Exclusive: Jason Reitman’s Star Wars “The Empire Strikes Back” Live Read Awards
Last night, Film Independent, the Los Angeles-based organization dedicated to helping grow the community of independent film (if you couldn’t surmise their mission based on their name), hosted a live reading of what’s widely renown as the “best ‘Star Wars’ film ever,” at least as curator Elvis “The Graying Predator” Mitchell, put it during his introduction.
These live reads have been taking place for the last few years and are the brainchild of Jason Reitman of “Juno,” “Up in the Air” and “Young Adult” fame. Luckily, the poor critical reception of his last couple of films, “Labor Day” and “Men, Women & Children,” haven’t hindered the array of acting talent he’s been able to gather for his live reads.
A very quick introduction to what a live read is. Reitman gathers a bunch of actors to read the dialogue for a classic script, which they perform on a stage. It’s not like a play, in which anyone is moving around, dressed in costumes or wielding props. They’re just seated in a chair next to one another with a script and a microphone before them.
We attended the Quentin Tarantino live read of his upcoming “The Hateful Eight,” back in April. To-date, that was the only non-Jason Reitman-directed live read hosted by Film Independent. Similar to “The Hateful Eight,” though, the live read of “The Empire Strikes Back” took place at the Theater at the Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, in a space expansive enough to contain the swelling crowd.
After Mitchell’s brief introduction, Reitman walked on stage to take a seat and introduced the script as a “hybrid, early draft/shooting script” in which some scenes and dialogue would be unfamiliar to fans of the finished 1980 film. I suppose this is as good a place as any, where I admit I’m not actually a “Star Wars” fan. I’ve tried many times during my youth, attempting to enrapture myself with a similar fervor to almost every other human being I’ve ever met, but it’s something that’s never stuck. As such, I haven’t seen the movie in about 15 years, so if you’re looking for any descriptions of new scenes, you won’t find them here. However, in my defense, I don’t truly think there was much that’s been unseen, as the script played out almost exactly as my 15-year-old failed-obsessive memory could recall.
Reitman’s typical job is to read the script’s action lines, but announced he would also be playing a role for the first time, in the form of beep-speech droid, R2-D2. He then announced the rest of the cast and invited them on stage:
Stephen Merchant – C3PO
Dennis Haysbert – Lando Calrissian
Ellen Page – Han Solo
Jessica Alba – Princess Leia
Aaron Paul – Luke Skywalker
J.K. Simmons – Darth Vader
Kevin Pollak – Yoda
Prior to the reading, those were the only names Reitman had announced, but he had a few more surprises in store for the near-sell-out crowd. Rainn Wilson was to be Chewbacca and, as Reitman immediately made known, “… only Chewbacca,” committing to the comedy of bringing an actor to only growl at opportune times.
Then, Reitman announced a moment which made every “Star Wars” fan in the audience get a little damp in the crotch whether male or female, as Mr. Mark Hammill (notice the reverence even I paid him with the title? If Alec Guinness gets the “Sir” designation, the non-English Hammill deserves a “Mister”) leapt onto the stage to play the dual-role of Emperor Palpatine/Obi-Wan Kenobi.
Unlike “The Hateful Eight,” there’s no reason to recap the story at all (and lord knows I wouldn’t be the one to tell you anyway), as the attraction of the live read is the performances and the reinvention of established characters.
First, a breakdown, and then onto the awards promised in the title of this piece.
As you might expect from actors stepping into the roles of icons, mimicry and impersonation in attempt to emulate the characters’ 1980 inhabitants was a large part of how the actors performed last night. It would be impossible to say who I was most excited to see last night, but J.K. Simmons, coming off playing the threatening antagonist in “Whiplash,” was certainly one of them. It seemed like a perfect melding of actor to part after his recent stint, but Simmons largely gave Vader the same James Earl Jones-style voice the character has always had. Though movie-star karaoke may be fun for the players and almost certainly some audience members, it wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for.
Enter Kevin Pollak. Pollak has made a nice career for himself doing celebrity impressions ,as well as impressing upon audiences a knack for playing original characters (he may not be the star of the scene here, but he sets up Stephen Baldwin magnificently: http://youtu.be/_ZMe1ihxYBs). If there was only one role almost requiring a copy of speech style and cadence, it was Yoda. Pollak was brought on completely to give the audience what it craved. From the upper balcony, if I hadn’t known who was sitting in the chair with the Yoda sign attached to it, I could swear it was Frank Oz blessing us with a cameo. It should also be noted that the script called for Yoda to be a blue-skinned creature. Even this non-“Star Wars” nut picked up that tidbit of discrepancy.
Though I certainly wouldn’t say it was an especially comic cast in terms of the consistency of the roles they’ve played on screen, I imagine performing in front of a large audience was a fairly invigorating experience for all and the easiest way to know if we were paying attention is to get them to laugh. Even though nobody seemed to ever ad lib, as I’m sure is strictly prohibited (at least it was during “The Hateful Eight,” forcing Tarantino to admonish his cast for the straying too far from the written word a few times), anyone listening/watching “Empire” for the first time wouldn’t have been chastised for mistaking it as a comedy. With Wilson using his vocal talents for wookie roars, which sounded more like elongated grunts and an amped up audience primed to bask in any of their favorite lines being recited, perhaps an injection of laugher was inevitable. It certainly made for a fun evening to where I wouldn’t imagine Reitman is considering bringing “21 Grams” to his live read circuit anytime soon.
I’d like to take this paragraph to single out Mark Hammill. During my I-wanna-be-a-Star-Wars-fan-too phase, I remember being stunned to find out Hammill wasn’t the biggest star in the world. It seemed bizarre to me that the main protagonist the biggest movie ever (this may not be measurable in any current terms, but that’s the lens through which I viewed the “Star Wars” franchise at the time) wasn’t also the planet’s go-to A-lister. It’s not something I ever really dug into, but know he was in a car accident at one point and it certainly hurt whatever bankability he had, but it’s when I came to understand the film itself is bigger than the actor starring in it. However, Hammill has remade himself a vocal performance behemoth, whose IMDb credit page has no less than 266 entries in the “Actor” category. The immense talent filmmakers have failed to utilize properly since “Return of the Jedi” was on full display last night as Hammill bounced back and forth between the vile, oozing Palpatine and the virtuous Obi-Wan. He was a man in utter command of his craft, among the people whose lives he’s all helped shepherd to some degree, but yet was willing to not overshadow his fellow performers. I’d demand the man get more work, but at 266 and counting, I can’t imagine that’s possible.
Because I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention anything about them, I ought to just point out Alba and Haysbert were unremarkable. It’s not meant to be a slam on their talent or their performances during the night, but more likely a lack of roles that are truly remarkable in and of themselves. While Page as Han Solo is the only real against-type casting of the night, it also didn’t generate much of a dynamic outside of dulling the heat between Solo and Leia. While the script called out Solo as a stud at almost every possible turn, the chemistry between Page and Alba was lackluster. Not disappointing, but nor was there anything much there.
Speaking of disappointment, it’s time for the awards themselves. Unlike our recent AFI Fest Awards, where I created 10 categories because I wanted to crown some things, I figured I’d only do two for last night’s show in honor of each side of “the force.”
Sith: Most Disappointing
The degree to which this pains me to say is immeasurable. I LOVE Aaron Paul. I was one of the early “Breaking Bad” adopters and immediately knew the guy was great. I’ve followed his career since and will continue to throw whatever weight I have (though I’m constantly trying to shed some pounds) behind supporting him. If I hadn’t purchased tickets before the cast was announced, Paul’s attachment would have driven my purchase. Playing the heart and soul of “Empire” seemed like a perfect place for the former Jesse Pinkman to finally find a sanction for no longer running away. Of course, you can’t have disappointment without expectations, which is why Paul finds himself in this category instead of others I wasn’t particularly enamored with. I wanted him to crush it. In contemplating it afterward, perhaps Luke is just another one of those uncrushable roles. Heck, maybe that’s why Hammill never had the starring career my young mind assumed he would. And maybe the cold read aspect (Reitman announced before the event the live reads are never rehearsed) hurt him. Perhaps he’s a performer who needs to build into the moment. However, he actually seemed just bad. It was the complete opposite of my assumed greatness. Paul possesses the goods, as any “Breaking Bad” fan knows, so it was just a shame to not be able to see it that night.
If Paul’s star faded just a bit, Merchant made like “Interstellar” and drove the whole vehicle to where he shines. With Merchant, I happen to have no feel for how the public-at-large views and acknowledges him. He’s another guy I happen to adore. Ever since seeing his name alongside Ricky Gervais’ and appearing as Ogg-Monster in BBC’s “The Office,” I’ve been an admirer as the more unsung member of the British comedy duo. On the surface, Merchant cast as 3CPO seems a tad uninspired. A “we need a guy with an English accent” tossed-off thought. And he does indeed fit the bill of bringing the Anglo-funk to the golden android. But he also brought so much more. I mentioned Rainn Wilson being a source of comedy for the reading, and he was, but Merchant owned the entire theater. He possesses Exacto-knife-sharp comedic timing (just watch this compilation from “Extras”: http://youtu.be/CmDhqDGk0K4) and the accent is certainly helpful. If “The Empire Strikes Back” live read were recorded or streamed or shown anywhere to a big enough audience that could clamor for such a thing, Merchant would have launched himself into the stratosphere with his rendition. If only someone knew Merchant would have been this great before “Episode VII” started filming, Anthony Daniels would have had a fight on his hands.
Although not everything was as amazing as it could be dreamed, rarely can you frown on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In fact, it was such a good time, it made me want to try being a “Star Wars” fan again.