Mark Hamill talks Star Wars past and present: “Being the elder statesman takes a little getting used to”

As The Last Jedi opens in cinemas, Mark Hamill talks fond memories, new co-stars – and Carrie Fisher

(Getty/Lucasfilm, JG)

At the age of 24, Mark Hamill spent the summer of 1976 at Elstree Studios playing Luke Skywalker, the farm boy hero in the original Star Wars movie. “I remember the wrap party. I was so choked up I was on the verge of tears,” he tells me through a throaty cough in a London hotel suite.

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“Wrap parties are supposed to be fun. I just thought: ‘I’m never going to see these people again.’”

But he did, reuniting with co-stars Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher in March 1979 to shoot The Empire Strikes Back, and again in January 1982 for Return of the Jedi, in which the saga’s intergalactic battle between the dark side and the Force is won by the goodies.

Luke and his father Darth Vader’s back story was told in Lucas’s second trilogy of prequels, without Hamill, who once again assumed his Star Wars journey was over. Until 2012, when the three co-stars were hired for a new trio of sequels, the first of which, The Force Awakens (2015), climaxed with Hamill’s hotly anticipated reappearance after 32 years.

New instalment The Last Jedi promises to reveal a lot more. With Ford’s character Han Solo not returning and Fisher’s death last Christmas (after completing The Last Jedi), Hamill is the surviving grandee of Star Wars. Perhaps the most gracious, enthusiastic actor I’ve ever met, the boyish 66-year-old needs no encouragement to reminisce while looking at behind-the-scenes photos and comparing Star Wars then and now…

Three against the world

On the set of Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi (Getty, EH)
On the set of Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi

“It was so new and fresh and fun, looking back. Just the three of us, on the Death Star together – Carrie and Harrison and myself. Later, in The Empire Strikes Back, we were split up. They’d go off here on the Millennium Falcon with Chewie and Threepio, and I’d go there. I kept walking by them in the studios and going, ‘Hi guys!’ We didn’t know at the time that we wouldn’t be a team.

“The three of us together just worked – who can figure out why? It was a nice mixture: the clueless farm boy, the cynical pirate and the imperious, spoilt royalty. I was kinda nostalgic for the days when we were all hanging out together. But that’s the nature of the beast.

“Carrie got really upset when I wouldn’t mention the Star Wars films in my playbills on Broadway. I’d say: ‘But Carrie, I’m trying to focus on my theatre.’ She’d say: ‘Hey, you’re Luke Skywalker, I’m Princess Leia, get used to it!’ She embraced it in a way that I refused to. As usual, she was way ahead of me. She was so smart. Even when they told us we were coming back,
 I kept a poker face. But she slapped the table and said, ‘I’m in!’ I said to her, ‘Carrie? Poker face! Why are you so anxious to say you’ll do it?’ She said, ‘Mark, what kind of roles are there for women over 50 in Hollywood? She cut right to the chase and was so honest, and so right.”

A galaxy not so very far away…

Star Wars (Lucasfilm, EH)

“There’s something about a cliffhanger staged on an actual cliff… A great visual pun! But seeing director Rian Johnson in the picture is like when you see shots from The Godfather where the guy’s up in the tree with these giant cue-cards for Marlon Brando. You know it’s a movie but it’s jarring nonetheless. My right hand didn’t have the effects to make it look mechanical yet. There were thin, lime-green, iridescent tape strips around my fingers.

“I saw some footage from The Last Jedi in black and white when I was dubbing. It’s beautiful. In fact, Skellig Michael [an island off the coast of Kerry in Ireland, which is the location for the ocean planet Ahch-To] looks like Skull Island in the 1933 King Kong. I told Rian he should add a black-and-white version as a DVD extra.

“We could have done all of Skellig Michael on bluescreen but it wouldn’t have been the same. I turned away from the crew one time and stood looking at sundown, and I got goosebumps. I felt like I was in a galaxy, far, far away. That happened to me in Tunisia on the first film when it was just flat sand for 360 degrees. It looked so unearthly. Standing there in that outfit with the car and the droids, I got the chills, I really felt transported in a way that you wouldn’t feel if you were standing in front of a blue or greenscreen.”

Great shot, kid!

John Boyega at Star Wars: The Last Jedi LA premiere

“Being the Star Wars elder statesman takes a little getting used to. Obviously, it’s not my story any more, and we have a young new cast. You’ve got John Boyega with his boyish charm, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron the hotshot pilot and Daisy Ridley our protagonist, who’s female and strong. I felt that way about Carrie, the way they wrote Leia in the original films – she was far from a damsel in distress. She took over and started bossing us around, which I thought was effortless feminism.

“I love Daisy: she arrives on the set, she’s prepared, and she gets the job done. It’s sort of bittersweet because you see these people doing all those things that you used to do. They don’t need my advice. These people are so qualified for what they’re being asked to do. They seem so in control, I should ask them for advice.”

Now, I am the master

On the set of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (Getty, EH)
On the set of Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

“In this shot, Alec Guinness is effectively what I’ve become in the new films: the wise old Jedi. Because I was 24, and Alec I think was 62, the age I was when I came back. I think this photo [in Tunisia] was on his birthday. He was such a delightful man, one of my idols, so self-effacing. I wanted to talk about [Ealing comedies] The Ladykillers or The Lavender Hill Mob, and he’d say, ‘No, no, no, I want to talk about your career!’ Really? You wanna hear about a dog food commercial and a soap opera?

“He was so kind to me and we stayed in touch, and if he was in the West End in a play I’d go and see him and we’d have dinner. In terms of the storyline, that’s my role now: the wise old sage. With emphasis on the OLD!”

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The Last Jedi opens in the UK on Thursday 14 December