For Missy Thingelstad, Star Wars isn't just a movie series—it's an ever-present force (pun intended) in her life. She is a commanding officer in the Rebel Legion, a worldwide fan group focused on costuming and charity. She has met Ian McDiarmid, who plays series villain Emperor Palpatine. She has mock lightsaber battles with her husband, fellow Legion member Scott Thingelstad, using wrapping-paper tubes (she usually wins).

Thingelstad knows that it's a turbulent time for Star Wars. The eighth entry in the series, The Last Jedi, ignited rancorous debates about controversial plot points and became a target of racist and misogynistic online attacks (many were directed at Kelly Marie Tran, the Vietnamese American actress who plays the heroic mechanic Rose Tico).

The result is that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, which opened this week and wraps up the sweeping epic of good versus evil that began in 1977, arrives at a time when die-hards face daunting questions about the future of the franchise and the fan community. Thingelstad spoke to WW about the state of Star Wars fandom, her hopes for Skywalker and what she thinks the series is really about.

WW: What are some of your earliest memories of Star Wars?

Missy Thingelstad: I grew up overseas and my dad was in the military and I remember standing in the big line for Empire Strikes Back [in Japan]. When we got in and we saw the movie, it was kind of fun because it was dubbed in Japanese and subtitled in English. I was 4 years old and I had no idea what was going on, but I remember the imagery and the excitement that everybody had.

Many of the issues the country is dealing with are also issues we deal with in the fan community, whether we're talking about discrimination or online racist and misogynistic harassment of actors in the newer films. Do you see yourself as having a role in fighting against that?

At Star Wars Celebration Chicago, which was just this past year, we were really lucky that Ahmed Best was there, and he's the actor who portrayed Jar Jar Binks in the prequel trilogy, who was not necessarily a popular character with some people. I thought [Jar Jar] was fun and funny, but [Best] experienced quite a bit of harassment. What I thought was really great was that the community really rallied around him at the convention, and when he came onstage, people cheered so loudly and started chanting his name. And Kelly Marie Tran, who portrays Rose in the most recent trilogy, she's really gotten a lot of support from our fan groups as well.

There are conversations where you hear things like, "If you like The Last Jedi, you don't understand Star Wars lore," or, "If you didn't like The Last Jedi, then you're an old fuddy-duddy." Should part of the fan journey include learning to say, "We can all have reasonable disagreements and still love the saga"?

I did enjoy The Last Jedi. Some of my very good friends who are in the Star Wars groups with me, they didn't love it and it's OK for us to have a disagreement and a dialogue, but the most important thing is to have it in a respectful manner, which not everybody is capable of doing.

Is there a scene from any of the films that gets to the core of what Star Wars means to you?

I think Star Wars, for me, is a story of redemption, and you see that in many different character arcs, especially Darth Vader's. You see him go from this young, idealistic, optimistic boy to falling in love with Padmé and doing everything possible—including turning to the dark side and becoming a Sith Lord—in order to save her. That goes on for a while, and he's this horribly bad person, and then the redemption that he's able to find through the recognition of Luke as his child allows him to move past that and make the ultimate sacrifice in order to save Luke from the Emperor. The whole story to me, at that point, has come full circle, and it's really all about moving past your bad deeds and being able to be redeemed.

Is there anything in particular you're hoping for from The Rise of Skywalker?

I don't have any preconceived notions or things that I'll be disappointed about if they don't happen. I want to know more about Kylo Ren and hope they explore what they've hinted at with the Emperor being back. I'm open to it all.

SEE IT: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is playing at multiple locations.