The Force Is Still With Mark Hamill

Flick Magazine, 2005

By Lucas Aykroyd

The name “Errol Flynn” is inseparable from The Adventures of Robin Hood. The name “Paul McCartney” is inseparable from The Beatles. Similarly, you can’t say “Mark Hamill” without thinking of Star Wars. While the veteran actor gracefully acknowledges his role in this slice of motion picture history, Hamill has also moved forward with a diverse and challenging career since 1983’s Return of the Jedi completed his direct involvement in the saga. He’s found success with voiceovers, Broadway musicals, computer games, and graphic novels. Recently, Hamill wrote, directed and starred in Comic Book: The Movie, which won three DVD Exclusive Awards in February. He attacks each new project with the same vigor he brought to his assault on the Death Star as Luke Skywalker. Along the way, he’s also achieved a balanced and satisfying family life. Prior to the release of Revenge of the Sith, FLIcK caught up with Hamill, 53, by phone from his Malibu residence.

FLIcK: What’s your advice to people who are going to see Episode III?

Mark Hamill: Just have a good time! That’s what the movies are all about. You don’t give advice to people that respond to a pop culture phenomenon like Star Wars. They’re all pre-programmed to love it on their own.

FLIcK: What was it like during the photo shoot for the February 2005 Vanity Fair cover that featured the casts of both Star War trilogies?

MH: Well, I don’t know if I’m telling tales out of school here, but because of scheduling, I couldn’t get back to California, and Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher couldn’t get to New York. I went down to Annie Leibovitz’s studio and just shot on an empty set, sitting in front of the chair. So we were digitally reunited! [laughs] It’s not the way it appears in the photograph.

FLIcK: In a funny way, that’s similar to how George Lucas likes to approach things these days, digitally superimposing actors.

MH: Exactly. I think that’s one of the things he will continue to work on after he’s finished with the new trilogy: improving on digitally created human characters, so that eventually they’ll be indistinguishable from live actors.

FLIcK: From watching the new movies, how much has your perspective on the character of Anakin Skywalker changed compared to the Darth Vader you acted alongside?

MH: Well, prequels are notoriously difficult, because the audience knows what happens to major characters. They know Obi-Wan can’t die. They know something happens to the Queen, although they’re not sure what. Obviously when I did the earlier movies, in the first one, for instance, George didn’t tell us about the lineage or my relationship to Darth Vader. So Vader was just the head bad guy. Then, of course, the revelation in The Empire Strikes Back was stunning. In that script they had a false page of dialogue with Vader saying: “You don’t know the truth. Obi-Wan killed your father.” And I reacted: “Nooooo!” Then they pulled me aside and told me: “Actually, here’s what we’re going to dub in later, but you have to keep it a secret from everybody, including fellow cast members and family.” So for more than a year, I had to keep that secret. Anyway, with the new movies, I think it’s deepened the whole thing and made it much more fascinating and interesting.

FLIcK: In Return of the Jedi, there’s the famous scene where Luke asks Leia if she remembers her mother. At that time, did you visualize someone like Natalie Portman?

MH: You know, I have to admit: you see these photographs of the two actors playing our parents, and they’re just, it’s hard to imagineā€¦no, of course not! But I mean, she’s lovely. Carrie and I have joked that there’s something wrong if parents that attractive can have kids like us! It’s an interesting thing, because we’re really sort of removed from it in a way. I haven’t met Natalie or Hayden Christensen, but I think they do a terrific job.

FLIcK: What are your thoughts about the difficult task Ewan McGregor has taken on in trying to recapture the presence of Alec Guinness?

MH: He’s a really fine actor. Again, the audience is filling in a lot of the information that they need to know, because they know he’s going to become the Alec Guinness character. It is a daunting task, but he does a great job.

FLIcK: You’ve become one of Hollywood’s top voiceover artists. How much of your enjoyment of that work comes from getting to show your versatility as a performer?

MH: I always loved character parts. When I started out on the stage, that seemed to be the direction I was heading. Then, when you think about it, animation is like old-time radio, but for those of us who were born too late for that, in that you can be cast in roles that you’re not physically right for. So in terms of doing accents and dialects and playing different characters, it’s really gratifying. That’s part of the fun of it all. Voicing the Joker in Batman was one of my favorites, because it’s a 180-degree antithesis of Luke, in terms of good and evil. And I just love the whole process of animated features. I produced a series for AMC where I did a lot of the work I’d observed before and eventually directed the voice cast. It was great, because I really got to know the people in that industry.

FLIcK: What’s the latest on your film adaptation of your graphic novel, The Black Pearl?

MH: We’re actually writing the final draft of the script for that. The Black Pearl was always meant to be a live-action film. We originally wrote a screenplay that was eventually turned into the graphic novel for Dark Horse. In the meantime, I met Paul Tamasy when I did a film called Walking Across Egypt with Ellen Burstyn. He was the screenwriter on that, and we brought him in on this project. He recently sold a boxing film. This business is so funny. You’re hot, you’re cold, you’re in between. It looks like due to his recent success, there’s great interest in Black Pearl. The caveat has always been that I want to direct it, though I don’t think I’ll act in it. It’s a look at someone who’s read way too many comic books, who tries to do in real life what only works on the printed page. The idea of it is more along the lines of Fargo, say, than a traditional comic book movie. It’s sort of the anti-comic book movie. I hope to be shooting that later this year.

FLIcK: And you’re also working on a children’s series?

MH: That show, which I sold, is provisionally titled Fort Franny, and I’m the executive producer. It’s essentially a sitcom for grade-school kids about life in a big-city apartment through the eyes of the household pets. I originally envisioned it as low-tech puppetry, but as we’ve gone along and the investors have put in more money, they want it to be animated. Whether it’s traditional line animation or CGI is yet to be determined. I have a feeling it’s going to go the CGI route, because that’s just the way things are moving these days. Incidentally, I just got back from a trip up to Lucasfilm, because I’m looking at different animation techniques for Fort Franny. And I saw this photorealistic animation that ILM’s Rob Coleman did. It’s way beyond what we need for our little show, which is much more gentle and not something that’ll be projected at 70mm. In fact, I remarked to Rob that based on his budget, if we used the same techniques, our pilot would probably be about 38 seconds long! [laughs]

FLIcK: What other projects would you like your fans to know about?

MH: Well, I continue to branch out with voiceovers. I’m on Super Robot Monkey Team Hyper Force Go!, which is the most unwieldy title in Disney history. It’s an anime series. I also do a show called Danger Rangers. Oh, and people should watch out for Big Red One, which is the Sam Fuller film I did with Lee Marvin in 1980. It’s been restored by Richard Schickel to its original 2-hour-and-43-minute cut. When I first saw this movie, I didn’t know that they would edit it the way they did. They took it away from Sam and chopped it down to an hour and 50 minutes. And I didn’t say anything at the time, because I figured if Sam and Lee Marvin weren’t going to complain publicly, I would keep my thoughts to myself. But I was appalled at what had been done to it. It still got some really great reviews, but it was completely different from what I’d originally envisioned based on Sam’s screenplay. I went to Cannes last year and saw it restored, and it’s really a phenomenal piece. It’s one of Lee’s greatest performances, which is saying a lot, because he was always so good. It’s being exhibited theatrically in some of the bigger cities in the United States, and I urge people to see it on the big screen if they can. It’ll come out on DVD for the 60th anniversary of D-Day this year, too.

FLIcK: Getting back to Star Wars, many people would say the new fight scenes are more overtly influenced by Asian martial arts than the ones in the original movies. Would you agree?

MH: Certainly, there’s been a gigantic influence in terms of films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. You know, George is very much a fan of Kurosawa, and he cited the influence of a film called Hidden Fortress on Star Wars. I think that was always part of his desire in this universe, to use that Asian influence. It might have become more pronounced, just as people have gotten more familiar with the Asian films that have been popular over the years. One of the biggest differences is that when we were doing our movies, we were told we had to hold the lightsabers with two hands. And when Peter Diamond, the stunt coordinator, and I showed George one of the stunt fights, we said: “We could do so much more if I could do this!” And I took my hand off the lightsaber and did the spin around, and so on. But George was adamant that lightsabers were so heavy that, like Excalibur, we couldn’t support them with just one hand. I think he’s softened his stance on that, because now in the prequels, you can hold them with one hand. It’s an evolving thing. He realized, I think, that you can have a lot more versatility in the look of the fight if you don’t have to keep two hands on at all times. That’s one of the joys he’s getting from the current films. He’s able to go back and explore a lot of the same themes and ideas, but with the technology of today.

FLIcK: When you filmed Empire and Jedi, you sometimes found it frustrating to act alongside a puppet in your Yoda scenes. Watching those scenes today, are you happy with how they came out?

MH: Well, I don’t watch them today. I really don’t. And I don’t know if “frustrating” is the right word. I found it challenging, certainly. You never knew how it was all going to come together until the finished product. But I really had a nice working relationship with Frank Oz. He was extremely helpful to me, and ultimately told me it was a tribute to both of us that we didn’t have people saying, “Oh, Mark acts well with a puppet.” Yoda was just accepted. As Frank said, “If you don’t believe, no one will believe.” I remember when he did his first scene with Yoda for the prequels, he sent me a nice telegram basically saying “I miss you being here.” He reiterated his belief that I had a large part in the success of making people believe that was a real creature. I think he’s going a little overboard in some ways. You have to bear in mind the design of the creature and Frank’s bringing it to life and the whole mythos behind Yoda, which I think was so appealing to young people. Here was this formidable Jedi Knight, who was a tiny two-and-a-half-foot froglike creature. When all is said and done, George’s movies were meant to be for children. People forget that, because Star Wars took off on its own and became a cult, and it has a great adult following. George reminded me of that when I would complain about X, Y, or Z while filming. He’d say: “Yeah, but this is for kids!” And I’d say: “Oh, yeah.” The cast all sort of responded to the more dark elements of Empire Strikes Back, and that’s probably the darkest we got.

FLIcK: The music of John Williams is a common thread throughout Star Wars. How much do you feel his score added to the movies?

MH: Oh, it’s just invaluable. I can’t praise him enough. It could have been this sort of dry, electronic score. Instead, it’s this sweeping, lush throwback to the swashbucklers of the 30’s and 40’s, like Erich Korngold, especially. Wonderful. He’s truly one of the heroes of the entire saga.

FLIcK: After Return of the Jedi, was there ever a time when you anticipated George would phone any day and say, “Hey, get ready to work on Episodes VII, VIII, and IX?”

MH: No, no. Not at all. We knew he was going to go back and do I, II, and III. And even if he’d decided to do VII, VIII, and IX, he’d talked to me about perhaps doing a cameo where I handed Excalibur down to the new young hope, so to speak. But even then, it would have been all new characters for the most part. So when we finished Jedi, it was very much like your senior year in high school. You really felt everything was coming to an end, and you were saying goodbye to all your friends and clearing out your locker.

FLIcK: What were your favorite and least favorite locations during the making of the original Star Wars trilogy?

MH: Well, I’d say there were certainly challenging locations, like Finse, Norway for the ice planet. I’d also cite the lightsaber duel with Vader in Empire, even though it was on a soundstage in England. The way they created the look of extreme cold in the freezing chamber was with steam. So it was like swordfighting in a sauna bath! But the truth of the matter is, it just comes down to the challenge of working in environments that are slightly uncomfortable. In North Africa, all the stuff on Tatooine was extremely hot, and the sand wasn’t good for the robots. It was frustrating, because things kept going wrong. Ultimately, the things that made the shoot the most challenging were also among the most memorable. You’ve never seen beauty like the ice of Norway. It was like blue ice in some places. And the 360-degree horizon of the salt flats in Tunisia was just breathtaking. That was part of the fun, having these exotic locations and making you feel like you really were in an otherworldly atmosphere.

FLIcK: What was your favorite line you delivered as Luke Skywalker?

MH: I don’t have a favorite, but there are certain lines that pop to mind when you ask that, like “I’m Luke Skywalker and I’m here to rescue you.” It was like, who says that? [laughs] “I’m here to rescue you,” as per the role of a hero. It’s like a given. I love the irreverence of it all. “Aren’t you a little short to be a stormtrooper?” Leia shoots back. There’s great inherent humor in the movies we did, and I think that’s what people relate to. As bizarre as the setting was, there was always that human element of the Princess not wanting to ride in our beat-up old spaceship. “You came in THAT??” Here we rescue her from the Death Star and she’s not sure she wants to go in this crummy-looking thing. That’s just part of the fun. Everything is anchored in recognizable human types. Another funny thing is, I don’t think I ever said “May the Force be with you.” Everybody else said it! People said it to me, and I heard it a lot. But it’s one of those apocryphal things like “Judy, Judy, Judy” or “Play it again, Sam,” I guess.

FLIcK: What was the coolest prop you were able to keep from Star Wars?

MH: Gosh, there’s a lot. I think they let me keep a lightsaber here and there. My boots from the first film. I kept the stormtrooper helmet that I rescued the Princess in. I mean, I asked for these things. I didn’t just take them. You know, they’re sort of nice little mementos. I have to say, though, the way they make the toys today, the toy stormtrooper helmet is much more sturdy in its construction than mine! Ours only had to hold up for six to ten weeks. I think one of the most touching things I got to keep was when the wardrobe department made a miniature Luke costume for my son Nathan. He was born when we were doing Empire Strikes Back, and he got the khaki outfit from that movie, which now hangs on a hanger. Of course he’s outgrown it many years ago! I thought it was really swell that they would do something like that.

FLIcK: If you could have chosen to play a role other than Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, which one would you have taken?

MH: Again, there’s so many I could mention. Vader’s a great villain, and I thought the robots had that Laurel and Hardy kind of humor. I love the skepticism of Han Solo. He ridiculed everything he saw, and yet down deep was someone with a heart of gold. There are wonderful prototypes in all the movies. But having played the Joker, I know the roles of villains are very rich and dramatic and a lot of fun. Ultimately, the job of the actor is to fulfill what’s required of him in the screenplay. That’s what I aimed to do with Luke. Even though Luke was not as colorful as some other characters, he was the character that a nine, ten or eleven-year-old boy could look at and say: “I could be him!” I wasn’t formidable physically or in any other way, except that I was meant to be a really great pilot. Again, I think that’s a real tribute to George and his ability to make characters accessible. He lets the audience live the adventure vicariously through the eyes of a character that isn’t threatening. So I sort of understood what I was meant to do in that role. You look at The Wizard of Oz, and even though the gender’s wrong, I think the analogy is appropriate in the sense that Dorothy is really one of the less colorful figures in the movie. As an actor, you’d rather play the Cowardly Lion or the Scarecrow or the Tin Man or the Wicked Witch. But you need that anchor in reality, and a character that the audience can relate to.

FLIcK: How about if you’d gotten to play a role in the new trilogy?

MH: Being an old veteran voiceover person, it would probably be fun to voice a robot or a creature. I enjoy being in the audience for these new films in a sense, because the responsibility is no longer on any of our shoulders. So, if I had done a voice, I don’t think I would have taken billing. It would just have been a fun inside joke. But there are so many different characters. I love what Ian McDiarmid does with the Emperor. He’s one of the few actors who has been in both the trilogies. And of course, Tony Daniels is really hilarious and underrated as Threepio. People just take it for granted, but that’s a physically demanding role, to be in that outfit. Although I think in The Phantom Menace, he might have been computer-generated before he got his outer casing. I’m not sure. My son Nathan is much more expert at the details of the new films than I am.

FLIcK: Really?

MH: Nathan’s our official Star Wars archivist. If I get material from Lucasfilm or any kind of memorabilia, it goes right into his collection, because he’s really got it organized. He works now at Bongo Comics for Matt Groenig. I have a relationship with the people at Bongo, so when I heard there was an opening for an intern, Nathan got an interview and landed the position. He’s been there three years now, and he’s gotten several raises. He’s amazing. I used to tell him, “Your encyclopedic knowledge of Simpsons minutiae is not going to get you ahead in life.” Of course, one of the first things he worked on was the Simpsons trivia calendar. [laughs] I’m very excited to have a son who’s in the comic book industry professionally.

FLIcK: It must be nice for you being able to relate to your son that way, instead of, say, him becoming an accountant instead!

MH: Yeah, yeah, I know. Exactly! It’s really special when your kids enjoy a lot of the same things you do. My middle son Griffin and my daughter Chelsea have interests that overlap like that, and Griffin’s a real film buff, but it’s Nathan who’s the closest in terms of all the comic books and toys and silliness we share. It’s gratifying. And my sons are both really good artists. Griffin has a portfolio that I’d love for him to submit and go to art school. But you know, you can’t force children down a path. They’ve got to find their own way. Mine are 25, 21, and 16 now.

FLIcK: Which member of the Star Wars family have you stayed in closest contact with?

MH: This is hard. I love all those people, but I’ll go for years without seeing anybody. And then all at once, for instance, I saw three of the actors, Jeremy Bulloch, David Prowse, and Peter Mayhew, at the convention where I was filming for Comic Book: The Movie. And I put them in a cameo. What was interesting to me was that, unless you’re a hardcore Star Wars fan, you wouldn’t recognize them, because they didn’t have their masks on as Boba Fett, Darth Vader, and Chewbacca. Even when I haven’t seen anybody in a long time, that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t love to see them again. But you know, this is kind of a self-centered business. And I’m someone who prefers staying home over going out and socializing. Anyway, you just never know. I’ll go to an office building and bump into Billy Dee Williams, and it’s great to see him. It was disappointing that we couldn’t all have gotten together for the Vanity Fair shoot, but that’s what happens in this business. For a time, you’re paid to be convincing as a father, brother or son, and you really feel those relationships strongly. I played Patricia Neal’s son in a movie called Eric, and I really, really bonded with her. You bond with her like she really is your mother. But life goes on, and she goes back to England, and you move to New York, you do a play, you do whatever. Time flies.

FLIcK: What’s the most impressive display of a fan’s dedication to Star Wars that you’ve encountered?

MH: It’s overwhelming to realize how some people have related to what we did, and the way it’s impacted their lives. There are people who were inspired to go into various businesses, whether it’s art or special effects or acting or being a cameraman. You find out that this was the touchstone moment in their lives, which is very impressive. But you read about people that have collected things, where it’s far beyond what you could imagine. People have to understand that to a certain extent, you just move on with your life and say: “I’m no longer involved in a direct sense, even though there’s that legacy.” Yet you see these people who are far more informed about what we did than even I am, because I’ll forget things! I’m not singling out Star Wars here, but I’m not someone who puts on something that I’ve done to watch for enjoyment, really. I’ll see it once or twice to see how it all turned out. I’m constantly amazed at the devotion of the fans.

FLIcK: How do you typically spend the opening weekend of your movies? Do you have any plans for the Episode III premiere?

MH: For the new Star Wars, usually there are benefit screenings for children’s charities, and I’ll participate if I’m able to. I might be in Europe for Big Red One in May. I’m not entirely sure. In general, I know George likes to go to Hawaii as soon as he can’t work on the movies any more, and he just waits for the returns. Personally, I don’t think I have any sort of precise agenda for those moments. You want to keep an eye on whether people respond to what you’ve done or not. But I’m usually a slave to whatever job I’m working on! [laughs] Still, if I can help out in any way with the charities, I will. That’s one thing that’s really great about having been involved with Star Wars. You have an impact on young people, whether it’s through Make a Wish or March of Dimes or something else. It’s extremely gratifying to help those less fortunate than yourself in any way you can. I’ve got three healthy children, and when you visit hospitals and see kids that aren’t that lucky, it really puts things in perspective.

FLIcK: What advice would you give the actors from the new trilogy about life after Star Wars?

MH: Well, I don’t know that I would give them advice. If anything, they could probably give me advice! [laughs] Look at Natalie Portman. She just got an Oscar nomination. All of them are doing fine. What I say to anybody in this business is that you really have to find your passion and follow it. If the passion begins to wane, then you find a way to reinvent it or you’re lost. I throw myself into everything I do with as much passion as I did with George’s movies. As it happens, I’m also one of the supervising directors of a LEGO commercial based on Episode III. Initially, I didn’t want to read the script. If I’m not involved in the movie, I like to just see it clean, like an audience member. Now I’m looking at storyboards–not the whole movie, but a section of the movie–for the commercial we’re working on. I’m doing it with an animation house in New York, just so I can get some hands-on experience being an animation director. I’ve directed voice casts for animation, but I’ve never done the actual directing of the animation itself. And they’re letting me take a portion of that. It’s quite the mini-epic. It’s nearly five minutes long. If you can really be in the moment and enjoy what you’re doing at any given time, that’s the ticket. It’s the way to keep yourself fresh and vital.

FLIcK: What’s your idea of a perfect day?

MH: To me, family is everything. I’ve been really lucky. I’ve been married to the same woman for 26 years. My wife Marilou was a dental hygienist. She wasn’t in show business, which is tough, I mean, if you’re both in it. To me, a perfect day would be swimming, a barbecue, The Honeymooners on a big-screen TV. [laughs] You know, I’m a man of simple pleasures. We still play board games. I don’t have a wide circle of friends, but most of the friends I have are people I’ve known for years. A perfect day to me is to have the day stretch ahead of you with your family and your dogs. It might sound boring, but I much prefer that to nightclubbing and parties and so on.

FLIcK: Is it true you’ll be making an appearance on the Star Wars TV series?

MH: I don’t know anything about that. People have asked me. I didn’t even know there was a Star Wars TV series! I don’t know how that gets started. I’ve had experiences where you make a comment and then it gets expounded on the Internet and chat rooms and then gets reported as truth. You can tell me!

FLIcK: How do you think people will view the Star Wars franchise 20 years from now?

MH: Well, I didn’t expect people to be so enthusiastic about ours so many years afterwards, and look what’s happened! I would imagine that like Lord of the Rings and the Spiderman movies and so forth, they will have a passionate following. Not only hardcore fans, but new generations who haven’t seen the movies before. When young people see the original Star Wars trilogy, there’s not a lot in it that dates it. Maybe haircuts, and the primitive nature of the special effects, but a lot of the younger ones really think of it as a new movie. It’s almost like an animated movie. And they can bring Peter Pan and Snow White out over and over again. Because Star Wars is set in a galaxy far, far away, and doesn’t relate to time and space as we know it, it seems fresher than it would otherwise. So I would expect the same thing with the current trilogy.

FLIcK: If you could give one message to all the Star Wars fans out there, what would it be?

MH: I think inherent in all the movies is a belief in the goodness of mankind. I mean, I don’t want to sound corny about it. But when you’re living in such troubled times, with wars going on and all the divisions we have in our country, to go back to the basic tenets of the fable or fairy tale is probably a really good thing. And I would hope that the belief in the inherent goodness of mankind is something all Star Wars fans can feel.

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