HOLLYWOOD - It all started a long time ago (1977 to be precise) in a galaxy far, far away — er, Hollywood. Six films and billions of dollars in merchandising later, the world awaits the arrival of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”
The plot sounds routine enough: Three decades after defeating the Galactic Empire, the Rebel Alliance (now the Resistance) must battle reformed Empire forces (the First Order). But rarely has a sequel been so eagerly awaited.
“I’m as excited as anyone,” says Mark Hamill, now 64 and still best known as “Star Wars” hero Luke Skywalker. “To think, I hesitated … like, I even didn’t want it to happen. Not with us older guys.”
Hamill says at first he had hoped his co-stars from the original films, 73-year-old Harrison Ford and 59-year-old Carrie Fisher would refuse to sign on to reprise their roles as Han Solo and Princess — now General — Leia.
“This could have been embarrassing,” he says about coming back to the franchise almost 40 years later. “Like first, if Harrison had agreed (to appear in the “The Force Awakens”) and Carrie and everybody but me … or if Carrie and I hadn’t lost the weight. And, like, if it had been us old geezers coming off unfavorably with all this new young talent. … God, it could have been humiliating.”
Hamill is relieved that it’s not. He says the merging of the original cast and younger unknowns has been skillfully handled by producer and director J.J. Abrams. Hamill, who lost as much as 22 kg for his intergalactic comeback, notes, “Some minds are just more creative than others. You can’t deny it. The final result is something that’s not backward-looking but hasn’t forgotten the roots of ‘Star Wars.’ ”
One of the principal new characters is Rey, a winning protagonist played by 23-year-old British actress Daisy Ridley. She and her robot companion, BB-8 — a dome-headed, soccer-ball-bodied droid that looks set to become the holiday season’s most in-demand toy — are scavengers on a desert planet who are oblivious to the adventure they’re about to embark on. The same could be said about Ridley herself.
“I can’t begin to describe it, at times it felt like we were making the biggest movie of all time,” says Ridley of her experience. “I had to really focus and concentrate, almost to keep the blinders on, not to feel overwhelmed with pressure and responsibility.”
Ridley attended a performing-arts school in Hertfordshire near her hometown of London, and worked on TV shows and short films before winning the “Star Wars” role.
“I know it’s not been very long really, but it feels as if I’ve been in the business a long time, having done all sorts of things. I don’t wish to say I’ve paid my dues — that sounds arrogant at my age, I guess — but it’s been a wonderful breakthrough, with (‘The Force Awakens’) and all the stuff ahead.”
Ridley says she tried to prepare herself as much as possible for the Death Star-sized weight on her shoulders, and admits that training is “important and ongoing.” But having the original “Star Wars” stars on set helped even more. She mentions that Harrison Ford was very much a “father figure” on set and getting to work with someone who has such a rich career in Hollywood outside of “Star Wars” was an extra bonus.
“He went on after ‘Star Wars’ to act in several of the most successful movies ever, so he’s used to all this,” Ridley says. “It doesn’t faze him. In the movie he’s a mentor to some of us younger characters and in real life he sort of mentored us, too.”
Before he took on the role of Han Solo, Ford had two children and worked as a carpenter while landing minor acting roles. Hollywood lore has it that he was on the verge of quitting acting — or mostly, auditioning — when his agent requested he give it one more try: for a lead part in a science-fiction movie. At the time, sci-fi was a distinctly non-commercial genre. Ford recalls that when the name Han Solo first came up, he wasn’t sure if the character was Chinese or Italian.
“I was gratified that it was a lead,” he says, “(I) had no idea if I would book the job. Most auditions don’t result in booking the job.”
After “Star Wars,” Ford landed the role of Indiana Jones — another 1980s favorite — and went on to star in, among others, “Blade Runner” (1982), “The Fugitive” (1993) and “42” (2013).
How does it feel to be back in Han Solo’s boots? “It’s familiar,” Ford says. “Comfortable. It’s also new and something of a challenge, I like that. It’s worked out better than I hoped. I think we’re all a winning combination.”
Just as the original “Star Wars” made a star of Ford, “The Force Awakens” is expected to do the same for its newcomers. Guatemalan-born actor and musician Oscar Isaac, 36, plays the role of Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, while next summer he’ll be seen as the titular villain in “X-Men: Apocalypse” before returning to the “Star Wars” franchise in 2017.
Comparing hero and villain, Isaac says that it’s “usually more fun to be a villain,” but that any role in “Star Wars” is bound to be a good time.
Growing up, Isaac says he had fewer chances to enjoy himself due to a severe religious upbringing.
“They were very Christian, it was very fundamentalist,” he says of his parents. “I rebelled the only way a kid can rebel at first. I did naughty things at school. In the end I got expelled.”
Isaac was then set to attend a strict school that he describes as “like the school in ‘Footloose’ — no dancing, no singing, no music. I hated the idea, but … along came Hurricane Andrew (in 1992), and it just blew away the school!”
Eventually, he graduated from the performing-arts-focused Juilliard School in New York.
While Isaac has appeared in a number of films, including 2013’s “Inside Llewyn Davis” and January’s “A Most Violent Year,” it was his portrayal of the biblical Joseph in 2006’s “The Nativity Story” that sparked some heady discussions with Ford.
“Harrison Ford’s mother is Jewish, so we had some interesting theological discussions,” Isaac says. “I told him I’d played the father of Jesus and Harrison, who’s been all over the world, talked comparative religions and about the persistence of certain stories that so many people seem to need to still believe in, whether fictional or not.”
Ridley says the younger cast members at times seemed “nervous about proving ourselves.”
“Nobody wanted to disappoint,” she says. “The elder actors were sort of a supportive club, yet they didn’t want to disappoint either, in a different way. I do admire Harrison and Mark and Carrie for the courage to step back into their original characters.
“I’m thankful they did, because as clever as all the new characters, plot devices, effects and so on are, I don’t think this movie would be as much fun without the original ‘Star Wars’ stars.”
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is now playing in cinemas nationwide. For more information, visit www.starwars.com.