Episode I: The saga begins
We are sitting together in the backseat of a limousine. Mark Hamill and me. The Disney motor, Hamill’s main mode of transport during filming on The Last Jedi at Pinewood Studios, is expertly guided through the streets of London, west to east. In the backseat, talk is of The Beatles, the changing face of London, and Hamill’s memories of his adventures in the city he first visited, as a relative unknown, to film Star Wars: A New Hope in 1976.
As assignments go, this is already one of the all-time greats. And it has barely begun – there will be two more visits to Hamill’s house over the course of the week.
Just half an hour earlier, I knock on the door of his temporary home in West London with some trepidation, to be welcomed in by his eldest son Nathan wearing only tight white underpants. The Hamill clan’s beloved four-legged friend Millie the dog (whose pet passport rests atop a Downton Abbey boxset in the living room), greets me with territorial excitement before, up from the basement, steps the star of the first film I saw at a cinema in Derby now long-closed, as a giddy three-year-old back in 1977.
Mark Hamill, hobbling slightly, steps gingerly past the compression boot he has forgotten to hide (more on this later) and offers a warm handshake.
I am here, ostensibly, to record Hamill in conversation with first Ray and then Dave Davies from his favourite band, The Kinks. These interviews would appear in The Big Issue in April last year, guest edited by comic books supremo Mark Millar.
But ours is far more than a kwik konversation on The Kinks, despite Hamill’s regular protestations: “It is so funny,” he’ll say at intervals, “I didn’t want to talk about Star Wars,” before another anecdote slips out.
Episode II: Star Cars
“Hey, old friend,” hollers Hamill as we pass Madame Tussauds, waving at a window display featuring his old buddy C3P0 in glorious waxwork.
As we pass through Marylebone, he recalls waves of déjà vu when he visited the station while living in a tiny flat in Dorset Square in 1976. “I had the biggest flashback ever. I couldn’t place it, yet it was so familiar. Eventually, Gil Taylor, who was director of photography on Star Wars said that is where they filmed the early parts of A Hard Day’s Night, with all the girls screaming and running about. I had probably seen that film 50 times.”
Hamill seems as nervous to be interviewing Ray Davies as I am to be sitting in a car with Mark Hamill. He combs his beard, tries out his opening gambit and checks the pages and pages of notes he has made.
We pass through Camden, en route to the Highgate pub where the interview is to take place. Hamill points out where Nathan was born during filming of The Empire Strikes Back in 1979. The hospital is no longer around. But filming The Last Jedi in 2016, Hamill again has his family around him – wife Marilou and their daughter Chelsea are in town for the duration of the current shoot. “I am almost never alone,” he says. “I am from a big family.”
Talk turns from The Beatles to The Stones, sparking another memory. “Did you know Mick Jagger came to the Empire Strikes Back premiere in New York? He didn’t have a seat so was about to sit in the aisle until someone gave up theirs for him. Mick Jagger. Saw. Me!?” The idea that so many of his heroes have seen him in Star Wars still blows Hamill’s mind.
After all, Hamill expected the original film to be a cult hit at best. He recalls his initial audition. “When I tested, I figured Harrison was the leading man because he was grown up and handsome. I wasn’t. I just presumed I was the sidekick – even in the scene we read for the screen test, I was sort of an annoying presence and he was so cool.”
He remembers the scene he first read with Ford back in 1976. “We were approaching the Death Star – Obi Wan wasn’t in the scene, nor was Chewbacca. It was just Han and Luke for the screen test. And I could see the humour, already.”
The lines have been wedged in Hamill’s brain ever since: “But we can’t turn back, fear is their greatest defence. I doubt if the actual security there is any greater than it was on Aquilae or Sullust and what there is most likely directed towards a large-scale assault,” he says, still note perfect more than 40 years on.
“It shows the dilemma I had when I read the screen test – is this a parody, is this serious, or is it a Mel Brooks-style send-up of Flash Gordon? You couldn’t tell. So before the screen test, I said to Harrison ‘What do you think, is this a comedy, are we sending this up?’”
He even asked George Lucas. “And I could see him recoil. He said: ‘Well, let’s just do it and we’ll talk about it later’, which was a foreshadowing of something he says all the time. And we never talk about it. It is an interesting technique.”
Hamill chanced upon the original screen tests more recently online. “I clicked and thought, if I can’t take it I will abandon ship. I saw William Katt with Kurt Russell, and then me with Harrison Ford.
“I did hear from Marcia, George’s then wife, that they got it down to two groups of three – a princess, a farm boy and a pilot. They didn’t mix and match, it was either all three of us or all three of the other ones.
“They picked Carrie, Harrison and me [above]. I think it was chemistry. That if you put it in different combinations, it didn’t work. I’ve heard so many people, like Sylvester Stallone, saying he turned Han Solo down. And Burt Reynolds claims he turned down Han Solo and James Bond.
“That is kind of dodgy, I don’t think he could play British convincingly – if he could do the accent he would have done it by now. They are all fine actors. It would have been so different had they taken it.
“What was amazing to me was that I liked all of the Lukes. They were all perfectly valid and would have been great in the movie. I’m thinking: ‘Why did it turn out to be me?’”
Later on, he’ll tell Ray Davies: “I look at Luke Skywalker and there is a disconnect for me. I’m not heroic. I don’t even like flying. I’m not a comfortable flier. So all these virtues he has I don’t relate to them. Mark Hamill feels pain; Luke Skywalker feels no pain.
“He is the celluloid hero and I’m not. I do feel pain, I do age and get old. Luke will forever be that farm boy.”
Episode III: Return to the Jedi’s House
Once the interview is complete, we hover at the bar for a moment. Are we about to grab a pint? It’s hardly the cantina on Tatooine, but it’ll do. After a few moments’ hesitation, and a chat with the new landlords, we instead head back to the car.
Despite living in the opposite direction, I accept the offer of a lift back to Hamill’s happily. He’s more relaxed now. And his mind is turning back to filming.
“The audience doesn’t want to see us at our age running around on the Death Star bumping our heads and exchanging snappy patter. That is for the younger kids. The new generation. John [Boyega], Daisy [Ridley] and Adam [Driver]. It’s all about the kids. We are relegated. You have to move over.”
Hamill’s attitude to stunts has changed since he was the carefree young actor running around the Millennium Falcon or taking on the guy he loves to call “Dad Vader”.
“In the earlier films I told them I wanna do everything. A couple of times, they would not let me do the flip out of the plate glass window. But the stunt guys were so enamoured of my attitude, that they made me an honorary member of their union. In America, anyone will give you a badge – but the stunt guys would not do that if you did not go above and beyond.
“This time around? How I did it in the old days – reverse that 180 degrees. Anything I don’t have to do, I don’t wanna do! Any time you can get away with using a stunt guy, use him. Because you realise, these guys are so good. The guy teaching me is so good, so fast, so flawless, I wish they could put a wig and wardrobe and let him do it all.”
Episode IV: A New Chat
Millie the dog greets me this time at Hamill’s home. Dave Davies is in the house, and is worried. Will Hamill’s wife, Marilou, be able to make a decent cup of tea, what with her being American? Spoiler alert: yes, she can – a fine cup of PG, with a plateful of biscuits to boot (thank you Marilou).
Hamill is much more relaxed this time. He and Davies Jr go back a long way – the easy chat, pop culture references and reminiscences flow from the start. Me? I listen in and entertain the dog for a couple of hours. Journalism is brilliant!
I leave with Davies, a few signed LPs, and a plan to return one last time for a solo interview with Hamill.
Episode V: The Farce Awakens
Ahead of filming The Last Jedi, Hamill undertook a hardcore keep-fit regime: “I’m on the ‘if it tastes good, don’t eat it’ diet,” he grins. The Hamill kitchen is a hotbed of health food. But one treadmill session led to a farcical injury, one that following Harrison Ford’s fractured fibula on The Force Awakens, the studio was keen to keep secret.
He leans forward conspiratorially on the corner sofa. During one of his home workouts, it seems he was also indulging in another of his passions. For British comedy. And having loved The Young Ones, Hamill was exploring Ade Edmondson and Rik Mayall’s back catalogue.
“The physical humour,” he says, “is just sublime. I was on the treadmill watching Bottom and there was a sight gag that was so perfect, so funny, that I couldn’t believe I had seen it. I didn’t stop the treadmill. I left it running, tried to jump off to rewind the DVD and next thing I knew I was on the floor.
“They don’t want to talk about it because it is the same thing that happened to Harrison. But I twisted my ankle.”
The scene? “Rik was trying to get in the room but Ade was saying: ‘go away, go away.’ Rik knocked again: ‘I’m busy!’ Two or three times later, finally the door opens just wide enough for Ade’s arm to come out, holding a blowtorch, and set Rik’s crotch on fire!
“Seriously. His crotch was on fire. He was running around the room and he stuck it in the aquarium. It was like a live action roadrunner cartoon. The violence is off the charts. Not since The Three Stooges have we seen this kind of stuff.”
Keeping the injury secret during filming was tough, he says. But then again, Hamill’s had half a lifetime of secrecy. He remembers first being told that Leia and Luke were siblings. “I thought for a minute. ‘Does that mean I’m royalty?!’ Straight away, without missing a beat, Carrie said: ‘No!’ Very forcefully. Very protective of her status!
“I remember reviews of Empire Strikes Back – there is a startling revelation at the end of the film. There was a code of honour, unspoken amongst critics, that you wouldn’t ruin something like an Agatha Christie – which is predicated on the ending.”
He is distracted by a thought, and jets off on a theatrical tangent. “I should go to The Mousetrap, because it opened the year I was born, the longest running play in the English language,” he muses. “We saw The Woman in Black – it was wonderful. I put off Mousetrap. To be fair, Anthony Daniels [aka C-3PO] said it was dreadful – but to be fair, he hated Book of Mormon too – he didn’t just dislike it, he loathed it. He is a lot more like his character than you would imagine, he is a little bit prickly.
“He made a comment, ‘Mark Hamill used to be such a lovely lad’. But he phoned me, said it was out of context, I said, ‘look, if you are saying I don’t look as good as I did 40 years ago, you don’t have to convince me!’
“My problem is when you leave an open statement, that is the killer, people can read what they want into that. At the same time, as a matter of fact, not only do I agree with him but he wouldn’t be Tony if he didn’t do anything like that.”
These days, Hamill’s playfulness about spoilers comes to the fore on Twitter, where his hashtag game is one of the strongest in the galaxy. To #HangWithHamill is to take a whistle-stop tour through popular culture led by someone who knows movies inside out.
Like so many film fans, however, he wishes there had been at least one scene that reunited Skywalker with Han Solo and General Leia.
“We have a shared experience we will always treasure and I love them both. But it was frustrating,” he says.
Hamill’s affection for his old friend Carrie Fisher is clear. His face would light up whenever he mentioned her.
“People would ask me, ‘What is it like working with Harrison and Carrie again?’,” he continued. “And my answer was always that it was great to see them. I couldn’t really answer truthfully. I felt like a politician.
“Then again, reunions are inherently anti-climactic. You can’t live up to everyone’s memories. So in a way, it was genius not to do it. But I felt kinda duplicitous – that it was like false advertising to imply that they are all back together.
“It was a little disappointing. But I thought, if this works it will be an effective ending – and certainly the most elaborate entrance of my career, maybe ever! I mean, has there ever been a movie moment like that?”
Episode VI: The lost scenes
Four decades after filming his first scenes in the role, he is enjoying being in the eye of the Star Wars storm more than ever. “I am seeing it through a different lens than I did when I was in my 20s. Now I have some perspective I can appreciate it in a way I couldn’t back then. It was my first movie. I had done lots of plays and some television, then did this one picture and thought: Maybe they are all going to be like this. It was madness.”
Hamill has had time to get used to the return of the franchise to the silver screen – not least because he was hardly overburdened with lines of script in The Force Awakens. Instead, Luke Skywalker appeared only as a hooded, reclusive, silent figure in the final scene. It wasn’t always to be like that, he reveals.
“We had been up to Lucas Film, when George still owned it,” he says. “I saw a lot of the artists, and they were like, ‘Oh, man, I have been drawing you all year!’ They were basing their sketches on the Michael Arndt script.
“In that version, the Death Star had sunk to the bottom of the ocean, and there were clues we needed. I was with Daisy Ridley’s character in scuba gear in the wreck. It was just awesome. So I had my hopes falsely raised!
“I didn’t know they would reconfigure it to do it the way they did it, and no one really told me until I read the script.”
Hamill laughs as he remembers first opening the final script to The Force Awakens. “The very first line in the crawl is ‘Luke Skywalker has vanished’ so the first two words were Luke Skywalker. I was like, Oh baby, this is great.
“Now JJ said, don’t turn to the last page, read it from start to finish. That should have been the first thing that I did! Anyway, be that as it may, I think he did a great job and clearly the world agrees with me.”
Hamill is already on record as saying that he disagrees with almost every decision The Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson has made regarding Luke Skywalker. But he’s willing to be proved wrong once again – and discloses nothing about the plot of the new film.
“We are not playing games with people, it is not a competition to keep the secret. The goal is to have you discover it at the movies instead of online, like it is meant to be,” he says.
My week with Hamill is almost over. I get a signed picture, forget to ask for a selfie, and head off. Hamill leaves at the same time, destination: Pinewood.
“I have stunt rehearsals,” he says, before laughing. “Although I’m probably not supposed to say I have stunts!”
Episode VII: Hamill Strikes Back
Mark Hamill stayed in touch with The Big Issue. Three months later, he hosted a night of storytelling and song with Ray Davies, to raise money for Crisis and The Big Issue. In September, he filmed a special video to mark our 25th Anniversary (above). In it, he outlined why he supported our work: “What impressed me most was Big Issue’s business model – empowering the homeless like you do is not only admirable, it is positively inspirational.”
We couldn’t agree more. May the force be with you, Mr Hamill…
Courtesy of INSP.ngo / The Big Issue UK bigissue.com @BigIssue