Princess-turned-General Leia is still a force in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, even as the movie premieres three years after the death of star Carrie Fisher.
“We all just loved her,” says director J.J. Abrams in PEOPLE’s commemorative issue, Star Wars: The Essential Guide to The Rise of Skywalker. “You don’t recast that part, and you don’t have her disappear.”
Fans have speculated that this new movie, Episode IX in the Skywalker saga, was meant to focus on Leia, just as Episode VII, The Force Awakens, centered on Harrison Ford’s Han Solo and Episode VIII, The Last Jedi, featured Mark Hamill’s Luke Skywalker. But Fisher’s death of cardiac arrest at age 60 disrupted that plan.
Fisher was only 19 when she first starred as Princess Leia in 1977’s Star Wars, cast in part because of her confident presence as the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and actress Debbie Reynolds.
She subverted the “damsel in distress” role, as Leia took over her own rescue in that movie with now famous lines including, “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?”, “Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?” and “Someone has to save our skins. Into the garbage chute, fly boy.”
Leia’s otherworldly hair styles (giant cinnamon buns?) and costumes (from white dress to gold bikini) also became iconic. Fisher once joked to PEOPLE that if she revealed any Star Wars secrets, “I would have been sentenced to wear that awful hairstyle from the first film.”
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The secret now is, how exactly has Abrams brought her back for Episode IX? The director actually went back to unused footage of her that he shot for Episode VII and reworked the storyline. He did so with the blessing of Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd, who has also appeared in every movie of the new trilogy.
Still, integrating that footage of Fisher was a special effect in itself. “One of our big achievements was bringing her back for this movie,” says visual-effects supervisor Roger Guyett. “I hope that people aren’t distracted in any way by the process that we’ve used to get her back on screen. For Carrie, we very lovingly tried to preserve her performance.”
So far, her return looks promising. Leia has been prominent in The Rise of Skywalker trailers and TV spots, hugging Rey, holding Luke’s lightsaber, and most poignantly, saying the last word in the Star Wars mantra, “The Force will be with you. Always.”
As costar Oscar Isaac says, “They found a way to really honor this iconic character that she created. In doing that, it allows us all, as an audience, to say goodbye.”
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opens Dec. 20.