How 'The Mandalorian' became former MMA star Gina Carano's best fight

Carano on the meeting that got her into acting (1:05)

Gina Carano tells the story of how just days after losing to Cris Cyborg, she met with director Steven Soderbergh, and that led to her acting career. (1:05)

May the force be with former Strikeforce star Gina Carano ahead of her debut Friday in Episode 4 of the Disney+ Star Wars series "The Mandalorian." Carano ended her pro MMA career (7-1 record) in August 2009 after a first-round TKO defeat to Cris "Cyborg" Santos. After retirement, Carano, 37, decided to redirect her talents and pursue an acting career.

She landed spots in action films including "Fast & Furious 6," "Deadpool" and Steven Soderbergh's "Haywire." Carano thinks her role as Cara Dune -- a former trooper for the Galactic Rebellion -- in "The Mandalorian" marries her acting and athletic skills.

"I'm starting to get comfortable and settle in as an actress," Carano said. "This is the best job I've done, and I'm proud of it."

We chatted with Carano, one of the first stars of women's MMA, about the evolution of women in combat sports and her perception of women in action film and television series roles.

espnW: How did you mentally and physically prepare for the demands of this role?

GC: Hard-core fans are going to be fascinated with my character [Cara Dune]. She's mysterious. She's a bit of a loner. She's a hard-core badass. I've enjoyed putting on her armor and putting on her character. I've been fighting against this. I don't know why I've been doing this. But I've been fighting against this "strong woman" thing.

I've loved period pieces my whole life. I love "Pride & Prejudice" and "Anne of Green Gables." I've always wanted to be in a corset and these dramas. If I got into the movie business, I was thinking, "Oh, that's what movies are to me." I never saw The Fast and the Furious movies. I mean, they weren't my jam. But I got a good job from that [franchise].

So when Jon Favreau [the showrunner and an executive producer for "The Mandalorian"] was like, "Hey, I want to see your arms. We don't want to sexualize the character. We want to make you badass," I knew this was right. He sees people for who they are and where they're at in their life and their career. He did that with me, and now I feel like I really embrace the term "badass." It helped me embrace my body more than ever.

And we did a scene where I have to carry a person. We had to make this look realistic. So I really had to carry this person -- and do it over and over, like 50 times. You have to do the wide [shots]. You have to do the close-ups. And I did it with a real human body, like, 50-plus times a day. And the guy was, like, 175 to 180 pounds. And everybody on set thought it was, like, a dummy until they saw that the dummy was getting up and walking around. And I'm, like, no, I'm deadlifting this guy.

espnW: As a former fighter, someone who is incredibly athletic, did you handle many of your own stunts for this project?

GC: I have a great relationship with the stunt community. I love collaborating with them. And the stunt people and I have mutual respect. If there is something that I can't do, there is this other woman who is trained to do this, and I'll step aside. However, the fighting stuff is usually me. I like that my fight stance is different than maybe another stunt person's fight stance.

espnW: Women have emerged as leads in several notable action movies. The same could be said of women in MMA. Thoughts on the evolution of the sport?

GC: I'm so happy that girls can walk into a gym and are encouraged instead of being chased out. Girls were chased out of the gyms when I was in the sport. And they liked me because I kept my nose down, and I was a hard worker, and I had skill. I'm just so happy about how much more [inclusive] the sport is now. That makes me feel like I've done something right in this world.

I'm more of a fan now than I've ever been. I love watching Rose "Thug" Namajunas. She's got a very calm, peaceful, badass energy about her that I think is very intriguing. She's extremely talented and skillful. I also absolutely -- and this has been a long time -- love the Diaz brothers. There's just something precious and special about those guys. They've always kept it real.

espnW: Most importantly, did you get to meet "the child," whom the internet has been referring to as baby Yoda?

GC: I have to say, whenever [the child] was on set, he stole the show from everyone. He's so damn cute. It's precious and genius that we have this character in our series. I want all the cuddles from this baby. I don't have children, but I'd have a baby if he were like that.