Ashley Eckstein, who voices the character of Jedi padawan Ashoka Tano in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, is not your typical SF actor…she’s a fan as well. And as a female fan, she’s trying to change the SF merchandise landscape: one that has been marketed primarily to males, even though females account for half of science fiction fans. That’s why she’s founded Her Universe, which produces products focused on female fans.
Her Universe just launched some of their Star Wars shirts online with retailer Hot Topic, and Ashley begins her job as co-host for Star Wars Weekends at Walt Disney World this Friday, and taking place every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday through June 10th.
I spoke with the always friendly Ashley about Her Universe, Star Wars, and Disney.
Doc: It’s been about two years since you started Her Universe?
Ashley: It will actually be two years in June…it’s been an exciting two years. Action packed!
Doc: How has the experience been, from a business and a fandom standpoint?
Ashley: It’s definitely been a major learning experience, but it’s been amazing. I’ve always been into fashion design. I designed my first dress when I was a little girl when I was 10. Acting was always my first love though, so when I went into acting I pushed fashion design to the side, and now, to be able to do both – fashion design and incorporate it with my acting has really just been a dream come true. I’ve learned SO much, I’ve learned about running a business, I’ve learned about the realities of how to bring a concept to fruition and make it happen it’s truly been an amazing experience.
Doc: About a month or so ago I forwarded to you a Target ad, basically showing the Star Wars toys being boys’ toys (my 7 year old daughter saw it, and replied, “Don’t they know girls like Star Wars too?”) Have you seen any real shift in the marketing mentality yet where girls and women are more into science fiction?
Ashley: Definitely. I would say there’s been a shift, but I’d say it’s been in baby steps. I don’t think we’re going to see major steps, like the Target ad that you showed us, right away. That would be great if we did, but I would say all of these baby steps are leading us up eventually seeing a Target ad where it is for both genders, where Star Wars toys are not just delegated to the boys’ section.
And I’ve definitely seen that that with some of our retailers. We just had a really exciting launch with Hot Topic, and we’re now in Disneyland in California and Walt Disney World in Orlando, so we’re now in Disney Parks year round, and to have some major retailers such as Disney and Hot Topic recognize the female fans is just really a big step for us. Because a couple years ago, people practically laughed at me when I had this idea to start Her Universe. They said, “Oh no, there’s not enough girls that would buy merchandise,” and I had the statistics to say that they were wrong. Close to half of all fans are girls and women, and we’re not trying to say that science fiction is just for girls, and we’re not trying to say that science fiction is just for boys. We’re trying to say that it is for everyone, and it’s universal. So we’ve definitely seen a shift with companies that are willing to think outside of the box, like Hot Topic and Disney, and say, “No, we recognize the fan base and we want to give something to this fan base,” and I’m so grateful for the opportunity they’ve given me.
Also Think Geek is another one. Think Geek is really on the cutting edge of companies out there that are really paying attention to the kind of “geeky” fan base, hence the name, and they really approached us from the beginning and recognized the power of the fan base. And so between Think Geek, Hot Topic and Disney I just really have to applaud them for stepping up first and saying, “We recognize the fan girls!”
Doc: Think Geek is definitely an interesting company where based on fan response of even some of their jokes, they’ve turned them into actual products.
Ashley: Exactly, and I think the difference there is that fans actually work for the company. And so, that makes it a lot easier. I’m a fan myself and I know what I want as a fan, but I’m also constantly interacting with the fans, so I’m getting direct feedback from the consumer. And Think Geek does that as well, not only are they a bunch of fans over there, but they are listening to their consumers.
Doc: You’re kind of unique I think in a lot of respects, in working as an actress on a show, but also being a fan of it.Ashley: Once in a while you really hit the jackpot, and you get a role for something that you’re truly a fan of. I’ve been lucky. I’m a fan of Disney, and I’m a fan of Star Wars, and I’ve had an amazing opportunity to work for the Disney Channel, and now with Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and now to even combine Disney and Star Wars for Disney’s Star Wars Weekends, this will be my fourth time going back to be one on the co-hosts for the events for the month, and it’s just really a dream come true. I grew up in Orlando, Florida and I’m definitely a Disney girl. My dad worked for Disney, so to be able to come home and do this event is really a dream come true.
Doc: What has been your most successful product so far?
Ashley: We just launched a brand new Princess Leia hoodie with Hot Topic, and it’s also going to be available at Disney’s Star Wars Weekends and on our web site, but I’m really excited about it, because a lot of the guys, they’ve had costume hoodies for a while – Marc Ecko did the Boba Fett hoodie, then Mad Engine did some great hoodies – a Chewbacca one, a Storm Trooper one, a Darth Vader one. And as a female fan, I said, “Wait a minute, what about the girls? Why can’t we get in on the fun?” And so we’ve been developing this Princess Leia hoodie for a while now, and it did really well at Hot Topic, and I just found out…I’m really excited to say that it’s in August going to be in stores in Hot Topic nationwide. It just launched online with them, and so now to take that giant step to go from online sales to actually in stores, again, it’s just a dream come true that I’ll be able to walk in to the mall and walk in to a Hot Topic and see a Her Universe design.Our red Padme shirt – our Padme Nouveau shirt, it’s just a beautiful design. It’s actually a poster from Episode II: Attack of the Clones and that one is actually sold in Disney parks year round, and that’s done really well, and I think it’s just because we try and specialize on what I call “wearable art” and try to do more than just slap a logo on a T-shirt and I think that shirt kind of represents what we try and do.
Doc: That’s going to be an interesting experience – to be able to walk in to pretty much every mall, and see something that you developed…
Ashley: Hot Topic’s not going to know what hit them. I’m going to be walking in to the mall, standing next to the hoodie, taking a picture, probably crying…
Doc: “Why does she just keep coming in and just stare at it?”
Ashley: It’s really just been a dream come true. Like I said, I’ve been designing ever since I was a little girl, so to actually have one of my designs accessible in the mall will just be amazing, so I’m looking forward to it!
Doc: Any new products we should be on the watch for?
Ashley: Absolutely. Unfortunately I don’t have them to show now, but we met at a Syfy event, and we definitely have several new Syfy products, some new Battlestar Galactica products, some new Warehouse 13 products coming out. I’m really excited about those. Those will probably come out at the end of June. And then also at the end of June we have two major, MAJOR announcements of two new franchises that we’ve signed on. We’re already working on designs and sampling right now for these new franchises and I’m so excited because these are two top franchises that the girls have been asking for and it’s something that I’ve been working on now for over a year and these things just take so long…unfortunately, I can’t talk about it just yet because we have to get the product made before we can make the announcement. But end of June, we’ll have a lot of big announcements coming from Her Universe. Definitely look for some cool Syfy products and some new franchises as well.
Doc: Was Star Wars your first introduction to science fiction and the fans that go with it?
Ashley: Definitely. I mean, I’ve always been a Star Wars and fantasy fan, ever since I was a little girl. But to actually be immersed in the sci-fi culture, it definitely started when I was cast as Ahsoka, and I started going to all the events. It really introduced me from being a casual fan to more of a hardcore fan and it’s something I enjoy – I’ve always been interested, I’ve always enjoyed sci-fi and fantasy, so to actually meet more girls and more people that have similar interests – I’ve just made so many friends. It’s really been amazing. Unfortunately at a lot of these events I have to go and work them, I can’t go around as a fan, and that’s actually a bummer for me, because I’d definitely be there as a fan as well.
Doc: It’s kind of like how I am at the Syfy events. I’m such a fan, and seeing everybody. But I’m trying to work, I’m trying to write the articles, it’s like, “Argh! I didn’t have time to talk to that person…”
Ashley: Exactly, exactly. I’m right there with you.
Doc: What was it like to get the call that you were going to be part of Star Wars?
Ashley: Frankly, when I got the call that I was cast as Ahsoka in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, I didn’t believe it, because I didn’t think my audition was very good. My first audition, I didn’t think I did a great job, because they wanted me to do an accent. They actually asked for an Icelandic accent, kind of like Bjork! I just couldn’t nail the accent. But somehow I got a callback, and even at the callback I remember walking out and my husband was there with me, and I looked at him and said, “Well, I tried my hardest, but I don’t think I got it.” I just couldn’t give them what they wanted, ‘cause they still asking for an accent. And then I got the part, and my mind was just boggled! Of all of the things, it’s usually the jobs that you think you aren’t going to get you do get, and the auditions where you think you hit a home run on you don’t get. And so, I was kind of surprised. I asked my agent, “Well, how did I get this part? I couldn’t really do the accent they wanted me to do…”, and luckily my agent said, “Well, they heard you talking in between takes, and they just like your regular voice. So they want you to use your own voice.” And I was jumping up and down because it was a lot easier than doing a bad Icelandic accent. But it was definitely a surreal moment once it sunk in, and it was like, “Wait a minute, Star Wars is a really big deal! How did I get this?”
Doc: Did you know when you started how much of a role model Ahsoka was going to be?
Ashley: No, I didn’t know what type of impact Ahsoka would make with young girls. I had hopes she would be a truly positive character for girls, but I didn’t really know until it came out. We worked on the show for two years before it actually came out. At first the reaction was actually pretty negative towards her. A lot of the classic fans didn’t care for her, so it was a little bit jarring at first, wondering is this going to last, is she going to go down as one of the hated character in Star Wars. But then once I was able to get out among the young fans and the girls and see that she was truly was making an impact in such a positive character and the girls were really looking up to her it was just so exciting. It’s something I take very seriously, I see even though I’m just the voice of Ahsoka, I’m not actually Ahsoka, but I feel that I have a huge responsibility to Lucasfilm, and George Lucas and Dave Filoni who created this amazing character, and for these young fans. As the voice I want to do this character justice, and I want to do these girls justice who look up to her, and be a great role model as well.
Doc: Ahsoka certainly has matured herself over the past four seasons, from a young brash Padawan she was, to almost a peer of Anakin now. Do you know where Ahsoka is going to be taken in this fifth season?
Ashley: Oh, yes I do! We’re done with the season, and it’s going to be a really, really big season, not just for Ahsoka but so many characters. Just a lot of action, a lot of drama, you’ll probably be left with more questions than answers, but it’s just really, really exciting and I think the fans are going to have a lot of surprises and just really Dave Filoni and his crew continue to raise the bar – they really do.
Doc: Recently you posted a picture where you got the full makeup treatment and really became Ahsoka for a day. What was that like, becoming the actual character you portray?
Ashley: That was definitely surreal to dress up as Ahsoka for the day. It was just me as a fan. It was actually kind of a present that some friends made happen for me – it wasn’t an official Lucasfilm photoshoot or anything. It was truly me as a fan, and some friends letting me try on the costume and do the makeup for a day. It was very, very cool. I don’t know if I’ll ever get the opportunity to do it again, but it was very empowering, and I go to all of these conventions and events and get to see the fans dressed up, and I’m a fan too, and I want to dress up in the costume, and I want to try it on. So it was really cool to get do that for a day, and learn some of the moves, and I just enjoy cosplay and that was a really neat experience.
Doc: It was an incredible job…it was so lifelike, it wasn’t just a simple outfit, but down to everything, much like the characters at Star Wars Weekends, they’re fully enrobed so to say as the character. The detail was amazing.
Ashley: Absolutely. It was a very nice costume to try on. I was just lucky to have great friends that made my wish come true.
Doc: This is your fourth year doing Star Wars Weekends, what’s it like dealing with the massive amounts of fans that turn out over those four weekends, do you still get to enjoy those weekends, given that you host them, you do the talks, you do the signings and so forth?
Ashley: Absolutely I get to enjoy them. After I’m done for the day, Disney just really treats you right. They treat you first class all the way. I definitely get to go play in the parks, and stay at the Disney hotels, and eat at the amazing Disney restaurants, so I jam pack the month full of everything I could possibly want to do Disney. And it makes it even more exciting because my husband (2006 World Series MVP David Eckstein) got to be with me last year and gets to be with me again this year as well. The two of us are like two kids in the candy store. Our wedding reception took place at Disney World at one of the Disney hotels. We’re both big Disney fans, and we absolutely take advantage of it.
Star Wars: The Clone Wars will return for a fifth season later in 2012 on Cartoon Network. And don’t forget to check out all the merchandise available at Her Universe, and check back at the end of June for new Syfy items and some new surprises!