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April 27, 2018

Mark Hamill Discusses His Career and Gives Advice to Students

By Jessica Romer

Mark Hamill gave a master class to students at Norris Theater on April 16. The School of Cinematic Arts hosted the event along with the School of Dramatic Arts, bringing together students from both disciplines to learn from the Jedi Master himself. The conversation about filmmaking, acting, and life was moderated by David Bridel, Dean of the School of Dramatic Arts and accomplished director and playwright. Like the Stormtroopers who make appearances every so often, Hamill has become a kind of local at USC Cinema. He graced Norris’ stage last year as a special guest at Professor Drew Casper’s undergraduate course, The Star Wars Phenomenon, where he spoke about his experiences starring in the legendary films. This year Hamill was eager to provide guidance for the aspiring filmmakers and actors trying to break into the industry.

The conversation began with Hamill’s early days in Hollywood, when he was studying theater at Los Angeles City College while auditioning for acting gigs. He emphasized to students the importance of getting experience, even from places you might not expect. One of his first jobs was on a soap opera; he cackled, “I hated soap operas. I only watched soap operas to mock them openly.” Despite his initial dislike and fears of the show, Hamill learned many values lessons from working on the fast-paced television set with talented fellow actors. “The experience that the actors had and the fact you could learn your technique, how to find the light, how to hit your mark without looking down, was invaluable,” Hamill recalled. It was this experience, knowledge, and confidence which helped him succeed in bigger productions.  

Even when college threatened acting opportunities, Hamill didn’t drop out and persisted under the heavy hand of his theater professors. His training in theater disciplined him as an actor and taught Hamill to delve into his characters, which was important when he auditioned for the part of Luke Skywalker. Through professors and fellow students, Hamill was cast in small theater shows in Los Angeles that gave him visibility and connections to managers, agents, and directors. From these small parts in television, commercials, and films, Hamill received his SAG card, which was essential to getting auditions for big movies.

Hamill emphasized to students that the best things come when you least expect them, so you have to persist and keeping going: “You have to have talent number one, but I think you have to have tenacity. You have to stick to it.” After his TV series was canceled Hamill was devastated and feared he’d never get such a good opportunity again, but shortly thereafter he got an audition for the nondescript new space movie by the young American Graffiti director George Lucas. Hamill warned students about “a certain neediness bleeding through” when you audition for parts you really want. He felt this same way he auditioned for Star Wars, but put it aside to land the part. He advised students, “Be a good actor. Act like you don’t care.” When he went into the audition, Hamill only knew he was auditioning for a farm boy character and didn’t even recognize the silent Lucas who sat next to Carrie director Brian De Palma. Hamill insisted to students: “Take every audition you can get. Even if you read it and say there’s no way in hell I can get this part, go anyway. That’s part of your training.”

Hamill recounted playing the audition naturally and authentically and was shocked when he landed the lead role in the then-titled The Star Wars over hunky Harrison Ford. Hamill reminisced about the joy he had playing with the other actors, including the droids, on set with director Lucas. However, once Star Wars ended, he went through an identity crisis and tried to shake off his Skywalker persona, even foregoing mentioning his Star Wars credits in Broadway theater bills. Hamill laughed about a conversation he and friend Carrie Fisher had after one of his performances in Amadeus: “Carrie Fisher was always a few steps ahead of me. She said, ‘I’m Princess Leia. You’re Luke Skywalker. Get over yourself.’”

Hamill admits vehemently trying to avoid being type-casted, but after seeing the joy Carrie Fisher had with embarrassing her public persona as Princess Leia Hamill eventually learned to love being Luke Skywalker. “When I saw how much she was having fun…I realized she is right, that if you can’t have fun being in a movie that is that optimistic, that positive, and has brought so many people so much happiness…then this is the wrong industry for you.” He admitted to students how hard the entertainment industry can be and how much rejection you will have to deal with. Hamill explained that you really have to love the craft to make it in Hollywood.

Through his many roles as iconic characters from Skywalker to The Elephant Man to The Joker, Hamill loves creating and sharing dynamic characters with the world. He continues to be moved by people’s response to his films, from visiting children’s hospitals to attending conventions. After a four-decade long career, Hamill still works as an actor and loves it just as much as he did when he started. To rumbling laughter, Hamill smiled, “We are so lucky to be in a business where it is a joy to go to work. I would do this for free, but don’t tell my agent that.”