Anakin's Padawan has more than just Jedi skills in real life.
Let's cut to the chase: Ashley Eckstein knows that you originally found her Clone Wars alter-ego Ahsoka Tano annoying. But she promises that has all changed. A fangirl herself, she knows what fellow Force-fanatics want to see, especially the female ones. Which is why she established Her Universe, an online store to deliver galactic gear to girls. Breaking down the old stereotypes of geekdom as a guy thing is a noble cause, so we had to talk to her about how she does it.
Nerdist News: How did Her Universe come about?
Ashley Eckstein: I first got the idea shortly after I was cast as the voice of Ahsoka. I looked in my closet and realized I only had one Star Wars shirt that was actually made for girls. I look in my husband's closet and he's got ten. And there was something wrong with this picture, because I'm actually a bigger fan than he is. So I scoured the internet and went to all the stores and discovered that Star Wars merchandise for women didn't really exist. If I did find something, it was usually back-ordered or out of stock. So I started doing my research, and found that pretty much half of all sci-fi fans in general - and half of all Star Wars fans too - are women, and that number is only gonna grow with Ahsoka Tano and all of the strong women who are in The Clone Wars. So I founded Her Universe, went to Lucasfilm, and they gave me the shot - they gave me the license to make female merchandise for fans, because we're trying to break down the stereotype and say that sci-fi's not just for the men, it's not just for the women. It's for everyone, so we wanna make an equal amount of merchandise for the fans.
NN: Do you ever get guys complaining that they want some of your designs in male sizes?
AE: We have, actually, and I take that as such a huge compliment! I've heard several people say, "Well, what about 'His Universe'?", and I say, okay, look on the convention floor. Go to San Diego Comic-Con, and pretty much the entire convention is "His Universe." Most of the booths and a lot of the offerings are geared towards men. There's plenty of merchandise for them, so we're just focused on the ladies.
NN: One of your T-shirts has Vader and Leia with the words "Daddy issues." We always thought Leia took the revelation of her father's identity way more calmly than Luke did.
AE: Yeah, that was never really fleshed out. I would have loved if that were fleshed out a little bit more. Obviously several things have been in the Expanded Universe, but it was kind of brushed over.
NN: Do you have time with all your acting to run the day-to-day operations of the company?
AE: A lot of people assume this is just an endorsement on my part, and it's not. I've been involved from day one, when I had this crazy idea, then hired a consultant to help it get from an idea to an actual company. I have an amazing business partner that works with me to create the merchandise and run the web store, but my fingers are on everything, because they have to be. I don't have a huge staff running the business. We're overseeing all of the day-to-day operations, from what's on the label to whether we have the appropriate legal lines on everything. Most people don't realize that it's me and a couple of people behind the scenes making it all happen. I still am fortunate enough to be able to do acting work as well, but it's very much a fulltime job.
[Former Star Wars Fan Club president] Dan Madsen is with Her Universe fulltime; he's our publicist, and he's been great. There's a lot of strong women working on this project, but there's a lot of strong men behind the scenes, and Dan's been with us from the very beginning. I actually got in touch with Dan more because of Star Trek connections. I'm working with an amazing lady named Andrea Hines, and she used to be the head of consumer products at Paramount studios and worked with Dan, because he also did the Star Trek Fan Club. She was the one that brought him on board. I was very fortunate that he's a man who covers many different franchises.
NN: And you also cover many different licenses.
AE: An apparel company like ours usually will, and that's something that was important to me from the beginning, because Her Universe covers more than just Star Wars. Star Wars will always have a special place in my heart - of course I'm biased! - because I'm a longtime fan, but also because no-one was willing to give us a shot except Lucasfilm in the beginning, and I'll always be grateful for that. But Her Universe, to me, is a brand that covers all of science fiction, because I feel like this is a problem across the entire genre. Stereotypes still exist; people still believe that sci-fi is for boys and men, and they don't believe that there's all these passionate women out there. I felt from the beginning that we need to create a community for female fans and a place where all of science fiction can be celebrated.
NN: Do you see any major differences between male and female fans?
AE: I think the reason why female merchandise hasn't worked out in the past is because female fans and male fans like the same properties, but they like them for different reasons and they show it in different ways. Sometimes the male fans are really into the action and adventure and the battles, and we female fans become emotionally attached to the characters. You literally envision your relationships with these characters. I don't even mean in a romantic way; you just view this character as if they're another family member of yours. So female fans can become very passionate, because there's this emotional connection to the shows and the characters. And as I'm sure men know, we like to talk! So as women we're very vocal about the passion for these properties, whereas sometimes men aren't as vocal even though they like it just as much. I think in the past men just assumed that women liked it for the same reasons. You need to discover why, and then market to those reasons. I know what I want as a female fan, which does make it a little easier.
NN: Every so often, you'll see a company try to do Star Wars fashion dolls - as a female collector, do you prefer those to the more typical action figures, or is that a misconception?
AE: I like both - I'm just a collector of everything. My Star Wars collecting is definitely expanding now that I've been on the show. But one thing that I've noticed, especially with the action figures, is that in the past they've said they don't make as many of the female characters because boys don't want them. With Ahsoka, you can barely find her action figure - it's very hard. What Dave Filoni and his writing staff have been able to do with her, is make fans able to look past her gender: they just see her as Anakin Skywalker's Padawan. They don't say it's a boy character or a girl character. And I hope we can get the toy companies to look past the gender, and if it's a good, strong character, fans are gonna want it regardless. I know so many boys who have Ahsoka as part of their collections because she's one of the team. When they play all these battles and missions, she's there.
NN: It doesn't hurt that she's handy with a lightsaber...
AE: That helps. I have to applaud Dave Filoni and George Lucas for what they've done with Ahsoka, because she's the first female Jedi that's been focused on as a lead, and that's made a huge difference, especially with girls. I know so many girls and parents who are thankful there's a Jedi who the girls can be, the same as the boys.
NN: Given that George Lucas likes to make small changes to the movies every few years, do you think he'll ever digitally insert Ahsoka into the background of the prequels somewhere?
AE: Oh geez...I have no idea! I have no sway over that, I can promise you that. If he decides to do that, I'll be just as surprised as everyone else. But I do think it's very cool that she's been accepted now as part of the Star Wars story. In the beginning, I know she was just this really annoying, snippy sidekick who many people had their doubts about, and I feel like now she's finally earned her stripes. That's enough for me, but if she ends up in the movies, it'll certainly be a surprise.
NN: Can you give us any hints about where The Clone Wars is going?
AE: We're actually pretty far ahead, finalizing some of my records for season five. It just continues to amaze me. We've got episodic writers for our show; writers that write for HBO. It really is a shame to write it off as just a kids' cartoon, because it's not; the stories are just unbelievable. It does continue to get darker and more serious, as we're getting closer and closer to Episode III. Ahsoka in season five just grows up so much, it's unbelievable. I just beg the fans who gave up on the show after the movie and season one to give it a chance now, because it's a completely different show. Dave Filoni is a fan: he cares so much about the show and the storyline. He wants to give the fans what they want, and I feel like he's done that. Season two was when it really took off, and I think he's turned it into what the fans wanted it to be all along.
NN: We couldn't let you go without asking about the Brady Bunch TV movie you did. What was it like to play Jan?
AE: Marcia Marcia Marcia! It was awesome. I was always a fan of The Brady Bunch, and when I heard they were casting, of course I had the classic experience of my agent sending me in for Marcia, and because I was a little bit older I thought I'd be more appropriate. I go in, and the casting director says, "Well, you're not quite right for Marcia, but how about Jan?" Which, every girl wants to be Marcia; they don't wanna be Jan. But I was actually really excited, because she's crazy in these spoof movies and as an actress it's so much more fun to play. It was alike a dream come true to work with Shelly Long and Gary Cole, and we actually got to work on several pieces from the original set - I think the breakfast table that they ate at, and they flew in parts of the original living room. So that was just unreal.