"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.
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