Mark Hamill is a Tour de Force

A long time ago in a theater near you, Mark Hamill first played science fiction’s most popular hero. Now, with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, he’s cautiously reprising the role he’s never been able to escape—and hopes fans don’t strike back

Mark Hamill is a Tour de Force

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Photography: Jeff Lipsky / Stylist: Alison Brooks / Groomer: Shiyena / Mark Hamill’s wardrobe provided by rag&bone. 

The most remarkable thing about Mark Hamill’s house is how unremarkable it is. Situated in the hills of Malibu, it’s an English-style cottage overlooking a charming garden. Inside, ceramic knickknacks crowd shelves and curio cabinets, while stacks of books punctuate each room. If it weren’t for a few family portraits from the 1970s and ’80s, with Hamill’s distinctly boyish face smiling back, it could be the home of one of your friends’ parents.

That homeliness extends to the actor himself. He quietly brews himself a coffee while a camera crew clatters around his kitchen, as if this is all part of the morning routine. He’s just happy that he doesn’t have to traipse off to an actual photography studio, he says. “For me, a win is when you can stay in your Jockey shorts at home.”

Hamill, who turned 66 in September, maintains his good humor throughout a hectic, hours-long photo shoot with multiple outfit changes (none of which explicitly involve Jockey shorts). Later, in a black T-shirt and pants, he settles onto a floral-print couch in his living room, his legs folded before him in a yogi pose, and sets about describing the role that has defined not only his acting career, but also his life—although, looking around, you wouldn’t guess that this was the case.

While Hamill has a space dedicated to Beatles memorabilia and other vintage keepsakes, his house is oddly lacking in Star Wars mementos. There’s not a lightsaber or droid in sight. And this, you feel, is itself a kind of statement. After all, Hamill has spent four decades living with—or grappling with, depending on the day—the ever-present form of Luke Skywalker.

At the age of 25, Hamill was cast in filmmaker George Lucas’ space opera about a young farmer destined for greatness. Hamill initially suspected the character was simply the sidekick to Harrison Ford’s swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo. It wasn’t until he’d read the script that he realized just how important Skywalker was to the story. After appearing in the original Star Wars film (later called Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope) Hamill went on to reprise the role in two sequels and a holiday special. Despite working hard to forge a career beyond Star Wars, he was never able to escape the part that made him immortal.

After popping up as Skywalker for 72 seconds at the end of 2015’s The Force Awakens, in one of cinema’s greatest teasers of all time, Hamill’s back in a more substantial role in this month’s The Last Jedi. Force-sensitive scavenger Rey (played by newcomer Daisy Ridley) has tracked Skywalker down to a remote planet in hopes of learning more about her mystical purpose. Whether he’s going to help or hinder her remains a mystery. Hamill’s not giving any clues. (An attentive representative for Star Wars studio Disney lingers in the background, just in case.)

The prospect of returning to the pop culture juggernaut was exciting for Hamill, but not without its concerns, born largely of fans’ responses to the much-maligned 1999-to-2005 prequel trilogy set ahead of Skywalker’s birth.

“On one hand, I liked the idea because, when I look back, I never had so much fun making movies. Ever,” he says. “But part of me was very terrified. There was a beginning, a middle and an end. Why go back and take the chance of ruining—or at least tarnishing—people’s memories of it? Fans can be just brutal. Some of the things they said about the prequels were just so over the top. I can see it’s not your favorite movie, but it ruined your childhood? Come on. Let’s put it in perspective.”

It was the summer of 2012 when Hamill suspected he might be donning a Jedi robe for the first time since the saga concluded in 1983. Lucas called a meeting with Hamill and Carrie Fisher, who portrayed Skywalker’s twin sister, Princess Leia Organa, in the original trilogy. He thought it might have something to do with a 3D conversion of the films or a TV series. Over the years, he had participated in many promotional appearances and behind-the-scenes segments. The gathering could’ve concerned one of these opportunities, too. Quickly, however, something bigger began to take shape.

“George sat us down very matter-of-factly and told us he was retiring and turning Lucasfilm over to [co-chair] Kathleen Kennedy,” Hamill recalls. “He didn’t say Disney was buying it because, you know, insider trading.” He smiles and adds, “I would have gone out and bought stock that day.” Lucas went on to reveal that a Star Wars trilogy set after Return of the Jedi was being planned, and if Hamill, Fisher or Ford didn’t want to participate, they’d write their characters out. “Inside, I’m going, ‘What?!’ I am flipping out,” Hamill says. “Externally, I’m keeping a poker face. But Carrie just leaned over and went, ‘I’m in!’”

Fisher later told Hamill that her exuberance was a matter of pragmatism: There simply aren’t many parts for women over 50 in Hollywood. Also, why not see what became of Princess Leia? Hamill still wasn’t convinced—until he learned a few weeks later that Ford had agreed to reprise his rougish role. “He is so beyond that, and it rubs him the wrong way if people focus too much on Star Wars, because his résumé is so elaborate, and that’s only one part of it. I get it. I just didn’t see him wanting to do it.”

With the others on board, Hamill felt he didn’t really have a choice. “I would be the most hated man in fandom,” he says. “I imagined people circling my house like in the old Frankenstein picture, but with lightsabers instead of torches.” Hamill was apprehensive about being part of a new trilogy because, after living in the shadow of the sci-fi series for decades, he’d finally made peace with his role as everyone’s favorite Jedi. “I reached a level where I was happy with where I am. I am usually happy with where I am. If I am doing an off-Broadway play, I don’t care that only 500 people see it a night. I don’t do any less work.”

Unlike Ford and Fisher, Hamill experienced a difficult time finding a second act in Hollywood after the trio crushed the Galactic Empire. It wasn’t easy for casting agents to see anyone other than Skywalker when they looked into Hamill’s striking blue eyes. He achieved some success on Broadway with shows such as The Elephant Man and Amadeus, when he took over the role originated by Tim Curry, and in guest appearances on TV series like SeaQuest 2032 and The Flash.

“I went to Broadway because I wanted to do character parts,” he says. “I do accents. I’ve always been gifted in terms of imitating other voices, but I never got to use that, especially after Star Wars, where I was stamped as a WASPy, American youth. I was not going to be looked at for certain roles.”

Born in Oakland, California, Hamill and his six siblings moved several times during their childhood, including stints in Virginia and Japan, because of their father’s assignments in the Navy. The family eventually settled in Southern California. Hamill, who grew up on a diet of Laurel and Hardy, studied drama at Los Angeles City College, going on auditions while working part-time as a copy boy for the Associated Press. “I swept up the floor. I took lunch orders. I physically cut copy and bound it into books,” he remembers. “I always thought if I had a fallback, I’d be a teacher or a journalist.” That wasn’t necessary. After booking a few guest roles in TV, his acting career picked up steam with parts on the soap opera General Hospital and the short-lived mid-’70s sitcom The Texas Wheelers. Real stardom came in 1977, when he first appeared as Skywalker in the original Star Wars. He married his wife, dental hygienist Marilou York, the next year. The pair have been together ever since and have three adult children.

After riding the Star Wars wave from the ’70s to the ’80s, Hamill’s knack for accents led him to a voice acting career spanning hundreds of roles in TV shows, films and video games—a niche that he’s excelled in for decades. “I think the voice-over industry was a little suspicious of me at first,” he recalls. “‘Is he going to be spoiled? Is he going to have an entourage? Is he going to ride in a limousine?’ The same thing happened on Broadway. Once they saw that I was on time and doing my best work, they welcomed me with open arms.”

Hamill has most famously portrayed Batman’s nemesis the Joker in various animated shows, films and games. For many, his unhinged portrayal is right up there with Heath Ledger and Jack Nicholson’s big-screen interpretations. In fact, Hamill picked up a 2012 BAFTA award for playing the Joker in the video game Batman: Arkham City. The bronze mask trophy is one of the few baubles in his living room with a showbiz pedigree.

Despite the fact that Hamill has proven he’s good at being bad, he remains reticent about Skywalker’s seemingly foreboding mood in The Last Jedi. In The Force Awakens, viewers learned that Skywalker trained Leia and Han’s son, Ben (played by Adam Driver), to become a master Jedi. Ben then turned to the Dark Side and transformed into the villainous Kylo Ren. In the teaser trailer for The Last Jedi, Skywalker is heard menacingly announcing, “It’s time for the Jedi to end.”

“Luke is tortured and burdened by his mistakes,” Hamill says. “He thought he knew who the chosen one was—and he chose wrong. That’s all his responsibility. All the horrible things that are going on, the guilt and the burden, must be so heavy.” He stops, realizing perhaps that things are getting a little too dark. “What I’m saying is, Luke is not exactly a barrel of laughs—not that he ever was. But at least in some of the early movies he was having fun.”

He pauses again, then chooses his words carefully: “Luke was always the most optimistic character. He represented hope and the idea that someone who dedicates himself to the greater good can overcome great obstacles.” From the meager amount of footage released in the run-up to the new film, that doesn’t seem to be the case anymore, an issue that Hamill has publicly struggled with.

The actor backtracks on comments he made to Vanity Fair earlier this year that he “disagreed with every choice” Last Jedi director Rian Johnson made about his character. Now, he says he was simply stunned. “It’s hard because I’ve lived with Luke for so long, and I think I know him better than these young whippersnappers,” he says, sounding somewhere between deadly serious and totally joking. “It’s like a completely different character. He’s the same person but a much different one. That’s life.”

With an array of additional cast members in The Last Jedi, such as John Boyega’s Finn and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, Hamill is well aware that Skywalker is not completely central to this saga. “It’s not about me anymore,” he says with a Zen-like resolve. “I am in support of a new set of protagonists.”

The most difficult issue Hamill is facing right now is the loss of his “space sister,” Carrie Fisher, who died last December after completing her performance in The Last Jedi. When he speaks about the author-actress, he still uses the present tense. He is grateful that the new movie brought them together again. “It gave us the opportunity to have a proper reunion, something we probably never would have done on our own,” he says. “We wouldn’t have stopped to say, ‘Hey, let’s run to a restaurant!’ It never would have happened.”

On set in England, Hamill says he would generally head for Fisher’s trailer during breaks. “She knows I haven’t changed for better or worse. She is like a real sister. She loves you dearly, but she’s so exasperating.” He fondly recalls the pair competing to see who’d be first to reach a million followers on Twitter. They’d one-up each other with social media stunts, such as Hamill announcing that he was posting The Last Jedi trailer on his personal account, then uploading an image of his dressing trailer from the set. (“My kids called it such a dad joke,” he says.)

At one point, Hamill says, he suggested to Fisher that they drum up publicity by posing with their wax figures at Madame Tussauds in London. “I told her the fans would love it.” A week later, he awoke to a flurry of photos of Fisher mugging with a wax Princess Leia. When he confronted her about it, she acted like he’d never floated the idea. “Carrie was unflappable,” he says before launching into a breathy imitation of her. “‘Oh, were we going to do thaaat?’ You can’t stay mad at her. What’s the point? That’s Carrie.”

Hamill isn’t sure when he’ll come to terms with Fisher’s death. He worries about doing the film’s promotional blitz without her. “Selfishly, I’m upset she is not going to be here for all the fun,” he says. “We’re going to China. In the old days, I’d be excited because Carrie is going to be on the flight. Carrie is going to be at the press conference. Carrie is going to be behind the interviewer giving me the finger. She deserves to be here.”

When he was eight or nine, Hamill had dinner with his father at Bistro in Beverly Hills, after the family had settled in California. He remembers seeing stars like Vivian Vance and being too nervous to approach them. When Groucho Marx came in, Hamill dared to walk over, matchbook in hand, to ask for an autograph. The legendary comedian asked the boy his name, then went into character. “Mark Camel? You don’t look like a camel!” Hamill’s impersonation is spot-on.

“It was effortless,” Hamill says. “He signed the matches, and I went back to my seat. Later, he got up to go to the men’s room and did the slouch walk. He knew I was sitting there. He did it just for me. I’ll never forget it.” Hamill, for his part, is famously tolerant of the hordes of Star Wars fans who continue to approach him for autographs and selfies. When the studio offered to screen a cut of The Last Jedi for him and his family, he declined, saying he’d rather wait to watch it with a crowd.

Because of the secrecy surrounding Star Wars, it’s impossible to know where Hamill’s mature rendition of Skywalker is headed next—or if he’ll meet his end. There’s another episode planned for 2019, and the success of last year’s standalone Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and the forthcoming Han Solo origin story means this fantastical galaxy could continue to expand for another 40 years.

Right now, Hamill has more immediate concerns. “I am going to be amazed as everyone else,” he says of seeing The Last Jedi, “because I know my scenes backwards and forwards, but I’m not in this movie the whole time, so much of it will be fresh to me.” At this point, it’s clear why Hamill is so gosh darn nice to all those Star Wars fans: He is one of them.