Dalton Ross
February 10, 2012 AT 05:00 AM EST

Guess what, haters? Jar Jar Binks can kick your ass. Right now at the John Machado Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Culver City, Calif., Ahmed Best, the man who played one of the most divisive and controversial film characters of all time, lies on the floor, an opponent smothering him against the mat. His belt has been torn off, and beads of sweat trickle down his face as he looks around frantically for a way out. Then he slowly moves one hand onto his adversary’s belt and the other onto the guy’s foot, and before you can say ”How wude!” Best flips over his competitor, flashing a huge grin while his opponent taps the mat twice in a sign of submission.

It’s not quite the Battle of Naboo, but for Best, every triumph here is a sweet one. The man who brought one of the first computer-generated lead characters to life in arguably the most anticipated movie of all time — 1999’s Star Wars: Episode 1—The Phantom Menace — instead found himself in the eye of a storm of ridicule. The floppy-eared amphibian he played (also known as a Gungan) was denounced by critics and fanboys alike as the most annoying — and, some claimed, offensive — addition ever to the Star Wars universe.

That image followed Best, who’d supplied Jar Jar’s voice as well as his body movements, as he tried to find new acting work — and led him to this jujitsu studio nine years ago. ”I was having trouble with the audition process when I first moved out here,” says the 38-year-old black belt while taking a break between bouts. ”So I just stopped and started coming here twice a day, six days a week. It put me in a much better place.”

Still in that better place, Best harbors no animosity toward those who have spent the past 13 years dissing and dismissing the character he portrayed. ”Jar Jar was a lightning rod for everything that folks didn’t like [about the movie],” he says, but ”it’s all good.” Now, with The Phantom Menace getting a 3-D release on Feb. 10, Best is ready to relive his experience from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Right after he destroys another challenger on the mat.

”It wasn’t supposed to be me,” Best says while scarfing down a post-jujitsu sandwich beside the fountain of an outdoor shopping mall. Best — who grew up in the South Bronx and Maplewood, N.J., the son of a Good Morning America cameraman — was discovered for Star Wars while performing in the still-running Off Broadway percussion show Stomp. However, he was not the first Stomper targeted for the part. ”It was supposed to be another guy in the show who had an audition before I did,” says Best. The other guy didn’t land the role, but invited Star Wars casting agent Robin Gurland to the show when it played in San Francisco. Ironically, the performance that got Best the Star Wars gig was one he was furious about doing. ”I was the lead,” he explains, ”but then somebody got sick and I had to cover the role of the sick person and I wasn’t very happy about it. There was really no discipline in my show that night. I was doing stuff that I never would have done had I not been young and upset. I took my shirt off, threw it in the audience — I mean, just really silly things. And that was the show that Robin was at.”

For Best, landing the Phantom Menace role was a dream come true. ”I was a huge Star Wars fan,” he says with boyish glee. ”I had Star Wars sheets, blankets, curtains. A New Hope [George Lucas’ later retitling of the original 1977 film] was the first movie I remember. Empire Strikes Back is one of my favorite movies of all time. Here I am, a skinny kid from the Bronx, never been in a movie before, and here you go, become film history — action!”

As if the adjustment from performing Off Broadway to rebooting a juggernaut film franchise weren’t enough, Best was also forced to squeeze into a skintight motion-capture suit and walk around with a odd-looking alien head on top of his head as the proper reference point for other actors to look at. (”They put a gauze screen over his face so we would remember to look up at Jar Jar’s eyes,” recalls Ewan McGregor, who played Obi-Wan Kenobi in the prequel trilogy.) While Jar Jar may have represented the technological future of cinema, Best reached into film’s past for inspiration. ”Jar Jar was really based a lot on Buster Keaton,” he says. ”Like in every Buster Keaton movie, Buster Keaton doesn’t know that he’s funny. He’s just trying to get out of these situations.”

The cast certainly found Best funny on set. ”Ahmed had Ewan and me in stitches most days,” says Liam Neeson, who played Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn. Natalie Portman (Padmé Amidala) concurs: ”He was definitely everyone’s favorite person on set. Liam couldn’t keep a straight face with him. George wanted to have dinner with him every night.” Indeed, the rest of the Phantom Menace cast was convinced that Best’s character would become an audience favorite. They could not have been more wrong.

The reviews were brutal — at least when they came to Jar Jar Binks. ”Jar Jar and his fellow Gungans suck the oxygen out of every scene,” wrote J. Hoberman in The Village Voice. ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY’s Owen Gleiberman was no kinder, calling Jar Jar ”a rabbit-eared mascot…whose goofy tongue-twisting patois renders him a nuisance within 30 seconds.” But the worst of the backlash appeared (where else?) online, where bloggers and fanboys raged in posts with such subtle subject lines as ”Jar Jar Binks Must Die!” Best was stunned at the sheer force of the enmity. ”There was never a question or comment about my performance or the character that arose while we were working,” says Best. ”So when the movie came out and there was such a reaction, it was a little bit jarring, I think, to everyone.”

Especially jarring to Best were the charges that his character was a racist stereotype. Patricia J. Williams wrote in The Nation that the character’s ”relentless, panicky, manchild-like idiocy is imported directly from the days of Amos ‘N’ Andy.” Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal dubbed Jar Jar ”a Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit on platform hoofs, crossed annoyingly with Butterfly McQueen.” To this day, these charges confuse Best rather than anger him. ”I grew up with parents who were black nationalists,” he responds. ”There was no way I would do a movie that had any type of racial undertones unless there was some sort of comedic twist or comment on society.”

According to Lucas, Jar Jar’s speech patterns (”Meesa called Jar Jar Binks. Meesa your humble servant”) were to some degree based on ”pidgin English from the Samoan islands and Pacific islands and Caribbean,” but ”it was a completely made-up language.” In fact, Lucas says, some of his son Jett’s baby talk even ended up as words. (The term ”Gungan” is what Jett used to call cars.) ”George is really influenced by his kids,” says Portman. ”All the language — the cadence and the syntax and everything — was taken from Jett, who at that time was really little, so he would say, ‘Me like…’ That’s how he would talk. Of course, people are entitled not to like it, but to make it out to be this racist thing was really kind of crazy.”

For the man who went from sleeping in his Star Wars sheets as a child to starring in a Star Wars movie, the negative reaction was humbling. ”It was hard because Ahmed was sort of plucked from obscurity to be in this big thing that everyone was so excited about,” says Portman. ”And then after years and years and years of people waiting for this, and then everyone saying, ‘You’re going to be the breakout from it,’ to have him be singled out as the thing that people were picking on was not cool and, I’m sure, hard for him.”

Best’s castmates rallied to his defense. When the harsh reviews poured in, Neeson reached out to tell Best how he himself had been criticized for the final scene in Schindler’s List, which some saw as melodramatic, and implored Best not to blame himself for the material. (”He’s a very gifted actor,” says Neeson.) McGregor agrees: ”I didn’t like any of the criticism that I heard. None of it should fall on Ahmed anyway. All of the character choices and the idea to have Jar Jar Binks there in the first place was George’s. If there’s any criticism, it shouldn’t fall on Ahmed’s shoulders. Because he did exactly what he was asked to do. He did it very, very well. He gave a great performance.”

There is a large segment of the Star Wars audience that agrees with that assessment — younglings. ”Kids really relate to Jar Jar because he’s a kids’ character, plain and simple,” says Best. ”And that’s who the movie is for. So if kids like it, I did my job.” For his part, Lucas sees Jar Jar as merely the latest in a line of his characters that adults love to hate. ”When we did the very first Star Wars, C-3PO was in the same position and was hated by some of the fans,” says the director. ”We even made a joke about it in The Empire Strikes Back, about him talking too much and them shutting him off and telling him to shut up and things like that. Then when we did Return of the Jedi, everybody was completely disgusted with the Ewoks. Many of the fans thought they were too cute and silly, and yelled and screamed about that. Both 3PO and the Ewoks were there for the younger audience as comic relief, and so that’s just part of what Star Wars is.”

Regardless, the character once pegged as The Phantom Menace‘s breakout was increasingly marginalized in Lucas’ two follow-up films. A clearly toned-down Jar Jar shows up in far fewer scenes in Attack of the Clones (although he does unwittingly grant a Sith lord emergency powers in the Senate — whoops!), and he hardly appears at all in Revenge of the Sith, delivering but a single line. Perhaps the most telling sign that Jar Jar has been relegated to the outer rim of the Star Wars universe is that the character can barely be seen in the trailer for the 3-D release of The Phantom Menace. Jar Jar has gone from breakout to almost completely shut out.

As for the man behind the CGI mask, Best — who is now married with a 3-year-old son, Marley — has continued acting, showing up in guest spots on TV shows like Cougar Town and Law & Order: L.A. He has also done voice work, including reprising his Gungan alter ego on Robot Chicken and Cartoon Network’s The Clone Wars. ”A good friend of mine did Clone Wars before me as Jar Jar, and the Internet went crazy,” laughs Best. ”Everyone was trying to get Jar Jar out of Star Wars for so long. Now Clone Wars comes along and they’re like, ‘Where is he? If we want to hate him, we want to hate the right guy!”’

Best freely admits he expected more jobs to come his way as a result of his Star Wars stint. ”I thought it was going to be the beginning of a blossoming career, and it never really turned out that way,” he says. ”The doors I wanted it to open didn’t really open.” The affable Best says this not with regret, but as a mere statement of fact. The only thing that does gnaw at him is that he is not regarded as more of a pioneer in the field of motion-captured acting. ”I didn’t get the credit as an actor as you do now, like when Andy Serkis did his thing for Gollum,” he says, shrugging. ”It’s almost as if what I did didn’t exist. He has since gone on to be the first call when it comes to movies like this. He did King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Same thing with Avatar. When Zoë Saldana and Sam Worthington do Avatar, they get above the title and they’re pretty much doing what I did, what I originated.” Lucas agrees Best’s contribution has been overlooked. ”He was one of the first actors to ever do motion capture. In those days especially it was very difficult because it was experimental.”

Frustrated by the audition process and the scarcity of acting jobs, Best has been taking producing and directing classes at the American Film Institute. And he’s still pursuing his ”first love” — music — writing songs and playing instruments like drums, piano, guitar, and bass every day. One can’t help but wonder: Considering everything that he went through, does Best ever wish he had not been cast as the infamous Jar Jar Binks? ”No, never,” he says emphatically. ”I’m proud of it, I’m glad I did it, and I’d do it again. Because it’s a part of history. Not a lot of people can say that. I’m proud George had enough faith in me to say, ‘You, kid! You do it’ and put me on a stage that’s the biggest you’ll ever get. I appreciate every minute of it. I appreciate everything.”

And ultimately, the one critic whose take on the character truly matters to Best — his son, Marley — has yet to see the films and weigh in. ”It’s funny,” says Best. ”At this preschool there was a Jar Jar doll and he walked right to it and said, ‘Who’s this guy?’ And I was like, ‘I’ll tell you later.”’

(Additional reporting by Nicholas White)

Whatever Happened To Anakin?
At age 8, Jake Lloyd got to do what most boys only dream of — enter the Star Wars universe. But after playing young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace, Lloyd starred in just one other film, 2001’s Madison. Now 22, he’s pursuing a career behind the camera in his hometown of Indianapolis. His manager tells EW that Lloyd is ”currently editing a documentary” about Tibetan refugees in India and plans to direct a music video for singer Mallory Low, starring Attack of the Clones actor Daniel Logan (Boba Fett). Lloyd, who completed two semesters at Chicago’s Columbia College, also attends the occasional Star Wars convention and is an avid gamer. His favorite? Star Wars: The Old Republic. —Grady Smith

The Phantom Menace Goes 3-D
Don’t expect to see Jar Jar’s tongue or Darth Maul’s lightsaber jump out at you when The Phantom Menace 3D hits theaters Feb. 10. ”I don’t like the gimmick part of it,” George Lucas said about 3-D in a recent video interview. ”I don’t like things coming out into the audience. I like everything to be behind the proscenium. I think that’s where the real advantage of 3-D is.” And Lucas believes he had a key asset at his disposal: people who worked on the original film, especially in the visual-effects department. ”They were there on the set every day taking measurements, seeing things…. So by having that extra information…we were able, I think, to re-create a really good 3-D experience.” As little Annie would say, ”Yippee!” —Dalton Ross

Stars in Star Wars
Natalie, Ewan, and Liam weren’t the only famous people to appear in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels. Here are some big names who had small roles in the films. —Dalton Ross

Rose Byrne
Dormé (Attack of the Clones)
As a handmaiden to Queen Amidala (Natalie Portman), the future Damages/Bridesmaids star spends her screen time acting concerned for the then senator’s safety.

Keisha Castle-Hughes
Queen Apailana (Revenge of the Sith)
In the follow-up to her Oscar-nominated performance in 2002’s Whale Rider, Castle-Hughes looks depressed for about two seconds at Amidala’s funeral on Naboo.

Sofia Coppola
Saché (The Phantom Menace)
Being a Coppola has its advantages. Actress-turned-director Sofia snuck into her daddy’s buddy’s film, portraying yet another one of Amidala’s handmaidens.

Joel Edgerton
Owen Lars (Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith)
He may play a mixed-martial-arts fighter in Warrior, but here Edgerton comes off like a big wuss next to his stepbrother and future Sith lord, Anakin. Kudos for adopting Luke, though.

Keira Knightley
Sabé (The Phantom Menace)
The Pirates of the Caribbean star doesn’t fool us for a second as Queen Amidala’s decoy, proving once and for all that we are smarter than Jedi Knights.

Dominic West
Jerus Jannick (The Phantom Menace)
His sole line as a member of a Naboo security team: ”The boy is here to see Padmé.” But the Wire star gets a bit more screen time in one of the Blu-ray edition’s deleted scenes.

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