When Mark Hamill stepped into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon for the first time in 24 years, the weight of Star Wars history – cinema history – hit him with full force. “Holy moly,” he says, clasping his hands in a bushy beard the young Luke Skywalker could never have hoped to grow. “I told everyone, ‘I need a minute here’. There was a documentary crew following me everywhere. My family was there. I left them in the outer area, where we’d play that chess game [and went in alone]. They’d recreated it exactly as I remembered. It even smelled the same. I was just overwhelmed with emotion. You can go home again.”
Luke Skywalker’s return home has been a long time coming. After what Hamill calls “the most elaborate introduction in the history of film”, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is his film. It will let us in on what’s been happening to Skywalker for the past few decades. Based on his 46 seconds of screen time at the end of The Force Awakens, we know Luke has been living on a remote island on a remote planet, frightened into hiding when one of his pupils, Ben Solo – AKA Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) – turned to the dark side and brought about the rise of the evil First Order. Found by Rey (Daisy Ridley), in whom the Force is very much awakened, Luke is now the only person who might be able to help the only person who can take down the First Order. He’s going to get a lot more to do this time than glower with his hood up. It’s time for the saga’s true hero to come out of the shadows. And he’s loving every second.
Hamill knows he’s someone people are excited to see. His face brings childhood memories rushing back. When I open the door to his suite at the Rosewood Hotel in London, he’s sitting at the opposite end of a large room. Perhaps not to deliberately build a sense of anticipation, but it does.
A few seconds to contemplate movie royalty. At 66, with that greying beard and mop-like hair, he looks like a sort of hipster Santa. Sitting in front of him feels like settling down for storytime, and that’s pretty much what you get. Hamill loves to tell stories. Where a lot of actors who have become defined by a single role resent it and try to turn the conversation to something else, Hamill embraces it. He seems to take genuine delight in discussing Luke Skywalker. His sentences tumble into each other as one anecdote becomes another. He knows he’s lucky to be back.
“The whole experience [of returning] was just so unexpected,” he says. His return was never a given. When Star Wars creator George Lucas first told him of the plan to make a new trilogy, Hamill hesitated for some weeks. “It’s not really that I didn’t want to do it. I was afraid of it. We had a beginning, a middle and an end. It was lightning in a bottle… Then I saw in the paper that Harrison had agreed to do it, I thought, ‘Well, it’s all or nothing.’”
Working on The Force Awakens had its frustrations, because he had little to do and was scared that his very brief appearance after so much build-up would sour fans. “I may as well have had ‘to be continued’ on my forehead. Standing on a cliff. Talk about a literal cliffhanger.” Since the film’s success, he’s started to understand why leaving him out of the bulk of the story was the right choice. “It made sense to me, really. [Director JJ Abrams] had so much on his plate. He had all the new characters. Harrison would only come back if he had a martyr’s death, so they had to really focus on him. If I put myself in the place of the screenwriters, it was so much easier to push [Luke] down and deal with it later.”
What exactly Luke will be doing on his return is, of course, largely under wraps. Hamill is a brick wall when it comes to plot. Even the question, ‘Did all your lightsaber skills come back to you or did you have to relearn?’ gets an answer of, “Do I use a lightsaber?” (He’s handed one at the end of the first movie.)
His co-star Daisy Ridley is marginally less slippery. She says Rey “is basically trying to convince Luke to leave with her, and go back to the Resistance. And Luke is totally hard on her. Pretty harsh, actually. But she persists, and crazy stuff happens.”
Two relationships are at the heart of this film. Luke’s with Rey who, like Luke, is possessed of enormous power that terrifies her. The strength of it terrifies Luke more, making him face up to the thing that most frightens him: the dangerous power of the Force. The obvious assumption to make is that The Last Jedi will be to The Force Awakens as The Empire Strikes Back was to A New Hope – darker and more dramatic.
Trailers have hinted at Rey being tempted to the dark side. Ridley disputes that it’s that simple. “It’s definitely more intense,” she says. “But it’s nice; there are little breaks of air. Everyone seems to be comparing this to The Empire Strikes Back. And Empire was darker. I think we have a nice balance. There are so many stories happening simultaneously that we didn’t have before. There are those brief moments… that are quite funny.”
The other relationship is Rey’s with Kylo Ren. He is the dark side of the Force, the representative of a Dark Order that is growing ever stronger; the destruction of that base at the end of the last film was just a blip in their plan. Rey is torn between the two. “Good people make bad choices, and bad people make good choices,” says Ridley. “She’s learning her own strengths and weaknesses and continuing to learn about the human psyche, because she hasn’t really had relationships with people before.”
While The Last Jedi may be the second part of a trilogy, it’s also a beginning for writer/director Rian Johnson, who makes a significant career leap after excellent, but relatively small-scale, films such as Brick and Looper. Disney must be pretty pleased with his work because they’ve already signed him up to make an entirely new trilogy, set elsewhere in the Star Wars universe.
“You couldn’t ask for a more collaborative person,” says Hamill of Johnson. “I thought if anyone could be an arrogant SOB it was going to be someone that’s found success that early on… I couldn’t believe how self-effacing and amiable he was.” As well as the two got on, their journey through The Last Jedi was not without its bumps.
Earlier this year, Hamill was quoted in Vanity Fair as saying, “I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for [Luke].” He screws his face up when this is raised. “I phrased it inartfully. I should have said I was fundamentally shocked at what you’ve decided for my character… He says in the trailer, ‘I only know one truth. It’s time for the Jedi to end.’ That alone! Luke was the most optimistic character. What has happened in all those years that has so traumatised him into being that cynical?… I felt bad because some person said to Rian, ‘I was so shocked to see that Mark Hamill said he disagreed with everything you’ve decided,’ and Rian said, ‘Imagine how I felt.’” They have long since smoothed things over.
The film is also a first for several new cast members, including Benicio Del Toro and Laura Dern. Del Toro plays an intergalactic codebreaker, while Laura Dern plays… “I play Darth Vader!” She does not play Darth Vader; she’s just very excited to be in Star Wars, the first movie she ever queued for. Dern plays Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, who has taken over leadership of the Resistance from Leia. “She’s there to shake things up,” she tells us, “and she has the coolest hair.”
The most excited new addition is 28-year-old Kelly Marie Tran, who makes her film debut as Rose Tico, “a maintenance worker who [is] part of the Resistance”. Being a major addition to the core cast would phase most new actors, but Tran had the benefit of not growing up a Star Wars fan. “I was Harry Potter-obsessed,” she says. “I think [not knowing the series well] was one of the biggest gifts because I was able to look at this character uninfluenced by the pressure that I think would have come if I had grown up with it and if I had been influenced by that world at a young age… Although I still don’t believe it’s happening!”
The beginnings are happy, but there is a sad ending to The Last Jedi. It will mark the final appearance of Carrie Fisher in a Star Wars movie. She died on December 27 last year, shortly after filming The Last Jedi. It’s a sadness felt by all the cast – Dern calls her “one of the fiercest, truest, most self-deprecating, irreverent, bold, female icons we’ve ever had” – but none more than Hamill. He had known Fisher for over 40 years. They were more than colleagues; they were family. At the mention of her name, his whole body slumps.
“Her timing was always exquisite, except in this case,” he says. “When I heard she’d had a heart attack on a plane, not for a second did I think she wouldn’t…” He doesn’t finish the sentence. “I said to my wife, ‘She’s got her next book all written.’ It would be all about that. Some pun: Affairs Of The Heart, or whatever. It was so shocking and I still think of her in the present tense. I can’t think of her as gone, really.”
He’s grateful for the opportunity to have worked with her again before she died. “She’s my space twin, and like real siblings our relationship was all over the place. We loved each other, then we fought like bandits and didn’t speak for years…What I loved this time around was the comfort level… If she was at work and I was training at the studio, I’d go by her trailer and we’d hang out with that goofy dog of hers.”
As he goes on, his sadness becomes an impotent frustration that after three decades, Fisher got to enjoy the renewed Star Wars experience for less than three years. “It adds a layer of melancholy the film doesn’t deserve,” he says. “Where the first film was focused on Harrison’s character and here I’m a little bit more prominent, [Episode] IX was meant to be hers… She was just one of a kind and I’ll never stop missing her.” It’s a painful topic for Hamill but one he knows he has to discuss, because millions of fans who never met her feel the loss. He is their remaining connection to her.
“I don’t blame you for asking,” he says. “Everyone wants to talk about it. The whole world is going through a collective mourning because she became a part of our movie family. So it’s understandable, but in a way it’s what the movies were about. They’re about triumph and tragedy and rebirth and loss. So it’s sort of a macabre sense.” This is the thing Star Wars has above all other movie series: it’s not just home for those who are in it but for those who have loved it since they first discovered movies. It’s a family that lets anyone in, where outsiders feel part of something and the middle-aged feel young again. The Last Jedi is Mark Hamill’s movie, but it’s not just his. It’s everyone’s.