If you’re a fan of the fantasy or sci-fi genre, you’ve likely been lucky enough to have seen Erin Kellyman grace your screen. From Marvel to Star Wars, Kellyman has acted her way through every fantasy and sci-fi fan’s favourite fictional universe, bringing a distinct amount of grace and grit to every character she’s portrayed. Her roles tend to carry a quiet yet enigmatic demeanour; for them, what isn’t being said is what truly speaks volumes. Long after her image leaves the screen and the credits begin to roll, Kellyman’s performances will linger with you — a testament to the deft touch she brings that ties all of her characters together.
Even when she is face-to-face with me, sans the costumes and swords, it’s impossible not to feel her force. Eloquent and enthusiastic about everything she speaks of, she knows the importance of approaching every role with honour and understanding. So, it’s not really a surprise to anyone that she plays the heroic knight-in-training Jade, a role that was created by developer Jonathan Kasdan with her in mind as he created her latest project, Willow. Set 17 years after the 1988 cult-fave film, Willow begins with Princess Kit grappling with her birthright path and the kidnapping of her twin brother Prince Airk. Kit, along with Willow and a gaggle of other heroes, swiftly set off on a dangerous mission across worlds to find him. One of those heroes is Erin Kellyman’s Jade.
Jade embodies what it means to be chivalrous — a word that, when defined by Google, is “typically used of a man.” The beauty of Willow is how it tears down that definition and the preconceived tropes and stereotypes that have been force-fed to us through the fairytales we’ve consumed since we were kids. This isn’t a story about a male knight saving a damsel in distress. It’s a story with women at the helm, like a Princess saving her damsel in distress of a brother and, inevitably, falling in love with her best friend — her knight — while doing so. It serves as one of the first queer-centric stories to be told on a major Disney franchise, proving just how badly we need authentic stories that reflect our society. Stories help shape and colour our world and, as a queer woman, Kellyman is thankful that she gets to be involved in a project that will both change what a fairytale can be and help queer youth in the process.
In conversation with Schön! Magazine, Erin Kellyman chats at length about the impact that portraying Jade on Willow has had on her, what’s on the playlist she made to get into Jade’s mind, the importance of representation in the fantasy genre, and more.
I know you probably have heard this a million times, but you’ve been in some of my favourite things: Solo: A Star Wars Story and The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, and now here you are in Willow, which is such a wonderful story. As your career has grown and as you’ve developed as an actress, are you really taking in the significance of the projects that you’re working on or is it only in hindsight?
It’s definitely not until I look back. I think it would be way too overwhelming to be in that moment and think, wow, this is massive. I don’t think you realize the impact until you step away from it. Somebody posted a photo of me in Solo the other day and I was like, Holy shit, I look really young! At that point, that was the oldest I’d ever been. It just felt like I was an adult doing this thing, but I was 17! That’s so young. It probably still hasn’t sunk in. I’ve had some really great opportunities and I’m very, very grateful.
Yeah, especially when you think at the age you are now — 24 — and how much you grow between 17 and 24.
Yeah! That’s the thing, I see 17-year-olds now and I’m like, you’re a child! You’re an infant! My sister is just about to turn 20 and something is not adding up! [Laughs]
Something I love about Willow, and I loved this about the original, is that despite being set in this magical world, so many themes and lessons apply to society and the show is no different. Willow struggles with not being good enough, Jade and Kit are dancing around their affection for one another in such a pure way, and so many other things. Was that what initially attracted you to the project?
Yeah, massively. I feel like Willow does this really special thing where it pulls you into this fantasy world and you feel like you’re almost escaping. You’re going on this journey and it feels really lovely to fully submerge yourself into this universe, but then it’s not so distant from reality. You see characters that you can relate to because these characters are going through things that maybe you’ve been through. It incorporates modern society with that fantasy twist element which is really cool.
Jade walks this fine line between wanting to continue her training as a night while navigating Kit’s own insecurities, like allowing her to win their duals. At the end of episode 3, the scene between Jade and Ballantine was quite powerful and seemed like a turning point for her regarding her as a knight. While filming each episode, did it feel like you were somewhat growing up alongside Jade?
Massively, 100%. I feel like every character in the show goes through this. They end up a completely different person from the person they were at the beginning episode. We, as actors, I think grew alongside them as well, to be honest. Even now I have a very different opinion of Jade now because of the things I’ve been through since then to what I did when I was actually filming. It’s really interesting to grow and develop alongside your character.
I love that you have a different perspective on her now because I remember scrolling through your Instagram and seeing your posts from last year during filming and seeing how different you are compared to back then. Touching on that, female empowerment is at the core of Willow, but it’s done so in a way that doesn’t feel cheesy or like it’s pandering to meet a checklist of representation. Was that really apparent in the script?
I think that also subconsciously draws you in as an actor when you read the script because you’re seeing these really powerful and strong women, but there’s no point being made about it. It’s not highlighted, it’s not under a spotlight, they just exist because we all exist. We’re just out here being badasses like we are in the real world. I think that goes for all of the diversity in the show — there are people of colour in the show and there is no storyline about them being people of colour. We just are, it’s not a plot in the show. We’re just there. The queer storyline, too — there’s no highlight about the fact that they’re both girls. They’re just two people in love. I think it’s something really special, the way they’ve done representation is just beautiful.
Especially with queer representation, there was a lack of queer representation, especially for kids, in the last 10 to 15 years. It was a real joy to see Jade and Kit’s relationship blossom over the season — from Jade admitting her feelings in the woods in episode 5 to the beautiful kiss in episode 7. You’re really giving kids the representation so many needed 10, 15, 20 years ago. What does that mean to you?
It genuinely means everything. I feel like this moment, specifically for me, has come full circle. Being a fan of Disney and being queer and not seeing that representation as a kid… Now I’m a small part of the process to fix that. I feel like I’m healing my inner child and hopefully helping other people that are maybe feeling a little bit lonely in their sexuality or still trying to figure it out. Just being able to see queer people on screen and then not have it be a big deal, it’s just these two people in love, is amazing.
It’s a mirror — it’s not hiding anything, it’s showing authentic experiences that exist regardless of age, race, gender, and the like.
Yeah, and all the time that they’re not spending up focusing on the fact that it’s two girls they can spend focusing on their emotions, their backstories, and why they’re navigating this thing. That’s what I really appreciate.
This might be an obvious thing to say, but the beauty of watching you as an actress is that you do silence. Even just a slight narrowing of your eyes as the audience you feel like you’re in your character’s head, feeling the same things they are feeling. I read that you like to create backstories for your character to get into their minds, in addition to making playlists and such. For Jade, were there specific songs that really spoke to you that embodied her character?
Oh my god, yeah. There are specific ones. The Only Exception by Paramore was really prominent from the start. It is so cute and fits Jade’s story. I remember Ruby coming into my apartment and saying “Listen to this,” and I kind of shrugged it off because I had heard it before and knew Paramore. Then, she said listen to it as Jade and I was like, holy shit. It literally blew my mind. I’m pretty sure they wrote it specifically for them, the accuracy is shocking. They take a verse each and then obviously the chorus is very much Kit. Even on the bridge, they take a line each. There’s a line about leaving in the morning when I wake up which is so specific to episode one.
I need to re-listen now with all of this knowledge.
I still have the playlist, let me look it up! The Only Exception, for Jade, just shows how much she’s been through. She doesn’t have a family and that hurts her every single day and she doesn’t talk about it. She just pushed it all down. She’s training 12 hours a day to be a knight, she’s pushing herself to the limit every single day, and she’s such an emotional person but she pushes it all down. I think she finds it quite hard to open up to love, so to describe Kit as “the only exception” is just beautiful. There are loads of songs on here, to be honest. Lost of King Princess, Dodie was big for Jade. Phoebe Bridgers as well.
I love all of these, lots of sad girl vibes!
Yeah, Jade is in her feelings! [Laughs]
She’s had to deal with so much! That scene in episode three with Ballantine was intense. He’s the only family she’s ever had. What was that like to film and get into that mindset?
Yeah, it was really intense. I mean, that’s her dad — he raised her. This is the only father she’s known, so obviously, it was completely heartbreaking for both of us. He trained her to make those kinds of decisions and know when to stand up. She knows what she has to do, but Christ. It was difficult. It was also just a difficult scene I think in general because episode three was exhausting to get through. I don’t know what was up with that episode, but there were some real highs and major lows.
I saw your Instagram caption about there being extreme highs and lows. I can only imagine.
I wish I could convey better the extremes of those two sides. That scene was a great example of the extremes because it was just tricky to film. They are having the rain machine and trying to figure out shooting in the rain, then I was also exhausted from fighting. We shot one perspective one day and then two weeks later we did mine, which was tricky. Ralph [Ineson] is incredible and did it perfectly every single time. It was great to play on that, but it was hard to keep getting back into that mindset.
I am, obviously, not an actress but I feel like that would be so difficult to get into — just having to get back into the mind of ‘now I need to think about killing my pseudo-father again even though I just did it two weeks ago’.
Exactly. I’ve already done it! I want to say I’m not complaining — we had fun 99% of the time. The energy was super high all the time, we’d be offset laughing and joking. It’s being told “Now you have to come and kill Ballantine now,” that’s hard! [laughs] I don’t want to pull myself away from the laughs!
That’s when it’s time to put the sad girl music on!
Right! It’s a lot! [Laughs]
For those who haven’t caught the finale yet, what can audiences expect?
Christ, it’s so good. Can I swear? It’s hard to describe how good it is. Episode eight compared to episode one is two completely different worlds, it’s insane. We watched it and we were silent. I don’t think I went to school long enough to properly articulate how I feel about this! I don’t have a wide enough vocab range, unfortunately. [Laughs] It’s going to blow their fucking socks off.
Knowing what you do about Jade’s arc over the season, if you could give her a piece of advice from Erin what would it be?
If I could give her a piece of advice? Oh, that’s good. It’s so different now than when I was shooting… I feel like I need her to give me advice! I want to tell Jade that she’s got it, she’s fine. I’ve changed so much as a person since filming, I feel so protective over Jade. I want her to express some things, let them out, and stop pushing everything down. If you’re not getting that attention from Kit, you don’t have to be chasing her all the time. She’s just so in love and she can’t help herself.
There is that scene when she tells Kit that she’s leaving to go training which I thought was great because it shows her trying to choose her growth.
Yeah, that’s the thing too. She’s been told she needs to train to be a knight to protect Kit. It’s all she’s known. My advice to her would be to take more time for herself — do things for you!
I’m speaking to your co-star Dempsey so I thought it might be fun to get you to maybe ask him a question you haven’t thought to ask him and I’ll relay it to him.
Oh my gosh, I wish I had more time to think about this! First, tell him I love him. I just told him an hour ago but tell him again. A question… My question would be: How does Airk feel about Kit and Jade now becoming an item? They’ve all grown up with each other, it was always the three of them. We — Ruby, Dempsey and I — had a lot of time to talk about our characters and stuff. We’d chat about how they’d grown up since they were babies together, spending time in the castle and fighting one another. It’s so frustrating because you don’t see that in the show since there is so much going on and we instantly go on this quest. That’d be my question because I can imagine that’s pretty weird.
I’ll ask him that and get that answer for you! It must be odd since he must see Jade like another sister. Besides that, if there’s something you’d like kids to take away from Willow, what would it be?
It’s so cliche, but the more that you can be yourself, the happier you’re going to be in the long run. Even if everybody else is different from you, you’re gonna find your people. I think everybody in Willow are so different in their personalities that on paper they would probably contradict each other and maybe they probably wouldn’t get on. This show proves that people who are very different can get along and become a family. I just say to stay true to who you are and who you want to be because you can make family and you can make friends that will appreciate and love you.
Yeah, I think the theme of found family is really, really nice. Showing people that they can choose who they want to love, who they want to spend their time with, and who they want around them, is great for people to see.
Yeah, I understand that the queer storyline will attract queer people. I also know that in the queer community, finding a new family is quite a big thing. I know a lot of queer people have gone through that. I think, hopefully, a lot of people will be able to see that it is okay. It’s something that happens.
Lastly, if you could manifest something for yourself in 2023 what would it be?
Oh wow, for myself? I don’t know. I would want everybody that I love, like my family and friends, to just be happy and healthy. I think I want to manifest that shit really hard.
That’s beautiful. Thank you so much, Erin, it’s been a pleasure. I’m so excited we got to chat because I remember seeing you in Solo and thinking, “one day I’m going to talk to her, she’s so damn cool,” so technically I manifested that back in 2015 and here we are. I hope we can chat about season two when it inevitably comes!
That’s amazing! What a story. Thank you so much. It’s genuinely been such a nice chat, let’s talk about the finale when it’s out and you finally see it!
Willow is streaming now on Disney+.
photography. Ben Duggan
art direction. Santa Bevacqua
fashion. Jacquie Trevizo
talent. Erin Kellyman
hair. Vernon Francois @ The Visionaries Agency
make up. Grace Phillips @ Tracey Mattingly
casting + production. Alabama Blonde @ Strike the Blonde Casting
location. The Ivory Space Studios
words. Kelsey Barnes