Cue the heavy breathing.
Darth Vader is alive, angry, and merciless.
As part of EW’s Rogue One cover reveal, we confirmed the Sith lord will be back at the height of his powers in the Dec. 16 film, which takes place just prior to the events of 1977’s original Star Wars.
Ever since Lucasfilm announced that the plot of its first stand-alone movie would focus on the Rebel warriors who staged a heist of plans for the first Death Star, fans knew — or at least seriously expected — that the most iconic villain in film history would return to the screen. If he didn’t…? The collective rage of the Star Wars fandom would probably Force-choke whoever nixed him.
Rogue One is a new kind of movie for Lucasfilm, a story that explores territory beyond the core “saga” films of the first three classic movies, George Lucas’ prequels, and the new trilogy that started with J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens and will continue in 2017 with director Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII. The next stand-alone film after Rogue One will be a young Han Solo story, coming out in 2018, which delves into the history of the captain of the Millennium Falcon long before he encounters Luke and Obi-Wan Kenobi in that cantina on Tatooine.
Lucasfilm has said the main difference between the features is that the “saga” films are focused mainly on the Skywalker family — but now we know that doesn’t mean Rogue One will be completely devoid of Skywalkers.
In her interview with EW, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy was asked about which characters from the original trilogy may turn up alongside the new heroes and villains.
After a momentary hesitation, Kennedy said: “I think we can talk about Vader…”
Those were the seven words fans wanted to hear.
At 85, James Earl Jones will also reprise his role as Vader’s foreboding voice, while a variety of large-framed performers will embody the character behind the mask. (David Prowse, now 80, was often inside the suit in the original trilogy.)
Jones has lately performed the character on episodes of Disney XD’s animated Star Wars: Rebels — but many actors have imitated the voice over the years for games, cartoons, and other products. Onscreen, however, there can be no substitute.
That leaves the question: How much Vader are we going to get? The answer — just a little bit. (That’s why there isn’t a new image of him, unfortunately.) Kennedy says Rogue One has to make careful use of Vader. “He will be in the movie sparingly,” she says. “But at a key, strategic moment, he’s going to loom large.”
EW also learned a little about Vader’s reputation in the galaxy at this point in the chronology, roughly 19 years after the events of Revenge of the Sith, when Anakin Skywalker lost most of his limbs and was horrifically burned in a battle with Obi-Wan, necessitating the life-sustaining armor he wears forever after. As Rogue One unfolds, Vader is still a background player in galactic politics.
Vader is the muscle. The fixer. And also… the breaker, when he needs to be.
The Empire’s grip on the galaxy is beginning to be pried open, and the Death Star is how Emperor Palpatine intends to maintain his dominion over the star systems rising up against him.
The Rebels are barely familiar with Vader. Even within the Empire, he is more legend than everyday presence. “Within the Rebellion, it’s not commonly spoken about,” says director Gareth Edwards. “Within the Empire, there is the culture of knowing of the existence of Darth Vader. There’s definitely an underlying feeling that there is a power — a dark power — available to the Empire and that if you overstep your mark, you will suffer the consequences.”
With the man in black as a background figure, that brings us to the central villain of Rogue One: a man in white.
RELATED: Exclusive Rogue One details – EW Radio
VILLAIN VS. VILLAIN
The main antagonist of the story is Ben Mendelsohn’s Director Orson Krennic, an ambitious Imperial officer with Machiavellian tendencies who is eager to secure a place at the Emperor’s side. “There is a lot of palace intrigue going on in the Empire, with people conspiring to move up the ranks and sabotaging each other,” producer John Knoll says. “There’s not a lot of loyalty there.”
In other words, Krennic and Vader aren’t friends. They’re barely allies, and Krennic is understandably threatened by the Sith Lord. “Vader doesn’t really play by the rules,” says Kiri Hart, Lucasfilm’s chief of story development. “He’s present in the military structure, but he’s not beholden to it. He’s not accountable to anybody, really, except Palpatine.”
Hart believes Vader’s volatility in the original film is part of what made him memorable and unsettling, so that quality will also be coming back in Rogue One.
“When Tarkin says to Vader to ‘release him’ when he’s choking that guy, Vader does it, but not because he has to. He’s just willing to give Tarkin one in that moment,” she says, with a nervous laugh. “That’s part of what makes the reveal of the Emperor, even in a hologram in Episode V, so cool because you’re like, ‘Oh, wow. Here is the guy that Vader literally bends his knee to. What’s that all about?’”
That’s what Krennic is trying to figure out, too: How can he acquire that most-favored status? What is it between the Emperor and Vader that binds them?
Krennic is left with a lot of motivation to quash this Rebel strike force and keep the Empire’s Death Star plans from going awry.
He can feel Vader’s mechanical breath on his neck.
VADER’S FIRST DAY
With Lucas retired and stepping back from the creative process, this new slate of Star Wars films marks the first time that a generation of filmmakers who grew up as fans are taking over the official stories. Some, like Edwards, first started making up their own Star Wars tales as children with the help of their Kenner action figures.
Bringing back a key original character onscreen is sort of like one of those 3 3/4-inch figures becoming life-size.
When asked about his first day with Darth Vader, Edwards actually went way back. He recalled being a kid and going to the opening of a toy shop that featured a special celebrity guest — the dark lord himself. “When I got home, my mum encouraged me to tell a neighbor what I’d done that day, and I said, ‘Oh, yeah, I met Darth Vader.’ And the neighbor said, ‘The real one?’ I was like, ‘No, it was just an actor — the real one’s out in space.’”
While prepping to start Rogue One, Edwards’ first experience with the fallen Jedi came in the Fall of 2014 during a test shoot on the Starkiller Base set of The Force Awakens. They were experimenting with how best to light all that gleaming black armor in amongst the shimmering backdrop of Imperial-style architecture.
“He’s got more in common with lighting a car than a person, so we wanted to get it exactly right,” Edwards said. “We had the breathing sound just to inspire everyone. I just got massive goosebumps. I was so nervous to turn the corner and see him. You have to pinch yourself. Everyone became children again, so easy. You just go straight back to being a 4-year-old, like, in a heartbeat.”
He says that’s when a filmmaker becomes a fan again. “There’s all these rules about security on set, but I couldn’t help it,” Edwards says. “I got my phone out and started taking pictures of him, and pictures of me with him, because I felt like no one would ever believe that I’d met Darth Vader.”
The real one this time.
In December, we’ll be encountering him again, too.
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Coming up later on EW.com: A gallery of exclusive new images from Rogue One.