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."
"There were quite a few takes where I had to turn away from the camera," Neeson confirms. "Ahmed kept things light. Some of the film is so technical and demanding, and the costumes were so heavy, and I'm wearing wigs. Ahmed just cut through that stuff."
"Here's Jake Lloyd, the kid who plays Anakin Skywalker," Best continues. "He was a pro. He did Jingle All the Way with Schwarzenegger, so he knows the drill. He was mature at nine years old to say, 'OK, I gotta chill now.' They kept movies and a PlayStation in his trailer. They were mindful that he was a child."
Best points to a snap of a very small man who has dozed off. "That's Kenny Baker, the guy inside R2-D2. He's sleeping in Liam's chair." Best claims that "Kenny would be sitting by the pool and light a bong. No joke. A violet bong. He was just not afraid of anything. You know what I'm saying?" Baker was not the only little person on the set. "Sometimes you see little trash cans walking by and stuff," says Best. "George is an equal-opportunity employer."
"Here's C-3PO in his box," he says, pointing. "Yoda was also around. His ears are a little bit perkier, because he's younger. Frank Oz would be working Yoda and he'd look like this living, breathing thing. You'd be like, 'Wow, that's amazing!' Then, cut! And Yoda's just like this dead puppet." Folks would walk by Oz and he would have a little fun with them, making Yoda say things. NC-17 things. "People would be like, 'Yoda just cursed me out,' " reports Best gleefully. "People look at Yoda like he's a god. On the real, he's just a puppet with a dude's hand up his ass."
The real star of the cast, says Best, was R2-D2. "We were shooting for a week before we saw R2-D2," he says. At that point, "we got to play dress-up, and we're having a good time and kind of coming to terms with the reality of being on the set of Star Wars," he recalls. "Then they roll R2-D2 onto the set, and everybody is freaking out. I turn to Ewan, and I'm like, 'Yo, that's R2-D2.' He's like, 'I can't believe it.' That's when it became real for everybody."
Best shows a bizarre photo of what looks to be a wet Lhasa apso reclining in some sand. "This is Liam's wig," he says. "It was blown around when there was a big storm in the middle of the desert while we were filming." Indeed, the storm destroyed sets that had taken eight weeks to construct.
"Here's me in costume," Best says, pointing to a snap of himself in a rubber suit and headpiece. "I couldn't keep the head afterward, because it cost something like $100,000 to make it. I wanted to get some part of the costume, to frame it, but [producer] Rick McCallum was telling me the costume was going to be hanging in the Smithsonian, probably."
As Best is talking about Phantom Menace, a blissful, glazy-eyed look that marks the true Star Wars fan comes over his face. Best has seen each film of the trilogy some 200 times. He can quote every line of dialogue. Best gets a faraway look. "Star Wars was the first movie I ever saw," he says dreamily.
"I was three years old," he recalls. "I remember holding my father's hand and walking into the darkness and being fixated on the screen."
"He was just sitting there, speechless," says his father, Adrian, a cameraman for Good Morning America for the last twenty-two years. "I remember Ahmed and his brother and sister coming home from the theater reciting just about every line," adds his mother, Ahmondylla, an artist and musician. "Every day I had to hear the script, until I finally had a chance to go see it."
Best was obsessed. "I wanted a light saber," he says. "I wanted to be in it." He didn't go crazy buying Star Wars merchandise. "I didn't have a lot of money growing up. But there was the Star Wars fabric at a fabric store, and my mother made pillowcases and curtains and stuff, and put it in my and my brother's room."
Best, his twin brother, Khalid, and his sister, Dumia, grew up in a household where creativity flourished. "We encouraged them to read; we were always taking them to the theater, to the museum," says his mom, who taught her son how to play the drums when he was a kid. His dad, meanwhile, schooled him in martial arts. Best was a bright, curious child who recited one of Martin Luther King Jr.'s speeches in kindergarten when he was four years old.
"The way you see him now, that's the way he was born," says his father, who calls his son "a beautiful cat." "Ahmed was always fun. A little impatient. It's because his brain works so quickly that he's just always ready for the next thing."
When Best was twelve, his family moved to Maplewood, New Jersey, where his parents still live. At the time, the town was primarily white. "We moved out here because we believed in world equality," says Ahmondylla. "And if we're going to believe it, we have to act it. We can't stay isolated. But it was rough at first, in terms of subtle racism." Ahmed and his brother were stopped by the police several times, as was their dad.
Best's first day of school in his new town was a little rocky. "I was excited because I dig meeting people," says Best. Unfortunately, on his way into school, he saw a circle of kids break dancing, and he and his siblings joined in. "We're from the Bronx, so we jumped in and just wrecked everybody," he recalls. "Then I was, like, the enemy of the school."
Eventually his classmates got over it. Best threw himself into different activities at Columbia High School: acting society, marching band, student council, captain of the track team. He also attended meetings that the school's black students had at his friend Jennifer's house, "just to talk about how we can develop ourselves and not be lost." It was there that he met his friend, fellow alumna and no slouch in her own right, Lauryn Hill.
Hill had an aura about her even then. "Every guy in school was sweating her," he says. "I remember her coming up to the door and heads looking out and going, 'That's Lauryn Hill!' She was always into fashion. She was in eighth grade and wearing this sombrero hat, like Zorro, big hoop silver earrings, white shirt, jeans. I was like, 'Damn! She went to the meeting with gear on.' "
After high school, Best won a full scholarship to Syracuse, which he turned down. His parents were not exactly overjoyed. "I was just a little bit more than upset," says his father, laughing. "But we said, 'We'll support you in whatever you do.' " Best had a series of jobs – at a health-food store, at a plant store. He went to Manhattan School of Music, then joined up with Stomp. After Lucas' casting director caught a performance, she tracked Best down for an audition. Freaked, he didn't tell a single soul about his visit to the Skywalker Ranch.
Once there, though, he turned it up full steam. "I was like, 'I am going to get this gig,' " he says. "She asked me to do some movements. I did handstands and cartwheels. I was bugging out."
Soon after, he was summoned to Industrial Light & Magic to do a motion-capture audition. Although Best didn't know what that meant, he found out when he was ushered into a room and given a suit with light sensors, which tracked his movements into a computer. "The suit is this skintight, Lycra, Olivia Newton-John 'Let's get physical' suit," says Best, shaking his head. "I was completely looking like the aerobics instructor, plus I had a sweatband with light sensors on it. Then they give me these white sneakers with five-inch wooden platforms. It's like, 'I'm RuPaul.' "
"You look great," he was told. "Now let's wait for George." "I was like, 'Wait, what? Who? George is gonna come in? George Lucas?' " Suddenly a crowd pours into the room. It promptly parts, and there is Lucas. "He tells me to walk. I was doing a break-dance glide," Best says. "I was going back to '84. I was going to get this gig." Lucas tells Best to do more of a lope, looks at the computer, thanks Best and departs.
Best was certain that he had blown it. He threw himself into Stomp. Then, a few weeks later, he got the Call. They offered him the job and told him he had to go to England for one day for a creature fitting. He gave Stomp his notice and jumped on a plane. On the way over, a flight attendant spilled a cup of tea on his lap. "My skin was bubbling, falling off," he says, cringing. "I was in excruciating, doubled-over pain." His situation worsened in customs, where he was detained because his one-day trip made officials suspicious. "They thought I fit the profile of a drug dealer," he says, rolling his eyes. "I said, 'I'm burnt. My skin is falling off. No skin. A man needs some skin to function in this world.' "
Eventually, Best was released. He was fit in a full body cast for the costume, all the while trying not to scream in pain. "They said, 'Wow, you're great. We had Uma Thurman in here last week for The Avengers, and she passed out.' " He didn't say a word about his burn until the cast was off him. "I was not going to lose this gig," he says.
A team of forty-five animators worked on The Phantom Menace. A full fifteen of them were assigned to Jar Jar. "The actors would rehearse with Ahmed, who had such a wonderful physicality," says animation supervisor Rob Coleman. "Then we'd pull him out of the shot, and he'd be reading his lines off set. Then we would have a blank space to put the digital character in." The team had to make sure that Jar Jar didn't look too cartoony. Says Coleman, "The audience expects to see certain laws of physics, whether they think about it or not. You can only move across a room so fast; you can only jump so high."
The ears were a special challenge, as were Jar Jar's clothes, a Lenny Kravitz-like ensemble of leather pants and a leather vest. "We have this incredible 'soft-wear' department at ILM; these guys are total brainiacs who come from physics backgrounds," says Coleman. "They came up with this clothing soft-wear." The ears, after all, had to bounce against Jar Jar's back in just the right way; the sweater tied around his waist had to move realistically as he walked.
Coleman conceptualized Jar Jar in 1997, along with Lucas and three other visual-effects supervisors. "It was the four of us at the Ranch," he says. "George would tell us what he was seeing and what he was hoping for." He laughs. "George loved doing that. He loved watching our faces. We would drive back from the Ranch and be like, 'Oh, man, how are we going to do this movie?' But we love a challenge."
The name Jar Jar was assigned, as was Gungan, which came from Lucas' young son Jett's name for tractors and trucks. "I just liked the sound of it," says Lucas. "I'm always on the lookout for interesting-sounding words. I have to come up with hundreds of them, and I don't like names with x's and z's in them that people like to use in space films."
As for Jar Jar's voice, Lucas wasn't initially sold on having Best do it. "I knew he was auditioning other people, but I made a conscious decision to be the voice," says Best. "I felt like Tony Robbins! Make the conscious decision and the power for success will work for you!"
"At one point," says Coleman, "George just turned to me and said, 'Ahmed is Jar Jar.' "
"It happened in the same way as Tony Daniels when he was doing C-3PO," says Lucas. "They really get into the character and make it their own."
In early versions of the movie, Jar Jar's speech was a bit hard to understand. "When we first saw it," says Lucas, "some people that had never seen him before didn't know what was going on. They had a hard time following it. So we redid it, but I still kept that kind of dialogue." Lucas points out that no one understood Yoda at first, either. "Now everybody can," he says. "The first time you hear Jar Jar, it takes about halfway through the movie to figure out what he's saying. Once you figure it out, it's easy. If you go back and see it a second time, you can understand him all the way through."
Lucas doesn't care too terribly much that some folks have a problem with Jar Jar. "I think the comic-relief character is an important dramatic device," he says. "Some of the fans that want The Phantom Menace to be The Terminator don't like the idea that there are comic characters in it. I certainly am not going to make a grim bloodfest out of Star Wars."
As the cult of Jar Jar grows, so, too, does the rumor mill, a hazard of celebrity. There are the whispers that Jar Jar is gay. "Where the hell did they get that from?" says Best, quaffing bottled water at a favorite Brooklyn coffee shop. Best was recently quizzed about Jar Jar's proclivities by reporters at the Phantom Menace press junket. "They wanted a scoop," he shrugs. "I guess they wanted to get the gay-amphibian community in on the movie."
Don't even get him started on the current theory that Jar Jar is Jamaican. "That is a really big insult to Jamaican people," he declares. "Just because the language is a bit different, they stick an accent on it? Jar Jar has nothing to do with the Caribbean! He is an amphibian from the planet Naboo." One reporter was concerned that Jar Jar, being of Caribbean descent, was perpetuating the slave mentality by being indebted to Qui-Gon Jinn. "I said, 'You know what? You have got to check your head and examine your own beliefs. Jar Jar is an orange frog. Heads need to relax. That shit is crazy." He takes a pause. "I just thought I was doing a funny role," he says. "I didn't know that the Jedi were a metaphor for the Man."
Best's surreal adventures continued with his first Star Wars convention, at an airport hangar in Denver that was descended upon by 40,000 people. He took questions from the stage, alongside Jake Lloyd and Ray Park, who plays the evil Darth Maul. Best spent the first day incognito. "Nobody recognized me until I spoke onstage," he says. "Then it was pure madness and people pushing." Best-entertained questions – among them, "What is your favorite ice cream flavor?"
"I told him I was lactose intolerant, and the room erupted," Best marvels. "Everybody cheered. I guess Star Wars brings out the lactose-intolerant people."
Best says that this movie was the most fun he has ever had in his life. "I haven't stopped working on this movie for the past two years," he says. "I know Liam, Ewan, Natalie and Jake have all gone on to do other things, but I've been doing re-shoots, looping and more motion capture at ILM." Best is not sure what is ahead for him, but he is sure of his path. "I don't do this because I want to be famous," he says. "I do this because I can't help it. This is what found me: acting and music and performing." He still performs with his band, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, he's hoping that Jar Jar is in the next movie. "George hasn't said that," says Best. "But he keeps alluding to the fact that Jar Jar will be back. I hope so, because they're gonna shoot the next movie in Australia. I love Australia. And being part of the Star Wars universe is nice. You get to get up every day and play Star Wars and get paid for it."
It's good, then, that Best still sees his buddy Lucas. The two like to have lunch together. "A lot of people think that he's this icon, but he's just some guy with really creative ideas who likes to hang out," Best reasons. He enjoys asking Lucas questions like, "Why do Stormtroopers wear those helmets?"
"There are tons of details that I don't know about," says Lucas, chortling. "Part of it's easy for me, because what I don't have an answer for, I just make up." He does confirm that he is already writing the next film: "We've gained a huge amount of knowledge on this film that obviously we will use on the next one."
During our visit, Best said he hadn't yet seen the completed film, just parts of it. "I'm really excited to see how it ended up," he says. "It's going to be a great film, and I'm really proud to be in it. I want to see the magic that's going to be there when it's completed."
Days later, animation supervisor Coleman ran into Best after a screening. "I told him, 'You are the essence of the character. You did so much for us.' " Best couldn't answer. "He couldn't articulate it at all," Coleman says with a laugh. "He was dumbstruck." Just the way he was in that darkened theater when he was three years old.
This story is from the June 24th, 1999 issue of Rolling Stone.