Knight in waiting

Initially disappointed about his small role in 2015's The Force Awakens, actor Mark Hamill is now looking forward to his next outing in The Last Jedi

Actor Mark Hamill (above) is famed for his role as Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films.
Actor Mark Hamill (above) is famed for his role as Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films.PHOTO: NYTIMES

MALIBU (California) • It was maybe the longest build-up in movie history.

After more than three decades since he was last on screen, years of anticipation and some two hours into Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), there was Luke Skywalker, the once youthful hero of this science-fiction saga, revealed as a weathered elder.

Standing on a cliff with a solemn look, he was about to receive his lightsaber from Rey, the young heroine, when the story ended and the credits rolled.

Luke never said a word.

If this was a bittersweet moment for fans - an abrupt, tantalising preface to the next Star Wars sequel, The Last Jedi, which opens in Singapore on Dec 14 - imagine how it felt for Mark Hamill.

Since 1977, when the original Star Wars went supernova and started a multi-billion-dollar franchise, Hamill has been synonymous with Luke, the desert-dwelling tenderfoot who destroys the Death Star, becomes a Jedi knight and reconciles with his villainous father, Darth Vader.

In 2015, The Force Awakens found more substantial screen time for the senior incarnations of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford). But Luke was withheld for maximum anticipation, a decision that Hamill came to accept - eventually - as a gift to him and his character.

Can you imagine if I was the only one to say no? I'd be the most hated man in nerd-dom.

ACTOR MARK HAMILL on how he could not refuse to be part of The Force Awakens (2015), after veteran Star Wars co-stars Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford had said yes

"It is, if you can be objective about it," he said a few weeks ago, sitting in his home here near the Pacific Ocean.

Finding that inner peace took Hamill several months of frustration and self-pity - not to mention a Lucasfilm-mandated regimen of dieting and exercise, during which he thought to himself: "Why are they training me to turn and remove a hood? I could be the size of Marlon Brando in Apocalypse Now, who's going to know?"

You would understand if Hamill, now 66, had a conflicted relationship with Star Wars, which put him on a pop-cultural pedestal. The series defined and dominated his career, even as he took on other film, television and theatre roles.

But at heart, he is as much of an unapologetic geek as any of his admirers, as astonished by the circumstances that brought Star Wars into his life as he is grateful that he gets to return to its galaxy of long ago and far, far away.

"I'm such a fraud," he said with a theatrical air. "But I'm enjoying all the residual attention that the movie's getting. I should be, by all rights, puttering in my garden with a metal detector, telling kids to get off my lawn. What's not to love?"

On this October afternoon, he was at home with his wife, Marilou, and their daughter, Chelsea; the couple also have two sons, Nathan and Griffin. The spacious dwelling is hardly a shrine to Star Wars - it is mostly decorated with artwork of cherubs and The Beatles, Hamill's own cultural obsession, though you might spot a photo of the two-year-old Nathan frolicking with Yoda on the set of Return Of The Jedi.

After two blockbuster sequels, The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Return Of The Jedi in 1983, Hamill believed the Star Wars story was complete.

He was not involved in the much-maligned Star Wars prequels from 1999 to 2005.

When Star Wars creator George Lucas invited him and Fisher to a lunch in 2012, to tell them he was giving control of Lucasfilm to producer Kathleen Kennedy and that a new Star Wars trilogy was being planned, Hamill had no expectation of being asked to participate.

And when Lucas said their characters would be included in these new films if they wanted to play them, Hamill said: "I was completely stunned. Carrie, not a minute went by - she slapped the table and goes, 'I'm in.' I said, 'Carrie, poker face.'"

Hamill needed more time to think. "I was just really scared," he said. "I thought, why mess with it? The idea of catching lightning in a bottle twice was ridiculously remote."

He also feared that audiences would reject him and his veteran co-stars. "No one wants to see the 50-, 60-, 70-year-old versions of us, running around, bumping heads on the Death Star," he said. "It's sad."

He thought he would have some cover to refuse The Force Awakens, expecting that Ford would not return. "He's too old, too rich and too cranky," Hamill said. "He's not going to do this."

But when Ford said yes, Hamill realised he had to agree too.

"Can you imagine if I was the only one to say no? I'd be the most hated man in nerd-dom."

Soon after accepting, Hamill got to bask in the adulation of Star Wars fans eager to see him on new adventures with young novices Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega). He trained to get into shape and met Lucasfilm artists.

But deeper behind the scenes, J.J. Abrams, director of The Force Awakens, and his co-writer, Lawrence Kasdan, a writer of The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi, were realising their ever-expanding script could not accommodate Luke's storyline.

Hamill was initially disappointed, though he said he was mostly afraid that Luke's big reveal at the end would fall flat. "If it smacks the audience as a cheat or gimmick, if there's a big groan in the house, the egg's on my face, not J.J.'s," he said.

Amid lingering feelings of petulance, Hamill travelled to London in 2014 for a table read - he jokingly calls it a "table listen" - of the Force Awakens script.

He had no dialogue, so Abrams instead asked him to read the narration. Still, he was excited to meet Ridley and Boyega, and to reunite with Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Fisher and Ford.

Hamill has come to appreciate his extended cameo in The Force Awakens - "when they talk about you that much in a movie before you even show up, that's fabulous".

But now, he and the creators of The Last Jedi understand how much is riding on them with this film.

"I told him, everyone is going to be leaning forward for your first words in this," said Rian Johnson, the writer and director. "Obviously, Mark came into this one with higher expectations for what we do with the character."

The film has become an unexpectedly poignant document since Fisher died in December last year. Though their contact was fitful in her final years, Hamill said Fisher was a reliably caustic companion and correspondent.

Several years ago, when she noticed in a theatre programme that Hamill had referred only elliptically to his Star Wars work, he said: "She goes, 'What's your problem?' I said, 'Well, it's theatre, I want it to be more focused on theatre.' She goes, 'I am Princess Leia. You're Luke Skywalker. Get used to it.'"

More remorsefully, Hamill spoke of his frustration that Fisher would not get to complete this trilogy of films.

"She deserved that second act," he said. "Harrison was more prominent in VII, I'm more prominent in this one and she was meant to be more prominent in the last one. Her timing was perfect, except in this case."


•The Last Jedi opens in Singapore on Dec 14.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 06, 2017, with the headline 'Knight in waiting'. Subscribe