'Star Wars' Strikes Back: Behind the Scenes of the Biggest Movie of the Year
In 'Star Wars: The Force Awakens,' Han Solo and Princess Leia join with a new generation to bring the epic saga to 2015
It is a bleak time for the Republic. It is a period of great struggle for the entire planet, and not only is the dark side winning, it's no longer clear any other side even exists. Seriously, you guys – Earth is messed up. Just ask a polar bear, or an almond farmer, or a GOP debate moderator. Or maybe check in with Luke Skywalker.
"The world is so horrible," says Mark Hamill, Luke's closest earthly representative, sitting in the shadow of swaying trees in his rather pleasant Malibu yard. At 64, Hamill is older than Alec Guinness was in the first Star Wars, and is in the process of regrowing a distinctly Obi-Wan-ish beard. "Between the Middle East and gun violence and global warming and racism, it's just horrible. And people need this. It's therapeutic."
The "this" in question is Star Wars: The Force Awakens, out on December 18th and directed by geek hero J.J. Abrams, fresh from rebooting the Star Trek franchise. It is the seventh Star Wars movie, and the first not under the control of the saga's gnomic creator, George Lucas, who let it all go in 2012, selling Lucasfilm and its franchise to Disney for $4 billion. The Force Awakens will return to the Star Wars galaxy three decades after the events of 1983's Return of the Jedi, launching what Disney intends to be an endless series of movies.
Jedi ended with what appeared to be a total defeat for the evil Empire, capped with what Harrison Ford called a "teddy-bear picnic" of dancing Ewoks, complete with smiley Jedi ghosts at the sidelines. The Rebel Alliance might as well have pinned a "Mission Accomplished" banner to a tree on the forest moon of Endor.
"With any movie that ends with going off in the sunset and a celebratory moment, you can ask, 'Well, what happened the day after?'" says Abrams. "Then decades go past. We were literally asking, 'Well, what happened to the disbanded Empire? What happened to the Republic?'"
It is perversely comforting to learn that even in that fairy-tale distant galaxy, even with the Force on its heroes' side, history simply refuses to stop. "Someone's story doesn't end with the big triumph," says screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote 1980's The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi with Lucas, and returned to script The Force Awakens alongside Abrams (with The Big Chill and much more in between). "Life goes on. In those 30 years, a lot of things had happened in my life, so you have to assume that things have happened to these characters – and that was part of the fun of it."
So, for the first time since Ronald Reagan's first term, The Force Awakens will reunite us with Hamill as Luke, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia – and Harrison Ford, incredibly enough, as Han Solo. Hamill's role is a guarded mystery – rumors suggest the part is small, setting up a more essential position in the already-in-preproduction sequel. Returning as well: Chewbacca, with the same guy, seven-foot-plus Peter Mayhew, in the fur suit; C-3PO, played once more by Anthony Daniels; R2-D2; and even relative action-figure obscurities such as Admiral Ackbar, best known for a single line of dialogue ("It's a trap") and his resemblance to something you'd find at a raw bar.
The film will also introduce us to a panoply of new characters, creatures and planets. Chief among them are the two stars, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, both young British actors. Ridley, a total unknown, plays the desert-planet scavenger Rey, last name as yet undisclosed. (It may mean nothing or everything that she resembles Natalie Portman, who played Luke and Leia's mom in the prequels.) Boyega, memorable as a teen gang leader in the 2011 cult sci-fi film Attack the Block, plays erstwhile stormtrooper Finn, last name also unrevealed – but since Abrams notes that the character was written "without any race in mind," online speculation that it's "Calrissian" is likely nonsense. Then again, Abrams – who has been known to pick obfuscation over spoilers – claims the same about Rey, which could complicate assumptions that she's a Skywalker.
Girls star Adam Driver, incongruously, is a major bad guy: the masked Kylo Ren, who's obsessed with carrying on Darth Vader's legacy. (Boyega calls him "a Darth Vader fanboy who has, like, extreme mental issues.") There's a new, supercute droid, the spherical BB-8 – who was an actual on-set robot and/or puppet, and thus hard to interview.
Everyone involved signed what Hamill calls "this massive, oppressive sword-of-Damocles NDA hanging over my head," so they can't say much about the plot without being thrown into the Burbank equivalent of the Sarlacc pit. But there was still plenty to talk about – memories to be probed, mysteries to be solved: Could Abrams recapture the magic that Lucas himself summoned only intermittently in his three digitized prequels, in between council-meeting scenes and wretched dialogue ("I don't like sand")? Did Boyega and Ridley understand they were about to send their lives, if not necessarily their careers, into hyperspace? How did the original trio feel about resuming roles that haunted them for decades? Could a Rolling Stone writer keep it together while hanging out with human editions of his childhood toys?
To find out, there were pilgrimages to be made to the homes of Hamill and Fisher, wisdom to be sought from Ford. Abrams' hidden base needed to be invaded. The new stars had to be interrogated. So passage was booked to that wretched hive of scum and villainy, Los Angeles, where the search would begin for signs of humanity, and of the Force itself, within a vast and corporate saga…
In a shiny-new screening room, J.J. Abrams is addressing his T-shirted, somewhat dorky-looking troops. There are fewer than 60 days left before the release of The Force Awakens, and the movie is not quite done. The night before, advance tickets went on sale, just as the first full trailer appeared online. "We broke the Internet last night," Abrams says, to applause. (He's barely exaggerating: Demand for tickets took down Fandango.) "We all know, intellectually, that people will be seeing this thing, but it was a weird moment of, like, 'Holy fuck, it was here, and now it's for everyone!'"
We're in a recently built addition to the Santa Monica offices of Bad Robot, Abrams' production company. The main building is a carefully appointed geek fantasia – Abrams' office alone has the "rabbit's foot" weapon from his Mission: Impossible movie, the alien cube from Super 8, and a model of Douglas Fairbanks Jr.'s head from the 1981 film Ghost Story. At the moment, Abrams is giving a pep talk to Bad Robot's visual-effects team, which is finishing the film in conjunction with Lucasfilm's Industrial Light and Magic, simultaneously at work in multiple time zones.
Abrams is wearing a T-shirt from House Industries, a font company he's long been obsessed with, along with dark jeans and black leather boots from Blundstone. On his head is a baseball cap from the Santa Monica music store Trutone (he composed the themes for his TV shows Alias and Felicity); underneath, his thick hair is freshly trimmed at the sides, rising at the top in a rectangle that turns him into a human exclamation point.
"My hair looks even worse when I'm frantic," Abrams tells me. But despite the stammer-y New York-neurotic affect he takes on when speaking in public, "frantic" seems to be an alien state for him. The son of two Hollywood producers, he is eerily calm in the face of pressure. "J.J. is genuinely built for this kind of responsibility," says Boyega. Abrams, 49, was born into the dead center of Gen X (he's a Beastie Boys obsessive), but his complete lack of cynicism seems distinctly millennial.
"I've never seen him yell at anybody or lose his cool," says Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, which remains a distinct entity within Disney, like Pixar and Marvel. She was Steven Spielberg's producer for three decades, and Lucas handpicked her to take his place at the top of his company as the Disney sale loomed. "[Abrams] is a fountain of ideas, nonstop. In fact, it usually exhausts everybody else around him. He's endlessly curious, and he wants to try things, and then you finally have to say, 'All right, we're running out of time, you have to make a decision!'"
Abrams is friends with Jony Ive, the powerful chief designer at Apple, and the talk he's giving his employees would be at home there. "This movie we've been working on for the better part of three years is coming out in the lesser part of two months," Abrams tells them. "And in this final sprint, I just want to say that every little choice, every little detail, every little decision, whether it's something being animated or textured or whatever, all these little things are massively, hugely, crazily important. Don't ever think that extra thing you give to it won't matter ... It probably matters more on this movie than, certainly, anything I will ever be involved in."
Abrams had some reluctance about accepting the Star Wars job, not least because he was just finishing his second Star Trek film in a row. But Kennedy got him excited with the idea of "a young woman" – Rey, presumably – "who would ask the question 'Who is Luke Skywalker?' It got me thinking, 'Oh, my God, 35 years after Return of the Jedi there are young people in that world and what are they up against?' But more importantly, what do they know of the history of the Jedi and the Empire? A young woman was always at the center of the movie. It wasn't a corporate determination that this number of billion dollars should be spent because of what's possible with merchandising and films and animation. Though I'm sure these discussions were held in big rooms at Disney.
"What's been incredible for me has been the creative freedom," he continues, "and the desire to make something hopefully worth people's time – and not a commercial for toys. I'm not itching to be involved in creating things that end up in a landfill. I wanted to tell a story: What would happen if you were 19, 20 years old and you found yourself in a Star Wars universe?"
Lucas had written what Kennedy describes as a "brief synopsis" for the sequels, but those ideas were treated as a starting point, at best. Abrams spent eight months or so working on a script with screenwriter Michael Arndt (of Little Miss Sunshine fame), with occasional help from Kasdan and Simon Kinberg (of the X-Men franchise). They came away with essentially nothing. Arndt said he would need 18 more months to finish – way more time than Disney or Abrams wanted to spend. "Movies are just like life," says Kasdan, sounding very much like the dude who wrote Yoda's best lines. "They are infinitely complicated and incredibly simple. I think that what had eluded the group was finding the simple spine of the story."
Arndt was out; Kasdan was in. His initial involvement in the saga began under similar circumstances, when a deadline-haunted George Lucas asked him to rapidly rework a weak Empire Strikes Back script. This time, Kasdan and Abrams had nine months to write one of the most anticipated movies of all time. "You say, 'Are you a professional or not?'" says Kasdan. For Abrams, having Kasdan aboard removed the possibility of writing "fan fiction": "I didn't have to ask the question 'What would they have done?' Because he was there."
Abrams grew up on Lucas and Spielberg, and there were moments where he couldn't suppress his fandom. "When J.J. first encountered 3PO," says Daniels, "it was like having an enthusiastic schoolboy. It was so good for my ego – and, of course, for 3PO's – to have that energy and joy, and to have somebody in front of you who's got the courage to take on this whole thing."
In the screening room, Abrams is finishing his speech. "The idea that we're hopefully reigniting the flame of passion toward this thing George Lucas created, it's very exciting," he says. "It feels like an honor to me. I'm really grateful for all the work." They applaud, the lights go down, and a "little reel" from the film begins to play – though not until a visiting journalist is, tragically, removed from the room.
A few days earlier, Harrison Ford glances at my twin digital recorders and twists his lips into a very recognizable smirk. "Two of the same?" he asks.
Well, I used three for Springsteen. . . .
"Now you're making me feel bad," Ford says, in an equally familiar sardonic tone, settling back in his chair in a Beverly Hills hotel suite. He is a celluloid prism, sitting there, resembling one or another of his characters, depending on the angle. He may well be the best-looking 73-year-old man on this or any planet, his features as sharp as ever, his body ridiculously trim. "I never knew what it was going to be like in my seventies," he says. "I mean, when I look in the mirror, I still see brown hair."
His hair is actually silver, almost precisely matched by his crisp metallic-gray shirt, open an extra button at the collar. He maintains eye contact that is mesmerizingly intense, and even Abrams calls him "intimidating." ("I try not to get in his eyeline," says Carrie Fisher with a laugh. "Imagine it early in the morning.") He looks like he could still break your nose with a quick punch. He looks like he would shoot first.
Ford spent years downplaying his attachment to Han Solo, his first starring role after years of scrapping around Hollywood – following two unsuccessful studio contracts in the Sixties and early Seventies, he had started a carpentry career to free him from taking parts he didn't want. A hard-to-source quote floating around online has him claiming to have "outgrown" Han – but he denies ever saying that. (He did call it a "pretty thin character for me at this point" in 1997.) "And I don't find any value exploring what I've said about this character in the past," he adds.
He did want Solo dead at the end of Jedi. "I didn't have the imagination to recognize the future potential for the character," he says. "I was only going to do three of them, so I wanted to use the character to supply some bass notes, some gravitas. I thought to continue to be the wise-cracking cynic was not, perhaps . . ." He stops himself. "But if they'd done that then, I wouldn't have this experience, which I think is worthy." (It could be of some dark significance for Solo's fate that both Hamill and Fisher mention talking with Rian Johnson, who's directing the next Star Wars movie, but Ford says not a word about future films.)
Ford barely started filming before the door of the Millennium Falcon – Han Solo's ship – slammed down on him, pinning him to the floor and badly breaking his leg. "I do see the irony in it," says Ford. Understandably, it took him a while.
"His ankle went to a 90-degree angle," recalls Abrams, who fractured a vertebrae trying to lift the door off his star, and spent months concealing his own injury from cast and crew. Production shut down – granting precious time for rewrites – and by the time Ford returned, he was somehow ready to sprint on-camera again. "He was the toughest, most impressive human being," says Abrams. "If I ever were in a disaster, he's the only person I know who would be great to have at your side."
Ford proved that proposition nine months later, when the engine failed in a vintage plane he was piloting. He managed a heroic crash landing on a California golf course, hurting no one except himself – he suffered a broken pelvis and another broken ankle. Ford shakes his head. "To have it happen again? I was just about recovered – I mean, I was recovered. I was playing tennis. I came from a great mountain-bike ride. I fell off five times, and I got back on the bike. And then, 'Look at this beautiful day. Let's go out in this beautiful, shiny airplane.' And that flight was really tough."
Other than a wince when he doubles over laughing, Ford shows zero sign of his injuries. Is he superhuman? "Believe me," he responds, intensifying the eye contact to somehow convey months of pain, "I'm not." He smiles, a little. "But I am somehow extraordinarily lucky, for a guy with shitty luck."
From the start, Ford had a great deal to do with shaping Han Solo. The costume, for instance, was supposed to come with a goofy Peter Pan collar, "in robin's-egg blue," he recalls. "And I said, 'Is this just pasted on?' And they said yes. And I said, 'Take it the fuck off and I'll deal with it.'" On The Empire Strikes Back, he and director Irvin Kershner routinely reworked Kasdan's dialogue – coming up with the "I know" response to Leia's "I love you" was just the most prominent example.
"I had been told as a young actor to just shut up and say the lines," Ford recalls. "But just because you can type this shit doesn't mean that's going to be the best expression of it." (He is paraphrasing something he legendarily told Lucas: "You can type this shit, but you can't say it.")
"I had to engage with Harrison in the only way that mattered," says Abrams. "Which was, 'This doesn't feel right, what if we tried this?' We had scenes that, in all honesty, needed to get figured out sometimes while we were shooting. Sometimes they needed to be rewritten, reshot."
But Ford gives Abrams substantial credit. "Nine times out of 10, J.J. was dead-on with it," he says. "You know, it doesn't feel right in your mouth, and you try a couple of other things, and then you say, 'You know what? You're right.' And 'Chewie, we're home'" – an important moment in the story, he notes – "is manifestly better than 'We're home, Chewie,' or a couple of the other options that I tried."
Ford sees nostalgia the same way Han used to see the Force: For him, it doesn't exist. So he didn't get sentimental when he slipped into the costume, even if the sight of him next to Chewbacca had everyone else in awe. But it did make him feel like Han Solo. "Clothes make the man," he says. "I could have felt silly, to be my age prancing around in high boots and a gun belt with a guy in the hair suit, but I didn't. I love the work. I like playing different kinds of characters. What's not to like? It's no big fucking deal. This is what I do."
It's hard not to conclude that Harrison Ford secretly loves shooting blasters and flying a spaceship. "Why wouldn't he?" asks Hamill. (Then again, there's the time Ford lost it on Empire's set, taking a handsaw to the Falcon's control panel: "The sound attracted a small crowd of people with their mouths hanging open," Ford recalls, laughing. "I can't remember what the deal was, something about wanting to go home.")
"My dad had a stormtrooper helmet he would put on and chase us around the house with. The people on the dark side were more interesting to me. You can't beat their aesthetic!" —Adam Driver
Not long ago, Ford ran into Fisher at a production office. "I went up to hug him," she says, "and he did a line from the new movie – this one! And I didn't recognize it right away because it was really organic." Harrison Ford, quoting Star Wars? "Before it's quotable!"
Fisher, born into showbiz royalty as the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, was practically raised on film sets. She saw instantly what Ford had. "He was sitting on the set in the bar – what's that bar called?" She sings a bit of the Cantina jazz. "I thought of Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart – epic. Focus-pulling. I knew I didn't have that. And Mark – not in the same way."
Ford likes to talk about the Star Wars saga's "utility" in fans' lives – which is so unromantic it's almost romantic. "It's all I've ever thought about, being useful," Ford says, unleashing the eye contact one last time. "On the set, in the work I do with Conservation International. And in an airplane, it becomes even more simple and compelling. 'What is the task at hand, right this minute?'" He takes a breath – his timing is always perfect. "Even when the engine quits."
Back at Bad Robot, I am permitted to watch Abrams editing the movie for precisely 20 minutes. That adds up to maybe a minute or two of actual footage. So I can confirm that there is a spaceship battle in the film, featuring X-Wings and TIE fighters and something like a Death Star. There is a lightsaber duel, where Kylo Ren is unmasked, revealing an intense-looking, unscarred Driver. There is a weapon that the filmmakers, at least, refer to as a "Sunsucker." I see a churning energy device on the ground of a planet that sends a massive, lavalike beam upward – Sunsucker or not, it looks scary.
Abrams, fresh from his speech about the importance of details, sits at the center of the editing room, at a computer set-up that allows him to draw with a stylus on images on the big screen in front of him, doodling on his own movie – at one point, he jokingly draws a Coors logo on a snowy mountain. Effects supervisor Roger Guyett and Kennedy are on a conference call from London, watching the footage, and Abrams' scrawls, on their own screens.
They begin by reviewing a shot shown in the trailer, where dozens of flags appear on a castle that belongs to Maz Kanata, a mysterious little goggle-wearing creature, played by Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) via motion-capture and CGI. The flags are designed to drive superfans nuts with references to the earlier movies, but Abrams tells Guyett that too many of them allude to the first of Lucas' prequels: "I don't want to be too about podracers," he says. "I'd rather come up with our stuff."
Abrams is most concerned with a couple of segments that intercut between separate action sequences. One includes a "castle battle"; the other pairs an X-Wing skirmish led by Oscar Isaac's heroic Poe Dameron with a lightsaber fight where Finn and Rey face off with Kylo Ren. "Better late than never, I'm looking at the polarity of the sequences," Abrams says. "It's about not asking the audience to simultaneously be in the most emotionally desperate place – Rey in the forest with Ren – and at the same time to be celebrating. Similarly, in this sequence we have to be careful – we have her in another forest with the same kind of life-and-death despair, while at the same time indicating that things are going well for our pilots."
They go over options to make the spaceship battle look more challenging for the heroes – it all sounds like an awful lot of last-minute work for Guyett and his team. "Do we want to be seeing a TIE fighter taken out?" Abrams asks. "Let's either take an X-Wing out instead or look at eliminating moments that make it look like our guys are too upper hand. Maybe there's a version where the TIE fighter hits an X-Wing and it blows up?" This is all very serious, potentially billion-dollar, business. It also sounds exactly like 11-year-olds negotiating over their toy collections.
Guyett shows Abrams another shot, a close-up of some machinery. "I don't know what I'm looking at," Abrams says calmly. "I knew what I was looking at in the last version." With that, I am ushered out.
Sitting in a crowded Beverly Hills bar, John Boyega is wearing a leather jacket and pants of his own design – black with some straps and zippers on the legs. "It's Michael Jackson-esque," he says, in his tart South London accent. With a hint of Han Solo? "Damn right!"
Finn spends a lot of time in the film with Solo, and Boyega learned a great deal from Ford – he shares his alpha-male confidence, and is already feeling proprietary about his character. "I get very, like, 'Finn wouldn't say that,'" Boyega says. "Finn and Han have a very interesting relationship. Han sees a bit of himself in Finn's bravado, a young guy he can help nurture."
Boyega and Ridley are enjoying what may be their last taste of near-anonymity, and even Driver is about to get way more famous. But Boyega is oddly comfortable with seeing his face on posters and toy boxes: "I'm surprised as to how my brain is taking it in – like, 'Oh! OK.'"
The experience is more intense for Ridley, who previously had only a few British TV and short film roles. When Abrams told her she had won the part of Rey, her reaction was subdued. "That made me feel better," says Abrams. "Because it wasn't a giddy 22-year-old thrilled to get a starring role. It was someone who understood what it meant to take this on, who realized this was gonna be just as much of a journey for her as it was for the character. We knew whoever played this part needed to be funny, tough, physically capable – but able to break down and be terrified. Literally able to do everything but sing."
Ridley grew up with no particular attachment to Star Wars; her family was more into art galleries and the occasional French film. But Driver and Boyega were fans. "My dad had a stormtrooper helmet he would put on and chase us around the house with," says Driver, 32. "The people on the dark side were more interesting to me. You can't beat their aesthetic!"
Boyega was seven when The Phantom Menace came out, and he didn't see it until a few years later. He thought it was all right, despite the "green guy jumping around." Instead, video games and comic books inspired him to swing a toy lightsaber around his house: "When I'm wielding a lightsaber, it feels like living out action sequences from my living room."
Ridley, a drama-school grad, spent her first few weeks on the film feeling certain she would get fired. Then she got comfortable. "Oh, my God, I could've shot the film for years, I loved it so much," she says. "It felt like as I was growing, so was Rey."
Boyega's dad is a preacher; his mom works with the disabled. Neither of them has ever seen a Star Wars movie. Like Ridley, Boyega attended drama schools and initially dreamed of a life in the West End. He takes pride in his range: Boyega's Attack the Block character, Moses, was far more commanding than the sweaty, panicked initial images of Finn. A friend recently chided Boyega for that: "He was like, 'Dude, man, they've got you running around looking sweaty as hell. Man, I love the way you was in Attack the Block.' I'm like, 'Dude, you know I'm an actor, right?' And I'm sorry, if stormtroopers were coming after you, you wouldn't be chill. You'd be in a desert sweating, panting!"
Ridley, who has a posh West London accent – her father is a photographer who shot the Beatles' first U.S. tour for NME; her mom works for a bank – enjoys the idea of becoming a hero to little girls. Especially, she says, because Rey isn't royalty like Princess Leia and Queen Amidala. "Rey isn't born into privilege," she says. "My cousin's daughter said something about wanting me to be another princess, and I'm like, 'No!' Girls don't have to be princesses! They can be, you know, scavengers!"
She understands that she may be Rey for life. "People have asked me that as though it's a bad thing. I'm like, 'No, I'm cool with that.' Everyone's gonna be remembered for one thing. Daniel Radcliffe is gonna be remembered for Harry Potter, even though he's proved himself time and time again in other roles."
Boyega isn't worried about getting stuck in the Star Wars universe. He already has other roles coming up, including a part as a Mark Zuckerberg-type CEO in The Circle, with Tom Hanks and Emma Watson. "It's different from the stormtrooper life," he says, offering a leading-man smile.
Driver, meanwhile, was determined to take the role of Kylo Ren as seriously as anything he's done. As his castmates recall, that sometimes meant staying in character on set, and even leaving his mask on between scenes. "Do your thing, man," says Boyega, who is less Method in his approach. "I mean, for me, I follow what Laurence Olivier or someone said: 'Just act.' But it was great to see him go for his process. It was intense."
The goal, says Driver, was "to forget you're in Star Wars and treat it like any other job that's filled with moments and problems." Such as delivering a speech to Darth Vader's melted mask: "When someone sets the scene for you, it's always very funny. The idea that in this reality, Darth Vader is real." And now, one of the most promising actors of his generation has a large supply of dolls of himself. "I'm set for Christmas presents for the next 10 years," Driver says.
While the others plunge on with their careers, Ridley is planning to study psychology at university, a break she hopes will help keep her grounded in the face of sudden intergalactic fame. "I think I'll be OK," she says. She goes silent, then repeats herself. "I don't know. I think I'll be OK!"
In the front of Mark Hamill's black T-shirt is a feral-looking, sharp-toothed drawing of a Mickey Mouse-like creature. Hamill is too good-natured for this to be a subtle protest (and it turns out to be a character created by his son Nathan). But he has been chastised by Disney at least once lately. He told a reporter that fans who expect The Force Awakens to be "the Second Coming" would inevitably be let down, resulting in the headline "Mark Hamill Says Star Wars Fanboys Are 'Bound to Be Disappointed.'" "That got me a phone call from the powers that be," he says, laughing.
He also told a Comic-Con audience something it didn't want to hear. "The phrase that I used in front of, like, 5,000 Star Wars fans pumped to the gills, ready to see the trailer, was 'It's only a movie,'" he says, cackling now. "It's unfortunate because I heard it from George first, OK, on the set! I was trying to appeal to the rational, sane people who know movies don't really change your life, and if you really think we can make you feel like you're 10 years old at 38, you know what's gonna happen. So just don't think that and you'll be fine!"
"Think about it, what it would be to make three of these movies a million years ago, and now let's do it again, only you're 40 years older and there's a lot to live up to – or down." —Carrie Fisher
Hamill lives with Marilou, his wife of more than 30 years, in a relatively modest house set on a fairy-tale-beautiful property. The front room is splashed with light, with decor that is more Little House on the Prairie than Death Star. There are floral couches, blond-wood floors, a pre-Raphaelite painting of cherub-esque women on a pastoral yard, a bust of Mozart (Hamill played him in a stage production of Amadeus), a cabinet filled with decorative plates. On an end table in the corner, nestled among family photos (the couple have three kids), is a well-known shot of Hamill in an X-Wing fighter uniform circa 1980, hugging a pregnant Marilou. Halloween decorations are everywhere – Hamill is really into Halloween.
Pretty as he was in the original trilogy, Hamill was never fated to be a movie star. "He couldn't have been," says Fisher, bluntly. "What, 10 people get to be movie stars per generation? But people can still have substantial careers." It's easier to see why now. Hamill is charismatic, but charmingly eccentric, more like the president of a Star Wars fan club than one of its stars. He's thrown on an open short-sleeved button-down with a USC logo over the T-shirt, and he's wearing black jeans and Batman-themed Converse sneakers – one of them has green laces, the other purple. His dirty-blond hair is shaved around the ears for his villain role on the CW's The Flash.
In the Eighties, Hamill would wonder aloud why he wasn't getting more film roles. But he's grown comfortable with his eclectic career, especially after becoming a top voice-over artist, most famously as the Joker in years of much-loved Batman cartoons. "I got into a niche where I did voice-overs and I could do theater when I wanted," says Hamill. "I've been having a great time, doing interesting stuff. It's just that people don't really pay a lot of attention."
But he'd need more than his voice to play Luke Skywalker again. So Hamill, now 64, has spent the past couple of years on what seems to be a brutal training regimen, this time with Yoda only figuratively on his back. He seems to have lost a good 50 pounds, but he doesn't want compliments: "It implies that I looked so dreadful before!" "Look at what I'm eating now instead of potato chips and bagels," he adds, gesturing to a fruit-and-vegetable plate. "I'm on the 'if it tastes good, don't eat it' diet."
Hamill and Fisher were among the first to learn that Lucas was planning to sell Lucasfilm, and that there would be more movies. (Lucas actually informed Hamill decades ago that he would be needed as a sixtysomething Luke, but then told him much later that there would be no sequels.) Back in 1983, Hamill was sad about the saga ending just as Luke became a real Jedi: "I had just gotten to be what I wanted to be – and that's the end of the story?"
But his first reaction to Lucas' news, delivered at a lunch during a Star Wars convention, was to enter a "state of shock." He realized he had mixed feelings. "We're all in a great place and we've all done it before," he says. "There was a beginning, middle and end. You have to think about all the aspects, 'cause if you wanna maintain a low profile, this isn't the best way to do it!" He found himself hoping that Ford wouldn't do it. "I said, 'The ace in the hole is, Harrison's not gonna do this. Why would he?' So that's our escape clause. You know, if I'm the only one, I'll look terrible – but if he doesn't do it, I don't have to do it."
On set, it was different. When Hamill walked onto the Millennium Falcon – and he emphasizes that he did this as himself, not as Luke – he was overwhelmed. "It was opening up all these little windows in your memory banks," he says. "How it felt to be sitting in it or just the smell of it all or where Chewie was playing chess. So you laugh a lot. I mean, you just can't believe that this is happening. It just doesn't seem real."
Alone among the original cast, Hamill is a genuine comic-book and sci-fi super-fan, as well as a Sixties-rock aficionado. "I understand obsessive-compulsive entertainment interests," he says. "I have many, many, many of them." In the back corner of his house is an impressive man cave, filled with nearly as many pop-culture treasures as the Bad Robot offices: a huge collection of hardcover omnibuses of old DC Comics issues; vintage Aurora models; Beatles books; a 3D lenticular poster for the 1954 movie Gorilla at Large; cels from his Batman cartoons; an illuminated 3D Martin and Lewis poster. A treadmill faces the huge TV.
As I head to my car, Hamill sticks his head out from a window, to say, or rather, yell, goodbye again. I mention that I'm headed to Fisher's house the next day. "You're gonna have the time of your life," he says. "Fasten your seat belt!"
Princess Leia has a cold. Or so she thinks: Later in the week, she will learn she actually has pneumonia. In any case, Carrie Fisher has decided to do some of her interview while lying in bed, with a quilt pulled nearly up to her neck. No matter. "I have a great bedroom," she says, correctly. The upholstered headboard behind her, set against a pinkish-purple wall, has a stained-glass panel built into it; it's also brocaded with seashells, a tiny doll hand and little cards with printed messages ("I know why I was in the hospital," one reads). A projector lights up one corner with butterflies; there's a bird made of tiny lightbulbs in another; a rug displays a colorful starscape; video art on a flatscreen shows a forest scene.
The whole house, a Beverly Hills mansion built in 1919, shares that magical-mystery-tour vibe: In a chair on top of the roof is a life-size human figure in a suit, with a bear's head; on the porch, among many other artifacts, is a gigantic Princess Leia doll inside an old-fashioned phone booth. There's a Christmas tree in the living room, year-round; one of the ornaments is her cinematic daddy, Darth Vader.
"I transcend whimsy," Fisher says. So she's reached the next level? She nods, deadpanning, "LSD." In recent years, Fisher has been frank about undergoing repeated shock treatments after a diagnosis of bipolar disorder. She's a prolific and hilarious novelist and memoirist, and she treats this subject with the light touch she applies to everything; a sign on the gate to her property reads ask me about medication side effects, and there's a lurid poster for an old electroshock-themed film in one room.
Hamill recalls that when Lucas told him and Fisher about the new movies, she said "I'll do it!" within seconds. Her only question was whether there might be a role "for Billie" – meaning not Billy Dee Williams, who will presumably pop up at some point, but her 23-year-old daughter, Billie Lourd, currently on Scream Queens (who did end up winning an undisclosed Star Wars role).
"I've always been in Star Wars," Fisher says. "I've never not been in Star Wars!" She laughs. "But hopefully now they'll pay me again!" So the news from Lucas "was surprisingly not surprising."
She is proprietary about Leia, touting her as a "huge" feminist icon and bristling at the suggestion that she was ever a "damsel in distress." "She bossed them around," she says. "I don't know what your idea of distress is, but that wasn't it! And I wasn't some babe running through the galaxy with my tits bouncing around. So I wasn't threatening to women."
She's wearing a black housedress; her feet are bare. Her hair is a blondish-brown; behind the tinted lenses of her stylish glasses, her brown eyes are bright, perpetually amused. Her three-year-old French bulldog, Gary, is by her side, as he was on the Star Wars set: He was cool with Chewbacca, but traumatized by the sight of a big-eyed creature played by Simon Pegg. "I don't think J.J. was wild about Gary," Fisher says. "He said, 'Explain the dog thing to me.'"
One of the most appealing aspects of the new movie is the idea of peeking back in on Han and Leia's romance. How close Ford and Fisher got in real life is a mystery. Fisher has hinted at possibilities that she may never fully disclose, even in her next book: Brilliantly titled The Princess Diarist, it's based on journals Fisher recently discovered from the first film. When Ford found out about it, he joked about needing a lawyer.
The original trio went through a Beatles-like burst of fame together. But Ford plays down their relationships: "We had separate lives in different places, separate paths. It wasn't, like, one for all and all for one." That said, when Ford came onstage at Comic-Con in July, he kissed Fisher on the lips. "They acted like it was a porn shot," she says archly. "It was too fast to be surprised. I was surprised at all the pictures – you know ... elder porn!"
Oh, come on ...
"I mean, you don't see a lot of movies where they celebrate older people making out. Necking!" She has always had chemistry with Ford, who is 15 years older. "Because he makes me nervous and I overcome it. Imagine being 19 and running into that." She pauses. "He deserves a good word. Formidable? I made people a little nervous with my, you know, verbal liquidity, so that kept me safe, but you're not safe with him. He can get around any of that. And if he's impressed by it, you don't see it."
On the new movie, Fisher was on edge at first. "I was very nervous, had a lot of memory problems – just horrific – and then it got better," she says. "Think about it, what it would be to make three of these movies a million years ago, and now let's do it again, only you're 40 years older and there's a lot to live up to – or down. And people want it to be the same but better! So there's pressure on it. But then you get over yourself and say, 'By the way, it's about the younger people doing it.'"
She is dispassionate in assessing her old performances, and is as amused as anyone by the British accent she used in some early scenes. "I'd just gone to drama school – in England!" she says. "The biggest thing where I'm bad is one of the first scenes I shot, which was 'Governor Tarkin, I thought I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board!'" To prove the awkwardness of the line, she makes me recite it to her. (This is, I realize later, one of the greatest moments of my life.)
Fisher gives a long, entertaining tour of her property on my way out, ending in one of her guest house's themed rooms. "This is the space room," she says. Of course, it is filled with Star Wars memorabilia, including a campy painted poster of the original characters playing in a rock band. Leia is the lead singer. "You could use it and put the new kids in," she says, breaking into an improvised song: "There are new kids in spaaaaace."
Also in the room is a rejected original poster for the first film, with the slogan "How many times have you looked up and wondered what was going on," over a field of stars. I read it out loud, and Fisher answers the question. "Every day!"
The day before, maybe five minutes after I left Hamill's house, a Toyota pulled up next to me at a stoplight. In the passenger seat was a young woman in full Princess Leia garb, apparently headed to a Halloween party. It was as if the Force was sending some inscrutable message, and Fisher isn't surprised. "No," she says. "They're everywhere."
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