Be warned: Secrets will be revealed here from the set of Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace. Things that sensitive readers may not want to know – like a report about R2-D2 and his bong, or Yoda cursing out his human co-stars. But we're getting ahead of ourselves. The real story here is the creation of Jar Jar Binks – a klutzy, floppy-eared amphibian with his own language ("How wude!") who bumbles away with every scene he's in. Jar Jar is one of many Gungans, a froggy race that dwells in a spectacular underwater city on the planet Naboo. He tags along with Jedi knights Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) after Qui-Gon saves his life. "Me-sa wuve you," says Jar Jar to Qui-Gon in a scene that's already sparking talk about Jar Jar being a gay pioneer in the Star Wars galaxy. (First Tinky-Winky, now this. People! He is a frog!) Time hails Jar Jar "as a vexing, endearing mix of Kipling's Gunga Din and Tolkien's Gollum" who "speaks in a pidgin English ('Yousa Jedi not all yousa cracked up to be!') that will be every kid's secret language this summer." Sales of the Jar Jar action figure are brisk, but Jar Jar is more than what USA Today calls the toy "most likely to cause you to trip" on a kid's bedroom floor. The frog prince of this $115 million prequel to the most popular film trilogy of all time is the world's first breakout digital star.
Who, then, is the mere mortal chosen by writer-director George Lucas to give voice and life to his favorite creature yet? The story is more ancient than Yoda, as universal as the Force. A young journeyman, unaware of the great role that he will play against the Phantom Menace, travels to many regions, trying his hand at many different vocations. He joins a troupe of musicians who use crude percussive instruments to earn their keep. One day he is discovered by the Great One. His place in the cosmos will never be the same. His name is Ahmed Best. Although for a dauntingly large segment of the population, he will be called Jar Jar Binks until the end of his days.
It is intriguing, the tale of Ahmed Best. The twenty-five-year-old singer, dancer and drummer was raised in the South Bronx and educated in Jersey, where one of his schoolmates was Lauryn Hill. Best was plucked from the San Francisco production of the dance musical Stomp to star in George Lucas' film phenomenon. Even the extras had more film experience than Best did – Phantom Menace was his very first movie, aside from a stint as an extra in Lean on Me. "I kept waiting every day for somebody to say, 'Excuse me, you're not supposed to be here,' " Best says.
That day never came. Lucas was taken by the formidable talent of Best, who gave the fully digitized character humanity and a believable physicality. He wore a rubber costume and acted out the part, then Lucas' special-effects company, Industrial Light & Magic, would set to work digitalizing him.
"It was the first time I could get an alien to turn in a really great performance," says Lucas. "When we did the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, that was when I realized that we had finally developed the ability to do a photorealistic animated character that is believable. I was able to do it with Yoda, but Jar Jar could actually move around and walk with the characters and do physical humor."
Jar Jar's slapstick provides welcome comic relief to the film's Jedi solemnity, at least to most viewers. Log on to the Internet, however, and you'll find that he's a flash-point figure: Folks either love him or hate him, carping about "the substitution of cool characters like Chewbacca for drooling idiots like Jar Jar" or calling him "the most compelling and humorous character in the Star Wars series."
Neeson is among the fans. "I really do think that Ahmed is a young Eddie Murphy," he says. "I just was aware of his discipline and the hard work he had to do, but he always did it with this incredible joy and spontaneity. I thought, 'This guy's something.' When the film ended, I told everybody – my agents, everyone – 'You've got to get this guy.' "
Ahmed Best's Brooklyn apartment is what real estate agents would describe as "cozy." It is basically two small rooms, one of them a home studio. "People think, 'Wow, you did Star Wars, you must be rich,' " he says. "Not true. I am not rich. I am far from rich." The apartment is a carefully constructed labyrinth of shelving: books, videos, CDs. "I'm probably the most ergonomically intelligent person in Brooklyn," Best says cheerfully. "I can fit a whole bunch of gear in this little space." His living room houses a futon, a small table and a pair of bongo drums. (He has a hip-hop/soul band.) A picture of a pretty, smiling woman hangs on the fridge. "That's my lady," says the sharp, funny Best, a man who radiates sunny enthusiasm. An apron emblazoned with the words LUCASFILM COOKS hangs nearby. It is flecked with a little tofu. Best is a lifelong vegetarian. "One, for health reasons," he says. "Two, when I was growing up in the South Bronx, the meat that they would put on the shelves in supermarkets was diseased and rotten. So my parents said, 'No meat.' " On the wall hangs a collage of well-known Best inspirations. "All of these people push me to get up and do something," he explains. There is Michael Jackson and Best's hero Bruce Lee and Lauryn Hill ("my home-girl – we went to high school together. I was actually a Fugee for two days").
Best is tall and handsome, and he moves with graceful agility even in this limited space. Today he has on track pants and a white tank top. He takes a seat in his home studio (five guitars, keyboards, drums) and proudly displays a Jar Jar action figure. "George gave this to me," he rejoices. "He was like, 'Here, I have your toy.' I was bugging out." He pulls out an album of photos that he took on the Phantom Menace set in Tunisia. "I couldn't show anybody until now," he says, grinning.
He presents some snaps of actors walking around the sun-parched set. "The hottest it got was 154 degrees in the shade," he says. "I put it in my head that I wasn't going to get freaked out by the heat, but people were passing out from heat exhaustion. They'd be standing there, attentive and alert. Then, all of a sudden, the haze is in the eyes, then they'd be on the ground."
He brightens. "Here's Natalie [Portman]," he says. She was probably his best friend during shooting. "Natalie and me were from New York," he says. Once, in London, Portman, Lucas and Best went to a Michael Jackson concert. "Backstage, George introduced me. He goes, 'This is Ahmed, also known as Jar Jar Binks.' I thought, 'I wonder why he said that.' Come to find out, Michael was campaigning for the part. George said to cast him would compromise the movie because he's such a big star."
Best shows another photo. "Here's me, Natalie Portman and Ewan in the hotel pool," he says. "Ewan parties hard. He parties very hard." Ewan would try to coax Best, who says he has never been drunk, into having a drink, to no avail. Best points at a shot of a smiling Neeson. "Every time I could make Liam crack up – no matter how cheap the gag was, I'd go for it. Even though it probably wasted a lot of money. I was just trying to combat the whole Jedi seriousness."
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