Rebels with a cause: how Andor confidently reinvents Star Wars by untraditional means

Cassian Andor looks behind him as he walks through Ferrix's main city in Andor on Disney Plus
Andor is a thrilling espionage-style show that breaks with Star Wars tradition. (Image credit: Lucasfilm/Disney Plus)

In December 2016, Rogue One tore up the Star Wars rulebook. The Gareth Edwards-directed movie proved it was possible for a film – set in that famous galaxy far, far away – to become a billion-dollar box office hit without its most iconic and enduring element. That being, a story centered on the Jedi and the Sith.

The thrilling tale of a plucky group of Rebel Alliance members, whose pilfering of the Death Star plans kickstarts the galaxy's liberation from the Empire, is a tale shaped by tragedy, morally gray characters, and the espionage and heist genres. For a franchise built on the dichotomous relationship between good and evil, as well as samurai iconography, Rogue One was a marked departure from previous Star Wars movies.

And yet, there's plenty we don't know about Rogue One's eclectic band of freedom fighters. They're an untapped resource Lucasfilm hasn't fully taken advantage of, including the rogueish Cassian Andor, whose mysterious backstory is only hinted at in the sci-fi flick. Who was he before he joined the Rebellion? What drives him? And why did he give his life so countless others could live freely?

"There are very few things we know about Cassian, but every single one of them is fascinating," Andor showrunner Tony Gilroy tells TechRadar. "He’s a murderer, saboteur, morally complicated, intelligent, tactical, trustful, adaptable, and a great leader who sacrifices himself for the galaxy. That’s an intriguing package of a human being. What starts someone on that path? That’s the question at the center of our show."

A call to arms

Cassian Andor walks through a scrapyard in his self-titled Star Wars Disney Plus show

Andor is a prequel series to Rogue One. (Image credit: Lucasfilm/Disney Plus)

Set five years before Rogue One, Andor tells the origin story of Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a deadbeat scoundrel who turns into the formidable warrior-spy that the Rebellion come to heavily rely upon.

The series opens with the titular character going on the run from the Empire after a fatal altercation with two Imperial security guards. Enlisting the help of long-time friend Bix Caleen (Adria Arjona), Cassian meets Luthen Rael (Stellan Skarsgård), a mysterious businessman who makes the fugitive an offer he can't refuse. With the Empire bearing down on him in the shape of Imperial Officers Syril Karn (Kyle Soller) and Dedra Meero (Denise Gough), Cassian accepts Luthen's help – a decision that proves pivotal not only for Cassian, but the galaxy overall.

Like Gilroy – who directed Rogue One's lengthy reshoots, which resulted in a co-writing credit – Luna was excited by the opportunity to explore Cassian Andor's past. However, the pair, whose close working relationship was key to their respective returns to the Star Wars universe, didn't want to tell a superficial story. Cassian's journey from cynical freeloader to swashbuckling secret agent had to be gratifying; a tale imbued with emotional depth and meaty content that had major repercussions for Cassian and those swept up in his story.

A cloaked Cassian Andor arrives on Aldhani in his Star Wars Disney Plus show

Cassian Andor goes on a journey of self-discovery in his standalone TV series. (Image credit: Lucasfilm/Disney Plus)

For Luna, that meant slipping back into Cassian's skin, albeit in a different frame of mind. Not only did the show's lead actor have to reimmerse himself in the fan favorite character, Luna also had to de-evolve Cassian into an immature, dispirited person with little to live for.

"It's not a long time [between Andor and Rogue One], but a lot needs to happen in those five years for him to become the man we know," Luna explains. "I used my teenage years as a reference to portray this younger version of him. You think you know everything [as a teen], but you actually don't. You're not aware of your own ignorance.

"The idea was to create someone who has no hope. He doesn't believe in himself, his family, or his community. We also find out a lot more about his past – he's a refugee, and he struggles with the feeling of failing and leaving people behind. He has to deal with a lot of demons, so he's in a very cynical moment in his life. That's interesting to play because there's lots of room and creative freedom to explore a big character arc. He's given a chance to change and he eventually believes it's possible, but getting there has to be a journey, and the beauty of that journey is him learning how to forgive himself."

Grappling with the gray

Dedra Meero looks at something off camera as she walks flanked by two shock troopers in Andor on Disney Plus

Dedra Meero is a cold and calculating Imperial Officer who'll stop at nothing to get what she wants. (Image credit: Lucasfilm/Disney Plus)

Star Wars fans will remember that, in Rogue One, Cassian Andor claims to have "done terrible things on behalf of the Rebellion". It's a quote that speaks to the murky area he and many other Rebel Alliance affiliates, such as Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whittaker), operate in. They might be the good guys, but they're not immune to committing heinous acts for the cause.

Andor will explore some of these events – and the fallout from them – in greater detail. This isn't a TV show that examines the archaic battle of good versus evil, or light versus dark. In a similar manner to HBO's Game of Thrones, Andor's cast of characters ply their trade in the gray areas. Viewers should be prepared, then, to see their allegiances regularly tested by the show's major players.

"We have people that you'll root for and also be horrified by," Gilroy teases. "You'll see people who you don't trust but find out you should have, and we have people who fail. The driving force behind this show was to make these characters feel alive, allow audiences fall in love with them, and then put them in opposition to one another. Our mandate was to make this series real and have meaningful consequences."

The beauty of that journey is Cassian learning how to forgive himself

Diego Luna, Andor lead actor

The rebels who engage in physical combat with the Empire, such as Cassian and Skarsgård's enigmatic Rael, are viewers' main window into this morally questionable middle ground. 

But they aren't the only ones putting their lives on the line. Mon Mothma, portrayed once more by Genevieve O'Reilly (Rogue One, Star Wars: Rebels), takes the fight to the Empire through the Imperial Senate. However, she's forced to carefully navigate different dangers to her Rebellion counterparts – those being of the verbal and psychological kind.

Reprising the role of Mon Mothma in a live-action capacity, years before she becomes one of the Rebellion's most notable leaders, then, provided O'Reilly with gripping new material to dig into. The most intriguing elements of exploring new aspects of the character? Seeing how Mon Mothma deals with operating in the shadows of the Imperial Senate – and the isolation at home and at work that brings.

A concerned Mon Mothma looks around the Imperial Senate in Andor on Disney Plus

Mon Mothma gets some long overdue character development in Andor. (Image credit: Lucasfilm/Disney Plus)

"Mon Mothma has represented her planet in the Senate since she was 14," O'Reilly says. "She's always been living a life of orthodoxy. But what was most fascinating to me was the chance to explore the series of moments that led to her sacrificing everything for the cause.

"When we've previously seen her, she's been surrounded by like-minded people, even if they don't always agree with her. In Andor, she's a very lonely voice fighting for democracy against this wall of empire. She has to stand up and fight for what she believes in. We learn not just about her public face, but also her private life and what she has to lose by taking risks. How dangerous is it? How far is she willing to go? And at what cost?"

The moral complexities that Andor's main characters possess isn't reserved for those fighting for the Rebellion. It's extends to those working for the Galactic Empire, which enriches the character development of complicated individuals including Soller's Karn and Gough's Meero.

"Denise and I found our characters to be really human villains," Soller says. "They're just trying to do their jobs, transcend their stations, and find meaning and their place in this messy world they inhabit. They think they're doing the right thing, and their morals, sense of purpose, and desire for justice speak to that."

Syril Karn stares at a hologram of Cassian Andor in the latter's Star Wars Disney Plus show

Syril Karn makes for a fascinating foil to Cassian Andor in multiple ways. (Image credit: Lucasfilm/Disney Plus)

Instead of embodying individuals who are straight-up evil, Soller and Gough found fascinating challenges in making Karn and Meero as morally conflicted as the heroes they pursue. That their individual arcs explore traumatic themes and tough subject matter that aren't usually reserved for antagonists only adds more flavor to their characters.

"Syril doesn't really know who he is," Soller suggests. "He's trying to find his identity through the fascist system of the Empire and through exerting his power over other people. That search, and how he exists in unknown territory because we ultimately don't know which direction he'll go in, creates an interesting void to occupy as an actor."

"What I find really interesting in the world we're living in is women can be just as prone to toxic behaviors," Gough adds. "It's called toxic masculinity, but you don't really need the masculinity part at the end; it's more like toxic personality disorder. Dedra does feel like a box ticked – she's only one of two women on her station – but, once you look past that, she's a really ambitious and nasty piece of work. It doesn't matter she's a woman, she's just a psychopathic individual who'll go to any lengths to rise up the Empire's ranks."

Building a new world

Cassian Andor visits Bix Caleen at her engineering yard in Andor's Star Wars show

Andor's creative team built an entire city to film the series in. (Image credit: Lucasfilm/Disney Plus)

Before Star Wars creator George Lucas found a unwavering love for VFX and blue screen technology – elements that drew fierce criticism during the prequel film trilogy years – the franchise was largely built on practical effects.

In the years since Episode 3: Revenge of the Sith's release, Star Wars has somwhat returned to its roots; the franchise finding a balance between CGI and practicality. That includes the recent batch of live-action Disney Plus shows, including The Mandalorian. Their production has been aided by the invention of The Volume, a set comprising 20-foot high LED screen panels that, combined with physical aspects, such as rocky outcrops and the odd building or two, have redefined how Lucasfilm films its projects.

Andor foregoes that technology completely. The series is a predominantly practical production, with the production design team – led by Luke Hull (Chernobyl, Fortitude) building a massive, nine-acre outdoor set for Ferrix's main city at Pinewood Studios in the UK. The location gave the crew the freedom to shoot down any alley, in any building, and from any angle to capture the most frenetic, intimate, or explosive moments in ways that wouldn't have been possible using The Volume.

Cassian Andor runs into two individuals he needs to pay money back to in his Star Wars TV series

Andor favors practical effects over computer-based imagery or The Volume. (Image credit: Lucasfilm/Disney Plus)

"What people do with that technology is incredible," Gilroy admits. "But the problem is you can't do both [use The Volume and be fully practical]. We'd love to use The Volume – it'd be great for us – but you can't mix and match.

"If you watch our show, you'll see it's big, wide, and people go out of the box. The Volume is physically restrictive – you can't run 100 yards, and our actors have to be able to do that. The Volume doesn't allow for that workflow so, while it's beautiful and amazing, it didn't fit what we wanted to do. Our director of photography and episodic directors could walk the streets and film how they want, which is great because there's an enormous thing that happens at the end [of season 1] which wouldn't have been possible to shoot in The Volume. I don't think I've ever been on a show that built a set like that."

Denise and I found our characters to be really human villains

Kyle Soller, Syril Karn actor

With its core themes centered on morality, physically gigantic sets, and suspense-filled narrative that fills in the gaps in a key part of Star Wars history, Andor is a ground-breaking show that reinvents the sci-fi franchise.

It similarly enriches the legendary series in ways other Star Wars shows have. The Mandalorian's space western vibes, The Book of Boba Fett’s crime syndicate styling, and Star Wars Visions’ anime-like aesthetic have all invigorated and expanded the Star Wars universe, ushering in an intriguing era where Force wielders are no longer the only stars of the show. There’s still a space for those projects to operate in, of course – Obi Wan’s standalone series and Ahsoka Tano’s forthcoming show being proof of that.

Andor, though, finds a rich niche to occupy in the franchise. It's a series that rebels against type, favoring the galaxy's general populace (and the issues they face amid the Empire's dictatorial grip) instead of toeing the franchise line to give another narrative platform to Force wielders – for now, at least. It's possible that such individuals, like Rogue One's Chirrut Îmwe, might appear in season 2, which contains some "sexy" time jump elements, according to Gilroy.

For now, Andor has done a stunning job of elevating the Star Wars universe. It's helped to push the series beyond the confines of its boundaries and, with other experimental Star Wars shows, including Skeleton Crew, set to potentially break new ground, too, the future of Star Wars might start looking even brighter than it has before.

"It's a very exciting concept that you can deepen what you've already done by what's to come," Gilroy says. "What effect Andor will have on the larger Star Wars story, I don't know. But I think Rogue One will be deepened by season one, and season one will be deepened by what happens in season two. That's the effect you want to have on yourself and the audience, which I hope Andor does."

Andor's first three episodes are available to stream on Disney Plus now.

Senior Entertainment Reporter

As TechRadar's senior entertainment reporter, Tom covers all of the latest movies, TV shows, and streaming service news that you need to know about. You'll regularly find him writing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, Netflix, Prime Video, Disney Plus, and many other topics of interest.

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