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Sunday, 23 August 2015

Casting Star Wars: How George Lucas and Brian De Palma found their stars

The alternative cast for Star Wars: Will Seltzer (Luke Skywalker), Christopher Walken (Han Solo),
Terri Nunn (Princess Leia)

Brian De Palma’s Carrie is well worth owning on Blu-Ray just because it’s a great horror film – and a reminder of how much talent was around in 1970s commercial cinema. But for anyone interested in Star Wars in the 1970s, the UK and Ireland Blu-Ray release of the film contains a bonus feature that makes fascinating viewing.

That bonus feature is Acting Carrie, an account of how De Palma cast his movie in cooperation with George Lucas.

Casting Carrie and Star Wars

Lucas began the lengthy process of auditioning actors for the principal roles in Star Wars in August 1975. Shortly afterwards, De Palma – who needed actors around the same age – teamed with him for the joint casting sessions.

Brian De Palma, who
held joint casting
sessions with
George Lucas
De Palma says in the Acting Carrie documentary: “George and I were both looking for unknowns so we sat together and basically went through hundreds of boys and girls, looking for the cast for Carrie and Star Wars.”

According to Dale Pollock’s biography of Lucas, Skywalking: “De Palma was talkative and outgoing and let Lucas fade into the background during the interviews.”

That impression seems to be borne out by the recollections of P.J. Soles, who landed a part in Carrie: “I just remember right away Brian looking at me and I could just sort of tell that he liked me and then George Lucas was just kind of stern faced and Brian turned to him and said ‘I'll put this one on my list’.”

Possible Leias: Nancy Allen, Cindy Williams,
Jodie Foster, P.J. Soles, Amy Irving

The recollections of the Carrie cast remind us that Star Wars was not quite the minor movie that people sometimes make out. It was, after all, budgeted at that time to be an eight million dollar production, and Lucas was seeing a large number of actors – around 30-40 a day.

Amy Irving says on the Blu-Ray: “I had never made a film before and I was doing a production of Romeo and Juliet on the stage when this audition came up for Star Wars. Everybody in town was going in on this and Brian De Palma was sitting in the corner of all the interviews that George was giving and he was kind of like making us a little mental note to say ‘OK, George can only pick so many, you know, I'll see what's left.”

Were Christopher Walken, Jodie Foster and Kurt Russell nearly in Star Wars?

Lucas called back almost fifty actors to read scenes on videotape before he picked four possible trios.

Trio number one consisted of Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher – even though Ford had originally only been there to feed lines to auditioning actors, since Lucas had not intended to use anyone from American Graffiti.

The second trio, if any one of the first choices had been unavailable, was Will Seltzer as Luke, Christopher Walken as Han Solo and Terri Nunn as Princess Leia. (Walken would become an Oscar-winning actor after the release of The Deer Hunter in 1978. Seltzer's 
film career eventually consisted mainly of supporting roles, including one in the Lucasfilm production More American Graffiti. Nunn was in the film Thank God It's Friday in 1978, but found film fame of a different kind as lead singer with the band Berlin, who recorded 'Take My Breath Away' for Top Gun.)

Possible Han Solos: Nick Nolte and Kurt Russell

It’s intriguing, of course, to consider the people Lucas did not cast. Not only could he, presumably, have picked anyone who ended up in Carrie, but he rejected some actors who went on to be stars – including Nick Nolte and Kurt Russell for Han Solo, and Jodie Foster as Princess Leia. The problem with Foster, it seems, was that she was under eighteen and wouldn’t be allowed to put in the same hours as an older actress, but for a while Lucas was intent on having Leia be as young as possible. Another member of the American Graffiti cast, Cindy Williams, was mortified to hear that Lucas was looking for a “young Cindy Willliams”.

According to J.W. Rinzler’s The Making of Star Wars, Lucas also considered reserving key parts for African American actors. He also, apparently, considered having Japanese actors among the principals, since he was considering casting the Japanese star Toshiro Mifune (of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and The Hidden Fortress) as Obi-Wan Kenobi.

The actors rejected for Star Wars

A possible Luke Skywalker:
William Katt

Some people have surveyed the list of actors Lucas rejected and wondered what the devil he was thinking of. Certainly there were some fine actors there, and I think the above videotaped screen test shows that William Katt and Kurt Russell might have been a memorable combination as Luke and Han.

But there’s no getting away from the fact that Lucas picked a good combination of actors for his movie – a trio who not only worked well together but lent the film the right air of sincerity. Along the way, he also helped turn Harrison Ford into one of the big box office stars of his generation.

With most films, the casting process is quickly forgotten about by everyone except those involved. But by interviewing such a huge list of actors, and then making the biggest film in history, Lucas ensured that people would forever afterwards wonder about the hypothetical version of Star Wars that might have had William Katt or Will Seltzer teaming with Christopher Walken or Nick Nolte to rescue Amy Irving or Jodie Foster from the clutches of the Empire.

1 comment:

John white said...

"George was just sort of stern faced." Sounds consistent alright. And you point out that SW wasn't just this small movie, I think? Part of the official story of SW is that it was a small movie that no one believed in, with its visionary director struggling against the wicked big studios.
You mention Rinzler's book too, which gives some positive spin. I wonder if Charles Lippincott agrees that black actors were considered for the film? Charles actually conducted many of the interviews for the book, but says that he went uncredited.