous people were being seen for it," she told Elle. "But then a friend got an audition, so I knew they were interested in an unknown. I immediately got this weird feeling all over my body. I knew I had to be seen for it." She instructed her agent to send an email, and her first audition was arranged.

She nailed the audition

Abrams took a liking to Ridley right away, but the audition process was still drawn out and difficult. "I was just one of the lucky people who managed to get an audition and he saw something in me," she told The Telegraph in 2015. "I thought I'd ruined the first few auditions but he saw some potential, I guess, and I was allowed to come back and read again, and then I finally got the role. From when I started auditioning two years ago until now it has been like a roller coaster. There's not an hour has gone past where I haven't thought about this film and this character."

Ridley secured the part with her fourth and final reading, an emotionally charged audition that later found its way onto the internet. "She was so funny and had a great spark," Abrams said. "But I had her do a scene where she had to get pretty emotional, and she nailed it on the first take. She was born with this gift to be in a moment and make it her own. She simultaneously works from the inside out and the outside in."

She hit the gym hard

Ridley was understandably thrilled when she finally got confirmation that she'd be playing Rey, but she knew that could change if she wasn't physically prepared for the rigors of the role. To get into shape for Star Wars, she ate a diet that consisted of "lots of fish, legumes, and spirulina shakes" and trained for at least four hours a day, four days a week. "It became my solace," she said. "Because it's the only thing structured in my life right now. Training is sort of a therapy session, I guess."

She had to undergo surgery for a ganglion cyst that had formed on the joint of her left wrist at one stage, though that didn't stop her personal trainer Jack Graves from pushing her to her limits. As well as intense indoor workouts that included kickboxing and wall climbing, Graves had Ridley performing sprints with a parachute attached to her back in the parking lot of Pinewood Studios. There's hardly any time to relax between movies (she has to be in shape for any potential re-shoots), but that grueling workout schedule is a small price to pay for a major part in one of the most beloved film franchises in Hollywood history.