March 20, 2005|You learn some things about yourself when you undertake any sort of profession, I guess--that is, how well you deal with certain unique, job-related situations. I learned fairly early on, and luckily, that I'm not given to being particularly star-struck. But there was a moment as I was talking with Mark Hamill via telephone from his home in California that I realized I was having to work a little bit to not start raving like a lunatic. I noted a little tremor in my hand; it was completely unexpected. Hearing the voice of Luke Skywalker--what was possibly the single most important shaping cultural force of my childhood--on the other end of the wire gave me a line, vibrant and organic, back to a four-year-old me, back to a time before I spoke a peep of English. See, with Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher, I've since identified them with other things (Indiana Jones and drug addiction/ghost writing, respectively), but Mark Hamill remains primary in my imagination as that kid I wanted to be: towheaded and chosen, the golden calf of the culture into which I desperately wished to assimilate.
It's been years since the original Star Wars trilogy so intoxicated me. Fresher is the feeling of betrayal as Lucas periodically revamps his films, leaving what is very much my childhood on grainy VHS tapes for sale on eBay: the last place you can get the original versions of the films. (The latest offense--Lucas inserting Hayden Christensen into Return of the Jedi--somehow worse and more invasive than making Greedo shoot first. Where one is simpering, the other is just unspeakable.) The argument that the films are Lucas's to do with as he pleases is reductive at its heart: It's art-killing to declare that once art is introduced into the popular conversation, it nonetheless belongs to the artist alone. If DaVinci were alive, would he feel the tickle to give the Mona Lisa a makeover? (Modern threads, modern setting?) What does it mean to say that someone has the right to vandalize his or her own creations? Should Max Brod have respected Kafka's wishes that his manuscripts be destroyed upon his death? Director's editions are all the rage, but it's only with Star Wars that the director in question declines to make the unaltered editions of his pictures available--or to even answer questions regarding his edits. Both Apocalypse Now and Apocalypse Now Redux are readily available to buy--to see The Empire Strikes Back with that line about droids not tasting very good, you gotta do a little digging for what's probably a rental copy in an inferior format. Who knows, maybe it's better that way: winnows the wheat of the true believer from the chaff of the sycophant.
So partly out of deference to Mr. Hamill's thirty-some years of dealing daily with the Star Wars question, and partly out of my own desire to better calm myself to ask questions about a topic I'm a little (read: a lot) unprofessional about (I have a good friend, Dave, who'll vouch for how I do go on about Lucas's puerility when given the chance--calling cigarettes "death sticks," Jesus Christ), I didn't touch on Star Wars until the end. Between (now here's an irony) an expanded cut of the butchered WWII drama Hamill made for Samuel Fuller, The Big Red One, due for DVD release in May, his directorial debut Comic Book: The Movie performing well on video, and his rise as a superstar of a different sort as one of the most sought-after voice-actors in popular American animation, we had enough to discuss. But I did ask the questions I wanted to ask, and though I gave Mr. Hamill every opportunity to demur, he was forthcoming, impassioned, and articulate on subjects as varied as Fuller, The Kinks, John Carpenter, and, yep, George Lucas. You don't get to meet your heroes too often--rarer still that they turn out to have matured at something like the same pace you hope to have matured yourself. What can I say but the circle is now complete.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: Tell me about playing Snoopy in "You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown."
MARK HAMILL: My god, what kind of research did you do? That was in high school in Japan.
You mention it in an article from ROLLING STONE published between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back.
I don't even remember doing that interview. Wow. Okay, y'know, my father was in the Navy, I moved around quite a bit and when I was in Virginia, he would take a lot of trips to New York. By that time, I was already really interested in the theatre and television and film and he'd take me along so that I could see a lot of shows.
With your father?
No, by myself, I don't think we ever saw anything... No, he went to the "Mad Show" with me off-Broadway--but during that time I saw "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown" off-Broadway and the reason I mention all this is that by the time I got to school in Yokohama, Japan, I wanted the drama department to do more modern plays. A lot of times, you know, your drama department does plays that the teachers liked when they were young--but I pushed really hard and got it to go through and I wound up playing that part. It's still one of the most satisfying experiences I've had on stage, made more meaningful because Charles Schultz was a big influence on me.
As a comic artist?
Yeah, I read a lot about him and sort of fantasized about being a comic strip artist. I mean, gee, you can work at home and you can create the entire universe all by yourself. I still love the simplicity of that idea of creation, you know, film and theatre and television are such composite endeavours. There are so many people who work on it. That's why I envy stand-up comedians and musicians, too, because all they really need is themselves and an audience. You finish a film or voice-work on a cartoon, and it can be months or years later until you see the fruits of that labour.
You recently finished directing your first film, Comic Book: The Movie.
I did, I did, it was exhausting, I'd get back from rehearsals for a play I was doing at the time, take a shower, and then look at film until the sun came up. I'd been directing a lot of animation and video games, but to actually, even on such a tiny scale, direct a film... It's a mixed blessing and I don't know that I'm entirely cut out for it. To tell you the truth, there's a side of me that's really lazy. I remember reading an interview with Spencer Tracy where they asked him what he looked for in a script and he said "days off"--and I could understand that. If you're in an ensemble, playing a villain or some walk-on, it's a totally different experience than if you were the lead and you work on up until you're the director of a picture and suddenly you're the person who's making all of the decisions.
Especially, ironically, on a small picture.
That's right--no delegation authority at all. It's like that old saw, I don't like writing but I like having written--I loved learning the process of directing and putting a film together, of collaborating with an editor and with actors, picking the music, of being in control and having a greater say in creative decisions, but the pressure is enormous. Everybody asks you questions from contingency plans if there's rain to parking spots to where's the caterer. It's really something. It gives you an amazing, wonderful creative rush, and like everything you have good and bad days, but it's astounding how hard it was.
Would you do it again?
I would, I really would, but I would just want to concentrate on directing and not be in it--hopefully it's going to be Black Pearl. I think, to be honest, that I got this movie done because I agreed to be in it, myself. When I initially pitched the idea of a film directed by me, it was going to be a film version of the comic that I did, "Black Pearl", but they said that it was too "much" for them--which, essentially to me, meant that they didn't trust me with a project that size for that expense. They'd done the thing with the two "Star Trek" actors reminiscing about the show and after a while talking with them I sort of got a sense of where the wind was blowing...
Luke Skywalker: Secrets.
(laughs) Right. So I shifted gears a little, I tried to get them interested in me sort of returning to the comic convention world a little bit without having to stroll down memory lane. I could maybe appeal to the same audience, that same broad umbrella of "genre fan," for the amount of money that they had and were willing to invest in me, and this sort of mock-documentary is what I came up with. I mean, you know, Woodstock at the ComiCon--something more than just a concert film, something like Gimme Shelter with comic books. (laughs) In hindsight, I'm glad for the experience because it was, in a lot of ways, like film school for me.
Your access at the San Diego Comic Book Convention decreased as shooting went on, didn't it?
It did. Initially, we could go essentially wherever we wanted, but after a while they started getting a little nervous, I think. The title I heard a lot was Trekkies--I hadn't seen it, but from what these people were saying, they were afraid that what I was doing was going to be snarky. But, really, I mean, I'm a comic book nerd through and through, making fun of them was the last thing on my mind.The biggest blow was them rescinding permission for me to film the costume competition. Fears of lawsuits on my side, fear of mockery on their side... Just too bad that in this sort of post-modern age, people have become so fearful of being the butt of a reality-show joke.
Miramax bought it.
Yep--for direct-to-video release. And when they bought it, they immediately cut out certain scenes that had copyrighted characters in the backgrounds. They gave me this list that had these durations: how long can you hold on a character without it being a problem: it was like 4.3 seconds or something. Insane. There are a few scenes that were left on the cutting room floor--I mean, we're in such a litigious society--that I really look back on with some sadness.
Tell me about Ralph Bakshi.
The Bakshi was so early on. I don't know why I didn't continue on with the voice work when I was younger--the success of Star Wars might have had something to do with it! (laughs) I actually got started earlier with a Saturday morning kid's cartoon back when I was a teenager that was a Hanna-Barbera version of "I Dream of Jeannie".
(laughs) Right--I played the young version of the Larry Hagman character. I was very down on Hanna-Barbera at that age: I loved Looney Tunes and more cutting-edge stuff, you know. Here I was, it was the number-one rated show that season, but I was just this kid and I had to learn that sometimes you have to compromise on the projects that you get. I hated "I Dream of Jeannie"--I worked with Larry Hagman and he hated "I Dream of Jeannie", too. (laughs) Looking back, though, it sure was fun doing it, I have to say. They're all great experiences.
Working on "General Hospital", too?
Yep. I mean, that was almost like working on live television even though it was on a week delay. We'd flub and they'd just keep rolling and there was this insane amount of memorization going on all the time. But with Bakshi, I'd seen Fritz the Cat and thought it was brilliant and so on an off-week, I went and auditioned for Wizards. Bakshi is really a character, man, he's a lot like the police character he did in that film--and, later, I just really adored the stuff he did with the "Mighty Mouse" character. At the time, I remember reading for the lead, which I didn't get, but they called me back to read for a smaller part, an elf character which I eventually got.
Right. Not a very elf-y name, is it? But it was a very small part, I don't think I had more than thirty seconds on screen all told. If I remember right, Sean was this little thing with wings, this little fairy, and he gets blown away. He sets up this Disney-esque moment and then he's smeared in this moment of graphic violence.
You didn't get along with Bakshi.
No, that's not true, but he was a character for sure, a colourful guy and he didn't pull any punches, believe me. (In a scary Bakshi impersonation:) "You call yourself a fairy? You gotta get a goddamn, fucking..." and I was, what, seventeen? Eighteen? I wasn't used to being screamed at yet, I hadn't worked with Dick Donner yet. (laughs)
And you worked with Regan McNeil at the same time. (Hamill co-starred with Linda Blair in the TV movie Sarah T.: Portrait of a Teenage Alcoholic. -Ed.)
(laughs) That's right, that's right. So when Bakshi left for lunch, I looked over at some of the techs and said, "I am soooo fired," because I mean, I had a temper, I pushed back a little--"Just wait a minute! Let me find the character! I don't know what a fucking fairy is supposed to sound like!" Then he storms off to lunch and I'm sure my brief flirtation with Wizards was history. But the techies said to me that Bakshi wouldn't scream at me if he didn't love me. I don't know if that's true or not, but he didn't fire me.
And with Donner?
With Dick, and we became great friends afterwards, but it was this little TV movie and I was the only person on it that wasn't established and he liked having a whipping boy. He'd ridicule me in front of the entire crew and I just had it one day--I jumped down off of my horse and...
(laughs) Yeah, I was on an actual horse and... You know, I think that was part of the conflict and it was probably my fault because he'd asked me if I could ride a horse before we started shooting, and I told him that I could. Well, I mean, I'd ridden horses before but I wasn't a professional horseman or anything. I could stay up there fine but he was looking for something more accomplished than that--I guess I was bouncing too much off the saddle or something, it wasn't up to snuff. So Dick really had been riding me pretty hard and that was it, we got into this back and forth, really heated. It sounds like I blow up on every project that I'm on, and I swear I don't--thirty years and these are the two stories--but after this row, I went to my trailer and just was like, it's done, I'm done on this thing, it's not going to work out. Again, though, didn't happen, just the opposite. Just by standing up to him after taking to for so long, swallowing my pride for so long...
He respected you?
Yeah, you know, he had at least at that time a really confrontational way of dealing with his actors, but from the point that I sort of pushed back, we really started to get along. Who knew?
You worked on the American releases of two Miyazaki films--Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä--as a voice actor. I'd imagine that working on a Miyazaki would be the top of the mountain.
Oh man, it was great. The American-language director was Jack Fletcher and what's really fascinating to me is that I went to high school for two years in Japan and became aware of anime back then--shows on their television that were much more adult-oriented than what we were getting over here at that time, the "Speed Racer"s and the "Astro Boy"s and stuff--and I was always just fascinated with how the Japanese have evolved animation into a medium for adult stories. They'd never do an animated murder mystery or a ghost story, a serious one, in the United States. And what really has been a great regret in my life is that I never learned Japanese well enough to experience their process from the first beginning to the end. Over there, I think, they animate first and then they do the voices to the animation--we do it the opposite here, talk first, then animate. But Miyazaki, absolutely brilliant. I didn't have large roles in Castle in the Sky and Nausicaä, but I loved the challenge of it: the vowel sounds, dubbing after the fact and being convincing, in character--it was a constant dance, you know, stop and start and back and forth, and of course the films themselves are classics. Really an honour to help bring that to a, maybe, younger American audience.
You were highly-praised for your performances on Broadway as John Merrick in "The Elephant Man" and Mozart in "Amadeus."
I was interested in "Amadeus" at that time because Peter Hall was going to direct. When I did "Elephant Man", Jack Hofsiss (winner of a 1979 Tony for his direction of "Elephant Man" -Ed.)--a lot of times when you replace on Broadway you don't get to work with the original people so at the time I did "Elephant Man"--Hofsiss was off doing a Jill Clayburgh movie, I'm Dancing As Fast As I Can I think, and so I missed out on working with him even though I auditioned for him and he came during my run to see the show. But with "Amadeus" I knew from the start that Hall was going to direct and that I'd have a chance to work with all these Royal Academy of Dramatic Art folks which I was dying to do, having done a lot of classics and Shakespeare in school. So it seemed like a great opportunity.
Simon Callow was the originator of the role, right?
He was, yeah. The first time I saw the show, though, I saw it when Mozart was Tim Curry and Ian McKellen was Salieri, and I confess that the only reason I went to see it was because of the buzz around it--I expected it to be this sort of droll chamber comedy, you know, very polite, very upper crust and snobby, maybe, so imagine my surprise when it's this bawdy, raunchy, as far as you can get from the dry biographical take on this classical composer. It's wicked, really, and I was enthralled, you know.
Fun to do the research, too.
(laughs) In seriousness, that's my favourite part of doing new roles is the research. We went to Salsburg and walked the steps, you know, tried to get a feeling of the place and the man in his place. We went to Vienna, saw "The Magic Flute" there, went up to the apartment where he lived and looked at this lock of his hair.
What colour was it?
Auburn! I was shocked! I mean, if Hammer films have taught us anything, it's that hair turns grey and then into ash, right? But again, fascinating, immersing myself in this unfamiliar culture, walking down these cobblestoned streets 150 yards or so down to the McDonald's. (laughs) I'm sure that after knocking off a sonata, there's nothing like an Egg McMuffin. The challenge of that period for me, though, was training my body to do eight shows a week: to take care of your body really carefully, to drink tea before the performances and to really be aware of your health. It was gruelling, physically, and that was really the biggest surprise.
Were you ever considered for Milos Forman's film adaptation?
You know what, Forman called my agents and asked me to come in for the film, but I told them to tell him that I was under contract for the play and there was no way for me to break that contract to do the movie. Yet people were breaking contract from the Broadway production. Christine Ebersole went off, for instance, and did it, but Forman said (in a scary Forman impersonation): "No, no, I just want him in the interview process to read against other people." And I loved that, you know, there's no pressure, it's just a great acting exercise and, of course, I'm a big fan of Milos Forman, so I go to his hotel room and said to him, very full of myself, you know, "I'm really sorry, you know, I'd love to work with you, I'm a great admirer, but my contract..." and he goes: "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. No one is believing that the Luke Space-Walker is the Mozart."
(laughs) Well, that's showbiz.
Hamill in Walking Across Egypt
"I've bit my tongue for twenty years about [The Big Red One]. I saw the version that they butchered for release originally and I was appalled."
You mention Richard Donner and I'm going use take that to ask you about working with Christopher Reeve on Village of the Damned--two pop cultural icons of the Eighties, both coming to prominence with Superman.
I never thought of it that way--that's true, I guess, but look I knew Chris before Village of the Damned because a lot of the people who worked on George [Lucas's] movies worked on the Superman movies, too. And Chris was just around... Let me think... I remember the Superman costume hanging on a wardrobe rack in his dressing room. He wasn't there, but his wife at the time was there, and I remember that I felt it with my fingers and I said, "Hey, I wonder what this costume feels like," and Gae, his wife at the time, said, "It feels wonderful." I didn't follow that up very far. (laughs) But I do remember him coming when I was in rehearsals for "The Elephant Man" and we were all living, my wife and I and my son Nathan, in the same hotel where the Reeves were staying, and I remember a birthday party for him and Chris and Gae and Chris's son, who was Nathan's age, coming over. I still have the tape of it somewhere and Gae's telling a story off-camera telling a story about Chris and Deathtrap that is so profane, you know, and so you hear this hilarious, blue story and then what you're looking at is these two little boys playing with the cake and tearing wrapping paper.
You were close with Chris?
No, I was never close with him. I liked him, I thought he did a fantastic job as Clark Kent, especially--really underestimated, iconic work. But I didn't really socialize with him very much. By the time we did Village of the Damned... I don't know... I mean, I came in late, they'd already been filming for a while and I was essentially a replacement for David Warner, who had to bow out for some reason or another. When you come into the middle of a film, I don't think that the bonding process is as successful as it is when you're there from the start, plus, depending on who you're playing, some actors like to keep a distance. I was the bad guy to Chris's good guy, and you know every actor's different, but it seemed to me...he seemed to be preoccupied. I don't know what was going on at that time in his life, I don't know [Reeve's second wife] Dana very well...
Village of the Damned was the second time you'd worked with John Carpenter.
Right, it was, with John we had mutual friends in Dave and Ray Davies.
Right--Dave Davies I met when I was doing Empire Strikes Back. He lived not far from me, but I'd go to The Kinksconcerts all the time and when I started to get pretty well-recognized, the usher would come to say that the band wanted to meet me backstage which, for me, was really a thrill. The Kinksare just this great, underrated, literate band.
You have a favourite Kinks album?
(laughs) That's a tough one, "Something Else"?
Ah, I always like "Village Green Preservation Society."
Classic. It's impossible to choose.The wit, the intelligence, underappreciated for sure.
But anyway, Carpenter.
(laughs) But anyway, Dave loved genre film and had written music for John Carpenter at one point, and, of course, I was a fan of John's. His version of The Thing is just astonishing. I remember seeing it the first week that it opened and I said that this thing was going to be bigger than Alien--I never did understand why it flopped like it did, it absolutely terrified me.
Yeah, you're right, people were in no mood for the anti-E.T. in 1982. I remember he showed a clip of it on the David Letterman show and it was the part with the dog exploding with tentacles and stuff, and the audience was just awestruck, but Letterman had just no idea what to say about it. I saw the clip, I saw the film, was blown away, but I loved Carpenter's work--Halloween, The Fog. So through Dave Davies, I went to Carpenter's house one time, a Halloween party appropriately enough. And they didn't tell me, but the theme was Star Wars, which really tickled John when I walked in with this look on my face and we were friends just like that.
I understand he's a favourite of actors.
Absolutely. John's just one guy I find extremely easy to be around. Some filmmakers you feel uncomfortable with for whatever reason--they make you feel stupid, they suggest that you're boring, some kind of air about them that makes it hard to have a human relationship with them, you know, but John is just like a guy you could go get a cheeseburger and a Cherry Coke with. He never makes you feel awkward and he genuinely has this infectious movie-love, a guy who read "Famous Monsters" as a kid.
Yet when you did "Body Bags", you were in the Tobe Hooper-directed segment.
I went out to John's place where he writes, you know, and we talked a lot about me being a part of that project and I was thrilled. I really wanted to be directed by him, but things didn't work out and I ended up in Tobe's segment and I sort of was like, "Oh no, that's not the Texas Chain Saw Massacre guy, is it?" And I hadn't even seen it, I was too much of a chicken and after the film--which was great experience--I told Tobe that and he just laughed and said, "Man, we didn't even cut anything up in that."
What'd you think of his Village of the Damned?
I had much higher hopes. The Wolf Rilla one is still the best.
Tell me about the new The Big Red One.
Let me tell you, Walter, I've bit my tongue for twenty years about this. I saw the version that they butchered for release originally and I was appalled. I didn't know until I saw it--they didn't tell any of us--that they had cut it, that they had added narration, that they had royally screwed with the whole shebang.
It wasn't even Sam Fuller's narration, it was Jim McBride's: insult to injury.
That's right! I'd forgotten about that! They took the whole damn thing away from Sam, didn't they? Look, all I can say is this, if Sam didn't complain publicly, I would toe the line. To know Sam was to love him. I didn't want to do the movie. I read the script and I was blown away by it: it was so oddball, so of a vision, and written with so much force and passion--you could sense that it was autobiographical, it was so packed with little details that nobody could imagine unless you were there. But I didn't want to do the movie, I was scared to death. I wanted to watch it, of course... I had seen Shock Corridor and Steel Helmet was all at the time... But getting back to that Spencer Tracy quote, I didn't want to go recreate WWII in the summer in Israel.
Ego, too? You were king of the world that summer.
Ego, definitely. I wanted a film that was more about me and not an ensemble, and there was an element, too, that I was such a fan of Lee Marvin that I was afraid to work with him and find out that he was a jerk or something. In truth, really, was that I was a little scared of Lee Marvin. (laughs) But when I got invited to audition with a director of Sam's stature, I luckily was humble enough to go and talk to him, and I just completely fell under the spell of this mesmerizing storyteller. (In a scary Fuller impersonation:) "Well, let me tell ya son, you just go out there and you don't give a shit about anything anymore," and he hypnotizes you: laughing, smoking his cigars, the whole thing. "Turn around! I wanna' see your ass!" And we were like, "What?" And he said, "I'm gonna shoot you so much from behind you gotta have good asses," and you know he's putting you on, but...it was a trip-and-a-half to be taken into his confidence.
And Lee Marvin?
You meet him and, just, wonderful guy--funny and generous. Lee was one of the most giving actors, another incredible storyteller, funnier than hell, and between him and Sam, they had so much real life experience that whenever you had a question on the set, they would set you straight. It was a living history lesson, making that film on this miniscule budget and a TV-movie schedule, must've been like eight weeks, and watching Fuller--he'd do a master and a pan and a push and he wouldn't do any coverage, couldn't, and he had this absolute confidence and economy in how he told a story. Gritty, no frills, the camera will tell the story.
Exactly, exactly. I used to joke with Sam that I took that first meeting with him to tell him what was wrong with his script, that there's no moment where somebody jumps out of their foxhole, rifle blaring, screaming that "You bastards killed Johnny!" and then run across the battlefield and take out a trench-load of Nazis.
There's that story that he screened The Big Red One for a group of military muckety-mucks and on their way out, one of them said to Fuller that he didn't like it because he didn't think that it'd help recruitment at all.
(laughs) I'll bet he was tickled pink by that! I've been asked a lot if this is an anti-war film and I've always said that it's a movie about guys who want to stay alive. They've lost all their idealism by the end--grizzled and hardened and cynical. It has repercussions today with the war that we're in now, you know, that's the power of the piece I think is that the truths that it tells are truths always about boys in war.
I have to say that other than Marvin's character, your character, Griff, undergoes the most complete story arc of any in the picture.
That means a lot to me, I'll tell you why. When I left that first meeting I was thinking to myself, "Holy shit, I just joined the army." He had me under his spell and I knew that I just had to work with this guy and I had a chance to do a play in New York, some romantic comedy thing out in LA, but I had to work with Sam. And one of the reasons that I had to do it, I think, is that besides the fact that Sam is a genius, I was very aware that I was becoming very famous for a role in what was essentially a fantasy war movie, the "fun" side of war, and I started to feel even then this strong sense of responsibility for the image that I was helping to perpetuate. I felt self-conscious about it, being this hero pilot to five, six, seven-year-olds, you know. I'm not that brave, Luke's that brave. And it was really important for me at that time to choose a character who was essentially a coward. To play Griff who didn't know if he could pull the trigger. It felt good to do that, it felt right, but unfortunately, nobody saw The Big Red One and, if they had, they didn't get to see the version that Sam had envisioned and that we thought we were working on.
Did you name your son, Griffin, after this character?
Not consciously, but there are so many "Griffs" in Fuller's pictures that at least on some level I much have been influenced. I loved Sam so much and when it came time to name Griffin, it just seemed like the natural choice.
Did your dad, a military man, get to see you in The Big Red One?
(long pause) You know, that's a really interesting question. My father's still alive, my mom passed away, and if he did, he didn't say anything about it. He was really disappointed that I didn't follow in his footsteps. My older brother's a doctor, another works with computers, and I have four sisters, but he was of the mindset that show business, and I can't say he's wrong, is superficial and not very important. I feel that myself, have felt that myself, often. But I think it'd be interesting for him to see it, yeah, especially now when it's finally the movie that I signed up to do.
So, I have to do it: Star Wars.
(laughs) I heard Eric Idle talking the other day about "SpamAlot" and he said that there's not a day that goes by, not one day, when the term "Monty Python" doesn't come up in his life. And his response is very similar to mine, that you either come to terms with it, or you go slowly mad.
Which did you do?
(laughs) I hope I came to terms with it. It's funny because my reaction to it is much different in different situations. If it's a young person who's just come to it for the first time, or someone who was moved to go into the business in some way either on the story side or the technical side--and I find technicians on every level who say that those films were their primary inspiration--it's one thing. And of course, there's the frustrating side of it when the Milos Formans say, "Luke Space Walker, this," and yadda yadda forget about it, you know, and that's the real down side. I fled to Broadway so I could do other things: comedy, dialects...
Voice acting offers the same refuge.
Oh yeah, more so even, I can play a burly bodyguard one day, a shrimp the next, and The Joker the day after that. But in Hollywood, my options are extraordinarily limited. No casting directors are going to be sitting around saying that they need a drug dealer, or a pedophile, or something like that and think, Hey, Luke Skywalker would be perfect for that.
A Tarantino might.
This is true. But generally, my name's not even in the hopper. It's a curse, but it's a blessing, too. I mean, I know that doors have opened for me because of that role. I'm working on an animated series right now and I know that the producers of the show took that first meeting with me because of who I played. The story is strong on its own merits, but I was able to meet with a broad range of investors who, who knows, but at two or three of those meetings, I spent at least part of the time signing posters and figures for their kids. It's just a fact of my life now, I don't know that I can even imagine my life without that recognition, I can't speculate.
You're not bitter.
No, not at all. There are aspects of the marketing that's grown around it, sort of supernova'd out of it, really, and the fraud that's out there trying to prey on people for their affection for those films, that gets me a little--but the core films, I'm not the least bit bitter about them. Really fun films, wholesome films in a lot of ways, that just happened to become this cultural phenomenon. I have a lot of satisfaction to be able to work doing what I'm doing now, things I really love. I'm having the time of my life right now, and there's this satisfaction that I have of being a part of so many peoples' fond childhood memories and be able through "Batman" or "The Simpsons" or "Justice League" or "Robot Chicken" to be a part of a new generation of kids' memories.
About those memories, I feel as though Lucas has stolen a bit of my childhood with his constant tinkering of the original Star Wars trilogy.
I haven't been reticent about saying, "Leave them alone." Make the new ones, that's fine, but why would you go back and change film history? So much of the charm of those movies is that they're what George once called "The most expensive low-budget movie ever made," and, indeed, there's so much invention in those films: using trucks to drive by the Death Star models and set off charges when the X-Wings would crash into it, cribbing shots from old WWII aerial battle films... We were forced on that movie to improvise a lot, to use our imaginations, and that's something that goes away with big budgets and limitless technology.
Technology that's somehow gotten more sophisticated in the prequels.
I asked George at the time, I asked him why we were doing the middle three episodes of a proposed nine-episode series, and he said (in a scary Lucas impersonation): "Eh, the middle three are the most commercial"--but you're absolutely right that you run the risk now that the new films have technologies that are much more advanced. The process of disenfranchisement of the original fans starts, you see? I mean, really, why not have both options available? You can watch the original theatrical release that a lot of guys your age saw, what, three times in the theatre? More?
I saw it about eight times in the theatre in 1977.
Right--why not release that version as a second disc in the Special Edition? His argument is that why not use new technology to insert the things that you couldn't have before, new animals in Mos Eisley, and that's fine, but on the other hand, why not have as a bonus feature, the original film? Why make them so hard to get?
Like "The Star Wars Holiday Special".
(laughs) No comment on that one. But seriously, it'd be different, wouldn't it, if George had passed away and it was someone else tinkering with these films in this way? The uproar would be deafening. Look, you make a conscious effort to detach yourself from the debate--you want to be publicly supportive because you don't want to come off as some sad has-been who wishes he were still involved in the franchise and then on the other hand, you don't want to be so supportive that you seem like this rubber-stamping sycophant. It was easier when I was actually working on the movies--you could change your lines a little, argue with him. Now, there's nothing for me to say.
I heard a neat thing once, that during Star Wars, Lucas was Luke--and by the time of Return of the Jedi, he was Jabba the Hutt.
He's in his own world. He's like William Randolph Hearst or Howard Hughes, he's created his own world and he can live in it all the time. You really see that in his films, he's completely cut off from the rest of world. You can see a huge difference in the films that he does now and the films that he did when he was married. I know for a fact that Marcia Lucas was responsible for convincing him to keep that little "kiss for luck" before Carrie [Fisher] and I swing across the chasm in the first film: "Oh, I don't like it, people laugh in the previews," and she said, "George, they're laughing because it's so sweet and unexpected"--and her influence was such that if she wanted to keep it, it was in. When the little mouse robot comes up when Harrison and I are delivering Chewbacca to the prison and he roars at it and it screams, sort of, and runs away, George wanted to cut that and Marcia insisted that he keep it. She was really the warmth and the heart of those films, a good person he could talk to, bounce ideas off of, who would tell him when he was wrong. Now he's so exalted that no one tells him anything.
Disturbing racism in the new films.
Well, listen, I would have loved to have looked at that first screenplay, for Episode 1, and I would have said, "Uh oh, see, but we had a Han Solo character," who could sort of cut any potential awkwardness, when we'd get close to maybe being a little corny--whenever things with The Force got a little too heavy and mystical, we had a guy who could just sort of act as the voice of reason, you know, he was a mercenary and cocksure and a smartass and he kept the pictures on sort of an even keel.
I get most uncomfortable during Return of the Jedi when Han starts to convert--feels scary in a pod sort of way.
Exactly right--Han Solo was there as the voice of skepticism. But you look at the new pictures and there's not that character to offset the grave fanaticism of the piece. Everyone's so sincere, there's no release from that archness that comes with highly-stylized fantasy. But, again, he's a guy who's earned the right to do exactly what he wants, so I temper my remarks by saying that he's the studio now and that's something I really admire about him. When he was working with Fox, you know, he had to every day deal with memos like "Why doesn't the Wookiee have pants? Put him in lederhosen," and I'd think, Oh boy, if they're just looking at Chewbacca's crotch, we're really in trouble. But now he doesn't have to answer to anyone and he doesn't.
Is he humourless?
No, I mean, he had no problems with me doing that parody sketch in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he just wanted me to use different-coloured lightsabers, but he was fine with it. But you hear him interviewed and there's no compromise involved when he's challenged. He doesn't say, "Yeah, I should have lightened up a little bit there," or, "Yeah, that was a mistake." He digs his heels in, he's adamant, and you know that what's on the screen is exactly what he wants. And I've never seen that kind of autonomy before, anywhere, on this kind of scale. I mean, even Spielberg has partners. I should add, too, that you certainly can't tell he's doing something wrong by the box office.
When do you think he'll finally replace you with a digital ghost that's some morph of Natalie Portman and Hayden Christensen?
(laughs) Hayden is in Return of the Jedi, now, isn't he?
Now, see, I don't watch them anymore so that I don't know, but at what point does he decide, "Hey, Tom Cruise would be a much better Luke, why don't we build a virtual Tom Cruise to replace him?" Who's to say? It's very profound what you said about your childhood being taken away from you a little with these constant revisions--I hear that and I'll say this, that history will out, you know? You have to look forward and just leave the past to itself.
Did you know that Lucasfilm instructed distributors not to send us a screening copy of the original trilogy? We thought that was a pretty nifty affirmation that we were doing something right.
Your Episode II review, right? We used that in my film, excerpted a part of it, because of its passion and that sense that here was a guy who, no matter the consequences, was telling it like it is. Listen, the enemies list is longer than the employee list nowadays, smile man. Even though George has tried really hard, it's impossible not to become an entrenched entity. George admits that: he is the establishment now and if you don't toe the line and do it the right way, you're out. Wear it as a badge of honour.