Mark Hamill Goes Deep on Life as Luke Skywalker from ‘Star Wars’ to ‘Last Jedi’
When Mark Hamill sat down in his Malibu yard back in 2015 for his The Force Awakens interview with Rolling Stone, he had a secret to keep – the fact that he was only in the movie at the very end, silently facing off with Daisy Ridley’s Rey in a literal cliffhanger. And as everyone who’s seen The Last Jedi now knows, he had even more to conceal during his interview for Rolling Stone‘s latest Star Wars cover story – which may be why he chose to have director Rian Johnson sit in on the interview, which took place in The Last Jedi post-production office on the Disney lot. Even without spoilers, the always-voluble and charming Hamill found a lot to talk about – he ended up covering the almost entire history of Luke Skywalker, going back to his auditions for the first Star Wars over 40 years ago.
Your wordless moment in The Force Awakens is a tremendous piece of acting. How much weight did you put on that one moment, since it was all you got to do in that entire movie?
Mark Hamill: First of all, once I came around to what it was going to be, it made complete sense. If I were in the position of a J.J. Abrams or a Rian and thinking, “I’ve gotta close out the Han Solo story, I’ve gotta introduce this whole new set of characters, I’ve gotta set up this whole new conflict,” wouldn’t it be much easier just to push me to the next chapter? I did regret maybe not having the three of us on-screen together one more time. But again, at times, I’d say to Rian, “We gotta think of what the audience wants.” And he’d say, “No, we’ve gotta think of what we want.” Which is a learning process for me. But I didn’t look at that as, “Oh, this is going to be my big chance,” or whatever.
What were you trying to get across in that scene?
MH: What I was trying to convey was the fact that I didn’t know, and I don’t think J.J. really knew, specifically what had happened in those thirty years. There’s a flashback, and you knew there was some sort of traumatic event, but in all honesty, what I did was just try and give him a range of options. You’re going to pick a piece of the puzzle out of all of that. So I tried to do neutral, I tried to do suspicion, doubt. I was just taking advantage of the fact that it’s all thoughts. I love watching those Turner Classic Movies on Sunday nights, those silent films, to think of what restrictions they had placed on them and how effective they could be without dialogue.
“You can’t help but build a sort of possessive quality about your character. … I was very opinionated and mouthy in the process.”
I don’t want to make a blanket statement and say, “That’s the greatest entrance in cinematic history.” There’s gotta be some others. But certainly the greatest entrance of my career. In terms of a screenplay where you’re the object of so much speculation… People are talking about me all the time. I started making notes. “Skywalker must,” “The sword of Skywalker is powerful!” So I’m writing all this down. I was referred to – I don’t want to say the number – but it was more than 50 times. The only problem I had was that, I think I should have gotten the heads up instead of going through a year and a half thinking I was going to do something more than that. Part of my problem is, I went up north to Lucasfilm and the guys said, “Oh man, I’ve been drawing you for a year and a half, come in here.” And I went into a room and I saw all these production drawings. … Concept art from when Michael Arndt was still writing the screenplay. At one point, Rey and Luke are in scuba gear retrieving pieces of the sunken Death Star at the bottom of the ocean. I thought, “Holy crap. I love scuba gear. I love being in the water on film. It’s so rare. We’ll be in a tank at Pinewood, it’ll be fabulous.” Last time I wore scuba stuff was in the trash compactor [in the first movie]. They sent me to a school to learn scuba in case…
Rian Johnson: Wasn’t that like two feet of water, though? Oh, there was a deeper pit below?
MH: Yeah, where the guy could pull me. I’d tap him with my foot, that was the little signal for when he’s supposed to pull me down. Anyway, it’s nobody’s fault. I’m not saying, “Oh, they did something bad to me.” But just that your expectations are in one direction, and to be so shocked. Also, when J.J. sent the script over, he said, “Don’t turn to the end, read it from page one and imagine it like a movie.” Now that should have been a tip-off.
Were you waiting with somewhat bated breath to see what Rian had in store for you?
MH: Well, I’m always full of anticipation. We’re never satisfied. People already want to know, “What’s going on in Episode IX“? I don’t know. You sort of step back and think… You read the screenplay and you say, “What purpose does Luke serve in this story?” That’s the thing. You get tunnel vision because you’re focused on your story. As we know in these films, they’re all over the place. In this one they’re tying up so many threads. There are certain colors that are required of me on the palette. It wasn’t easy.
RJ: I can only imagine, especially after so long of thinking, “It could be this, it could be that,” then to have some schmuck drop a script in your lap and say, “Oh it’s this.”
MH: You try not to take it as seriously to the point where you’re unreasonable. But you can’t help but build a sort of possessive quality about your character. So sometimes you would say, “Is this what they think of my guy?” It’s interesting to me, because I was very opinionated and mouthy in the process. That process is over now.
Well, how have you always seen Luke?
MH: Luke is much smarter than I am. But I love the idea… I’d forgotten how there’s so many times where they would set it up that whatever was important was right in front of Luke. He meets Obi Wan and doesn’t get it. He meets Yoda, he doesn’t get it. He’s not real organized in terms of how he’s going to get the Princess off the Death Star. That’s one of things that jumped out at me when I first read the very first Star Wars was that it was so relatable when you got to the Princess. “You came in that?!” We risked our lives, and she’s complaining about the transportation. That’s so relatable. If you had a teenage sister that made your father drop them off a block away from school so they wouldn’t see the piece of crap car that you drove, that’s so relatable! It’s so human. You’re in this fantasy world, fighting and all this stuff, and she says something like that. That’s what really got me, is how human and relatable the humor was there. And the fact that she just effortlessly said, “You call this a plan?” Grabs our gun and really takes charge. That’s effortless feminism. It’s not like, “Oh, I’m a damsel in distress, please save me.” That’s before I ever met Carrie or anybody. Just reading that screenplay, I thought, “Oh my god, this is so funny.”
And I’m the straight man to these robots. Luke has much less depth than these robots. Less personality. Robots arguing over whose fault it is and who’s going to get blamed? I just thought it was delightful. When I screen tested, I said, “Is this like we’re sending it up and it’s fun?” George would say, “Let’s just try one and we’ll talk about it later.” Which later I realized is a standard response.”Let’s just do it and we’ll talk about it later.” Translation: “Let’s just do it and never, ever talk about it later.” And then Harrison was there and I got him aside. He was in American Graffiti, so he could tell me if this is a Mel Brooks thing. “Who talks like this? It’s goofy.”
Plus, since Harrison was a traditional leading man, and I hadn’t read the screenplay, I thought he was the star of the film, and that I was Bucky to his Captain America, that I was the kid sidekick. Because in the screen test that we did, I was kind of annoying and he was so cool. But I’ll never forget, I remember the chair I was sitting in, the one-bedroom apartment looking out at the beach looking at the sundown of the ocean, and I couldn’t believe it. I was thrown for a minute. I thought, “Wait a minute.” Because on the front page, it said “The Adventures of Luke Starkiller.” [Lucas soon changed the last name.] I said, “Wait a second. I thought I was Luke. Oh, Harrison must have been Luke.” I started reading it and then I got to where they’re describing me and I said, “Wait a second. I’m Luke!” I didn’t think I was the star of the movie, I thought it was just from my point of view. But I don’t have my original entrance in that movie. They cut that, and my [Return of the] Jedi entrance too.
Yeah, in Jedi, you were supposed to be seen in a cave at the beginning – and in Star Wars there’s the famous missing scene with your friend Biggs Darklighter.
MH: I was in a cave with a hood and I was working on the lightsaber. Through the opening of the cave, you see 3-PO and R-2. So it’s a mysterious “Woo-hoo!” moment. But when you get down to the nitty gritty it’s only important that you get to me when I come into the story at Jabba’s Palace. Same in the original Star Wars. When the two droids jettison from the Star Destroyer, you cut to Luke seeing a little thing, and then he goes off to the infamous Tosche Station.
The only reason that I like that [Biggs scene] character-wise is that it showed the audience that Luke was not particularly popular amongst his peers. They ridiculed him, said he’s been out in the sun too long and all that. It showed that I was really enthusiastic seeing an old friend of mine who’d now joined the Empire. Which shows I was apolitical. Cool! I’m really excited about him being a bad guy. So the audience gets this information, and also it pays off. Biggs later dies in the assault on the Death Star, and that’s poignant in a World War II movie sort of way. “They got Johnny!” It has that resonance. That’s why I turn off the targeting device, by the way. When I see my best friend killed. That’s interesting that they rejigger it and they have, “Use the force.” They have the voiceover.
RJ: Was that not in the original…?
MH: I think maybe his voiceover was in the original, but the way it played was, when I see Biggs Darklighter die, it’s like the cold water in the face. You’re like, “You know what, I’m going to have to do this on my own.” So I turn it off and go on. So I come to that conclusion myself. And I think it was probably smart for George to put that in there to reinforce for the audience why he’s doing it.
Rian said that after you expressed some surprise and perhaps initial discontent, there was some alteration of Luke’s direction in The Last Jedi.
RJ: Well, we worked on it. It was a conversation.
MH: That’s it. If you’re lucky enough to have a director and writer that is collaborative, they’ll listen to your ideas. That’s all part of the process. Like I say, I’m lucky that our paths crossed.
What does it mean emotionally to be this character again?
MH: That’s what I’m saying. This is why it’s so delicate for me, because it’s a culmination of my career, in a way. I had frustrations being over-associated with it, but nothing that caused me any sort of deep anguish. I have tunnel vision. If I’m on Broadway, I’m doing eight a week and I’m not paying attention to anything else! Wherever I am, I’m usually happy what I’m doing. In voiceover, I thought, “This is great! I can let myself go to Hell physically, I don’t have to memorize lines, and I’m working with some of the most talented people in show business.” These people can do Orson Welles talking to Edmund Guinn. Obscure voice people! So gifted. I think it’s really a shame sometimes that they have to add “voiceover” actors. They’re just good actors. So like I say, I was very content.
“I was sort of the square stick-in-the-mud brother, and [Carrie Fisher] was the wild madcap Auntie Mame. Truly.”
The thing is, the Star Wars thing never went away. Even when there was that gap where they thought, “Are they ever going to do the prequels?” That was sixteen years! I thought George would give himself five years, and then around ’88, he’ll come back ’89 and do the next bit.” But like I say, when you find something that sort of informs your career like that, to be able to go back to it, it’s almost like A Christmas Carol where you have a chance to go see Mr. Fezziwig again. I never expected that! I just really appreciated it – in a way I don’t think I could have in my twenties. But you’re dealing with a really… It’s difficult. This is not a joyful story for me to tell, my portion of it. Then of course, with Carrie. I just can’t stand it. I thought in a way I’ll be able to process it and I’ll be OK, but it brings it all up again. First of all, she’s wonderful in the movie. Everyone is going to love her. But it adds a layer of melancholy we don’t deserve. I’d love the emotions to come from the movie and the story, not from real life. Gosh darn that reality bumping into our fantasy. It’s kind of selfish, because I would think, “Oh god, they’ve got us going to China. That’s OK, Carrie will be on the plane, she’ll be hilarious, and she’ll be at dinners and so forth.” Even now, if she were here, she’d be behind you, flipping you the bird.
What was that relationship like?
MH: She was incorrigible and I loved her and she drove me crazy. We had huge fights, just like real siblings! “You’re so selfish and indulgent. You don’t know reality, you were born a movie star kid,” and all that. “Stuff it in your hat, Hamill.” But as selfish as it is, to say, “Oh, me, me, me, I miss her,” well what about Billie [Lourd]? Not only her mom, but her grandma [Debbie Reynolds]! In two days. It’s hard to believe. I think what’ll happen, though, is that the whole world felt that loss. The whole world feels like she’s a part of the family, so we can do this together. I still think of her in the present tense. I don’t think of her in the past.
When we talked two years ago, I told you I was off to speak to Carrie, and you told me I’d have the time of my life. Which I did. She was pretty magical.
MH: Yes, and so, she went from stranger to intimate in twenty minutes. She would be telling you things and you’d go, “Should I be hearing this?! Jesus Christ. I’ve even met your father!” Really, the first time I met her, we went out to dinner in London to know each other, and like I say, I’m… Look, we may be space twins, but in many ways, we’re the exact opposite. She was so brutally candid and forthcoming. I used to call her on it, too. I said, “Look, I’m just as crazy as you are. But just because you write about ‘bipolar’ as an excuse to get away with horrible behavior, and you’re always late!” I was sort of the square stick-in-the-mud brother, and she was the wild madcap Auntie Mame. Truly.
She literally partied with the Stones once during Empire. That’s actually a thing that happened.
MH: Well, good. I’m glad I didn’t know about it, because it’s like Pinocchio with the guys that brought him to Pleasure Island.
You weren’t invited to that party?
MH: Are you kidding? I would have been all over that party. I went to a Stones concert with Carrie, but we didn’t go backstage. In London. Again, she said… I said, “The Stones are going to be here in two months.” She goes, “Ugh, that’s so passé. Let’s not do what everybody else does.” I said, “Alright.” Then of course, the day came and I said, “I really want to go!” and she goes, “I do too! Let’s go buy scalper’s tickets!” And we did.
Rian told me, “You don’t tell Mark Hamill how to be Luke Skywalker.” Did it just snap into place?
MH: Hopefully, you get it. It’s like the Joker. You get behind the wheel of that crazy car and he sorta takes over. You could read the script as Mark Hamill and analyze it that way. What I’m trying to do is take an overview of what’s required of the character in that particular script. With Joker [on various animated shows and films], I try and do it like it’s the first time I’ve ever done him before, because they’re not always connected. If you’re doing a show that’s more for children and there’s standards and practices involved, he is more of an old-school, scary, but buffoonish clown. Then you do more adult material where he’s just murderous, homicidal, and psychopathic. You kind of go, “Which Joker do you want?”
Poor Luke has had such a rough life.
MH: Luke? He’s done alright.
“We kind of wondered, did George [Lucas] know that Vader was going to be my father from the get-go?”
Raised by his aunt and uncle then finds their burning corpses. Then he burned his dad on a pyre….
RJ: It’s the life of a hero, man. That’s what you’ve gotta do to be a hero. You’ve gotta watch people burn to death that you love. [Laughs]
It’s not a pretty job, but somebody’s gotta do it. I don’t know. All of it’s large. It’s large obviously, but compared to reality? Sometimes you think, “I’d rather have Luke’s life than mine.”
Lonely as it probably is?
MH: Yeah, yeah. I know we’re sort of trying to avoid spoilers, but that’s the thing. A lot of times, I was saying to Rian, I said, “Look, I have to have some sort of backstory in my own head, even though it’s not being told in this movie.” You can’t just play off a void. What would get him to the point where he’s this disillusioned? I was watching the documentary about the fiftieth anniversary of Sgt. Pepper, and hearing Ringo talk about, “Well, in those days, it was peace and love, but it was really an innocent time.” He was talking about how it was a movement that, largely, didn’t eventually work. And I thought about that. Back in the day, I thought by the time we get into power, there will be no more wars. Pot will be legal and there will be no more wars. The attitudes about sexuality will change. When I first heard the Beatles, but I believed all that. I had to use that sort of feeling of failure to relate to… Even in a fantasy, you have to find some way to relate to it. Carrie kept saying,”It’s the story of a family. A dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless.”
It would be interesting to know, because we kind of wondered, did George know that Vader was going to be my father from the get-go? There’s speculation because there’s endless screenplays, at one point there was a girl, and there was a combination of Obi Wan and Han where one character was a guy who had once been a Jedi Knight who now was a smuggler. It was interesting, the permutations. Chewie pretty much remained the same. He had pointy ears at one point. But my point is, he had so many incarnations. I think they’ve now done a Dark Horse comic book series [titled The Star Wars] on the early screenplay where Luke is a girl.
How about the pressure of years of fan anticipation?
MH: If I focused on how enormous it really is, I don’t think I could function. I told Rian that. I said, as absurd as it sounds, “I’m going to have to pretend this is an arthouse film that no one is going to go see.” It’s just too much.
RJ: I feel like that’s what we did on set. We had that kind of bubble where it felt like we could just focus on, in the scene, what’s interesting to us.
MH: And just block out everything else.
It’s one thing to work on a Star Wars movie now, but the stress of doing the first one practically broke George Lucas. He didn’t direct a movie again until Phantom Menace.
RJ: I’ve thought a lot about it while we were on set shooting. I looked at Anthony Daniels [C-3PO], and I looked at the team of six guys working with him… First of all, we’re in a stage in Pinewood, everyone is thrilled to be working on a Star Wars movie. This is a dream for everybody, the guys working on Anthony, we worked with them to come up with a thing where they can click the [costume] on in two seconds, and then I would put myself back and say, “Oh my god, if we were in the middle of the desert, and all of this stuff was being done for the first time so nothing worked, and if nobody on the crew believed in the movie and thought that it was going to be a piece of shit and no one was excited to be there, this would be so hard!’ You realize that we literally had the exact opposite experience of what, in many ways, George did.
MH: Well, the crew was certainly professional. But once I got to know them in Africa, that’s when I realized, because they were comfortable enough with me where they would say…
RJ: I’m sure they did their job, but the fact that our crew was actively excited and would say, “I can’t believe I’m getting to hold a lightsaber, just the fact that…”
As opposed to, “What is this bullshit with the giant dog?”
MH: Yeah, yeah. Well, the thing is, at one time, because I got to be intimate enough with the sound guy… He could make me laugh just with the roll of his eyes. [English accent] “We’re going to Alderaan, all of us, mate.” He’d repeat lines, and then I would do a take with him and I would look up at him on the boom and he’d do the [rolls eyes], and he was the one who said… He said, “Everyone loves having a job. But everybody knows we’re working on a children’s film.” He said, [English accent] “This won’t play at night, this’ll be in the matinees for the kiddies. Let’s face it, it is a bit of rubbish.” I said, “Well, you guys don’t have anything to compare it to like Flash Gordon.”
But I said, “This particular very idiosyncratic combination of elements is so uniquely American, I don’t expect them to get it, really.” Again, I’m talking broadly. I don’t want to paint with a broad brush. With George, what I think it was, was that he had imagined it in his brain for so long, since the early Sevenites, and then when he saw it… In other words, the first time I saw the lightsaber, I went [disappointed] “Oh.” Because I saw it one way, and then on set it looked a different way. So you can’t help but sympathize with George, who had imagined this. And there’s no budget on your imagination. You can just create whatever it is that’s in your head, and then you realize it on screen and it looks so funky and held together with Scotch tape and Elmer’s Glue. So many times, I’d look up to see his reaction after a take and he’d just go [sigh]. It broke my heart. Even now, I’m reminded when I see these making-of documentaries, how we were trying to cheer him up between takes. He’s sort of morose anyway. His wife at the time, Marcia, was bubbly and gossipy and she smoked and she liked to go dancing, everything George hated. He didn’t like gossiping, he didn’t like smoking, he didn’t like going out to nightclubs. We relied on her a lot, because we would say, “We’re worried about him.” “Oh, that’s just his thing, he’ll be fine.”
RJ: It’s funny that the aesthetic of held together by Scotch tape is what has now become this aesthetic that we’re aspiring to in the face of this polished technology that can now achieve anything. Now, we’re trying to get back to the feel of…
MH: Well that’s what I think was so unique. People will say, “Did you know it was going to be such a success?” I said, “Well, not to the degree.” First of all, I read the screenplay and I went, “Oh my gosh, fantasy science fiction with a sense of humor! With a sense of irony!” I love 2001, but a barrel of laughs it ain’t. It’s very dry, it’s cerebral, it’s all those things. But you don’t associate that kind of wise-cracking. That’s the element from World War II movies, from cowboy movies, pirate movies, swashbucklers. We didn’t know John Williams’ music, and I would say that’s, like, gosh, 90 percent of the success. Besides George, nobody but John deserves that.
But when I saw the art direction, when I saw the beat-up, dented, instead of all that pristine stuff. Usually, science fiction is the idealized ideal of the future. In this one, it looks so lived-in. It looks so gritty and real, with oil drips. My pants were Levis bleached out with the pockets cut off and the little Levi tag cut off. I said, “How organic is that?” Now, they make everything…. It took shape in my mind, and I remember thinking it didn’t matter to me, in terms of thinking of, “Oh, is this going to be a box office success.” I knew it was going to be something that I was going to be really, really proud to have been a small part of.