Back in 1999, many Star Wars fans experienced the crushing realization that The Phantom Menace, George Lucas’ long-awaited first prequel, was not the movie they’d hoped it would be. But perhaps no one’s disappointment was as keen as that of Peter Serafinowicz, the English actor and Star Wars super-fan who provided the voice of baddie Darth Maul (played onscreen by Ray Park). In an interview excerpt from Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast, Serafinowicz hilariously recalled his experience working on The Phantom Menace, and his slaw-jacked reaction when he saw the movie for the first time. Listen above!
Serafinowicz couldn’t believe his luck when got the part of Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace. Not only was Star Wars his favorite film, but he was obsessed with James Earl Jones’s Darth Vader voice, and thrilled to carry on the villainous voice-acting tradition. When it came time to record, director and Star Wars creator George Lucas insisted on sitting in the booth with Serafinowicz, much to the actor’s excitement and terror.
Watch a TV spot for ‘The Phantom Menace’ voiced by Serafinowicz.
“All I could think of was, George Lucas is sitting behind me. George Lucas is sitting behind me,” Serfinowicz recalled. “…And so I said to George, ‘How do you want me to do this? What direction can you give me?’ And he said, ‘Just make him evil. Just make him sound real evil.’”
Months later, the first Phantom Menace trailer was released online — a novel approach back in the late ‘90s — and Serafinowicz was blown away. “I just thought it looked like the most incredible film I’d ever seen,” he said. “I just thought, this is like sci-fi meets Fellini! Those costumes looked incredible! And also the trailer was fantastic … even watching it again now, it makes me think, ‘Hmm, maybe I’ll check it out again.’”
Watch the original trailer for ‘The Phantom Menace.’
Given his excitement for the film, Serafinowicz paid his own way to the film’s premiere, purchased a thousand-dollar ticket to sit in the audience, and sat down to watch the magic. But he knew he was in trouble as soon as the opening crawl began. “Something about a trade agreement, I think, was the most exciting part of the text,” he said. When the action started, the audience was silent.
“They made a joke about five minutes in: Ewan McGregor has to say, ‘I’ve got a bad feeling about this,’ which George Lucas probably was thinking, ‘Everybody’s going to kill themselves when they say that line because we said it in the other films!’” said Serafinowicz. “But everybody was like, ‘No, we’ve actually got a bad feeling about this film, because it looks terrible.’”
As Serafinowicz remembers it, the first Phantom Menace audience alternated between boredom and complete bafflement. After the fish chase sequence on Naboo (ending in Neeson’s groan-worthy punchline “There’s always a bigger fish”), “everybody’s kind of looking at each other, there’s question marks above people’s heads,” said Serafinowicz. Then came Jar Jar Binks, Watto, and the rest of the ethnically-stereotyped CGI alien creatures. “It reminds me of, if you’re watching Channel 4 during the day and there’s an old black-and-white film on, and someone’s in blackface, and they just bought this film for eight pounds to show and nobody’s checked it,” joked the actor. “It was like, the most racist film of the twentieth century!”
On top of his disappointment with the film, Serafinowicz admits that voicing Darth Maul (alone with two other minor characters) “was one of the worst-paying jobs I’ve ever done.”
And he wasn’t the only actor working for a less-than-stellar salary. Years after the film, Serafinowicz interviewed Terence Stamp, who played Chancellor Valorum in Phantom Menace, for BBC radio. Stamp agreed to shoot his scenes for very little money, on the understanding that Lucas gave his performers a “special gift” after filming was over. Stamp stuck it out, only to find out that his present from Lucas was a child’s Phantom Menace stencil set.
So in a nutshell: If you felt cheated by George Lucas after Phantom Menace, you’re in good company.