A long time ago in a land far, far away, or last night at the in Downtown Los Angeles, hundreds of people filed into the Majestic Theater at the Ace Hotel to see an entirely different take on Star Wars. Jason Reitman’s Live Read series for Film Independent tackled the classic space opera’s second chapter, The Empire Strikes Back. In his series that normally unfurls at LACMA’s Bing theater, Reitman selected a very special group of people to bring voice to a very special script in everyone’s heart.
Reitman opened by setting the stage for the event and explaining that there are rarely events just for an audience in attendance anymore. As always, no recordings, audio or video, would occur and security would actively stop anyone they found doing as such. The director then noted that, like past Live Reads, he had found a draft of the script that included a few things that never made the final film and scenes that had been completely reworked. He noted that nowhere in the script is it mentioned the Imperial Walkers are called AT-ATs. After positing that no one could tell him where the moniker came from, someone in the crowd shouted, “the toys!” to which Reitman shrugged, “Okay, the toys. Thanks.”
Reitman then introduced the evening cast and it was a doozy. In addition to the already announced brilliant casting of Stephen Merchant as C-3P0, Dennis Haysbert as Lando Calrissian, Ellen Page as Han Solo, Jessica Alba as Princess Leia, Aaron Paul as Luke Skywalker (bitch!), J.K. Simmons as Darth Vader, and Kevin Pollak as Yoda. J.K. Simmons was escorted in by a garrison from the 501st Legion, aka Vader’s Fist, but that wouldn’t be the last amazing surprise for the audience. Rainn Wilson was brought out as the voice of Chewbacca to a roar of applause, but the biggest shock of the night came when the one and only Mark Hamill walked out to voice Obi Wan Kenobi and Emperor Palpatine.
The energy of the night was almost entirely comedic; less a way to experience Star Wars and more of a way to appreciate it. While Jessica Alba’s performance as Leia was reserved, it really makes you appreciate the ballsy sincerity Carrie Fisher brought to the role. Ellen Page’s con woman approach to Han Solo gave the nerf herder a biting, sarcastic edge that at first didn’t fit. But the more you imagine Han as a young woman under the care of a Wookie, the more you realize Han would end up with a bit of sting in his delivery, because who could stop her?
Aaron Paul’s choice of making Luke a more confident and intense individual actually fits a low-income rural upbringing that would harden most. The rural areas of America today are not the bright-eyed, hope-filled small towns they once were. An updated Luke for that sensibility actually works wonderfully. A quieter, more intense approach allows for the conflict to be more internal and informs interesting opportunities elsewhere in script, like the Dagobah tree.
Speaking of things Luke saw in that tree, Darth Vader has never sounded more calculating and wise than when voiced by J.K. Simmons. The actor masterfully found a register that both imbued Vader with an organic weight and slightly more sadistic. The controlled delivery Simmons used throughout the night really made Vader into a haunting, menacing but ultimately tragic figure. The final scenes on Bespin are weightier between Paul and Simmons. The weight they give the scene had a sense of understanding and loss, instead of fear and anger. An already Shakespearian ending made that much more intense.
While most of the cast had to take a moment to eventually find their characters, two actors came ready to work and were the undeniable strs of the evening. Stephen Merchant as C-3P0 and Kevin Pollak as Yoda bring the most animated characters to life. Merchant’s Threepio took Anthony Daniel’s exasperated protocol droid and cranked him up to a put-upon 11. The sarcastic and nonchalant delivery of some of the most classic lines in the series made Merchant’s performance the stand out of the evening, but it was eclipsed by one other.
It is no secret that Kevin Pollak is a master of impressions and voices. He’s actually been doing a very good Yoda impression for years now. But to see him actually perform every line of Yoda’s dialogue with pitch perfect delivery and energy and emotion was truly something amazing. Not only did Pollak kill the performance, but his performance made every single actor on that stage stop and wonder if they were bringing everything they had to the table. Maybe it was just the actors getting more comfortable in the roles, but once Kevin reminded them they were reading a Star Wars script with Yoda’s intonations, the performances were markedly more energetic and connecting.
Here are the highlights:
“Welcome to the first live screening of The Interview!” – Jason Reitman
“These are not the Jews you’re looking for.” – Kevin Pollak mimicking Alec Guinness as he and JK Simmons sat down.
“How fucking rude.” – Stephen Merchant with the only noticeable ad lib to actual dialogue when Threepio meets the silver protocol droid.
Kevin Pollak’s lightsaber noises during the duel between Vader and Skywalker.
Jason Reitman repeatedly reading R2’s stage direction and then realizing he needed to make beepboops.
Kevin Pollak’s character choices for the miscellaneous Imperial officers and rebel pilots he voiced.
Stephen Merchant’s cock-sure performance when delivering Wedge Antilles dialogue.
Check out a gallery of the performance by Araya Diaz, courtesy of Wireimage and Film Independent.
*Story has been updated to explain that no recordings of the event are allowed to take place.