Star Wars star Gina Carano

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This image released by Disney Plus shows Gina Carano in a scene from “The Mandalorian.” The ambitious eight episode show with the budget of a feature film is one of the marquee offerings of the Walt Disney Co.’s new streaming service, Disney Plus, which launches Nov. 12. (Melinda Sue Gordon/Disney Plus via AP)

After making her mark as a mixed martial artist, then toiling in the trenches as a working actress, Gina Carano landed the role of a lifetime in the ongoing “Star Wars” saga.

If you’re professional fighter-turned-actress Gina Carano, what do you do when one of Hollywood’s biggest directors asks to meet? Well, like any good Italian American, you bring a bottle of wine to the meeting, of course.

And not just any wine, Carano told Fra Noi in an exclusive interview. This particular vintage was one that holds a special place in her heart because it comes from the Sonoma County vineyard owned by her late grandfather, celebrated Nevada gaming and hotel magnate Don Carano.

When Carano, bottle of vino in hand, sat down with Jon Favreau, the visionary filmmaker behind “Iron Man” and last summer’s “The Lion King” remake, she didn’t know what to expect. Then Favreau hit her with it: He wanted Carano for a major role in “The Mandalorian,” a new live-action “Star Wars” TV series he was developing for Disney’s brand-new streaming platform, Disney Plus.

The offer rendered her nearly speechless, Carano says, especially when Favreau walked her through the storyboards and costume designs he prepared for her character, Cara Dune, a former rebel soldier who spends her post-war years in the outer rim until she’s confronted by the show’s titular bounty hunter, played by Pedro Pascal.

“At first I thought he was going to put me in an animal costume or make me the female Chewbacca,” Carano says with a laugh. “But then he showed me this female with short hair who is buff. She didn’t have a helmet covering her face and she kind of resembled me. It was Cara Dune. I couldn’t believe it. I connected with her the moment I saw it.”

The part couldn’t have come at a better time for Carano, the actress says. Plucked with little professional acting experience from the mixed martial arts (MMA) professional circuit by Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (“Ocean’s 11”) to headline his 2012 spy thriller “Haywire,” Carano seized the opportunity and proved her bona fides in hit films like “Deadpool” and “Fast & Furious 6.” But the actress, who moves on screen with the fluidity and gracefulness of a dancer that can knock you into the next century, was growing frustrated with the quality of the scripts being sent her way.

“I was kind of in the desert of filmmaking, and [Favreau] couldn’t have come to bust me out of that place in my life at a better time,” Carano says of snagging a role in “The Mandalorian,” which premiered on Nov. 12. “It’s been an absolute dream come true working with these professionals. It was like someone gave me a diamond and asked me to marry them.”

Disney is reportedly spending $100 million on the eight-episode first season of “The Mandalorian,” making it one of the crown jewels in a streaming service designed to go head-to-head with the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Apple. Plus, any new entry in the “Star Wars” universe comes with sky-high expectations from the legions of fans who’ve followed the series since George Lucas’ original film was released in 1977. For Carano, joining arguably the most popular and influential piece of pop culture in history came with all the ups and downs one might expect of a modern mega-budget franchise.

“The fan base has been incredible,” Carano says. “But this is the most secretive thing I’ve been a part of.”

Carano can say very little about the show’s plot or characters beyond a few Disney-sanctioned bullet points, which she says has made the press tour a bit challenging. Moreover, while shooting the show, Carano says she and the other cast members, including Carl Weathers, Nick Nolte, and fellow Italian-American Giancarlo Esposito, would have to don black robes when being moved to and from the set to ensure no one snapped a photo of them in costume.

But the cloak-and-dagger maneuvers were worth it, according to Carano, especially after she got to see herself and her onscreen counterpart memorialized in an action figure currently for sale in stores literally across the globe.

“I started to realize that we’re going to live in this [“Star Wars”] universe forever, and it warmed my heart,” Carano says. “I absolutely love that there’s an action figure of someone that I love playing.”

Having your likeness stocked on Walmart shelves alongside the Millennium Falcon probably wasn’t something Carano dreamed of while growing up in Las Vegas. A natural athlete, Carano took dance classes, practiced gymnastics, snowboarded, and played basketball, volleyball and softball in high school. Carano became interested in professional fighting in her 20s after pro fighter Kevin Ross introduced her to the competitive martial arts form Muay Thai, where she racked up an impressive record of 12 wins, one loss and one draw.

In 2006, she was asked to fight in the first sanctioned female MMA bout in her home state of Nevada. Carano’s raw power and skill in the ring not only made her a formidable opponent, it also transformed her into the face of the fledgling sport just as it was entering the mainstream. She ended her professional MMA career in 2009 with seven wins and only a single loss.

Although rumors swirled over the years that Carano would return to the sport, the actress says there came a point where she needed to have the conversation all athletes must have with themselves about what the future looks like.

“I’ve been acting for nine years, and it took me about eight years to say to myself, ‘If you don’t start taking acting more seriously, no one is going to take you seriously. You have to look at yourself as an actress first and not as an athlete who turned into an actress. You have to give acting your all. You have your whole life in front of you still.’”

But even with “The Mandalorian” taking Carano to new heights in Hollywood, she hasn’t really given up what’s gotten her this far. The actress says she still hits the treadmill for stress relief and takes swings at the heavy bag hanging from the ceiling in her garage. More important, Carano still radiates with the heart, soul and tireless work ethic of an athlete, a quality she credits to her family.

And if life couldn’t be sweeter in this moment, Carano had the privilege in November of helping induct her father, Glenn Carano, a former quarterback with the Dallas Cowboys, into the National Italian American Sports Hall of Fame in a ceremony she affectionally refers to as “a big Italian bash.” (Gina was herself inducted into the Hall in 2018.) Talk about a whirlwind year with the best still yet to come.

“I’m really happy,” Carano says. “I feel like I’m just beginning to live my dreams.”

The above appears in the December 2019 issue of the print version of Fra Noi. Our gorgeous, monthly magazine contains a veritable feast of news and views, profiles and features, entertainment and culture. To subscribe, click here.

About Jim Distasio

Jim Distasio is an award-winning writer, director, editor. His documentary “Sawdust: Life in the Ring,” about the Zoppè Family Circus, was an official selection at the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival and the River’s Edge Film Festival. His documentary “5,000 Miles From Home,” about the impact of World War II on Chicago’s Italian-American community, earned two local Emmys on six nominations. Distasio earned a master’s degree from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, where he currently serves as an adjunct lecturer. His writings have appeared in numerous publications, including Chicago Tribune Magazine, American Profile, Vine Line and Fra Noi.

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