It seems as though Mark Hamill was not expecting a full room for his spotlight panel on Friday. “I was trying to catch a little catnap before this show, and I think I had a daydream where, you know, just my relatives were there,” he quipped as he sat down in front of hundreds of fans. (Hundreds were all the room would fit. The big IGN theater had already been given to Jay and Silent Bob for their live podcast. I’m sure that the duo lost more than a few audience members over that scheduling conflict.)
Frankly, I was a little nervous. As the Doctor jokes in “The Shakespeare Code,” you should never meet your heroes. And Mark Hamill is kind of the hero. He was certainly mine. While other girls grew up pretending to be Princess Ariel and Sailor Moon, I pretended to be Luke Skywalker. But I had never seen him in person, or heard him speak. I stepped into that room with no small amount of trepidation, ready to have my childhood shattered abruptly.
Turns out that, despite his affinity for villainous voice work, Mark Hamill is funny, warm and incredibly genuine. You also won’t find a better man for impressions anywhere on the Comic Con floor. And he had some awesome stories about wampas (“snow monsters”), Adam West, and harnessing the passion of fans.
He began with two great Star Wars tales. It seems that when he was filming the upside-down wampa scene for The Empire Strikes Back, there was no indication that he would be cutting off the poor creature’s arm. (He referred to the Hoth beast as a “snow monster”—as he pointed out, most of those creatures and objects didn’t have names when they were filming. They only received names later when the toy companies wanted to copyright them.) He filmed a scene where he feinted with the lightsaber, assured by the crew that he would only be singing the wampa’s fur or frightening it. While he admitted that the choice to cut off the monster’s arm was probably made much later in the game, he figured that the effects guys were just showing off: “First of all, it’s way out of chracter for Luke, it’s not something that I would ever do. And it’s so overkill.” Using a pitch-perfect grouchy old geezer voice, he let the audience know that was the one aggravation from Star Wars that he would take to his grave.
He also did a killer impression of Harrison Ford, detailing his co-star’s irritation at not knowing the “I am you father” twist until he saw Empire. “It was supposed to be a secret!” Hamill exclaimed, throwing his hands up in supplication. Apparenly, Irving Kirschner had warned him that if the knowledge leaked, he and Lucas would know it was Mark’s fault, since only the three of them knew the true line that James Earl Jones would dub in later.
Stories were spun in the most tangential way possible; it wasn’t uncommon for Hamill to pause, ask “wait, why were we talking about this?” and have to find his way back to the original topic. But all of that only added to the charm of the evening, as though we had all been invited to a private gathering to just sit and talk. And the fans wanted to hear about all of it, every Joker take, every fun bit part, every morsel of trivia.
He also had a truly evil laugh, if I ever heard one.
There was a hilarious moment where, when asked about his part in Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, he brought up Kevin Smith’s parents when they visited the set. “They said, ‘you know, it wasn’t so long ago that he was playing with you on a little miniature Star Wars set, and now he’s playing with you on a really big one!'” The irony was certainly not lost on all of us….
Hamill also talked about a project that he has had in the works for years now. Black Pearl began as a screenplay, then became a comic book, but he and his team are still trying to bring it to the big screen. “I came here hoping to have some news about it,” he lamented. It’s not a big budget production they’re going for, only $5-7 million for the whole film. When asked what could be done to help, there was a world-weary shrug. “If [the producers] could harness the passion of these fans ”
That’s true enough. If it were up to everyone in that room, the movie would have been in production yesterday.
Of course one cheeky fan couldn’t help but suggest that he “Use the Force, Luke!” to which he blithely responded, “I’ll try!”
Hamill was magnanimous when he got to the Joker, unarguably his most famous role after Luke Skywalker. He showed his appreciation for the many actors who have portrayed the character, including Heath Ledger’s recent “joyless” interpretation. He also admitted that although he had felt overly confident when he auditioned his voice for the role in the 90s, he soon panicked when they asked him to take the part. “That’s pretty brave,’ a friend of mine said, and I said, ‘What are you talking about?” and they said, ‘Going after Jack Nicholson,’ and I went, ‘Oh my god, I didn’t even think of that!‘”
The difficulty in doing voice work for video games was remarked upon, specifically in never knowing whether or not they would turn out well regardless of how good they looked. Hamill mentioned the Wolverine game he had done, and how he had been excited to play the clawed mutant, but it hadn’t turned out for the best. His sons (who test out all the games for dear dad) didn’t even want to tell him how bad they thought it was. Buzz on the street says that Arkham City (sequel to Arkham Asylum, which Hamill also voiced the Joker for) is a great game, but he remains skeptical until its release on the 18th.
But his work as Batman’s most famous nemesis will never be called into question. It just so happens that Adam West himself was pretty impressed with his Joker voice when they recorded together. Or at least he was according to Mark’s impression of him, which was spot on. In fact, any voice that he co-opted for the evening he owned instantly, from evil clowns to uncanny X-Men to Homer Simpson. Hearing those impressions every few seconds lent a vaudeville atmosphere to the affair, and the whole crowd was entranced.
The most intriguing thing about Mark Hamill, though, is the realization that he’s just as much of a fan as anyone sitting in the audience. This is a man with a real love of radio, film, and above all, comics. He’s passionate about all the things that we fellow geeks love, and that makes it such a treat to listen in.
Now, there’s been a rumor for years that Mark Hamill doesn’t like talking about the Star Wars films, but as he kindly said in a recent AV Club interview, he wants to talk about them if you do. He proved that when an apologetic fan approached with a Star Wars question. “No, no, I brought it up!” he assured. “I told the wampa story!” And then the audience was treated to more memories of the Tunisia desert and the late Sir Alec Guinness, and hearing the Rolling Stones come through on the set radio when he was supposed to be hearing Frank Oz delivering Yoda’s lines.
We heard about the time that Mark Hamill crawled inside a Dewback with a flashlight and read a review of a David Bowie concert in its paper mache walls. That’s a damned magical mental image to be presented with when you’re least expecting it.
At the end of the panel, someone shouted out that it was their birthday, and had a wish granted—Hamill delivered one of Heath Ledger’s lines in his own Joker voice: “Why so serious?” Then the Joker sang Happy Birthday and the crowd went wild.
My childhood remains intact, and I left the hall practically skipping. So thank you, Mark Hamill. I’m still proud to be a fan.
Emmet Asher-Perrin really did pretend to be Luke Skywalker every day on the playground. She holds Mark Hamill accountable for her hero complex. You can bug her on Twitter and read more of her work here and elsewhere.