A lucky Luke – meet Mark Hamill
Lives: Los Angeles
Family: Wife Marilou, children Nathan, Chelsea and Griffin
Famous for: The Star Wars movies
Current projects: Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi
“What? Is Luke Skywalker at the hotel?”
My taxi driver, who’s driving me to London’s Paddington Station, almost slams on his brakes and seems about to turn the car around when I tell him I have just met Mark Hamill. The knowledge that the 65-year-old movie icon is staying at the hotel we’ve just left gets even a young British cab driver to spontaneously react.
The fact that Hamill has become synonymous with the hero in the Star Wars movie franchise has been both positive and negative for him. I had asked him when we met in the hotel if he has missed out on other possible roles as a consequence of being so typecast as Luke Skywalker.
“I know of one. I was doing Amadeus on Broadway when Milos Forman was casting his film adaptation. Milos asked me to come in and read with some of the actresses he was considering. I was a huge fan and I went to his suite and did it. After eight hours, I said, ‘Milos, I have played Mozart, why not me?’ And Milos laughed and said, ‘No one is going to believe that Luke Skywalker is Mozart.’”
“People ask me if I have missed out on parts, but I don’t know. It’s a road not taken. I did a TV show in the early 70s which was canceled and I was devastated. However, if it had been a hit, I wouldn’t have done Star Wars. And Star Wars never went away. I love all this, look at you listening to what I’ve got to say – it’s a wonderful feeling.”
A few years ago, Hamill was watching a YouTube clip showing a number of actors screen-testing for the role of Luke.
“Kurt Russell and others. Every one of them would have made a perfect Luke. Why me?” Hamill says.
Hamill was 26 years old when he literally became known all over the world, as Luke Skywalker. A friend of Hamill’s, Robert Englund (best known for playing Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street films), had happened to see a few auditions that the then-unknown director George Lucas had carried out for his upcoming science fiction movie. Thinking Hamill would be perfect as the movie’s hero, Englund convinced him to apply and he got the role.
“When I was auditioning, I only got one scene,” Hamill says. “I didn’t read the whole script until I’d gotten the part. And I thought, ‘Is this serious? Is it a science fiction parody? Is it a Mel Brooks film?’ I asked George if it was a satire of sci-fi, and I could tell I was making him very uncomfortable. He said, ‘Do it, let’s talk about it later.’ And that went on throughout the whole shoot, and it meant, 'We’ll never talk about it later.' George doesn’t enjoy talking about subtexts and stuff, he enjoys editing and not dealing with actors who ask annoying questions.”
When Star Wars premiered, life didn’t just change for everyone involved, the entire movie industry took a step forward.
An exaggeration? Not at all. Not only because the Star Wars movies themselves, with an infinite number of spin-offs, such as books, cartoon TV series and comics, have become a multi-billion dollar industry – but also because of the unprecedented success of the movies that gave rise to a host of successors and imitators. What would the prospects of modern sci-fi adventures such as Guardians of the Galaxy have been if Star Wars had never existed? And Lucas’ smart way of making sure he kept all the rights himself, including to all the merchandise, has made him a multi-billionaire who has shown others how to earn incredible amounts of money in the movie industry.
That, however, was not something anyone could have predicted when the first Star Wars was released in 1977. Many in the movie industry saw it as a low-budget movie in which film nerd Lucas had used his knowledge of and love for the medium to make a space saga about a young boy searching for his roots who discovered that these roots were something completely different than those that he had imagined. When Lucas gave some of his colleagues an advance viewing, director Brian de Palma said it was “the worst movie ever made.” Only Steven Spielberg foresaw that it would become a cash machine.
Forty years later, here I am, sitting with a slightly graying and stubbly Hamill in a luxury hotel in the center of London.
“It was crazy for us. The film took off while we were still promoting it. We had been in Vancouver, where it still hadn’t opened and then we came to Chicago. As we were landing we saw huge crowds of people. I turned to Harrison and Carrie and said, ‘There must be somebody famous on the plane.’ I thought Mick Jagger or someone like that. And when we taxied closer, I said, ‘But look, they’re dressed like us.’ We couldn’t believe it. We wanted it to be popular, but this…”
For Hamill, several hectic years followed with the shooting of Star Wars sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. He had become a global star, but the other movie roles he won had left a lot to be desired, so instead he went down a different road and started doing voiceovers for TV series – he has been the voice of the Joker in the cartoon series of Batman for a couple of decades for instance.
“People ask if it’s boring. It’s not. I treat every job as the first one, and the Joker is insane. He is always different,” he says with a smile.
Hamill didn’t appear in the Star Wars prequel movies, Episodes I-III (the third movie ended with the birth of Luke and his twin sister, Leia). He did however return for 2015’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens – in the final scene, he was found by the main character Rey (Daisy Ridley) on a desolate, windswept island. And he’s strictly embargoed from talking about what’s going to happen in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. I try to find out if he’s still handy with a lightsaber. He nudges me in the side and says, “Good try.”
“But these kids, or young adults, they are so good with the lightsabers. I marvel at how centered Daisy is. I think of asking them for advice. When I did the first film, I had no idea it would turn out to be like this. I was a kid bouncing off the walls. But they knew they were joining something that was already pop culture.”
We talk about secrets, about how Hamill would actually like to tell the fans what happens, but at the same time, he realizes it’s best to know nothing.
“I love going into a movie not knowing what I’m gonna see. I visited the set of the stand-alone Star Wars film Rogue One (released in 2016) and I said to the director that it must be good doing a stand-alone, you don’t have to hide if anyone dies and isn’t going to be in the sequel. He said, ‘In this one, everybody dies.’ It must have been the worst spoiler in the history of film, and I can’t believe how casually he said it.”
Whether or not he swings his lightsaber in The Last Jedi, Hamill has taken plenty of blows as Luke Skywalker over the years. The worst was during a fight in The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke comes face to face with arch villain Darth Vader, and the latter reveals he is Luke’s father.
“It was a six-week shoot on different sets, and the stunt guy that I fought with was an Olympic fencing master. When I came home from work, my wife took Polaroids of my bruises and said, “You look like a map of Venezuela.”
Earlier this year, Carrie Fisher, who played Luke’s twin sister Leia in Star Wars IV-VI, and who also had a key role in The Force Awakens, died. She had finished shooting The Last Jedi when she passed away.
“I’m still in denial. I think of her in the present state. She was so wonderful and she has an extensive role in The Last Jedi. I’m grateful for what she left behind, but her death leaves a state of melancholy to the film that it doesn’t deserve.”
Later this year, J.J. Abrams will start shooting Star Wars IX. Naturally, Hamill can neither confirm nor deny that he is onboard.
“Luke is always evolving. At first, he was a clueless bumbling farm boy, then he trained to be a Jedi,” Hamill says. “He has had the most interesting arc of all the characters in the series.”
Text: Gunnar Rehlin