Instead of “Yo, bitch …” now it’s “Yoda, bitch.” (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul will take on the role of Luke Skywalker in director Jason Reitman’s one-night-only live-read of The Empire Strikes Back this Thursday, while fearsome Whiplash star J.K. Simmons will let the hate flow through him as Darth Vader.
It’s part of an ongoing series of live performances of movie scripts Reitman stages each month, bringing in new actors to create a kind of cover version of beloved films. He has previously staged live-reads of The Princess Bride, Ghostbusters, American Beauty, and The Apartment, among others.
Today, Reitman revealed just a handful of new cast members, but there will be more to come before Thursday’s performance. Here’s how he put together his team…
“The first thing I had to figure out was who is going to be the voice of Luke,” Reitman says. “My first instinct was, ‘Who is the actor most like Mark Hamill today?’ But five minutes into that, I’m thinking we already have that, we already have Star Wars as it is. What is the opposite of that?”
The Emmy-winning Paul’s tough, streetwise screen presence is a stark contrast to “the sweet, innocent farmboy on Tatooine,” Reitman says. “Jesse from Breaking Bad questions authority in a much different way than Luke Skywalker does. He growls at it, and his annoyance at his journey will be unique from the traditional boy-to-man transition.”
Instead of the naïve hero yearning to learn the ways of the Jedi from that pushy little green guy in the swamp, it’s easy to imagine Paul as the reluctant hero being dragged toward his galactic destiny—which will upend everything he thinks he knows about his family and himself.
Simmons, who is currently a juggernaut on the awards circuit with his role as a ferocious and merciless music instructor in Whiplash, has appeared in every Reitman film to date. (And Reitman was also an executive producer on Whiplash.)
Having previously cast him as the sweet-natured father in Juno, the director said he was happy to give him the role of the ultimate bad dad, saying few actors can combine the humanity and the monster in one package.
“He has to be able to be fatherly and evil simultaneously, and no one has explored that idea more than J.K. Simmons in Whiplash,” Reitman says. “Darth Vader is someone who has it within him to cut his own son’s hand off, but not send his son to his death.”
It took two actors to play the part originally: David Prowse in the costume and James Earl Jones as the voice.
Stephen Merchant, who played the Woody Allen part in a Reitman live-read of Manhattan last year, is going to fill the role of everyone’s favorite fussy protocol droid (originated by Anthony Daniels). “He’s tall, gangly, British, and has a great sense of humor, so I knew he’d crush the role of C-3PO,” Reitman says. Merchant doesn’t have to wear a gold suit, but the director jokes: “It would be great if I made him wear gold teeth.”
As Cloud City’s smoothest operator, Dennis Haysbert will take over the Lando Calrissian role originated by Billy Dee Williams. The part requires someone who is unflustered, but also untrustworthy—Calrissian is a confidence man, in both good and bad ways. “Dennis has one of the greatest voices I ever worked with and I had a blast with him on Men, Women, and Children, so he seemed like a perfect fit,” Reitman says.
“We need a Yoda, and I needed someone who is brilliant with voices, because there are also countless Imperial officers who are strangled by Vader,” Reitman says. That led him to another live-read regular: Kevin Pollak.
Has he given Pollak any instructions for the little, green Jedi master? “I haven’t,” Reitman says. “Kevin makes interesting choices, though. Half the time he will do a perfect imitation of the original, and half the time he does something new. I don’t know what to expect. He could sound exactly like Frank Oz, or I could end up with Alan Arkin as Yoda.”
Click here for full details on how to get tickets to the Live-Read, which is hosted in partnership with Film Independent. Thursday’s event will be held at the Ace Hotel Theater in downtown Los Angeles, moving to a larger venue from its previous home at LACMA.
Still to come… Reitman’s reveals for Han Solo and Princess Leia. What fantasy casting would you like to see—and what would be the most interesting potential surprise for either character?