Mark Hamill Interview

Those who know me are aware that a chat with Mark Hamill, the star of The Best Damned Movie Ever Made, was the fulfillment of a boyhood dream. I even chose "Mark" as my Confirmation name years ago, my parents thinking it was in honor of one of the four Disciples. ("Luke" is in there too, come to think.) After countless fanboy discussions, I suddenly found myself shifting pronouns, from "When he made Empire. . ." to "When you made Empire. . ." and it felt good. The experience was all the more fun for the fact that Hamill himself is a hardcore fan, passionate about his work—including directing his first feature film, Comic Book: The Movie—and remarkably candid and generous.

Quite a few Mark Hamill titles on DVD this year.

Comic Book: The Movie was purchased by Miramax and sent directly to DVD in a two-disc set, and I couldn't be happier with the quality of the DVD. There was some color correction done, I had my reservations, but I think it looks much better than I expected.

And Richard Schickel is championing the restoration of The Big Red One?

That will come out for the 60th anniversary of D-Day next year. It was cut to the point that we had to cover the storyline with narration. It's one of Lee Marvin's best performances and that's saying something. You see something like Private Ryan coming along and it's a brilliant movie, but I always felt like Sam Fuller didn't get the credit that he deserved at the time.

Lots more of your work as The Joker on Batman: The Animated Series. Good stuff.

I guess non-comic book fans don't really have an appreciation for the entire Batman mythology. Joker is to Batman what Moriarty was to Sherlock Holmes. I was filled with confidence up until the time I got the part. My initial job was just a one-off episode, I was in the first Mr. Freeze (episode), before I became The Joker.

As Ferris Boyle?

That's right. Wow, you've done your homework. My reaction to that script was, "This is really the closest thing to the comic books that Batman's ever been." When I did Return Of The Joker, because it was direct to DVD and didn't have to go by Standards and Practices. It was a much more subtle, scary, almost Hannibal Lecter-like take on the character.

Certainly you have a large, loyal corps of fans, but you're known as one of the most accessible celebrities.

I'm a fan as well. I have a great curiosity about many, many things. My primary motivator was that I loved the entertainment industry and drawing and puppets and magic and impersonations and all of it. When I was in academic theater, I did everything. On this production you were props, on this production you painted the sets, on this production you were master electrician. And I loved all of it. And I don't forget my roots: I was a fan before I was a pro and I just like people, I find them interesting. It's tough because you can never really sort of give enough or talk to everybody.

Does all of the adulation from total strangers create a weird situation for your family?

They don't know any other way. It's funny 'cause as a kid I remember thinking "If Jerry Lewis was my father we'd be laughing 24/7!" Kids want to know, "Gee, what's it like to have Luke as your father?" Well, Luke doesn't come in and tell you to clean up your room and get a haircut. If anything, they probably find it amusing.

You call Star Wars a work of genius. When did you realize it was going to be such a phenomenon?

The script was a revelation. And it was a gradual realization that it had become some sort of pop culture milestone. There's certain things I remember, like getting off the plane in Chicago. We started off; Carrie, Harrison, and I; doing a tour to promote it before it opened, and then by the time we got to Chicago it had opened. And as the plane was getting closer to the terminal I saw crowds of people which I immediately assumed, "There must be a celebrity on board!" (laughter) And then I noticed girls dressed like Carrie and guys dressed like me and some with the vest of Han Solo and I went, "Oh my God, look you guys!"

The Beatles told a similar story of landing in New York.

It seems terribly arrogant to compare ourselves to The Beatles and I'm not doing that.

Sure, but the parallel—

We had our Hard Day's Night moments when we got separated from the security guards and went out a side door and ran. We were laughing our heads off, trying to find the limo. I think that's one of the things that strike you most when you gain any kind of fame at all is your loss of anonymity. It was never, "Oh, I want to be famous." I'm not saying that I wasn't flattered by the girls at the gate when I did an episode of Partridge Family. . ..

So when did you finally move past your teen heartthrob status? During the course of the Star Wars Trilogy?

Well I think just the arc of Luke's story of all the characters in the movie, I've always said he changes the most, from kind of a callow farmboy to a student of this mystical assemblage of knights and then finally to a full-fledged Jedi. And the realization that the romantic aspects of his life are not important in the larger scheme of things. I've joked that that's the ultimate Good News, Bad News joke: The good news is there's an attractive woman in this galaxy, the bad news is she's your sister!

What do you think becomes of Luke after Return Of The Jedi?

I think Luke would be someone who's very much like Obi-Wan was in the first film. I think he's out meditating and becoming more Dalai Lama-like in his pursuit of The Force. And it puts the whole notion of male/female relationships into perspective where, yes that's very nice to marry and have a family and procreate and so forth, but in the greater scheme of things, he's selfless.

He doesn't become a merchandising mogul?

People say, "Do you get a percentage of any of the merchandising?" Well, way back when, I could answer in the affirmative, "Yes we do." It's modest, but hey, anything is better than nothing. I read the script and I thought, my God, this is like a cinematic toybox. Can I get on a comp list, because I want to get all the stuff?

Do you still keep up with all that?

At this point I get one of everything that has something to do with my character.

You know that's every fan's dream, right?

I thought: T-shirt, poster, original soundtrack, whatever. I had no idea we'd be electric toothbrushes and wallpaper. Whereas sometimes I thought they went overboard with the merchandising to a degree, I had to say to myself, "Well, it's supply and demand."

In the DVD documentary you beamed about your likeness being used on a cereal box mask. Were you kidding?

You'd be shocked to know how sincere I really was. When I was a kid, that was the kind of thing I loved. I love being a mask on the back of a box of C-3P0s!

Keep any souvenirs?

I originally thought, "Can I keep my boots?" on the first one, which were just like sort of Hush Puppies. People don't realize Luke's pants were Levi's, bleached out. I kept the Stormtrooper helmet that I rescued Princess Leia in. And then as we went along, they allowed me to keep other things.

Do you still remember all the martial arts and fencing?

It's certainly come in handy recently, not only with Jay and Silent Bob, but when I did Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks, I hadn't done formal choreography since Harrigan 'N Hart, and it's tough. The discipline and the sense memory come into play. It sounds funny to say that the Kendo and Judo and Karate help you with dancing, but it's not that far apart. Everything is sort of pre-planned out. It's like riding a bicycle. You do get rusty but some part of you never forgets it.

And I see you're still able to rattle off that speech from your audition, decades ago.

Well that was the line that stood out in my mind. It just seemed so odd, I thought "Who talks like this?" But no, you're right, I remember being on a soap opera and I thought at the time it's not memorizing the dialogue that's hard, it's forgetting it, because especially on soap operas where you're constantly repeating the same material.

How do you approach voiceovers versus on-camera acting?

It helps to have a great reverence for what you're doing, instead of some actors who might say "Oh my God, I'm doing cartoons now, I must be slumming." I aspired to this. But for the most part approaches that you might take on camera don't really work in animation. It's not "overacting" but perhaps being a little more elaborate in interpretation. One of the things I've felt that I've been able to do with voiceover work is fulfill something that I'd only been able to do on Broadway and Off-Broadway is become a character actor. Being on Broadway I was able to play The Elephant Man and Mozart and the sleazy Jewish producer in Room Service and a gay dance instructor. There was no role in television or movies that allowed me to do dialects or specialty physical comedy and so forth, until voiceover.

What happens in voiceover (too), you do such a volume of work that you'll forget (what you've done). Also there's a lag time between the time you do the voice tracks and the six to nine months it takes to animate the stuff. You'll be going by Cartoon Network and you'll stop and go, "Wait a minute. . . oh, wow: I'm the voice of that lobster!"

And a lot of your voiceover colleagues appear in Comic Book: The Movie.

That's another thing I loved about Comic Book: The Movie is pretty much all down the line, including the casting, I just went to the people I've worked with down throughout the years and it's great to have a good relationship with these people because they're more than willing to give us bargain basement prices given the fact I wasn't working with an unlimited budget. I used to tell them, "This is the cinematic equivalent of rifling through your couch cushions, you gotta help me!" And they really came through. And I'm not a dictator, I'm a collaborator. When I was directing The Wrong Coast, I said to my actors, "Look, this script is a blueprint." When I get the script finished. . . I know that we have to hit get across certain plot points and we have to hit certain things just to make the narrative flow. So that's what I want to continue to do because you have these actors that have this tremendous background in standup, in improv. And for the most part it's in the upper ninety percentile in terms of how accurate it is to the script but that three percent of improv, I think just makes it all that more special.

Similar to the process on Curb Your Enthusiasm?

Yes! We could learn from them. Not only with that show but any of the Christopher Guest projects, they're much more specific in the storyline.

You're an expert: Could we get your thoughts on the current Star Wars Trilogy?

I've always thought I should really give them a clear playing field. I've really not commented on them. It's a slippery slope because we make a comment or two and it can get you into trouble. George always said at the time there were going to be three trilogies and he said each one of them will have a distinct personality. And if there's any comparisons to be done, it should be somebody who's neutral, who's not on the inside the way I was. Now obviously I have an affinity for the ones I was in because I studied the scripts and I was part of the process and so forth. Now I'm just an audience member, which is a much different experience. But at one point I know I said, "Well, ours were funnier." Even that was a joke because George isn't exactly in the business of making comedies, but just a throwaway comment like that gets turned into "Oh, the new ones are too solemn!" But I've said they're just stunning, they're so ornate and elaborate in a way we could never have been, being pre-CGI.

Won't it be very different, watching them in this new order, Episode I through VI?

I think it's really difficult to do prequels, whether it's Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid or whatever. The audience knows, "Well this person can't get killed, because he's in the ones that we've already seen." But here's a guy who's really earned the right to do pretty much whatever he wants and he's in a position now where he's not just the writer/director, but he's also the studio, and I can't emphasize enough how important that is. These aren't "sort of" the films he wants to make, these are EXACTLY what he wants to make. Maybe I wouldn't have wanted to do something that specific way, but who am I to tell him, for God's sake?

But, for example, your big scene, one of the classic cinematic moments when Darth Vader divulges his true identity, is no longer a revelation.

It's such a great moment! The fake line that was put in there just to try and keep the secret was "You don't know the truth: Obi-Wan killed your father!" But as much as I enjoyed leaking false information, it was a wonderfully hard secret to keep because (Irvin) Kershner, the director, brought me aside and said "Now I know this, and George knows this, and now you're going to know this, but if you tell anybody, and that means Carrie or Harrison, or anybody, we're going to know who it is because we know who knows."

Did Kersh intimidate you? I heard a rumor that he killed a guy once.

No, I thought he was the perfect choice to do a more mature take on the material, and I was so happy with the script. It seemed deeper and darker and more cerebral. They found the perfect person to be the keeper of the flame.

That's the favorite one for so many. A truly inspired sequel.

Even myself, before I read it I thought they're going to have to embellish and expand on what we've already seen. And while they did that they also went further by taking expectations and turning them on their heads, with my hand being cut off and the good guys getting thoroughly trashed and thrashed, and Yoda; all of it, it just seemed very exciting that they wouldn't take the safe way.

Seeing the dismemberment messed me up for a while.

Oh yeah, no one expects that. In terms of a three-act play or an opera, you realize that Act Two is really the most interesting act because everything happens. And usually there are terrible setbacks for the protagonists.

I can't say I cared for that scream they added to the Special Edition (now gone), when Luke sacrifices himself.

That's very upsetting to me because it was a choice. I mean, Kersh and I talked about the fact that when he actually reaches the point whether he has to join them or not, he lets go. It's like he's committing suicide rather than going to the Dark Side. So it is a calm thing. Look, it's (George's) to tinker with as he sees fit. I always say it's his train set, if he wants to put up new billboards and new landscaping.

Quite gracious of you.

Well, I'd heard this (added scream) rumor about The Empre and I remember I was at someone's house and said "Oh, wait a minute, you've got a copy of that, let's go and see." And he put it on and I was very surprised.

The power of home video! And Kershner too has been a good sport about the changes.

Remember the old, "It's good to be the king!"? I guess George is "It's good to be The Emperor!" If he wants to make them into musical comedies, that's his choice.

And Return Of The Jedi. . .?

With Jedi I was a bit disappointed because I said "Gee, it's all so pat and tied up neatly in a bunch." I voiced this opinion to George and was hoping that we'd be able to even top Empire. George explained to me, "Remember, this is meant to be a film for children." And it is a fairy tale and fairy tales are very neatly tied up. Even though it appealed to the child in all of us, I realized he was right, that you have to remain true to your original intent, and it was for really young people.

Any obscure trivia you can share, from shooting Star Wars?

I remember in North Africa, outside the cantina is that big lizard. . .? What do they call them?


Dewbacks! There you go. And I thought, there's lots of time to kill, I'm going to climb up inside this thing. Everybody got really upset for me because I'd come out pouring sweat and have to go back to makeup and dry my hair and all that because it's like being in a little portable sauna bath but I moved the head around and got the feel of what it would be like if I were the guy inside operating him and the inside was almost like papier-maché, covered in a lot of newspapers with paste and I remember just before I got out, pausing to read a review of a David Bowie concert that was pasted on the inside of this dewback. And I thought, "How odd! This is a real moment, to be in North Africa, making a movie with Alec Guinness, inside a giant lizard, reading a David Bowie review." (laughs)

After 32 years then, what do you consider to be the highlights of your career?

Yeah, sure, Luke was great, but something Like Harrigan 'N Hart on Broadway didn't get the run that it deserved. I got a Drama Desk nomination as Best Actor in a Musical but in terms of a multi-layered tragic comedian, that was one of my favorite parts ever, and a lot of these things that really stick out in my mind are things that didn't get any acknowledgement at the time. I love the villain I played in Slipstream. That's rentable! Recently I did that Ellen Burstyn film, Walking Across Egypt, it's an ensemble piece.

Have you amassed a library of your work?

I'm not someone who really enjoys going back and watching my own stuff. You go "Oh God, why'd I make that choice?" But The Wrong Coast is running in Canada, which is frustrating to me because it's over a year old now, and since it's satire it has a shelf life of only so long. I'd love it if you'd get your readers to pressure AMC into putting it on the air. Other things that I've loved doing that people haven't really seen, I don't think you'll ever see something called It's True, it was a made-for-TV movie which was a backdoor pilot from the people I did The Flash for. But those are the kind of things, the woulda-shoulda-coulda's, rather than the things that were ultimately successful that you nurture along because you love them just as much as the successes. But it's such a roll of the dice in show business, you never know. "Hope for the best, expect the worst." And I always feel like my most exciting challenge is ahead of me. I feel very lucky. I love the diversity that I've been able to enjoy.

(With special thanks to Mark and Marilou)