“My face was on a cereal box”
To millions of fans he will always be Luke Skywalker. And as the phenomenon rolls on, Mark Hamill tells Stellar why he’s perfectly fine with that
Ahead of the release of the hotly anticipated new Star Wars film, Mark Hamill talks to Stellar about the enduring success of the cult franchise, his close friendship with the late Carrie Fisher, and why he has no problem being defined by Luke Skywalker.
Mark Hamill is pacing inside a hotel suite in Beverly Hills, at the end of a long day spent spruiking his signature role. He’s rumpled in a beaten brown leather jacket, blue T-shirt and black jeans, and is itching to join his family, who are gathered in the hallway outside, waiting to take him home to Malibu for dinner.
But first there is business to discuss, and lucky for Hamill, talking Star Wars is one of his greatest joys. Still boyish at 66, Hamill admits as he sits down with Stellar that even if he weren’t recognised by millions as Luke Skywalker, he would still be “the hugest fan” of the epic film franchise. Possibly even one who dresses up.
Some actors might resent being known for one role their entire career, and there’s arguably no tighter typecast than that of Skywalker, who grew from nasally farm boy to would-be saviour of the galaxy before millions of eyes in the original Star Wars trilogy of the ’70s and ’80s. But for Hamill, a self-described lucky clown, there is nothing but joy in reprising his role in latest instalment The Last Jedi, which will be released next month. Except for one pressing exception.
After working out twice a week for more than a year to film just a few seconds in 2015’s The Force Awakens, Hamill was determined to get more screen time this time around. Recalling his preparation for that movie – his first Star Wars film in 32 years – Hamill explains to Stellar that “I had to drive in my car to Santa Monica, park my car, go to the gym. They called it physical training… which is a euphemism for torture. And they changed my diet. No sugar, no dairy, no bread, no fun. Basically, if it tastes good, don’t eat it. And I lost, I don’t know... [around 20kg]. My wife was thrilled. Not only was I getting in better shape, but I was out of the house.”
His appearance in the last film may have been fleeting, but it was undoubtedly climactic. That story centred on protagonist Rey (played by Daisy Ridley) and her search for Skywalker, who was living in exile; in its closing moments, she finally found him mysteriously perched atop a cliff.
Of course, like everything in the alternate universe of Star Wars, the storyline for The Force Awakens was shrouded in secrecy for as long as possible. “I should’ve suspected, ’cause when they were gonna deliver the script, [director and writer] JJ [Abrams] was on the phone and he goes, ‘OK, I’m sending the script over – and read it from page one straight through and imagine it like a movie.’”
He did, and admits he was shocked. “I literally get to the last page, and I said: ‘I trained for 50 weeks to revolve and remove a hood?’ I mean, I could be the size of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now with the robes that they have.”
So upon receiving the script for this latest film? “I went right to the last page and read it backwards,” he says.
HAMILL IS NOW roughly the same age as veteran British actor Sir Alec Guinness was when he played Obi-wan Kenobi, who mentored Luke Skywalker and first taught the young Jedi about the Force. What has happened to Skywalker in the intervening years since Return Of The Jedi remains secret, and is to form much of the backstory for this latest film.
There was no guarantee Hamill and co-stars Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher would reprise their roles when the much-anticipated Star Wars sequels were finally made – in the end, they very much did – but regardless, Hamill reckons the characters “never really went away. It always had a presence, even if it was on the low end of the scale.”
Following the release of the original trilogy, Hamill recalls encountering fans while he was performing in theatres. “There’s people with their playbills they want to be signed,” he says of the crowds who waited for him at the stage door. “There’s people with lightsabers and action figures. And bubblegum cards! Fortunately for me, I love all that stuff. I thought you had to be an athlete to become a bubblegum card. I’m a terrible athlete. Now I’m a bubblegum card – thank you very much, George Lucas.
“I love all the gimmicks,” he continues. “I love the merchandising. I was the only one that was excited when our faces were masks on the back of cereal boxes. I’d say: ‘Harrison, look! I’m a mask on a cereal box!’ You should have seen the king of eye rolls: ‘Argh.’ He hated all that stuff, or at least was slightly annoyed by it. But I love all that stuff.”
Hamill has returned to the role with the same sense of wonder – and a new gratitude.
“Back in the day,” he tells Stellar, “you just figure: ‘Oh, all my movies are going to be nominated for 12 Academy Awards and become pop-cultural phenomenons.’ Little did I know. But I think I’m able to appreciate it in a way that I wasn’t able to in my 20s, because you don’t take it seriously. It’s all for fun, it’s all for people’s amusement.”
While he never regretted taking on the role that would come to define him, Hamill has wondered what course his life might have taken if he had not. “The road not taken is always fascinating,” he says. “I thought, ‘Did I get this backwards?’ Because I [had] established a career in television for about six years before I got Star Wars. Then Star Wars happened, then eventually I made it to Broadway. I said, ‘I got this all screwed up… I should have started on Broadway, or off-broadway in little theatres and so forth.’ I always imagined myself driving a cab or waiting a table until I became an actor.”
In recent years, Hamill has carved out a huge second career as a voiceover artist, most notably portraying The Joker in Batman: The Animated Series. “I’m a huge comic book fan, and I knew the calibre of talent they were putting together for the series, because I’m also a huge animation fan,” he says. “I adore the fact that I’m the voice of The Joker, because 180 degrees removed from this icon of virtue [in Skywalker] is this depraved icon of villainy. One of the things I love about voiceovers is it allows you to play characters you’d never get if you were on camera. And it’s liberating not to be seen. You can make outrageous choices that you wouldn’t make if the camera were this far from your face.”
Hamill admits part of his move into voiceover work was driven at times by his limited opportunities in film. Unlike Ford, he was never able to thoroughly shed his Star Wars persona. Inevitably he was “stuck in one role. People weren’t letting me go out for [films] like Midnight Express, which I really wanted to go out for. They would say, ‘Oh no, we don’t need to see him. We saw Star Wars, he’s not right for it.’
“I thought well, you know, I’m an actor. If I am only going to play parts that are virtuous, and callow, and naïve, it’s really going to be limiting.”
Still, Hamill is quick to point out he’s not complaining about what Star Wars provided – which was a lot. “I mean, I am just so lucky, because I’m a fool. I’m a player, I’m a clown. That’s all I wanted to do when I was a kid. I was the middle of seven children. I loved to make my brothers and sisters laugh. I had an ear for dialects, and I could imitate our relatives. I used humour as a weapon, or as a defence mechanism. If there were bullies, or jocks, I could always make them laugh – and that’s really disarming. If a guy wants to punch you in the face, you make fun of yourself. That’s reassuring to an aggressor.”
And to those who wonder if the actor is upset to “only be remembered for one thing”, he has a ready answer.
“Look, I never expected to be remembered for anything. So already that’s a win,” Hamill says. “I was just happy being a working actor. I’m as happy when I’m doing off-broadway for 500 seats as I am doing a movie that [will] be seen by millions. I mean... to be able to say it’s my 47th year as a professional actor? That’s something I never would have dreamed.”
If there is one looming regret, it’s that his dear friend Carrie Fisher is no longer here to celebrate Star Wars’ continued legacy at his side. Last December, shortly after she completed filming her part in The Last Jedi, Fisher died. “We were the old guard,” Hamill says as he reflects on his beloved co-star. “And they had all these new kids running around. But she trusted me. She knew I was the same person I was all those years ago.” Hamill says it took some time to accept Fisher’s death, and that he had to let go of some of his anger over its circumstances – an autopsy revealed she had died from sleep apnoea, but also that she had cocaine, heroin and ecstasy in her system at the time of her death. “Carrie was so much fun to be around, and of course irreplaceable. But my wife said, ‘You know you’re just being selfish. You only want her to be here ’cause she could make you laugh.’ And I could make her laugh, which I was proud of. But instead of being so upset with her, we should just be grateful for what she gave us when she was here.” Hamill’s wife Marilou is a regular touch point in his many anecdotes, and it is clear from his reaction when she arrives at his hotel room that the pair are still very close after 39 years of marriage. Hamill is happiest when surrounded by family. He’s father to sons Nathan and Griffin as well as daughter Chelsea, who laughs that she is a “dad wrangler”, as well as his personal assistant and social media manager. Towards the end of his chat with Stellar, Hamill visibly relaxes upon the arrival of Millie and Mabel, two rescue dogs who promptly drape themselves on an upholstered sofa and fall asleep. “They are Chelsea’s animals, but I like to think they are my surrogate grandchildren,” he says as he pats their heads. Hamill married Marilou, a former dental hygienist, in December 1978 – right in the middle of the initial Star Wars craze. He explains that he couldn’t have married another actor, a lesson he learnt after a previous relationship with Anne Wyndham, who he starred alongside in US soap opera General Hospital in the early 1970s. “You become competitive in a way, which is crazy, because I’m not going to take parts away from her, and vice versa. But I thought, ‘Well, she’s not the one, because I do want to have a family, and I’m not going to ask her to give up a career to raise the kids. And I’ll know when it’s right, I’ll find the right one.’ And luckily for me I did.” And with that, the fortunate jester picks up the leads for his dogs and heads home for dinner. Star Wars: The Last Jedi is in cinemas on Thursday, December 14.
“Carrie was so much fun to be around – we should be grateful for what she gave us”
FEEL (clockwise Hamill THE from Wars in FORCE from the a scene new top The Star left) Last C-3PO Jedi; at the with 1978 Academy Awards; as he appeared in the in Los Angeles with his wife Marilou this year; with “king of eye rolls” Harrison Ford; Hamill and Carrie Fisher in 2014; with his children in August.
THE OLD GUARD (from top) Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in 1977, and in character as (from left) Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Hans Solo in Star Wars: A New Hope.