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Slaves to the Empire: The 'Star Wars' Kids Talk Back

Five actors caught in the paradox of 'Star Wars' (the highest-grossing film of all time has done nothing for their careers) talk about their trap, the making of 'The Empire Strikes Back' and why they still want to be a part of the third installment

July 24, 1980
star wars cover 1980
The Cast of 'The Empire Strikes Back' on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Annie Leibovitz

The Force has two sides. It is not a malevolent or a benevolent thing. It has a bad side to it, involving hate and fear, and it has a good side, involving love, charity, fairness and hope.
George Lucas

There's no place for personal triumph in a film like this," says Harrison Ford dryly, referring to his return to the screen as mercenary adventurer Han Solo in Star Wars' monumental sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Although Ford shares star billing, he is painfully aware that he and the other featured performers are mere pawns in a projected nine-part series of sci-fi films, cartoonlike components with little more dimension than the hapless androids C-3PO and R2D2.

Star Wars, the creation of writer-director-producer George Lucas, is the largest-grossing film of all time – over $400 million at last count – and Empire, directed by Irvin Kershner, looks to be its nearest box-office rival. Yet the cast of this spectacular saga seems almost lost in an interplanetary shuffle.

"The star is the movie," says Mark Hamill, a.k.a. Luke Skywalker, and his cohorts sadly concur. Indeed, Harrison Ford has learned so little about his own character that he cannot explain why Solo is being pursued by bounty hunters throughout Empire.

"There's no, er, I don't know why that is." He shrugs, red-faced. "I can imagine, but basically, I just work here, you know what I mean? In fact, I didn't get the script to the second picture until three weeks before we started shooting. [Some of the actors in Empire were given only partial scripts to ensure the secrecy of plot twists.] I haven't gotten the script for the third one, The Revenge of the Jedi.

"One of George's real strengths," adds Ford, "is not giving you all the information you need, yet at the same time not denying you anything essential. You have a feeling that you want to know more at all times.

"I have heard frequently," he continues, "that there is a certain kind of disappointment with the ending of the second film. I've heard people say, 'There's no end to this film' or 'I can't wait to find out what happens.' But they will, and that's exactly the effect intended by the ending."

To feed the seemingly insatiable appetite for news about Star Wars, Twentieth Century-Fox and Lucasfilm (George's production company) have mounted a promotional onslaught whose scope resembles a rock & roll world tour. Over the last few weeks, the films' stars have been hustled from Los Angeles to New York to Washington to London to Japan and then on to Australia to sit for literally hundreds of newspaper, radio and television interviews. The effort is further supported by a multimillion-dollar ad campaign and a glut of aggressive merchandising schemes that include everything from a soundtrack album to a proposed Yoda doll, the gnomelike Jedi master.

The films' principals were not often together on the set – especially during the shooting of Empire – and the same goes for their promo tours. While they get along well with one another, there's little sense of a shared experience. And as for the actual creation of the film fantasy, vivid anecdotes are rare; Carrie Fisher, who plays Princess Leia, admits that the actors had to "pretend a lot."

"On the set, I would have to say, 'Don't blow up my planet, please!' and all I'm doing is looking at a board with an X on it, held by an assistant director who couldn't wait for the tea break.

"There are certain things you can bring to a movie that have substitutions in your life," she adds. "Well, you can't do that in this type of film. I had never seen hyperspace till I saw the finished films, so I could never imagine how they would do it. You just make what Kierkegaard called the 'great leap of faith.'"

"I felt curiously detached watching Empire," says Hamill. "I sound like my therapist, but you do start taking these things to heart, thinking, 'Yes, you are a terrible actor, and it was only the special effects that made it all memorable.'"

It is perhaps a sign of the times that the biggest entertainment phenomenon in history is also a wondrous cliffhanger that is as mesmerizing as it is manipulative. At this rate, we will have to wait until sometime around the year 2000 to see the final episode of Lucas' cinematic fairy tale, while the actors, who were paid sizable salaries (and, in the case of Star Wars, a reported bonus cut of Lucas' own profits), may never derive any great satisfaction from the most celebrated roles of their careers.

The man getting the most personal gratification from this project must be Lucas himself, who, after miraculously surviving a car crash at the age of eighteen, decided, "I should do something positive with my life because I was spared for a reason. Maybe I was here for Star Wars."*

None of the actors are apologetic about their part in this unfolding drama, but one gets the feeling that they would relish a greater comprehension of, and control over, the science-fiction serial that has assumed such power over their lives and careers. (Ford, Hamill, Fisher, Billy Dee Williams and most of the other costars are signed for The Revenge of the Jedi.)

"The Force is what you perceive it to be," Lucas notes, "and it is always changing."

I was nineteen, chosen at random, and told to lose weight, which at the time was a problem," says pretty, petite Carrie Fisher, 23, curled up in an overstuffed chair in her New York apartment. "This time around, for Empire, I was told to gain weight. The only film I'd done before Star Wars was Shampoo. But they decided to go with me anyway, a strong girl with a low voice and self-righteous nature."

Sardonic would be a better word. Fisher's flippant outlook on life may be the result of a childhood spent enduring mother Debbie Reynolds' two celebrated divorces ("She's a Texas chain-saw survivor; she's real great") and the gossip-magazine prattle that plagued father Eddie Fisher ("He's a little shellshocked from thirteen years of doing speed, but he's real friendly"). Her quick-witted style, heavily influenced by the blasé-just-before-the-gallows banter of Saturday Night Live alumnus Michael O'Donoghue (who's a close chum), contains traces of Joan Rivers, Bette Midler and a dollop of Dorothy Parker.

"I liked whenever Harrison and I yelled at each other," she giggles, recalling her favorite scenes from both films. "And whenever Darth Vader came in, a lot of the scenes were funny, because he was physically depicted by David Prowse, this muscle man from Cornwall or Devon. [Vader's eerie, wheezing voice was dubbed in by James Earl Jones.] And 'cause he had this Devon farmer's accent, we used to call him Darth Farmer!

"In the first film," Fisher adds, "I had to wear that white dress and I couldn't wear a bra. Everything was bouncing around, so I had to wear gaffer's tape for three months to keep my breasts down. A new crew member used to come up every day and get to rip it off – only kidding!

"Lucas always had to remind me to 'Stand up! Be a princess!' And I would act like a Jewish princess and lean forward, slouching, chewing gum."

Fisher laments the fact that several exotic scenes never made it into either film. "In the original script. I was captured, and when Mark and Harrison found me, I was hanging upside down with yellow eyes, like in The Exorcist. They shoulda just gotten Linda Blair for it. Some form of radar torture was done to me and I was in a beam, bruised and beaten up, suspended in midair. The reason it was cut from the film was because I was unconscious and the Wookie would have had to carry me for, like, the next fifteen minutes. But I loved the idea of having yellow eyes and being beaten and carried."

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