Interview: Shannon Baksa

In Timothy Zahn’s 1991 Star Wars novel Heir to the Empire, Luke Skywalker and friends returned for more adventures in that long ago galaxy far, far away. But the book’s most popular character was a new one: a hotter-than-a-lightsaber redhead called Mara Jade.

The Force was strong in Mara, a Sith agent trained to kill Luke Skywalker. Mara didn’t kill Luke but she did eventually fall in love with and marry him; the nuptials occurred in Union, a four-issue Dark Horse comic written by Michael A. Stackpole. Mara also got her own six-issue series, By the Emperor’s Hand, written by Stackpole and Zahn.

Like her beloved husband, Mara became a powerful Jedi. Decipher — makers of the Star Wars card game — chose accomplished model Shannon Baksa to portray the character on their Mara cards.

“My grandmother sent me to charm school when I was twelve,” the lovely Texas native explains in her warm, soft voice. “We lived in the South, and I needed to learn what was proper and not for a young lady. A fashion editor at the local paper stopped by and thought I had pretty eyes, and she asked me to do a shoot for the paper. I had never thought of it before that.”Shannon later became a makeup artist. “I love showing women how to look and feel stunning, or taking a photographer’s or stylist’s idea of the way a show or a photo shoot should look and making it happen. It’s fun, always new and exciting. When I got pregnant with my daughter, Willow, and couldn’t handle the stress of modeling, I needed to keep busy with something. It was an easy transition.”

The transition from model to Star Wars icon wasn’t so immediately obvious. “No one explained the depth of it to me,” Shannon says. “It was supposedly just another photo shoot.”

But Lucasfilm made Decipher’s choice official: Shannon Baksa is Mara Jade. She has her own page on the official Star Wars website, and her likeness appears on official Star Wars products. There’s even a Mara Jade action figure.

Shannon remembers the moment she became a Star Wars fan. “When Han Solo walked onto the screen 24 years ago!” she enthuses. “He was my first crush as a young girl.”

But there’s more to Shannon’s appreciation of Star Wars than Harrison Ford. “There’s something in it for all of us,” she says with a thoughtful flash of her bright gray eyes. “It may be a galaxy far, far away, but it mirrors all of the struggles and successes of life as we know it today.”

“And,” she adds playfully, “it doesn’t hurt that the good guys win and kick butt!”

Shannon’s favorite film is The Empire Strikes Back. “I don’t think there’s a moment I don’t love in the first two. They are so perfect, and naming a favorite moment would be like asking what my favorite experience being Mara has been. There have been so many!”

Though she was nervous at her first convention in 1999, she quickly became a pro. “I know what to expect now,” Shannon says, “and how to be prepared. Star Wars fans are very dedicated and smart.”

Being Mara has taken Shannon around the world. “I have been to conventions in Germany and Japan. The Germans are very much like us. The Japanese are more taken by the whole thing, and the crowds are a little overwhelming, but they are incredibly kind and polite. They bring little gifts to show you how much they like you.”

Both Star Wars fans and Mara’s creator, Timothy Zahn, have overwhelmingly given Shannon their approval. “Tim is a wonderfully sweet and very talented man,” she says. “He put a lot of his heart into Mara, and you can tell when you read about her.”

Since Mara didn’t appear in the films, Shannon had to create the character entirely by herself. She credits Zahn’s words with making it so easy. “Tim did all the work. I just had to show up, read a lot, and hope that the fans who already loved Mara would accept me.”

Mara Jade is as courageous as she is beautiful, and as lethal as she is loyal. Filling her boots would not be an easy task, so Shannon went to Zahn’s books for inspiration. She liked what she found. “Mara is strong, quiet unless something needs to be said, and all woman,” she explains. “She doesn’t try to be someone she’s not. She’s herself, good or bad.”

The character has made a positive impact on young female Star Wars fans. “They look up to Mara the same as I do. She’s the best in all of us, even at her worst. She gets where she is going no matter what the obstacles.”

She’s also mindful of Mara’s role model status. “I’m careful about how I react to things in the world of Star Wars fandom. I want to be a good example: honest, friendly, kind, thoughtful, helpful. I want fans to like me as Mara and myself. They are why I am here.”

Shannon thinks Mara’s journey symbolizes “the occasional heartache of finding where you are supposed to belong.”

For Mara Jade, that meant coming to terms with Luke Skywalker. “Often our feelings are misguided because of someone or something else,” Shannon says of Mara’s original intentions toward Luke. Though Shannon is “a Han fan, tried and true,” she definitely approves of Mara’s marriage to Luke. “She sees strength, kindness and honesty in him.”

In the recent novel Rebirth, Mara and Luke welcomed their first child, Ben, into the galaxy. “As a mother, Mara would be beyond excellent. I think she would think of a child the way I do. Giving and receiving love is part of being human. Children are everything: our future, our past, and the perfection of all that two people are, inside and out.”

Shannon, a single mother, knows exactly how Mara feels. Her 3-year-old daughter, Willow, is the center of her own universe. “My daughter is the reason God gave me life,” Shannon says. “She is the most perfect thing I have ever done or ever will do.”

In fact, Willow is sometimes more used to all the excitement than Shannon herself. “It’s very normal to her. She was hardly walking when it started. She’s also been on many fashion shoots and calls and to shows. She’s even done TV with me.”

Shannon stays busy in her spare time. “I love my dog, Tequila. I work on my house and yard quite a bit. I bake, go to the beach, and spend every free moment with my daughter.” And like Mara Jade, Shannon combines beauty with brains; she has a degree in public relations from the University of Nevada Las Vegas.

If Shannon were a Jedi, she says her teachings would be influenced by her own positive attitude and her daughter’s love: “Don’t give up. One day, everything will make sense. Love hard, waste no moments and appreciate everything you experience. It makes you who you are, good stuff and bad. It molds you into the person you become and gives you whatever it is that you leave behind.” Mara Jade would be proud.