A Force of nature
Mark Hamill has touched down in London on a global press tour for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. And even if I wasn’t expecting him, I would have guessed from the kerfuffle. It’s the sound, to paraphrase Obi-Wan Kenobi, of a million voices crying out suddenly for a selfie. It’s the sound of autograph-hunters asking the most random things. “Do you like sports?” says one. “Oh sure,” says Hamill. “I like the Olympics; you get a little bit of everything.”
It’s a diplomatic answer from a man whose every preference makes headlines.
Last September, when he liked a tweet from Wolverhampton Wanderers, he had to swiftly deflate a flurry of related headlines, by declaring: “Never really followed football much, but would favor Liverpool FC because The Reds live where The Beatles are from & I’m a #Beatlemaniac!”
When he left Ireland last year, pictured clutching his daughter’s dog Millie and a packet of smoky bacon-flavoured Tayto, his enthusiastic parting tweet (“How I will miss IRELAND! Its’ Beauty-Its’ People-It’s...Snack Food”) was soon tempered by a tactful follow-up (“KING crisps great too – but I meant to express my LOVE for IRELAND not endorse a product or do an #InadvertentAdvert”) lest the nation be plunged into potato-related conflict.
Hamill, an amiable, still boyish-looking 66-year-old, doesn’t mind the attention. “Look,” he says. “I love all of this. Look at you. Listening to me. Hanging on my every word.”
If talking about crisps is tricky, that has nothing on the business of talking about Star
Wars: The Last Jedi. Or rather not talking about it.
“It is frustrating,” says Hamill. “Because the fans want to know. But we’re so well trained. Yesterday a guy said: Was it hard getting used to a lightsabre again? And I said . . .”
He opens his mouth as if to launch into a patented Hamill yarn – he’s a great man for the yarns – only to snap it shut.
“As I always say: ‘You don’t want to know what you’re getting for your birthday, do you?’ I remember seeing the trailer for Castaway and you saw Tom Hanks crashing, then surviving, and then arriving back in civilisation. Everything but the end credits.
“I get it. It’s a paradox. You want people to go see the movie. But I love going in to see a movie not knowing anything about it. Brigsby Bear is a really good example of that. Great movie. But the more you tell people what the story is the less special it seems when people see it.” When we left Luke Skywalker at the close of
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, he had taken up residence on Skellig Michael, just off Co Kerry. And who could blame him? His sister Leia (Carrie Fisher) and her husband Han (Harrison Ford) had split up. Their son, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), having been trained in the ways of the Force by Uncle Luke, had turned to the Dark Side. No wonder trailers for the new film, which will clock in at 150 minutes (a record length for the Star Wars franchise), are downright nihilistic.
“I only know one truth,” Luke intones, glumly. “It’s time for the Jedi to end.”
Maybe that’s just the hike talking. Hamill certainly had mixed feelings about returning to the Iveragh peninsula for the shoot.
“So I got the script for The Force Awakens and I have to remove my hood,” says the actor. “And I’m thinking: easy. The set is 15 minutes away from my house. It’ll be blue screen. I’ll be finished before lunch. And then I find out we’re going to a real physical location. And I’m thinking: fine. I’m a movie buff. So I’m a proponent of practical effects as opposed to over-reliance on CGI. But then – if you ever go to Skellig Michael – you’ll realise it just never ends. The heliport is at the base of the island because, well, building one at the top would be obscene. So it’s step after step after step. It goes on and on. It requires unbelievable physical exertion to get to the top.
“It’s beautiful. It’s well worth the trip. It’s something everyone should do if they get the chance. But as I left I thought: Well, that was incredible but I’m never doing that again. So I pick up the script for episode eight. And, oh no!”
Undaunted, Hamill attempted to persuade franchise producer Kathleen Kennedy that he wanted to “do a Daniel Day Lewis . . . I said to Kathy: ‘Fine. But I’m not coming down. If I have to walk up Skellig Michael, I’m staying. I don’t need room service or a bodyguard. I just need a tent. I’m going method. Modern conveniences will destroy my performance.’ So she gets back to me a couple of weeks later and says: ‘Oh, they won’t let you stay up there because it’s a protected site. But we’ve found an adjacent area for your tent.’ So I’m back to room service and climbing.” He laughs: “I’m so spoiled.” Railing against studio paranoia and secrecy, Hamill is prepared to reveal one major detail about The Last Jedi: “I have a much bigger waistline.”
Not really, though. Having dropped more than 20kg for The Force Awakens, Hamill discovered that he had only one appearance. And that was under a cloak. He’s had to stick with the programme ever since.
“I’ve been on the if-it-tastes-good-don’t-eatit diet. I’m on it for years now. I’m not being facetious here. If it’s delicious, don’t touch it. It’s like gassing up a car. You disassociate yourself from the pleasure of eating. No bagels. Protein shakes for breakfast. Then you’re going in the right direction.”
Bizarrely, we have Freddy Krueger to thank for Luke Skywalker. Back in 1976, a young Robert Englund was auditioning for a role in
Apocalypse Now when he walked across the hall where auditions were taking place for George Lucas’s Star Wars. Watching on, he realised that the part of Luke Skywalker – a role coveted by Kurt Russell, Charles Martin Smith and William Katt – would be perfect for his friend Mark Hamill.
Hamill can still recall every minute of the screen test: “There’s one line I’ll never forget and it wasn’t used in the film. Only in the screen test. You have to understand when I auditioned for this, they didn’t send me the whole script. I got one scene, which was with Harrison Ford in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. And I read it and thought: Is this serious or is this a Mel Brooks parody? The dialogue was crazy. So I asked George: ‘Is this sort of a satire of science fiction?’ And I could tell I was making him very uncomfortable. And he said: ‘We’ll talk about it later.’ I soon learned that means ‘we’ll never talk about this again’ in George speak.
You have to understand when I auditioned for this, they didn’t send me the whole script. I got one scene, which was with Harrison Ford in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon. And I read it and thought: Is this serious or is this a Mel Brooks parody? The dialogue was crazy
“George doesn’t want to talk about subtext or motivation. Stuff like that makes his skin crawl. He’s a lot happier in the post-production and editing process when he doesn’t have to deal with actors asking annoying questions. So I asked Harrison: ‘Do you think we should do this seriously? Or like a send-up?’ And he said: ‘Let’s just get through this.’ So he was no help either.”
Hamill later begged Lucas to remove the offending line, which he valiantly repeats today: “But we can’t turn back, fear is their greatest defence, I doubt if the actual security there is any greater than it was on Aquilae or Sullust, and what there is is most likely directed towards a large-scale assault.”
He shakes his head: “Imagine saying those words? Intellectually, it does makes sense. If you diagram the sentence first.”
Imagine his surprise when the complete script “read like The Wizard of Oz or something”. And then Star Wars became, well, Star Wars.
“It was crazy for us. Because it took off while we were still promoting the film. I remember we landed in Chicago. And the airport was mobbed. I turned to Harrison and Carrie and said: ‘Hey, you guys, there must be somebody famous at the airport.’ And as we taxied closer, I looked out and said: ‘Hey Carrie, there’s a girl that has your furry head-buns.’ And then I saw somebody dressed like Luke, we couldn’t believe it. I’m not kidding. I thought maybe Mick Jagger was on the plane.”
Hamill has been married to Marilou York since 1978. They live in reportedly modest digs decked out with comic-book, film and Beatles memorabilia and have three adult children: Nathan, Griffin and Chelsea. Hamill’s professional life, conversely, has been altogether more chequered. Swings and roundabouts. “I did a TV series in 1974 [the ill-fated sitcom
The Texas Wheelers] and I was sure it was going to be a big, big hit. But it got cancelled and I was devastated because it was really funny and I love doing comedy. But had that show been a success I wouldn’t have been able to do Star Wars. When the movie became as big as it did, I thought something else might come along in a couple of years, and it would be a nostalgic thing, they’d play a clip from when I was on a late show. But it just never went away.”
He subsequently blazed a trail as an early pioneer in Imax cinema and became a fan-favourite as the Joker in DC’s animated Batman cartoons. But success in films outside the franchise that made him famous has eluded him. Does he think Luke Skywalker held him back?
“I was actually told that to my face. I did
Amadeus on Broadway and when Milos Forman was making the film version, he asked me to come over and read with the actresses who were auditioning as Mozart’s wife. And I said: ‘Of course.’ Because I’m a huge Milos Forman fan. So I read with actress after actress after actress. And after several hours I said: ‘Milos, you know I’ve played Mozart?’ And he laughs.”
Hamill adopts a deep Czech brogue: “‘Ho, ho, ho. No one is believing that the Luke Skywalker is the Mozart.’ ”
Hamill shrugs: “Hey. As long as you’ve got a good reason. Dustin Hoffman was dying to play Salieri but Milos was keen to cast actors you had never seen before. I get it.”
There have been compensations. Hamill plainly adores his Star Wars family and can cite every head of department. He thinks “the world of” costume designer Michael Kaplan and is blown away by the talents of the younger cast members Daisy Ridley and John Boyega.
“They’re so accomplished,” he says. “I marvel at how centred Daisy is. When I was her age I was bouncing off the walls; I didn’t know which end was up. I guess it was different for me. When I did the first film I had no idea it
would turn into this. But when they signed up for seven, they knew they were joining something that was a pop-culture phenomenon. They were probably a lot readier for it than I was. I’m thinking about asking Daisy for advice.”
The Last Jedi family has, sadly, got a little bit smaller. Carrie Fisher died on December 27th last year following a heart attack. (By then she had completed shooting all her scenes.) Her mother, 84-year-old Singin’ in the Rain star Debbie Reynolds, died from a stroke on the following day.
“I’m still in denial,” says Hamill. “I still think of her in the present tense. And I’m so mad at her because she was nominated for an Emmy, and she’s wonderful in the new movie, and she has a very extensive role, and she’s not here. It’s terrible. And it adds a sense of melancholy to the film. But whenever I start feeling sorry for myself, I think of Billie [Lourd, Carrie’s only daughter] losing her mother and her grandmother so quickly. Instead of being angry that she’s not here, I’m trying to be grateful for what she left behind. That we had her for as long as we did.” Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens on December 15th
Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford take a break from filming the original Star Wars. Below: Hamill with Fisher at an event in 2014.