Teaching Profession

The New ‘Star Wars’ Character Maz Kanata Is Based on a Teacher

By Ross Brenneman — January 06, 2016 1 min read
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Have you felt it? Not only has the Force awoken, it’s knocked back a few espressos and power-lifted an Imperial cruiser. The latest episode in the “Star Wars” saga passed “Avatar” this week to become the highest-grossing movie at the domestic box office ever.

One of the characters introduced in the movie is Maz Kanata, a bar matron voiced by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. Kanata offers refuge and wisdom to our movie’s other heroes, but her basis is rooted in this galaxy: High school English teacher Rose Gilbert.

Gilbert, who passed away in 2013, taught both “The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams and the movie’s production designer, Rick Carter.

The concept design book The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, elaborates on how Gilbert influenced Maz:

Early in Episode VII's development, Rick Carter and J.J. Abrams discovered that they both had a common mentor: award-winning and adored Palisades High School English teacher Rose Gilbert, who retired at the age of 94 in early 2013. In tribute to Gilbert, character concept artists Christian Alzmann and Iain McCaig were tasked with creating "Maz," whom our heroes first encounter at an Exotic City bar that she runs.

You can see the influence of Gilbert in Maz’s short frame (Gilbert was five feet tall) and giant glasses. One would guess there’s also a good deal of Gilbert’s personality in there, too; she acts as a mix of sage and mentor.

Gilbert graduated from UCLA in 1940, and was a major subsequent benefactor of the university, endowing several awards and scholarships. She taught for more than 50 years in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Abrams told California’s Palisadian-Post that while Gilbert “was always at the center of the inspiration for Maz,” they were unable to show their former teacher the character design before she died: “Rick and I attended her service and sat together, once again amazed by her life force and infinite spirit.”

Image: Concept art for Maz compared to the real thing, via The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens/Collider

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.