Much in common have Yoda and Maz Kanata, a new character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Both are very short, very old, very wise, very powerful and very CGI (we’re talking prequel Yoda, not puppet Yoda).
Playing Maz, a little orange pirate with a big castle, seems like a surprising career move for Lupita Nyong’o, the actress who won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave. Yet as she told PEOPLE in the new Star Wars special issue, “I had been wanting to work in motion capture. When [Maz] was offered to me, I was so excited. I’ve always loved the work, like Andy Serkis and then Zoë Saldana in Avatar. And of course I got to work with [director] J.J. Abrams.”
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And the Kenyan-raised Nyong’o, 32, has a special emotional bond with the original Star Wars. “In Kenya they would play Star Wars during public holidays,” she says. “So it was something I could look forward to. I watched it five or six years in a row.” (Check out the special issue for exclusive behind-the-scenes photos of Nyong’o!)
Much of Maz is still secret. The goggled character is only seen in the background of the official movie poster. In one trailer, a little orange hand gives a lightsaber to someone who appears to be Princess-turned-General Leia. “I love keeping the secret,” Nyong’o says, “knowing something no one else knows!”
But recently, Nyong’o and Abrams let slip to Entertainment Weekly that Maz’s eyes hold a secret power. Nyong’o even said they are “the means to her magic as a motion-capture character.” Watch out you must.