"I feel like I'm in my infant stages of being a true Star Wars fan," says actress and retired MMA fighter Gina Carano, who's gotten a crash course in the franchise thanks to her role on the new Disney+ Star Wars series The Mandalorian, which debuted this week. Carano, who grew up in Las Vegas and attended Trinity Christian High School and UNLV, has been working steadily in film and TV for the past decade, but The Mandalorian features her most high-profile role to date, a main character on the flagship series of Disney's new streaming service.
"The week before we started shooting I definitely had a moment of panic, and I started thinking about all the ways I'm going to ruin Star Wars," she remembers. "But I usually find if you don't have that panic moment, it means you don't care enough."
Created by Jon Favreau and set between the events of Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens, The Mandalorian stars Pedro Pascal as the title character, an intergalactic bounty hunter from the same culture as fan-favorite Star Wars character Boba Fett. Carano plays Cara Dune, a former Rebel Alliance Shock Trooper who's now working as a mercenary.
"She's confident and she's funny, and she's soft when she needs to be," Carano says of her character. "Playing Cara Dune has really helped me be a lot better of a person."
That might sound like an odd thing to say about a fantastical space warrior, but getting the call to play Cara Dune marked a major turning point for Carano. "It's been an up and down kind of career, and for a second I didn't know if I was going to make it," she says of her acting work, which has ranged from Steven Soderbergh's Haywire to small-scale indie action movies. "I think for so long I've been so typecast as the muscle and the fighter in all these movies, and for a long time I was fighting it."
But Favreau helped her embrace her action-hero image. "I believe Cara Dune is the first time in my life I'm not fighting against being this Mack Truck who can kick ass," she says.
Part of the reason is that the show's producers gave Carano more to do than just throw kicks and punches. Favreau worked with Carano to craft the character to her strengths and personality, and she drew on her MMA expertise to help design her own fight sequences.
"I'm able to read the character, read the scene and really just get my hands dirty with the stunt coordinators," she says of working on the show's fight choreography, which she sees as an integral element of the storytelling.
Although it's been 15 years since Carano lived in Las Vegas, she still has strong local family ties, including her grandparents (co-founders of the local Rebel gas station chain), her mother and her siblings, and she can easily rattle off local restaurants (Nora's, Joe's Stone Crab) that she likes to visit when she's in town. "If I consider a place going home," she says, "it's definitely going home to Las Vegas."
For now, though, The Mandalorian will be taking her around the world. Production on the second season has already started, and Carano got a taste of the massive Star Wars fan reaction when she appeared at April's Star Wars Celebration in Chicago. After a career of ups and downs, she's happy to be firmly entrenched in a galaxy far, far away. "People have really embraced me, and they don't even know my character yet," she says. "It's impossible not to feel the warmth of that."
THE MANDALORIAN Fridays, Disney+.