'The Empire Strikes Back' Live Read Surprises With Mark Hamill, Ellen Page

Gender reversals, 'The Interview' jokes and a new spin on Yoda in Thursday's installment of the Film Independent series
Courtesy of Everett Collection
'The Empire Strikes Back'

"Welcome to the first live screening of The Interview."

Jason Reitman riffed on current events before transporting the audience for the latest in his Live Read series to a long, long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. The series, which Reitman and Film Independent have put on since 2011, returned on Thursday with The Empire Strikes Back — “the best Star Wars movie ever made,” Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell said in his introduction. And with Star Wars fever reaching 10-year highs, this installment was relocated from the usual LACMA Bing Theater to the more spacious Theatre at the Ace Hotel.

The rules were the same as for previous Live Reads: the cast hadn’t read the script before, and there would be no special effects. The idea is for the performers to experiment with cinema's classic characters, reinterpreting as they read (“it’s like live jazz,” Reitman said).

The surprises included a couple of castings — The Office's Rainn Wilson played Chewbacca, and in the ultimate nerd tribute, Mark Hamill (the original Luke Skywalker, a role he’s reprising in J.J. Abrams' Star Wars: The Force Awakens) played Palpatine and the ghostly Obi-Wan Kenobi — and some of the writing by George Lucas, Lawrence Kasdan and Leigh Brackett. Han Solo is in one scene described as “kiss[ing Leia] with slow, hot lips." Reitman interjected, "Oh, George."

In one fascinating casting turn, Reitman chose his Juno star Ellen Page (or "Ellen motherf—ing Page," as he introduced her) to play Han, opposite Jessica Alba as Leia. Both transformed the roles, Page inflecting her dialogue with a likable stammer and Alba bringing charm at times and a playful disgust at others to their interactions.

Aaron Paul played Luke Skywalker as Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman, his laconic delivery drawing (unintended?) laughs when paired with Lucas’s technological dialogue or the young Skywalker’s banter with Yoda. J.K. Simmons as Darth Vader found a different form for his baritone, reptilian and magisterial, rather than the sharp candor that makes his Whiplash performance so forceful.

But it was Stephen Merchant and Kevin Pollak who perhaps most reinterpreted the script, Merchant as a sarcastic (and occasionally foul-mouthed) C-3PO and Pollak as a hyperactive Yoda — who appears in the film differently than he is in the script, which describes him as blue and with elfin movements, i.e. “the creature scurried out of the clearing, laughing merrily."

Rounding out the cast was Dennis Haysbert playing Lando Calrissian — and Reitman, in his first time playing a character. Which character, you may ask? It could only be R2-D2.

Email: Austin.Siegemund-Broka@THR.com
Twitter: @Asiegemundbroka

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