From Jedi to Joker: Mark Hamill at SWCVI – Part 1

Mark Hamill and James Arnold Taylor at Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando, FL. Credit: Deborah J Bell

The moment “Star Wars” legend Mark Hamill took the stage at the Celebration VI event in Orlando Florida last weekend he was welcomed with cheering, wild applause and a standing ovation by fans, some of whom had waited more than six hours for the opportunity to see and hear the actor in person.

Voice actor and impressionist James Arnold Taylor, known for his work in “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” “Johnny Test,” and as the current voice of Fred Flintstone, acted as interviewer and fielded questions from the audience at the end of the panel.

During the hour-long session Friday night, an affable and expressive Hamill described playing Luke Skywalker in the original “Star Wars” trilogy, his early years in television, his work in other films and on the Broadway stage, and his lengthy career as a remarkably talented voiceover actor, including an incredible 19 years voicing Batman’s arch-nemesis the Joker.

Hamill began the evening by asking the enthusiastic audience to share a metaphorical group hug with him, announcing, “My favorite absolutely of all the activities we do when we come to these things is coming and talking to you!

He went on to explain, “Because when I’m sitting there signing these photographs they keep saying you gotta move it along, you can’t talk to everybody like you do. And I can’t imagine not! It’s not an assembly line, and I get so much back from you guys — it’s an energy that I get from you guys that’s absolutely fantastic.”

Actor Mark Hamill at Star Wars Celebration VI in Orlando, FL on August 24, 2012. Credit: Deborah J Bell

Highlights from Hamill’s Q&A follow:

What it’s like to be back in Orlando for Celebration VI
Oh, it’s wonderful, you can’t imagine! Today at least twenty really beautiful women said to me, “Oh I loved you when I was six years old!” And really that’s pretty much my audience [out of the] young people here. [laughing]

I was in the middle of 7 kids in the family and we all just jostled for position. My oldest brother was the overachiever. There was only one TV. I really started acting when I was just a kid, just trying to get attention, with puppets and magic tricks. I loved cartoons, I loved the comic strips that came to the door every day in the newspapers.

His first acting job
I had two or three lines on “The Bill Cosby Show,” but not the one that was popular! I was on the one where he played a basketball coach. Some of the older people will remember that. I had a line or two and was finished by lunchtime.

But I was so thrilled to do it, I loved Bill Cosby as a kid, I idolized him, I used to listen to his record albums and see him on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” [When I met him] I wanted him to be Bill Cosby, I wanted him to be so funny, and instead he was a professional! He was serious, and you know I learned from that you’ve got to understand it’s a business. He’s not supposed to come out and be this cuddly character that he created on his record albums. I was very disillusioned. [grinning]

In 1977 I did “Wizards,” an animated science fantasy film by Ralph Bakshi, the creator of “Fritz the Cat.” No patch on Ralph Bakshi, but he was pretty much a taskmaster.

I was reading the part and he said, “You call that a fairy? That’s not…what kind of a fairy are you?” And I thought, “Gee I’m not quite sure I like the way he said that…” [laughter] I mean, what are you gonna draw on? You’re supposed to be an actor and draw from your life experience and whatnot.

I read for the big part in the film and to my relief [didn’t get it], because I don’t think I was ready. I think a lot of the time people make it so quickly they don’t have a chance to try it out on the road.

Soap opera experience
I did a soap opera for nine months, I was on “General Hospital” – and again, before it was popular. Everything I was on was before it was popular!

The thing was, I hated soap operas! I wouldn’t watch them on a dare! But when I got the part then I really wanted to be there. The finished product is completely different from the process of putting it together. All the actors have a great sense of humor, when they’re putting it on its feet and rehearsing it they’re sending it up.

It’s like stage, and you don’t stop for anything, they don’t care. We once had an earthquake and someone improv’d the brilliant line “It’s only an earthquake,” and we just went on. They wouldn’t stop, it was like live television even though we were on a week delay.

It was really a great experience. I tell young actors, boy, if you can get on a soap opera you can learn, you can learn to hit your marks, you can learn about lighting, and you can learn all this technical stuff. It’s a place to try it out and learn technique. I really enjoyed it even though I didn’t think I would so much.

The process of being cast as Luke Skywalker:
I was doing all this guest starring, I’m on “The Streets of San Francisco,” I’m on “Cannon,” all these shows that people can see on TVLand now. Then I did a bunch of TV movies, I did like five TV movies, some of them prestigious. Patricia Neal played my mother in one and she’s a brilliant actress.

1977 publicity still of “The Texas Wheelers” cast. Credit: MTM Enterprises

I did this sitcom series called “The Texas Wheelers” and when it got cancelled, Robert Englund, who was a friend of mine at the time and who later played Freddy Krueger, asked me if I had gone out for “that new Lucas thing.” I said, you mean that guy who did “American Graffiti”? He said it’s called “The Star Wars” and I think it’s some kind of “Flash Gordon” thing. I asked him if he’d gone out for it and he said yeah, but he didn’t make the cut.

You see, actors won’t tell you about a project until they’re sure they didn’t get it. [laughter] Then they’re magnanimous and say, “Oh, by the way, have you been out on that Lucas thing?”

We went in and it was like what they call a cattle call, where it’s just 50 people in a room, and they don’t give you a script, they don’t tell you anything. In fact, I went in and George [Lucas] and Brian De Palma were sitting at desks, and De Palma was looking for people for “Carrie,” that high school horror story with Sissy Spacek, and George was looking for “Star Wars” people.

And you had no clue. They didn’t talk about anything. They just said, “Tell us a little about yourself.” And you’d spend a couple of minutes talking like I’m doing with you right now, telling them I was one of seven kids, I went to high school in Japan, my dad was in the Navy, yak, yak, yak. But you don’t even have a chance to do a scene or really anything, they just want to see how you are, how you come off.

Because it was just one of those general interviews there was no way you could know. I had done the same thing for “American Graffiti” and I didn’t get a callback. I did that same routine.

What was interesting was they saw me for “Apocalypse Now” to play the farm boy, because I projected that sort of empty-headed, freshly smacked in the head innocence that I guess they were looking for. You know, I had a certain cluelessness that was very valuable.

Much later came the scene in the mail. 17 pages. It’s in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and it’s with Han Solo. I can’t remember if it was written for just Han or if Obi-wan was there, all I know is that I read this scene and I couldn’t make heads or tails out of it! I thought, is this like a Mel Brooks send-up?

There was this one line I can tell you for sure I’ve never forgotten in all my years in show biz, even though it was eons, decades ago. Han Solo is saying, [here Hamill delivers a perfect impression of Harrison Ford’s indecipherable growl] “Hey kid…we should turn back.”

I say to Han Solo, “But we can’t turn back! Fear is their greatest defense, I doubt if the actual security there is any greater than it was on Aquilae or Sullust, what there is is most likely targeted towards a large scale assault.”

Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher on the Millennium Falcon set in “Star Wars.” Credit: LucasFilm

Can you believe that line? I read it out loud and I’m thinking I’ve got to memorize this! I had no idea if it’s “arch,” if you do it like with an edge like a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, or what is it, is it a parody? It’s like “Flash Gordon,” it’s anachronistic. It’s like a throwback to an earlier style.

I remember when I finally went in to do it, Harrison was Han Solo, and I knew him from “Graffiti” where he played Bob Falfa, and I knew George’s work anyway, and I was really begging George for some [direction], asking, “Is he sort of like being sarcastic here or what?” And George just said, “Let’s do it,” and turned his head.

So I’m looking to Harrison, and he says, “I don’t know where he’s going with this.”

I hadn’t worked with George before, so I figured oh well, it must be okay, so we did the scene the best we could. George is like somebody who’ll look at it and say, “Let’s do it faster and with more intensity.” [speaks his lines again super fast] Well, I didn’t really do it that fast. I just got through it.

That’s when I was driving home thinking, I should have done this, I should have done that, I didn’t have any sense of humor, I didn’t have any style or panache. But again, whatever I had…

By the way, they cast us in lots. It was me and Harrison and Carrie. And it was another set of Han, Luke and Leia. I remember who the other Luke was, I remember who Leia was, I’m not sure about Han Solo.

They told us later they didn’t mix and match, it was either team A or team B. George couldn’t really decide, and I heard Marcia [Lucas] had a lot to do with saying, “Pick those guys.” So we have her to thank, or blame depending on your feelings on it.

The Medical Droid who tends to Luke on Hoth. Credit: LucasFilm

Star Wars character names
I haven’t seen the “Star Wars” movies since they were in the movie theaters. I’ve never watched them at home or on DVD or VHS. That’s true! So that’s why you guys know more about it than I do. I still call it the “Medical Droid’ while you call him “IG-88.” [Note: According to Wookieepedia, the surgical droid’s actual name is “2-1B.”]

You have to understand, a lot of these characters weren’t named until they made them into toys. So we call that one the “Dustbin Robot” because he looked like a garbage can, and they call garbage cans “dustbins.” And then the toys would come out six months after the movie came out and you’d say, oh that’s the name for it!

We called one “Lobster Man.” Who’s the one that looks like a lobster? Ackbar? There you go! Wait, I think he did have his name, I think he was Admiral Ackbar, to give him all the respect he deserves. [laughter]

What you should know about being a voice actor
I should tell you a true story about why you should understand how to be (or not be) if you’re trying to be a voiceover actor.

I was in the final consideration to be Snap, Crackle and/or Pop. And I thought I would love a job that runs for 30 years or whatever, [just do] two syllables and you can send all three kids to college.

So I was really excited that I got a callback. I must have been called back about four times, and I figured this must be really important, because this time we met with the actual executives from Kellogg’s.

And they said, [in a very serious tone] “Well uh, Mark, you will uh, be playing the role of Pop.” And just to loosen what I thought was tension in the air, I said, “What, like I’m not right for Snap or Crackle? C’mon!

And the guy did not even move. He just looked at me and said, “Well, Pop is a leader. He’s grounded, he’s very intelligent.” And I realized, “Oooh, did I just lay a big egg!”

But I thought that was funny! I mean, c’mon, they all sound like [squeaks] this. C’mon, can you really remember a distinct personality difference between them?

So needless to say I told my agent that story and she said. “What, did you just assume that an advertising executive had a sense of humor? What are you, crazy? You just joked yourself out of a job, buddy! I bet you’re not getting it.” And sure enough, all I have to tell for that experience is this story.

“Comic Book: The Movie”
We didn’t have a budget to even have casting sessions, you know, ‘cause that would cost money! So I relied on all of these people that I first started doing animation voices with in ’92. Well, I did a show when I was a teenager and then I didn’t work in voiceover for twenty years.

But when I did “Batman” I started working with all these people that I had known for years, because I am a huge fan of animation. And in those days I had a VCR and I would freeze frame when the credits go by because they go by so fast, and so I knew Rob Paulson and I knew Jeff Bennett, I knew Tress MacNeille and Maurice LaMarche and James Arnold Taylor. So to meet these people and work with them was a thrill.

Everybody in the movie are voiceover people. We considered “Comic Book: The Movie” to be to voiceover people what “Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” was to comedians. This movie is just chock-a-block with the most famous people you’ve never heard of. Because there’s nothing like the anonymity of a voiceover person.

Polly Bergen and Mark Hamill in a scene from “Six Dance Lessons in Six Weeks.” Credit: Carol Rosegg

Lessons learned
And that was a good thing for me to learn, because I’d go back and I’d do Broadway and I’d be so proud when I got a nomination, but nobody knew I did Broadway. The West Coast is so far from the East Coast! [Note: Hamill acted on Broadway in “Amadeus,” “The Nerd,” “The Elephant Man” [for which he received a Drama Desk Award nomination], and other well-received stage plays].

But with the voiceover thing I really discovered something that was helpful for me, which is that I really enjoy performing where I didn’t need to take a curtain call, I didn’t need a spotlight, I didn’t need to have people recognize me. And that was a good thing to know, that I really just enjoyed the process of performing.

In Part 2 of Jedi to Joker: Mark Hamill at SWCVI, Hamill describes why he was so frightened when cast as the Joker in “Batman,” does an impressive live performance of the Joker for the audience, and discusses his surprising turn as a sadistic psychopathic killer in the upcoming 2012 film “Sushi Girl.



Interview with UK animator Billy Allison: Monsters and aliens, oh my!

UK-based animator Billy Allison fell in love with cartoons and film at a very early age, and simply can’t remember a time in his youth when he wasn’t drawing or doodling something.

Over the past 20 years this hard-working creative artist has succeeded in developing his childhood artistic passion into a very fulfilling and rewarding career, gaining a solid reputation as an exceptionally skilled animator with a wealth of experience and an uncommon gift for giving his characters emotion.

Allison got his start in 1986 at Siriol Productions in Cardiff, Wales, as an in-betweener, and in the years since he’s acquired an impressive portfolio of work for both traditional animation and video game companies. These days he concentrates on character modeling and 2D and 3D animation, and has lent his talents and expertise to a wide range of projects for television, advertising and film shorts.

Amusing references to sci-fi, classic film, pop culture, aliens and cute, furry monsters abound in Allison’s artwork. Not surprisingly, his vivid imagination and delightfully warm sense of humor are often showcased in his t-shirts available through such online design marketplaces as Redbubble, Threadless and Goodjoe.

Allison, who also is known by his online moniker “Bleee,” resides in West Yorkshire, UK, with his wife and their two sons. It was my pleasure to recently talk with him about how he got started in the animation business, his influences and what he considers his favorite subjects to illustrate.

“Crowded Aliens” by Billy Allison

At what age did you begin drawing?
Allison: People always say this, but I have drawn forever. I don’t remember not drawing. My uncle was a painter who lived with us when I was a child, and I was inspired by him. Sadly, he gave up any form of art, but he did encourage me to carry on.

Did your parents draw?
Allison: Yes, Mum often designed and made her own dresses for family get-togethers, and my late Dad, although he preferred to write song lyrics, used to doodle a bit, usually for his woodworking projects. But when I was a toddler he would occasionally do a drawing of me.

“Alien vs Oswald” by Billy Allison

Are you right or left-handed?
Allison: I am right-handed, but do try to use the right side of my brain.

How did you get started in animation and cartooning?
Allison:I started early, making flipbooks in my schoolbooks and comics for a local newsletter in my teens. I applied to art college and failed — three times — so while working at a local factory, I spent time hunting down a film school.

I could only find three in the UK (we are talking 30-ish years ago, now they seem to be on every street corner), but only one of them wasn’t a postgraduate course. The others meant that I had to have already completed a degree course. So I applied and was accepted at Newport Film School in South Wales for their two-year film and animation course.

The first year was a general film course and the second year I specialised in animation. There was not a computer in sight apart from the Commodore PET controlling a rostrum camera!

“Ancient Ninja Xenomorphs” by Billy Allison

After graduating I got my first job in animation at Siriol Productions in Cardiff (the company that brought us “SuperTed”). I’ve stayed in animation ever since, occasionallyin later years crossing the line between television and video games.

Have you ever taught animation?
Allison: Although I’ve never officially taught animation, I’ve often helped out students who emailed me, messaged me on Facebook, or stopped me at animation festivals with critiques and constructive critiques. I’ve never had a problem with this, in fact if the student is getting something from it then so do I, as long as the students know that I don’t always have the time and they may have wait a little while sometimes.

What was the hardest technique for you to learn?
Allison: I’ve never actually thought about techniques as separate things, it’s all part of the big picture as it were. Techniques are easy to learn, animation is not. The “rules” are not rigid, and are very fuzzy-edged. Most of the time animation is a dynamic flow of work, hard to explain in words, and with so many decisions being made as you work. It’s a very dynamic process.

“Bye bye!” by Billy Allison

What sort of equipment and materials do you use?
Allison: For most of the 3D work I do, I use Autodesk Maya these days. For 2D stuff, I use TVPaint when doing t-shirts and 2D animation, along with my ancient and scratched Wacom Intuos2 (graphics tablet). What I wouldn’t do for a Cintiq!

Who are some of the artists whose work inspires you?
Allison: There are so many! I’ve been inspired over the years by the work of Michael Dudok de Wit, Frédéric Back, Chuck Jones, Richard Williams, W. Heath Robinson, Norman Rockwell, Frank Frazetta, Jonny Duddle, and Matt Dixon. I’ll leave it there, as I could go on forever.

One person who inspired me to keep going when I once felt full of self doubt is animator/filmmaker Joanna Quinn. We first met when she was a guest lecturer at films school back in 1985, and we’re still friends even now.

What’s your favorite part of being an artist?
Allison: I get to get the ‘space invader’ out of my head and onto paper or screen and then I’m in total control of it.

“Hike n Chulley” by Billy Allison

Do you currently have a favorite theme or technique?
Allison: My personal favourite to draw are my “cute” monsters and aliens, and I love to animate in any medium or technique.

What things do you hate to draw?
Allison: I hate to draw…erm… No, I really hate to draw…erm… I don’t think I can answer that!

Do your kids draw?
Allison: Yes, both of my kids draw. One even has a deviantART account, his work is generally darker than mine. One even has a design on Redbubble (with a little help from me).

“A Boy and his Grog” by Billy Allison

What advice would you give to aspiring artists?
Allison: First thing: be aware, art in any form is not an easy way out. It is hard work even if it just looks like we’re sat there doodling. I know so many kids who took the art option in school to get out of doing other so-called harder subjects and ended up dropping out after a short period.

In terms of animation, its like the Force, let it flow through you! Avoid formulaic animation (unless that is the style/budget of you’re working on). Think weight and form. And most of all, if it’s character animation, make the character appear to think about what they are doing. That’s the hard bit.

More of Billy Allison’s artwork can be seen on his website:

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