The actor: Mark Hamill worked in TV and took small movie parts before he landed the lead role in a curious project named Star Wars in the mid-’70s. His work as Luke Skywalker catapulted him from unknown actor to household name over the course of the summer of 1977. Since then, however, he’s pursued an eclectic career path, working extensively in the world of voiceover, as well as theater, independent films, and videogames. While promoting the film Sushi Girl, which will be released next year and is currently playing the festival circuit, Hamill sat down with The A.V. Club at San Diego Comic-Con to talk about how his relationship to Star Wars has shifted over the years, what it’s like to act in a videogame, and his early experiences in a critically acclaimed, swiftly canceled TV series.
Comic Book: The Movie (2004)—“Donald Swan”
The A.V. Club: You’re here at Comic-Con with Sushi Girl. Did you get a chance to go out and look around? I know you’re a comics fan.
Mark Hamill: I am. And I used to come to Comic-Con as a fan. I was drawn mostly by the movies that I couldn’t see at the regular movie theaters. I’d never seen Metropolis. I’d never seen Things To Come. I wanted to see the silent The Lost World. I had been a comic-book fan, and it rekindled my love of comic books.
And then the space movies happened. And after that, I become the object of people that wanted signatures and so forth. There’s nothing wrong with that. If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t even be sitting here talking to you. But it sort of ended my days of ambling around the floor for fun. I made a movie called Comic Book: The Movie that I directed. They said, “How are you gonna get away with being on the floor shooting all day?” And I said, “I know! I’ll create an alter ego.” It’s so in tune with comic books. Like Superman being disguised with a pair of glasses. I grew my hair and curled it, and I grew a beard, tinted it a sort of sepia tone. And that lasted like half an hour. I mean, it was clear that it was me. [Laughs.]
What was great about the fans is, I said, “Look, if you call me Luke or Mark, I can’t use the footage. If you call me by my character’s name, Donald Swan, you have a good chance of being in the movie.” I’m operating in an alternate universe where Star Wars is just a series of novels. ’Cause I had to make sense out of people walking by in Stormtrooper outfits, and people dressed like me. But it’s wonderful. The fans totally got it. One of the most memorable projects of my career. Because it was giving back love to the fans, and I’m one of them. It wasn’t snarky in any way. It wasn’t making fun of them. It was a valentine to anal-retentive, obsessive-compulsives everywhere, of which I am one.
AVC: If you could go see a booth right now, if you lived in that alternate universe where there wasn’t Star Wars, what would you want to check out?
MH: Well, I always usually had one oddball book that I was always looking for. I always picked something so esoteric, the odds would be that no one would have it. Like, if I were on the floor today, I would be looking for [The Adventures Of] Dean Martin And Jerry Lewis #3, which was from, like, 1952. In it, there’s the origin of how Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis teamed up. So there’s a really esoteric book for you. But one place I always love visiting, aside from the vintage comic-book area, is Artists’ Row, where you can just see artists that you love and are a fan of actually sitting there drawing. There’s something fascinating about watching artists draw. It’s sort of a little-known, less flashy section of the convention floor.
Sushi Girl (2011)—“Crow”
MH: They sent me the script, and I read it, and I thought, “This is a movie that I would go to see,” but I couldn’t see myself doing it. It just seemed way over the top and ultraviolent and just gonzo-crazy. Almost a comedy of excess.
But then I started thinking about it. You know, I don’t get offered these offbeat parts every day. And my kids said, especially after they read the script, “If you don’t do this, you can’t complain about the fact that you never get offered the parts that Malcolm McDowell gets offered, or Steve Buscemi gets offered.” And I thought they were completely right. Then I read it a second time, more in character. More in the character’s point of view than Mark Hamill’s point of view, and under those circumstances, it was almost a comedy! He’s such a lowlife scumbag, and so perverse. It was wonderful to get into the gear where you don’t recognize yourself, because then you can really just flat-out do whatever you want, and don’t take responsibility for your actions, because it’s not you anymore. It’s the character.
The Texas Wheelers (1974-75)—“Doobie Wheeler”
MH: Oh boy. Well, it was for Mary Tyler Moore Productions. It was their only one-camera show. When I read it, I thought it was gonna be in front of a live audience. But the cast was extraordinary. Jack Elam played our father. He was that cockeyed character actor, that [imitates Elam’s throaty cowboy voice] “It’s me, your lovin’ daddy!” He’s in all these Hopalong Cassidy movies. I mean, Support Your Local Sheriff. He was this wonderful actor who people didn’t realize what a great, natural comedian he was. And Gary Busey played my older brother, so he was someone who was so non-TV at the time. I tested with him and with another actor, and I was hoping Gary would get it, because he was so unusual.
It was ahead of its time. It was a comedy without a laugh track. ABC said, “We’ll renew you if you put a laugh track on it.” [MTM head] Grant Tinker was unwilling to do that. What sort of broke our hearts was that it was just the best-reviewed comedy in ages. The New York Times said, “Probably the finest bucolic comedy since Tobacco Road.” So we were loved by the critics, but we didn’t get the ratings. And even though NBC and CBS made an offer to buy us… In fact, if we went to CBS, we would have expanded to an hour. ’Cause without a laugh track, it was a drama, but it was really funny.
At the time, it was a real heartbreaker, because Doobie was a wonderful, misguided, terrible liar, cocky, fancied himself a real ladies’ man, even though he was a virgin. It was just a rich, rich kind of comedic character. It was tough. It would have broken my heart, except that when we got cancelled, I went on set, and the kids playing my younger brother and sister were in tears, so I had to be the strong one. But that’s a thing in this business. One minute, you’re at the top of the world; next thing, the play closes. The movie wraps. The show gets cancelled. It’s a hand-to-mouth existence, for sure.
The Big Red One (1980)—“Pvt. Griff, 1st Squad”
AVC: Sam Fuller had been trying to get that made for years. What was it like to work on his passion project?
MH: Well, that’s just it! Passion is the word for Sam. I turned it down because I thought I was gonna do a play in New York, and I thought, “The last thing I wanna do is go recreate World War II in Israel and Ireland,” which is where they were gonna shoot it, “and be a part of a cast where…” I loved Lee Marvin, but I was also kind of afraid of him. I thought, “I don’t want to find out he’s a jerk. I wanna leave him in my mind as the movie star he was.” But I respected Sam enough where I said, “I should take the meeting and just explain to him that I would rather do this play in New York than do this meeting. But 20 minutes into the meeting, I mean, he was up on his feet acting it out himself. [Imitates Fuller.] “He’s a very dynamic character!” [Grunting gibberish.] It was all from this personal experience.
So I thought, “This might be the last chance I have to work with a veteran of World War II, rather than a director that is just doing it secondhand, who didn’t have that personal knowledge.” It was so compelling. And Lee was a veteran himself. I learned more about World War II doing that movie than I ever did in school. And [the cast and I] are friends to this day. Bobby Carradine, Bobby Di Cicco, Kelly Ward. We still get together. We have barbecues. And that’s very rare, that you form… We felt like we’d been through the war ourselves after that experience. Even though we weren’t ever really at risk. And I don’t want to trivialize what our real veterans did.
But again, I lucked out. Because it wasn’t a blockbuster movie. It was critically well-received. Time magazine says it takes its place among the great war movies alongside All Quiet On The Western Front. And that’s all wonderful, but it didn’t really break out and become a monster hit. It took 20 years to see Sam’s cut! Until the restoration, I had never seen it the way it was. The reason I took the movie was because of its epic quality, and they cut it from two hours and 40 minutes down to an hour and 50 minutes. So truncated that they had to add narration just to explain what was going on.
But again, I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. And Sam’s always been an inspiration to me. If I get my chance to direct Black Pearl, his approach is one I really want to emulate. Just grab the audience by the throat and throttle them! Sam said, “It’s too bad we can’t put manned machine guns behind the screen!” [Grunting gibberish.] And I said, “Well, it’s not exactly practical.” “Aghbgh! We’d shoot over their heads! We wouldn’t aim for the bodies!” But he was just a marvelous storyteller, and his life experience—he could tell stories, and you could be just mesmerized. To be isolated like we were in Israel… He’d go see dailies all day long on Saturday, which was Shabbat in Israel. The day off. At dinner one night, I said, “Saturday’s the worst day of the week for us, because it’s all hanging around the pool and just shooting the breeze with the actors.” And he said, “Well, come to dailies!” And I’d never been invited to dailies by a director, but he was like that. So we’d sit for hours and watch the whole week’s worth of dailies, and there was a real education. It was like going to a mini film school, being alongside Sam at dailies.
AVC: What’s Black Pearl?
MH: Well, I wrote a screenplay with a writer [Eric Johnson] who’s gone on to great acclaim as one of the three writers of The Fighter. Oscar-nominated, Writer’s Guild, British Academy Award, all of that stuff. Golden Globes and whatnot. He went on to partner with Paul Tamasy, the other part of the team that wrote The Fighter. And of all the material that we had done, the screenplay got into the hands of [Dark Horse publisher] Mike Richardson, who offered us a contract to make it into a series of comic books, which we did. Which is interesting, because the whole screenplay is to scrutinize why there can’t be a Batman in real life. He’s this sort of unbalanced guy who’s read way too many comic books and thinks it’s a good idea to go out into the night and become this masked vigilante. And it’s much more Fargo than it is Batman And Robin.
So ironically enough, it’s the anti-comic-book comic-book movie that was actually a comic book. But it’s come full circle, because when Eric teamed up with Paul, Paul looked at all of Eric’s prior material, he read the screenplay for The Black Pearl and said, “I think this is the best thing you’ve got! You think Mark would want to reboot it and start from scratch and go back to the way it was before it became a comic?” Because when it became a comic book, we figured, “We’ll keep the same premise, but we can’t really accomplish in a comic book what we’re trying to do in the movie.” And since you can’t put a price tag on the imagination and what you can draw, it’s much more over-the-top and more of a satire of tabloid television than it is now.
And when Paul came on board, we went back to square one, rebooted the whole thing, and wrote it as a first-person narrative. Which means we couldn’t cut to the Howard Stern-like shock jock, who gooses the story along with the Nancy Grace type of character. There’s the crusading reporter, the detective. I mean, it was A-plot/B-plot, and much more traditional of a narrative. The discipline of making it a first-person narrative was invigorating. And to me, it made it much more edgy and idiosyncratic, the way I want it. So it’s on track to get made. I’m really hesitant to talk about it, because every time I announce it’s gonna happen, something happens that we get set back. But I’m not giving up. I said, “I’ll even make my retirement from show business part of the pitch. Let me direct this, and I promise I’ll retire from show business forever. If that’s something that will work for us, I’m willing to do that.”
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-94)—“Joker/various voices”
MH: I was a huge Batman fan, and they announced to the press, the fan press—I read in the Comics Buyer’s Guide that there were these 65 episodes, and they were gonna emulate the Max Fleischer Superman cartoons. And I could see they were willing to go for quality and make it like the comic book. ’Cause as much as I enjoyed the Adam West version, as much as I enjoyed the Tim Burton versions, this was much more rooted in the comic-book world. And they were tightly told stories. And I thought, “Sixty-five episodes! You’re gonna be able to do so many different villains.”
I was after a villain that had never been done on-camera before. Hugo Strange, or Clayface, or one they’d never done. The Joker seemed a little too high-profile, and as my friend pointed out, “Well, you’re pretty brave.” I said, “What are you talking about?” This is after I got the part. He said, “I wouldn’t want to follow Jack Nicholson in anything.” And I said, “Oh no. I didn’t even think of that.” But what was wonderful [was that] in animation, there’s an anonymity involved. Since they can’t see you, you’re liberated to make much bolder choices than you would make if you were on-camera. And there’s a certain satisfaction—not only because I was a comic-book fan—that it turned out so well, but it was so diametrically opposed to what I had become famous for, which was this iconic virtue. Now I was able to show my character-actor chops in a part nobody expected to see me in.
Ironically enough, when I asked the makers of Sushi Girl, “What made you think of me for this part?” they said, “The Joker! ’Cause we thought if you could be that insane in a cartoon, you might be effective as someone who’s unbalanced on-camera.” So this was the first part I’ve received that’s directly traceable back to my Joker roots. And it’s 19 years now, on and off, that I’ve done the part. And it never gets boring, because insane people are unpredictable, and he’s always slightly different in every… Even in the episodes. This might be a grimmer, scarier Joker. This one is more played for laughs, because it’s a takeoff of Thelma & Louise and Harley Quinn goes off with Poison Ivy, leaving Joker in an apron as a househusband. So there’s not a lot of dignity there, but I always approach it as a one-off, not as a part of a whole. Because he is so diverse in his multi-personalities, and so theatrical and over-the-top that… I can’t tell you, as a comic-book geek myself, it’s one of the most fulfilling roles I’ve had in any medium. Some of my favorite roles have been on Broadway, and very few people get to see them, but…
AVC: You did Amadeus, right?
MH: I did Amadeus and The Elephant Man. I did Harrigan ’N Hart, which was a musical, of all things. Again, out of my comfort zone. Something I’m not used to. Wound up getting a Drama Desk nomination for Best Actor In A Musical, which I didn’t expect. Then I did Room Service, directed by Alan Arkin. I did the first national tour of Amadeus before it went to Broadway. And then Six Dance Lessons In Six Weeks. Oh! And then The Nerd. So, I mean, I miss live audiences, because it’s like no other form of entertainment, where the audience is a major part of the production every night.
Gabriel Knight: Sins Of The Fathers (1993)—“Detective Mosely”
MH: That’s right. Oh my gosh. Wasn’t Tim Curry in that, too? Yeah, he was my partner. I’m a huge fan of Tim’s, and I’ve worked with him a lot in voiceover. But we were recorded separately. So ironically enough, people will say, “What’s he like?” Well, I can tell ’em from other experiences, but Gabriel Knight, we never worked together. Again, I love the idea that I can play a character that was so out of my reach if it were a live-action situation.
AVC: Do you literally just sit there and read every option in a row?
MH: Well, because they branch off! It’s a very schizophrenic experience. Because this latest one I’ve done, [Batman:] Arkham City, which is a sequel to Arkham Asylum, and The Joker will have a neutral reaction, he’ll have a negative reaction, and then he’ll have a very positive reaction. And even as schizophrenic as The Joker is, it’s hard to get a grasp on the arc of your character if you give them so many variables. It’s a big leap of faith, because it’s in the hands of the player to decide what they want to do. But once you understand the end product, it’s fun knowing what puzzle pieces you need to give them to get to that objective.
Star Wars/The Empire Strikes Back/Return Of The Jedi (1977/1980/1983)—“Luke Skywalker”
AVC: How has your relationship to your performance in that movie shifted over the years?
MH: Well, I remember when we were like Sushi Girl. We were a little film trying to get attention, and having no idea whether people would be interested. So I was a great champion in the early days, and then it took on a life of its own. It was like being in a pop band that had a No. 1 single, and you’re just swept up in it all. And again, I thought there was a beginning, a middle, and an end. And that was fine for me, but it never really ended. Because it stayed in the culture for so long, and then [George Lucas] did the prequels, which brought it all back. At a certain point, you think you’ve reached the saturation point where you can’t really find anything new to add to the myth of it all, but it’s new generations. So in that sense, it’s hard to be cynical about something that makes people so happy.
But like I say, it’s frustrating, because I’m not creatively engaged when he makes the special editions or… I guess it’s coming out in Smell-O-Vision now, where you can smell the wet Wookiee, and 3-D, and it’s a roller-coaster ride, and a breakfast cereal. It’s all these things. It’s almost like one of the original Mouseketeers being asked their opinion of Epcot Center. I mean, you’re tangentially connected to it, but not really hands-on. But it’s hard to say. I mean, I really related to George Harrison when they said, “What’s it like to be in The Beatles?” He says [imitates Harrison], “Well, what’s it like to not be in The Beatles?” ’Cause he didn’t know. He was in The Beatles, so he couldn’t imagine any other way.
But like I say, I try and keep a distance, but also want to make people know. Because people will say, “I know you hate talking about Star Wars…” I say, “I don’t hate talking about Star Wars if you don’t hate talking about Star Wars.” I mean, I’m really in tune with what people want. And I’m not cynical about it at all. And people will say, “Oh, you didn’t get a very good deal.” But I didn’t get into this business for the money in any way. And I didn’t get into it to be remembered in any way. So the fact that it’s had such long-lasting resonance with new generations of audiences, it’s, to me, very special.
What was it like not to be in Star Wars? I don’t know. What I like about the prequels is, they have their own identity. They’re of the CGI world in a way that we never were. We’re sort of the last vestiges of the old school of matte paintings, miniatures, and models. So this whole new world of CGI where everything was created, the buildings, the clouds and everything—it’s a different tone. They’re much more serious, and almost like religious epics, in a way. Ours were much more goofy, I think. It’s like Little Rascals in outer space, vs. The Greatest Story Ever Told.
AVC: They’re some of the most-seen movies ever, and you’re frozen there in time. What’s that like, to have yourself preserved at that age forever?
MH: Well, the thing is… I don’t watch ’em. The last time I saw them was when they were in the movie theaters, and my son laughs, because I flunked a Star Wars trivia quiz he gave me one time out of a book. Because you forget all the details! The Kessel Run. What was that? Oh, okay, that’s the spice-mining endeavor that Han Solo was involved… I mean, the details. The minutiae were important. At the time, I was all over it. I was a very enthusiastic participant, but when we finished, it’s our job to flush our memory banks and move on. Much like Michael in The Godfather. They keep dragging me back in! It’s a unique experience, like I say. My sons look more like me in the movies than I do now. It’s hard aging in public. [Laughs.]