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Where is Luke Skywalker? J.J. Abrams and Mark Hamill grapple with the question

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Lucasfilm

Luke Skywalker has gone from hero to MacGuffin.

Filmmaking aficionados know the term, popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, as being an object or mystery that drives the story — more Maltese Falcon than Millennium Falcon. It’s the thing the heroes are trying to find, or understand. It’s the puzzle they’re trying to unlock.

For any Luke Truthers out there, I can assure you: Mark Hamill is definitely in The Force Awakens. But the absence of his face in the trailers and the poster has vexed fans who are wondering: Where is the man once heralded as the last Jedi?

“No one forgot about him!” director J.J. Abrams promises. “We were hoping people would care, but there are a lot of things that are not on the poster, as busy as the poster is. Certainly Luke is a very important aspect of the story.”

That question, Where is Luke?, is one the movie is going to answer. So it can’t very well tell you up front.

NOT “WHERE,” BUT “WHO”?

A similar question is actually the thing that made Abrams say yes to directing the film. “In the context of talking about story and laying out what we were thinking, I said one thing to him: ‘Who is Luke Skywalker?’” Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy told EW in August.

She said she couldn’t elaborate any further on what that question means, but you can read any number of things into it. And all of them may be true.

Who is Luke Skywalker? Is he really the person we thought we knew? Did crude Jedi training and the emotional and physical scars of battle, not to mention learning that a galactic tyrant was his father, take a toll that warped the pie-eyed farmboy who longed for adventure?

Was Yoda right about him being impulsive and impatient? “If you end your training now — if you choose the quick and easy path as Vader did — you will become an agent of evil.” Return of the Jedi seemed to prove Yoda wrong. Vader turned, the Emperor was destroyed, and balance — whatever that means — seemed to have been brought to the Force.

But what if Yoda was the misguided warrior, bent by cynicism from his years of fighting the good fight? What if Luke was more noble than the little green guy gave him credit for? It’s possible Luke is engaged in an act of dedication and self-sacrifice that has estranged him from his friends and loved ones, however much they miss him.

RELATED: Harrison Ford – The EW Interview

None of these are things Abrams will discuss now. Again, only the film itself will answer those questions.

But he will talk about another implication of the thing that drew him in: “Who is Luke Skywalker?” Like, who?

In the Oct. 19 trailer, Han Solo tells Rey and Finn: “It’s all true. The Dark Side. The Jedi. All of it.” And they listen like teenagers being told the Tooth Fairy is real. If it seems implausible that a war hero could be forgotten so quickly, try asking the average 20-year-old who Audie Murphy was. Hell, ask a 40-year-old and see what you get.

FORGOTTEN HEROES

The filmmakers didn’t forget about Luke, but others in the galaxy may have.

“It was the thing that struck me the hardest, which was the idea that doing a story that took place nearly 40 years after Jedi meant that there would be a generation for whom Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Leia would be as good as myth,” Abrams says. “They’d be as old and as mythic as the tale of King Arthur. They would be characters who they may have heard of, but maybe not. They’d be characters who they might believe existed, or just sounded like a fairy tale.”

This is especially true of Daisy Ridley’s Rey, a young woman who was abandoned on the desert world of Jakku as a child and forced to eke out a meager existence as a scavenger amid its battlefield junkyards.

“To someone who is living alone and struggling without a formal education or support system, who knows what that person in the literal middle of nowhere would have ever heard about any of these things, or would ever know, and how much that person would have to infer and piece together on their own,” Abrams says. “So the idea that someone like that would begin to learn that the Jedi were real, and that the Force exists, and that there’s a power in the universe that sounds fanciful but is actually possible, was an incredibly intriguing notion.”

John Boyega’s Finn, raised from childhood to be a stormtrooper for The First Order, has actually heard of Luke Skywalker, but he was given a starkly different picture of him. “For Finn, he’s been raised from the ashes of the Empire,” says Boyega. “He’s been taught about Luke Skywalker, he knows about his history. For him it’s like joining the army and then learning about one of the great enemies of your country. It has that effect on him. But in terms of the Force, and the magical stuff that happens, that is the point where Finn kind of questions what is what. What is the Force, what part does Luke Skywalker play in all of this?”

Han Solo, he adds, doesn’t inspire the same fear. For Finn, it really is kind of: “Han who?”

“To a stormtrooper they’ve probably been given a watered down bit about Han Solo or something,” he says. “It doesn’t feel as magical and mythical and historical, so you know. It’s quite fun playing that not really knowing who these people are.”

He ends up in possession of the lightsaber that once belonged to Luke, and to Luke’s father before him. It was last seen tumbling down an air shaft after Darth Vader sliced off his hand and revealed that he, he was Luke’s father.  In this film … it’s an important piece of the puzzle that will reveal Luke’s fate and whereabouts.

NEXT PAGE: Abrams on the infamous Dinner For Five video[pagebreak]

DINNER FOR FIVE

Here’s another piece of the puzzle from our world — a long time ago, in June 2005. An IFC show called Dinner For Five, presided over by geek impresario Kevin Smith, featured Mark Hamill discussing what he imagined the future to be for Luke Skywalker. It’s a pretty dark one.

Sitting right across from him happened to be J.J. Abrams, years before having any idea he would someday actually make another Star Wars film with the actor.

Dinner For Five …” Abrams says, thinking back. “It was a funny night. And Stan Lee was there too — it was a very funny group of people. Yeah, Mark had a whole concept.”

Here’s the question fans have been wondering ever since this clip started to recirculate online: Did any of that sink in and find its way into The Force Awakens?

Abrams offers a smile that looks like a “Closed” sign being turned forward in a storefront window. “It was definitely entertaining to be at that table, yeah,” is all he’ll say.

HAMILL SPEAKS

Although we can’t answer the question Where is Luke Skywalker?, we did get a chance to track down the man who plays him. Hamill is also quick to turn around a “Closed” sign when things get too close to The Force Awakens story.

What’s the best or most interesting piece of insider direction that J.J. gave you as you got back into the character you created?

“I’d like to answer that, but it would give away the secrets of Episode VII,” Hamill replies.

This isn’t easy for him. Everyone wants to know where Luke has gone, and one group in particular makes it hard for Hamill to say, “Nope, sorry.”

“That would be young children,” he says. “Because they don’t understand non-disclosure agreements, they just want to know what’s going on. It’s not been easy, but the wait will soon be over.”

RELATED: Carrie Fisher is not called “Princess” Leia anymore

Whatever Hamill imagined in his Dinner For Five video about Skywalker’s future is as valid as your own interpretation.

“That’s the beauty of the story, is it leaves it up to the audience’s imagination,” he says. “It was the story of a boy going from a farm boy to a Jedi Master, and I always thought it was amusing, and if you put it in terms of James Bond, it would be like telling the story of how he got his license to kill, and then stopping and never telling any stories of what his adventures were. But that was just the structure of the movie, so it leaves it to the audience.”

WRONG QUESTIONS

Some fans — those of the presumably casual variety — have wondered if the masked, Darth-Vader-obsessive Kylo Ren is Luke in disguise. But this actively ignores the inconvenient fact that Girls actor Adam Driver is the one playing Kylo Ren. So, uh, maybe that’s not the best guess?

A much better guess is that Luke actually is in the trailer, as a cloaked figure affectionately brushing R2-D2’s dome with a robotic right hand. In the April trailer, Luke’s narration, lifted from a scene in Return of the Jedi, has the character talking about Force sensitivity and saying, “I have it,” at the moment we see that shot.

Abrams won’t confirm or deny anything: “The thing I’m most grateful for is that anyone’s asking any questions.” But the smile on his face suggests he’s enjoying your anguish. “We’ve tried to give people a taste. But you’ve got to be careful that you don’t start to give too many bites,” he says. “They can start to get full. They can start to feel like they’ve seen the whole movie before they have.”

Asked what is the right question for fans to be asking about Luke, and Hamill’s answer is emphatic.

“None! There should be no questions. You go in and it’s a brand new fresh approach at a franchise that we’ve known all our lives,” he says.

He brings up George Lucas adding “Episode IV” to the original Star Wars film. “Even I said to George, ‘What’s going on with that?’ And he said, ‘Well, I want the audience to get the feeling that they’re just coming in to an adventure, and they’ll catch up.’ They know that all these things have gone on, and things are going on in front of their eyes, and it just ups the excitement factor,” Hamill says. “And so just on that basis alone, you should go in fresh and not have any questions.”

Where …? Who …?

The only question with an actual answer right now is: When?

Luke Skywalker will be waiting to see you again on Dec. 18.

For more on Star Wars, follow @Breznican.

Friday at EW.com: Starkiller Base and the deadly ambition of General Hux. 

Pick up the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens double issue of Entertainment Weekly on newsstands Friday, or buy it here.