How to build an iconic Star Wars villain in five simple steps
1 ___ Give him a mask
All the coolest Star Wars bad guys wear one, so it went without saying that the new villain originally conceived as the ‘Jedi Killer’ should get a mask, too. At first, much more Vader-ish skull-bucket looks were toyed with (concept artist Christian Alzmann reasoning that Darth’s style wouldn’t be a “one-off”), then they tried a silver stormtrooper look, which didn’t feel right for this villain but led to the creation of Captain Phasma. The final result was something of a blend, combining Vader’s black, face-encasing, voice-distorting mask with shiny metallic “spaghetti-type” highlights, which costume designer Michael Kaplan loved because they reflected any light sources around Ren. They also look, rather appropriately, like worry lines, and work on a symbolic level, too: a hint of the light within this dark, dark soul.
2 ___ Tweak the voice
Kylo Ren’s big, bad grandpappy delivered a modulated baritone through a horrible robo-asthmatic wheeze, instantly landing the idea that he was both scary-powerful and profoundly damaged; that mask ain’t just for show, he needs it to breathe. But the antagonist formerly known as Ben Solo doesn’t need his at all, so as sound editor Matthew Wood put it, “It’s purely there as intimidation, to make that character have a stronger, imposing presence.” Unlike David Prowse when playing Vader, Adam Driver was able to hear how he sounded through the Ren voice-box live on set and, said Wood, played it “like an instrument”, pushing right up close to the mic in a weirdly intimate way. With Driver’s intense but level tones given that harsh, crackling distortion — J.J. Abrams’ brief was “Harley Davidsons! Chainsaws! Flamethrowers!” — the result is odd and chilling. Although, as we’d learn, not actually as effective as Driver/ren with the mask off and the voice served raw.
3 ___ Scar him
It’s easy to forget how surprising it must have been for most viewers when Kylo first removed his mask… and revealed a handsome young man, unblemished, normally formed and with ‘good’, long hair, too (Star Wars villains, more often than not, being bald or short-haired). But this was not some seasoned Star Destroyer deck-strider, a battle-ravaged Sith Lord like his grandfather. Kylo Ren is first presented as a freshly minted villain, recently elevated by Snoke, and the embodiment of Episode VII’S
title (albeit ultimately shared with Rey). He has to earn his scars, and earn one he does: a whopper of a facial slash-burn courtesy of his light-side nemesis Rey, so impressive that in
The Last Jedi he ditches the mask to show it off (well, kinda). Although, yes, the scar did move. Because Rian Johnson wanted it to. “It honestly looked goofy running straight up the bridge of his nose,” the Last Jedi
director tweeted last year.
4 ___ Make his weapon unique
A lightsaber tells you a lot about the dark-sider holding it. Count Dooku’s was elegant, Palpatine’s was slick and smooth, and Darth Maul’s dealt a double dose of trouble. Kylo Ren’s, meanwhile, is awkward and awesome. Modelled more on a heavy medieval-european broadsword than a delicately wrought samurai katana, its lateral-vent plasma ‘crossguard’ creates a great effect, but
hardly seems practical. Its blade also flickers and writhes like no other, reflecting the rage and intensity of its wielder. According to the lore, both crossguard and jagged blade are the result of a cracked kyber crystal, providing a further connection between owner and weapon: both are riven to the core.
5 ___ Give him a conscience
A lead Star Wars villain isn’t a lead Star Wars villain if he doesn’t have a bit of hero in him. Just as Luke and Rey flirt with the dark side, Anakin Skywalker and Ben Solo were beacons of Forcewielding light, dimmed and shuttered by Sidious and Snoke respectively. As portrayed by Adam Driver — arguably an actor with greater gravitas than any other Star Wars player since Alec Guinness — Kylo’s internal conflict with his own better nature is never far beneath the surface. It plays across his face as he elects not to blast his mother into the cold vacuum of space in The Last Jedi. It twists his features as he resolves to skewer his dad at The Force Awakens’ climax. It simmers away during those tense exchanges with Rey. And it erupts with Vesuvian fury when he launches into one of his trademark temper tantrums.
What makes Kylo Ren so damn interesting — more so than Anakin in Revenge Of The Sith — is not that he is tempted by the dark side and drawn in by a promise of greater power. Rather, evil is something he’s been struggling to master, since being tilted in that direction by Luke’s midnight misstep. Kylo’s corruption is not a downward slide. It is a tricky, treacherous uphill clamber.
Left: Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) during The Force Awaken’s climactic battle on Starkiller Base. Below, top to bottom: Clad in his Vader-esque armour in The Last Jedi; And uncovered in the same film; Brandishing his distinctive crossguard lightsaber.