As the voice of Jedi-in-training Ahsoka Tano in the animated “Star Wars” series “The Clone Wars” and “Rebels,” Ashley Eckstein has faced down her share of villains. But in the real world, Eckstein serves as a role model as well in her advocacy for mental health issues and against online bullying, especially after an incident in which a false rumor led to her receiving death threats on her social media pages. Now, the actress, entrepreneur, and author remains committed to being a force for positivity and kindness to her fans and the world at large.
Ashley has been playing Ahsoka for close to 15 years, having earned the role after what she terms a botched audition. During a “Christopher Closeup” interview (podcast below), she recalled Dave Filoni, “The Clone Wars” director, asking her to learn an Icelandic accent for the character. Eckstein admits she “butchered” the accent, so she felt happy yet confused when she got the part. She was told that she was cast for her attitudes and actions in between takes. Filoni said, “I felt that you were genuine. I want you to bring your own genuine personality to the character.”
And that’s exactly what Ashley did, turning the sometimes snippy Padawan of Jedi Knight Anakin Skywalker into a hero grounded in courage, self-sacrifice, and helping others, whatever the cost. Those values perfectly lined up with Ashley’s own.
She told me, “My husband [2006 World Series champ with the St. Louis Cardinals David Eckstein] and I are Catholic and our faith definitely guides us and it’s a part of our everyday decisions. But one thing I’m very mindful of…’Star Wars’ is a story that should bring people together. To me, it’s a story of hope, of good overcoming evil. It’s something that regardless of your religion or your race or your gender, it’s something where we should be able to all come together and enjoy this story. Yes, I absolutely see parallels in my own faith, but I think there’s parallels for whatever your beliefs are. And what I try to do is provide a safe space where everyone can come together and learn these lessons of hope and letting the light guide you. For me, it boils down to so many universal things: that you treat others as you want to be treated, the power of kindness, the power of light.”
Ashley’s commitment to being a light in the darkness has been a part of her character for a long time. For instance, one of the reasons she created her successful apparel company, HerUniverse.com, in 2010 was to combat bullying.
She explained, “So many women and girls were…being bullied terribly for just being a sci-fi and fantasy fan, for liking ‘Star Wars.’ I knew nothing about making merchandise, but I started my company because I figured that if women and girls had a ‘Star Wars’ t-shirt that was made for them, they would feel more comfortable to step into the spotlight and say, ‘Hi, I’m a girl and I like Star Wars.’ Because it’s a fact that half of all ‘Star Wars’ fans, and sci-fi and fantasy fans, are women and girls. So I wanted to break that stigma. Over time, I feel like we’ve really helped with the bullying that women and girls were dealing with because these stories are not just for men and boys, they’re not just for women and girls, they’re for everyone.”
Ashley has always made it a point to keep bullying out of her social media pages. If she or her team see it going on in the comments, they intervene and delete the negative statements immediately. As a result, says Ashley, “our social channels are very positive, uplifting, empowering, and encouraging.”
However, Ashley herself became the victim a couple of years ago when a slanderous and untrue rumor about her started going around. She recalled, “I was cyberbullied viciously…[There were] hundreds of thousands of comments. I was the victim of death threats. And [it was] over something that just wasn’t true…I had all the support in the world. I had Disney and Star Wars and Her Universe and my family and friends, they were all there supporting me. But trust me, if you get…messages saying, ‘You are a piece of trash and you should just die’…it messes with you. It messes with your head.”
Though Ashley had a long interest in advocating for mental health issues because of the amount of fans who confided in her about their own battles with anxiety, depression, and thoughts of suicide because of bullying, this incident gave her new insight into what they had endured.
She says, “I’m not an expert in mental health…but I have a voice and we all do. And I thought, ‘I can just start by talking about it and help break the stigma’…That’s when I was introduced to Nationwide Children’s Hospital [in Columbus, Ohio]. They opened up the first Behavioral Health Pavilion on a children’s hospital campus in our nation. And it’s a huge deal!…Fifty percent of lifelong mental illnesses present themselves by the age of 14, so think about how many adults we can save if we catch it early. So Nationwide Children’s started a campaign called ‘On Our Sleeves,’ and it’s because kids and teens don’t wear their emotions on their sleeves. It’s encouraging kids and teens and families to share their emotions, whether it’s through talking, through drawing, but it’s just starting the conversation. And I’m so proud to be a champion for Nationwide Children’s. They’re helping people all over the nation, even though they’re located in Columbus. They’re basically building a blueprint for hospitals around the nation and providing information for everyone all over the world on mental and behavioral health. And they’re asking people to break the stigma surrounding mental health with them.”
Ashley’s most recent project is also geared towards kids. She has authored a new Little Golden book called “Star Wars: I Am a Padawan” from the perspective of Ahsoka.
She said, “I went back and binge-watched ‘Clone Wars’ and I picked up my favorite moments. I think kids and parents can relate to this story because even though these lessons happen in a galaxy far, far away, they’re very relatable to kids and even adults today. They’re lessons of bravery, of helping each other, of friendship, of hope…I hope that kids will like it and be able to relate it to their everyday lives.”
With the final season of “The Clone Wars” airing on Disney Plus – and the rumored live-action Ahsoka to be played in “The Mandalorian” by Rosario Dawson – Ashley isn’t sure how the character she originated will be part of her future. But even though Ahsoka is fictional, she and her portrayer are inextricably linked.
Ashley concluded, “I’m not overexaggerating when I say Ahsoka is like a part of my heart and soul because I was allowed to bring my own heart and soul into this character. She’ll always be a part me. I don’t have kids, but it’s almost like Ahsoka is a baby of mine. I will always want what’s best for her, no matter what…At the beginning of each ‘Clone Wars’ episode, they have what we call fortune cookies…little quotes and little lessons that the episode is about. In the last episode in season five, the fortune cookie is, ‘Never give up hope, no matter how dark things seem.’ I always remember that fortune cookie…because I feel like even in the darkest of times, Ahsoka would find that light. So I ask myself, ‘What would Ahsoka do?’ And that provides me that little bit of light in the darkness.”
(To listen to my full interview with Ashley Eckstein, click on the podcast link):