Ahmed Best brought one of the first computer-generated lead characters to life in what was then arguably the most anticipated movie of all time — and immediately found himself in the eye of a storm of ridicule. The floppy-eared amphibian he played was denounced by critics and fanboys alike as the most annoying — and, some claimed, offensive — addition to the Star Wars universe.
No one foresaw the negative reaction prior to release. In fact, the cast found Ahmed Best delightful. “Ahmed had Ewan and me in stitches most days,” says Liam Neeson. Natalie Portman concurs: “He was definitely everyone’s favorite person on set.” The Phantom Menace ensemble was convinced that Best’s character would become an audience favorite. They could not have been more wrong.
When the reviews finally rolled out, 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.
Especially jarring to Best were the charges that his character was a racist stereotype. To this day, these charges confuse Best rather than anger him. 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 the 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.)
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. “Jar Jar was a lightning rod for everything that folks didn’t like [about the movie],” Best says.
McGregor and other cast members rallied to his defense. McGregor says, “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.”
Part of the Star Wars audience agrees with that assessment: the 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. “Then when we did Return of the Jedi, everybody was completely disgusted with the Ewoks.”
Considering everything that he went through, does Best ever wish he had not been cast as 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. 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.”
In celebration of the highly anticipated Star Wars: The Force Awakens, EW is giving fans an inside look at the franchise in The Ultimate Guide to Star Wars. A celebration of the entire beloved franchise, this compendium features rarely seen production and cast photos from all the movies in the series; essays on Ralph McQuarrie, the founding of George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic, director Irvin Kershner, and more; as well as exclusive art and surprising reveals from The Force Awakens. The piece above is an excerpt from the heavily illustrated collector’s edition. EW’s The Ultimate Guide to Star Wars is in stores and newsstands Friday, Dec. 18, or an ebook edition is available for order online on iTunes and Amazon.