Before speaking to Mark Hamill, I reached out to Rian Johnson, the director of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, to ask for any advice or possibly some kind of icebreaker. Johnson responded that none would be needed because Hamill is a “snow cone of pop culture knowledge.” As it turns out, this is an extremely true statement. I am now convinced that Mark Hamill just might know everything.
Hamill is at Sundance in support of Brigsby Bear, a wonderful, sometimes weird, often sweet film from the mind of Kyle Mooney and Kevin Costello and directed by Dave McCary. Mooney (to whom we spoke as well; that interview will run later this week) stars as James Pope, a man who was abducted as a child (Hamill plays the father who abducted him) who has just returned to his real parents. James is shocked to learn that his only popular culture touchstone, a show called Brigsby Bear, isn’t real. It’s an entire series filmed by his captors just for James. Now in the real world, James wants to bring Brigsby Bear to others by making a movie.
I met Hamill on a very snowy day just off Main Street in Park City, Utah. He really is as nice and cordial as you would ever expect. Through the course of this interview we somehow covered his new film, Eight is Enough, Saturday Night Live, One Day at a Time, The Big Red One, Fernwood 2 Night, The Empire Strikes Back, and of course Hamill’s feeling on the new title, The Last Jedi.
(Also: I’m not even going to pretend I haven’t been preparing for this interview almost my entire life.)
I reached out to Rian Johnson before talking to you, he assured me this would be fun.
Oh, yeah. And I’m all for no prep. I like spontaneous and having the conversation go wherever you want.
Had you met Kyle Mooney at all before this?
No. I mean, I knew him from Saturday Night Live, but not personally.
When you read the Brigsby Bear script, was it something you felt you needed to do? It’s a very clever movie.
Close. When I was reading, I said, oh, man, I’ve got to see this. But I thought, first of all, it’s much more ambitious than I thought. It had so many issues that were dangerous. I thought, how are they going to pull this off? I like playing villains. So even if I’m reviled by the audience, it’s something I probably should do. Because, first of all, I was flattered they were just asking me to be in it without auditioning.
It’s weird saying this to you, but I kept imagining during the movie if someone told me, “Oh, Star Wars isn’t real. That was made just for you and no one else knows anything about it.”
Oh, can you imagine?
I thought that was an interesting concept: that this piece of popular culture that shaped James’s life was not even a real thing.
Exactly. And it has so many elements like that that are intriguing that you think, “Wow, it’s almost like he’s Rip Van Winkle, waking up to reality when he’s a grown man.” There’s elements of Harvey, the play and the movie where the guy had the imaginary friend. It’s Walter Mitty-esque, where he lives in his own reality. But those are the closest parallels I could find. And one thing I love about movies is when you can’t compare it to anything else. Because nowadays, you have to be able to describe your movie in one sentence: It’s Ghostbusters but with werewolves.
I’d watch that, by the way.
I would too.
That actually sounds pretty good.
It’s Die Hard in a supermarket.
Again, I’d watch that.
What I’m saying is, that’s usually the way you go. So my wife would say, “So what’s it like?” And I don’t think it’s like anything I’ve ever read before. And that, in and of itself, was what made me really, really want to see it. And then of course I thought, well, I should put my money where my mouth is and do it.
You never hosted SNL.
I’d never met any of the Saturday Night Live people. I did the show once in the ’90s. It was just for one sketch. I wasn’t the host. You see, they had a sketch where it was like a home shopping network…
Right, and they brought you on to be sold.
And you were wearing a robe and they captured you.
But get this, Mike: I did it, then I go back to California. I wasn’t living in New York at the time. And I saw a rerun on Comedy Central. Same sketch, but the QVC was selling Beatles memorabilia and they pan over and it’s Ringo Starr in handcuffs. And it preceded my sketch by years. Later, I asked the SNL people and they said, “Yeah, we figure after five years, we can sort of recycle material.” But I mean, I wouldn’t have turned it down just because of that. I thought this is the best of all possible worlds because I won’t have the pressure of being the host. And I’ve always wanted to see that show from the inside, just see just how it’s run and how it works.
It’s an amazing circus act that they do in person.
Unbelievable. And then you realize after you go through it, oh my gosh, they have to come back and do this all over again next week. And I was exhausted and I was only in one sketch.
Kyle’s humor is weird, but there’s a sweetness to it. And this movie encapsulates that.
I’d watch him on Saturday Night Live, but when I was reading the script I thought, “Is he going to be able to pull this off?” Because if James doesn’t work, the movie falls apart. And I was so impressed because he’s flawless. He doesn’t make a false move. He totally believes everything he says and does. I can’t think of another time I’ve seen such a committed innocence, childlike wonder since maybe Tom Hanks in Big.
What a compliment.
Yeah, it’s true. And I thought, “Well, that’s a relief.” Because, again, if that had not worked, the movie would not have worked.
When I was a little kid my parents wanted me to watch Eight is Enough. I finally watched a rerun and you are a cast member. I remember then wanting to watch every week, but you were only in the pilot.
Well, if you saw that one, you’ll notice that when they came back they changed my sister and they changed my brother. So that’s pretty routine in pilots, where they do a pilot and they say, “Okay, we want to do it, but here’s the changes we want made.” I never thought it would see the light of day…
Then it became this huge hit.
Well, and everything old is new again, and now with DVDs and the internet, you can probably see anything you want.
Speaking of everything’s new again, One Day at a Time is back. You played Schneider’s nephew, Harvey Schneider.
That was my first job after Star Wars.
That was after Star Wars?
I filmed it before Star Wars came out.
You got to work with Pat Harrington.
Oh, he is wonderful. He was always funny. It was just in his DNA. He would go out there and take a hand mic and keep the audience laughing between takes.
Oh, that’s great.
Yeah. He was one of a kind. And of course he would say, “Well, what did you just get back from doing?” I said, “Oh, I did this movie with Alec Guinness called Star Wars.” And he goes, “Well, what’s it about?” And I go, “It’s so hard to describe.” He said, “Is it like Star Trek?” I go, “Well, yeah, okay.”
“It’s just like Star Trek.”
You’re Schneider’s nephew who steals things.
And what was so funny is that scene where I look around and take the clock radio and put it in my jacket, the audience gasped like I just spit on the pope. And it almost threw me out of character because I didn’t expect it to get that kind of a reaction. I had no idea.
Everyone thinks you’re the nice nephew.
They’re just like, whoooaa.
You don’t come in and steal Ann Romano’s clock.
Exactly. And they shot it twice in front of two different audiences. Now, for the second performance, I thought, “Be ready for that,” because the first time they did it I thought, “Oh my God, did my pants fall down?” I thought something else had happened because I didn’t think they would react that strongly. And you’re right, they set you up as the nephew of a nice character. And for you to be bad like that was a pretty radical choice.
One of my favorite movies when I was a kid – well, obviously, Star Wars – but The Big Red One was on cable all the time and I saw it maybe 15 times.
And have you seen the extended cut?
That’s closer to what Sam Fuller wanted. The film was taken away.
People should watch that, it’s Lee Marvin and Mark Hamill in a World War II movie.
And it’s a great World War II movie and it’s probably the last World War II movie made by someone that was actually there. Saving Private Ryan, which is a great film and don’t get me wrong, but Spielberg, screenwriters… they weren’t there. And with The Big Red One, I would say things like, “Well, wait a minute. This is crazy. I would take a corpse and use it as a shield to get across?“ And Sam Fuller would say, [Hamill does his best gravelly voiced Sam Fuller impression] “Well, it wasn’t you that did it, it was a guy by the name of Palowitz. But I’m giving it to you because you’re so handsome.”
And he would have the actual story. I mean, I learned more about World War II from doing that than I ever learned academically in school, because Lee Marvin was a veteran as well. He got shot in the rear end in the Pacific. And one day it was like 110 in the shade and we were talking about it and he got up, all 6’2″ of this guy, and reenacted patrolling in the jungle – and he’s mesmerizing! He’s such a dynamic actor. So we’re all sitting there and he’s doing the signals for his men. And you were there with him. And the minute he got shot, he fell to the ground in slow motion. You saw this 6’2″ guy crumble onto the desert floor. Astonishing. And I’ve never forgotten that. He was just a wonderful actor and a great audience. He loved to laugh and believe it or not, he loved Fernwood 2 Night with Martin Mull and Fred Willard.
Lee Marvin watched Fernwood 2 Night?
Yes, he did, and he loved it. [Hamill does his Lee Marvin impression] “I love that Jerry!” And he loved, loved Fred Willard. So once I knew that was his frame of reference, it was easy to make him laugh and he loved to laugh.
In 2010, I interviewed Irvin Kershner for a Vanity Fair piece on the 30th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back, which wound up being his last interview before he passed away. He spoke highly of you, but reading between the lines I got the impression he thought he frustrated you at times.
No, he did. Listen, as opposed to George, George is more technical and he doesn’t really want to talk about motivation and backstory and that kind of thing. Kershner was much more of an actor’s director and we were both very headstrong and opinionated. So I think what he’s referring to is that we butted heads a couple of times over interpretation or whatever it was. And I’d say, “Well, fine. I’ll do it your way, but I’m not happy about it and I think you’re wrong.” But I loved him and I think he appreciated the fact that I was opinionated and engaged, because that’s the relationship of a director and an actor, to collaborate like that.
Do you like the new Star Wars title, The Last Jedi? I guess it would be weird if you said, “No, I don’t.”
I mean, I was told way back when we were doing the film what it was and I really liked it. I didn’t realize, though, that actual phrase is in the crawl for Episode VII.
Oh yeah, you’re right. I didn’t think of that until you just said that.
By the way, when you read The Force Awakens script, the very first two words are, “Luke Skywalker has vanished.” Ooh, baby, this is going to be good! I’m going to have a great part! But down later in the crawl, and I can’t quote it exactly, I saw on Twitter this morning, “until Skywalker, the last Jedi, is destroyed.” I thought, well, I didn’t know that! I’ve only seen it twice – VII, I mean. And I was wondering why they would use that phrase if it was used that way, because it specifies me. And I think it’s very ambiguous. Is the last Jedi Leia? Is it me?
Or is it Rey?
Is it someone we’ve never met before? Or is it Rey? Because she seems to have the force as well. So we’ll all wait and see.
You can contact Mike Ryan directly on Twitter.