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‘Star Wars’ director J.J. Abrams had LAUSD teacher in mind for ‘Maz’

Mike Szymanski | January 6, 2016

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The character Maz, and the inspiration Rose Gilbert, from Palisadian-Post.


She gave $1 million to Palisades Charter High School for classroom renovations and building a community pool. She was LAUSD’s oldest full-time teacher when she retired at 94 and one of the oldest ever in the nation.

She taught the children of Frank Sinatra, Jerry Lewis, Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum. And, her students included budding film director J.J. Abrams and a future production designer, Rick Carter.

It’s Abrams and Carter who have now immortalized their teacher Rose Gilbert as the tiny big-hearted, but stern alien, Maz Kanata, in the blockbuster movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” Maz generously offers help to the heroes of the film, reflecting the teacher’s generosity, and looks a bit like her, too.

“I think it’s a wonderful tribute and appropriate for a local school hero,” said principal Pamela Magee who knew Gilbert well. “It’s nice that J.J. (Abrams) memorialized someone important to him in this way, and now other generations of kids who didn’t know her will discover her.”

Magee saw the movie before she was aware of the connection, but noticed the resemblance, and plans to be “one of the multiple-viewers of the film.” She said the school will no doubt make some plan to let students know about the connection to Gilbert when they return next week.

Abrams told The Palisadian-Post that the inspiration for the new character came from his late high school English teacher. “The character of Maz was originally based on the great Rose Gilbert,” he said. “We really wanted the story to feel authentic, despite being a wild fantasy. I mentioned Rose in an early story meeting as a sort of timeless, wise figure that I’d actually known in my life.”

The alien character is voiced by Lupita Nyong’o, who won an Oscar for “12 Years a Slave” and was named People magazine’s “Most Beautiful Woman” of 2014. But, there are some similarities to the teacher.

“Yes, Maz’s large glasses in the film are allegedly similar in size to the ones Gilbert was known to wear throughout her 51 year tenure at Palisades Charter High School,” according to the Post.

She taught in room B204 and was known as “Momma G.” After she retired, at the age of 94, she had a drama room named after her at the school. She inherited money from her husband and donated it to the school. Part of it was used for a community pool named after her daughter, Maggie, a swimmer who died unexpectedly in 2004.

Abrams graduated from the school in 1984, and Carter had her as a teacher 15 years earlier. Abrams said, “While we experimented with many looks and styles before settling on the character’s final design, Rose was always at the center of the inspiration of Maz. Rick and I had hoped to contact Rose and show her what we were doing, but she sadly passed away while we were in the prep of the film.”

Gilbert died on Dec. 16, 2013, just 10 months after she retired, at the age of 95. Both Carter and Abrams attended the funeral. The school’s flag was lowered in her honor when she died. She worked at the school since it opened in 1961. Earlier, she taught at University High School in west Los Angeles.

“She was such a character and always very generous,” Magee said. “I’m sure she would have loved the tribute.”

* Added principal’s comments


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