THE NEW YORK TIMES – While they tell tales of Death Stars and daddy issues, the “Star Wars” movies are also stories about duality: how goodness and evil can coexist — on the same planet or inside the same person — and what happens when they collide on an intergalactic scale.
These themes are revisited once again in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the eighth episode in the science-fiction saga that George Lucas started in 1977. “The Last Jedi,” which opens on Dec. 15, is the first to be written and directed by Rian Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”). It follows the resounding success of “The Force Awakens,” directed by J. J. Abrams in 2015, about two young heroes, a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and a renegade stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega), caught up in the search for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).
The new film continues where “The Force Awakens” left off, as Rey and Luke are about to meet on the planet Ahch-To, and it promises a further exploration of their relationship to the sullen evildoer Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his nefarious master, Snoke (Andy Serkis). It also features the final performance in the series from Carrie Fisher, who played Leia and who died last December.
At a running time of some two and a half hours, “The Last Jedi” continues the adventures of Finn and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and their adversaries Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Somehow it finds room for the new characters Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern), and a wide-eyed alien species called porgs.
Like the film they made, the creator and cast of “The Last Jedi” can encompass a spectrum of darkness and light, seriousness and silliness, all in the same conversation. Just days before the movie’s opening, they gathered for what felt at times like a solemn high school graduation and, at other times, like its after-party.
Here, Mr. Johnson, Ms. Ridley, Mr. Boyega, Mr. Hamill, Mr. Driver, Mr. Serkis, Mr. Isaac, Ms. Christie, Mr. Gleeson, Ms. Tran and Ms. Dern discuss their work on “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and some of the questions it raises. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.
Audiences have a strong sense of what they think a “Star Wars” film should look and feel like. But Rian, you make films that are personal and idiosyncratic. How do you do that in a “Star Wars” movie?
RIAN JOHNSON I don’t think you try to. It would be bad news if you came into this saying, “How do I make this mine?” You’re just desperately trying to make a good “Star Wars” movie — to me that means that it’s a balance between opera and bubble gum. It should make you come out of the theater and feel like you’re 10 years old, and want to grab your spaceships and start flying around. On top of everything else.
For the veterans of “The Force Awakens” —
DAISY RIDLEY I’m not a fan of the word “veteran.” We did one movie! How about actors?
As you make your way through Star Wars High —
OSCAR ISAAC I was so high the whole time. [Laughter]
— there are actors you were paired with and worked with closely on the last film. What was it like to have those relationships scrambled and rearranged on “The Last Jedi”?
ISAAC What Rian did so well was that he asked the really tough questions. Not only of the characters, but also about the themes that “Star Wars” brings up. What is to be a Jedi? What is it to be a hero? What is it to be, in my case, a hotshot pilot? And then try to find the opposite of that — the hardest thing, the thing that’s furthest away, and have that be what the character has to deal with. Even in pairing the characters, he’s taking away what you know, and making you as uncomfortable as possible.
Was it bittersweet to have Finn and Rey, our heroes from “The Force Awakens,” split up?
JOHN BOYEGA It was horrible when I read the script for the first time and I wasn’t with her. We auditioned together. We went through this whole experience together. To be split apart was scary for me. But then I understood that is something that we could draw from — something that Finn really feels, and Rey really feels. And then I was like, “Oh! Rian does know what he’s doing.” [Laughter]
RIDLEY I felt the same. When I read the script, I didn’t cry right away. I was like, “Wobble, wobble, wobble, [shaky voice] I’m probably going to cry and I need to see Rian.” Then I went into Rian’s office and I was crying my eyes out. I’m not great with new people. I think Mark can attest to that. [Silence, then laughter]
ADAM DRIVER No one says, “No, you’re great!” Everyone else is like, “Yeah.”
RIDLEY I find it really difficult to relax. And then that’s influencing someone else’s performance. You don’t want to be the thing that’s holding something back, when there’s me, going, [awkwardly] “So … how’d you get into all this?” Mark and I were lucky enough to have proper rehearsal time, and then we could talk through everything with Rian. It ended up feeling great, but it was nerve-racking.
We were just getting to see the relationship between Luke and Rey before the curtain came down on Episode VII. In Episode VIII, were you able to pick up where you left off?
MARK HAMILL We had no relationship in VII. It’s left up to the audience to decide if he knows who she is. They established earlier that I had a telepathic ability with my sister — would I know what’s going on now? Would I know I lost my best friend? That’s all left up to the audience, and that’s in the great tradition of the cliffhangers that inspired George in the first place. “Continued next week.” Two years, in this case. But don’t worry, it’s only five months until the next one. [Rolls eyes] Great marketing there, Disney. [Laughter] What are they going to do, fire me?
LAURA DERN Luke Skywalker, ladies and gentlemen. That’s why they titled it “The Last Jedi.”
RIDLEY When I meet people I’m not like [gasps]. [Mr. Hamill pretends to pout, as Ms. Dern playfully rubs his back in comfort.] I’m more impressed with a human than a reputation. To me, I was working with Mark, I wasn’t working with Luke. I was nervous because I was working with a new person and I wanted to do my best, and I wanted the scenes to go well. Luke is regarded in this way, and Rey does understand that. But Rey, on a very human level, is asking something of Luke: “I need some advice here.” We were able to pick up right where we left off, chronologically, and it worked very well.
Is it uniquely satisfying to play a villain in a “Star Wars” movie, where you get to be especially villainous?
DOMHNALL GLEESON It was a delightful surprise, having people come up to me after “The Force Awakens” and say, “You were so bad in that movie.” It meant a lot to me. [Laughter]
GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE It’s always exciting to be bad, isn’t it? It’s even more exciting to be bad as your job. And in a context where it doesn’t impact human lives. It’s particularly resonant at the moment, the idea of, what is a better use of human energy: to serve the group or to serve the individual?
Andy, you play Supreme Leader Snoke, one of your many motion-capture characters, so there’s a whole other layer to your performance.
ANDY SERKIS There’s a gold lamé layer. The Supreme Leader as Hugh Hefner, that’s something that I particularly grabbed onto. The luxuriousness of it all. The thing about Snoke is, leaders are fearful people, because when you’re in a position of maximum power, you can only lose power. And that fear drives nearly all decisions. That fear then makes you aggressive. It makes you want to destroy others. It makes you unable to see or care about others. But when you’re creating a villain character, it’s about humanizing — there’s something important in the task of creating Snoke to find his vulnerability, because that makes him even more dangerous and despicable.
Adam, I wouldn’t say that Kylo Ren is strictly an evil person, even though we’ve seen him do terrible things. Where does he come from for you?
DRIVER The best way I can describe it is, it’s like a conversation that we started with J. J. and it continues through this film. It was less interesting to think of him as pure evil, because I don’t really know what that is. He’s someone who thinks he’s right, more than he thinks what he’s doing is bad. When I meet people who are unable to hear the other side, who not only think they’re right but they’re justified, then there’s no end to what they would do to make sure that their side wins. To me, that’s more dangerous, because the boundaries are limitless. As opposed to just being evil, that seems like it can’t sustain itself. When you feel morally justified, that feels more long-lasting and more unpredictable.
He has a lot of emotional conflict but you seem pretty even-keeled. Am I reading you correctly?
DRIVER No. [Laughter] I’m a rational person. And then I killed my father. [Laughter]
This is the first “Star Wars” movie for Kelly Marie Tran and Laura Dern. What is it like to be initiated into this franchise?
KELLY MARIE TRAN It is both horrifying and amazing. Obviously, I was intimidated, but I never felt intimidated, personally, in Regina George fashion. Every single person sitting here was honest and open. I was allowed to go to set when I wasn’t working and watch them perform. I felt like I was in this epic acting school that I didn’t have to pay for. Someone just gave me the key.
DERN I have to discredit you, Daisy, with your comments about yourself [not being great with new people]. When my daughter came to set, she said, “Oh my God, Mom, do you think we get to see Rey?” I was like, “Oh, we don’t want to bother people.” And then your trailer door opened, and you went, [singing to the “Jurassic Park” theme] “Laura Der-rrrr-rrn, Laura Der-rrrr-rrn.” [Laughter] My daughter was like, “She’s the most welcoming person.”
HAMILL Another royalty for John Williams.
How do you make a movie that finds time to provide moments for every one of these actors?
JOHNSON That’s part of the reason that this movie is a little longer than all the others.
ISAAC He made sure everyone gets to cry.
JOHNSON “Star Wars” is on the public stage in a way that nothing else is. But even on a big scary thing like this, every single one of these people was excited to step outside their comfort zones, to go to places that were really interesting but not necessarily easy.
HAMILL Like the top of Skellig Michael [the Irish island whose steep, precarious mountains are used as the setting for Ahch-To].
JOHNSON I offered to carry you on my back, Yoda-style, but you didn’t trust my legs.
HAMILL Really, when I read VII, I said, “Oh, they’ll do it with green screens and J. J. will be up the road — I’ll be done by lunch.” Little did I know, I’ll suffer for your art, kid.
JOHNSON In the edit room, you get to a point where you realize, ah, we could make the movie shorter but we’d have to give somebody short shrift, and we’re not going to do that because every one of these guys has an amazing journey in the movie.
Is there a character, other than your own, that you wish you’d gotten to play in this film?
ISAAC What Adam does in this movie is insane. It’s incredible. [Mr. Driver begins looking around awkwardly, as if searching for a way to escape the room.] It’s so wild and unpredictable and very magnetic. It made me very jealous.
BOYEGA I have to second that. I was blown away by the conflict and the change in the character arc. And the fights.
ISAAC Oh, the fights. The beautiful fights.
BOYEGA It reminds me, as a guy, of the transition from a boy to a man, learning how to maintain a certain type of energy that you have and choosing the way you let it free. That’s what he struggles with.
Who here got to meet the porgs?
RIDLEY I got to meet the porgs, but also, I’ve gotten about 300 questions about the porgs. What’s the big deal about porgs? They wouldn’t even be able to fly. Their body-to-wing ratio is like a chicken. They can’t!
DERN The more I went on about how adorable they are — it was like looking into the eyes of E. T., I loved those eyes so much — Oscar only continued to talk about different recipes.
ISAAC Porgs with roasted turnips. Glazed porg.
What would you like to see happen to your characters in Episode IX? Do you want to have that much influence over them?
ISAAC Sorry, I was still talking about porg recipes.
JOHNSON It depends on who survives at this point.
GLEESON I only have a small part to play in all this, but if I had decided what I was going to do, from the last one to the next one, it wouldn’t have been nearly as surprising as what Rian came up with it.
ISAAC It’s amazing to think about giving up that feeling of control. You have to just be open and see what’s next.