Mark Hamill in July with his Star Wars beard
One year from now, Mark Hamill will return to movie theaters in the role that made him an icon. In the meantime, fans eagerly awaiting the debut of the elder Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Force Awakens can catch Hamill’s performance as another beloved big-screen wizened elder. The actor stars opposite Jim Parsons in Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas, NBC’s delightful stop-motion animated musical based on the 2003 Will Ferrell film and the Broadway show it inspired. (The special premieres Tuesday Dec. 16 at 8/7c). Hamill, who’s worked primarily as a voice actor since the mid-’90s, stars as Walter, the grouchy publishing executive who’s surprised to learn that his long-lost son was raised as a Christmas elf. Yahoo Movies spoke with Hamill about stepping into James Caan’s shoes for Elf, his Star Wars beard, and playing with the ball-droid on set.
So have you watched the Force Awakens trailer?
I have! You know, I watched it online. It’s funny: I have three children —Nathan, Griffin, and Chelsea, and my wife Mary Lou — and three of them went off to movie theaters to see it in a movie theater! [Laughs] I said, “You guys are such gigantic Star Wars nerds.” And you know, to tell you the truth, it probably would have been fun to see it in a theater with a packed audience. But the great thrill for me was watching the video of fans watching the trailer. Did you see that? Oh my god! I forget how happy this stuff makes a certain segment of our population. I mean, I really was moved to see these people that happy. It was wonderful. So for me, that was the most memorable thing about it — the reaction more than just the minute-and-a-half that it’s on the screen.
Let’s talk about Elf. It’s really fun to hear you sing.
I love singing, but I’m from the Bill Murray school of song: I sing with great confidence, even though I’m terrible.
Out of curiosity, I searched for “Mark Hamill singing” online. The first thing that came up was you singing “Only You” as the Joker, which is pretty great.
[Laughs] And creepy beyond words! That was done a cappella, without a click track – in other words, I listened to the original, which is an exquisite piece of music. But the only way it would work is through the Joker’s twisted sensibility. Those are challenges that are unexpected, but fun to try and conquer when they present themselves.
Mark Hamill as Buddy’s father Walter in Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas
So did you have any hesitation about signing on for a musical like this one?
Well, the first question that jumps to mind is: Why bother? I mean, it’s a classic Christmas film that everybody knows, like A Christmas Story or A Christmas Carol. And then of course, you realize that, number one, they’re doing it in stop-frame animation in the style of the old Rankin/Bass specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. And number two, it’s really more an adaptation of the Broadway musical than it is of the original film. So those two new elements justify retelling this story in a much more concise manner. But I’m just delighted, because I was a little kid when those specials were on originally, and I thought, Well, that’s just a bygone era and I’ll never be a part of that. But what I’m saying to you, in answer to your question, is I got increasingly excited as I learned more about what they had planned. And now that I’ve seen the finished product – Jim Parsons is just brilliant in this part! So adorable. He’s got an innocence that is just unparalleled that will really work. And he’s very precise, I think, in his choices, and I’m a fan, and I’m so glad to even be in the same production as him.
And you are playing the James Caan role from the movie. Did you ever find yourself slipping into James Caan voice?
He is one of my all-time favorite actors, and he’s so good in the live-action film. You see a close-up of his with that minimalist technique of his, and his thought process — it’s just awesome. But when you go to a different medium like this … I could not even think of James Caan, because I would lose the ability to speak. He’s just too good. People are saying to me, “Well, now that you’ve successfully been able to do a performance of his, are you hoping that they’ll make an animated musical version of The Godfather?” And I said, “Nooo.”
Walter is not amused in this scene from Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas
I would watch that. Do you still get a kick out of seeing little animated characters with your voice?
I do. I’ve never gotten over the delight of that. I love the process so much. I love the anonymity of not being seen. It liberates you in a way to try things that you wouldn’t ordinarily be brave enough to try if the camera were pointed at you.
Is that also the reason you grew the giant beard for Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
[Laughs] Yes. That is what I call my contractually obligated beard. Listen: I think they look fine on other people. It’s just not me. I mean, I never got used to it. But face foliage is almost a part of the costume. And it does bring a gravitas, perhaps unearned, but nevertheless, it makes a statement that they wanted to make, and I’m more than happy to oblige them.
Were you surprised that you’re not in the first trailer?
Not really. This is about the new generation of characters; I think that’s the most important thing. It’s the opening act of a whole new approach to the storytelling. So I never thought that the stories would be – first of all, I never thought I’d be involved in it again, period. And then when George [Lucas] said that they wanted to do more, I rightly assumed that it wouldn’t be our story, because we had a beginning, a middle, and an end. This must be our offspring and the current generation, with us there lending the kind of support that Peter Cushing and Alec Guinness did in the original. So no, that didn’t surprise me. And I mean, I’m one of those people where I just think, “Keep me out of it. I’ll ruin it, I’m sure!” [Laughs] I’ll show up and just ruin the whole thing.
You are the only person who thinks you could ruin a Star Wars trailer!
I don’t want that pressure! It’s too much pressure! You know, because I said to George, “Have you really thought this through? Because maybe it’s not such a great idea.” But I had a feeling, I said, “You know what – if there’s a weak link, if Carrie [Fisher] or Harrison [Ford] decides they don’t want to do it, there’s an out. Because it’s all or nothing. It should be all of us or none of us.” So I was ready to go either way. And now that we’re all in, we’ll see what happens.
You thought Harrison would give you an out, didn’t you?
Well, you know, he was someone that was unpredictable. I hadn’t seen him in years; I didn’t know what his feelings were. I know he’s sometimes grown impatient with people that don’t want to focus on what he’s doing currently and want to go stroll down memory lane. God knows, I’m used to that sort of thing. But who knew? And for him to jump back in so enthusiastically, I was delighted. It’s a wonderful character. Everybody loves Han Solo.
Well, between Star Wars and Elf, my six-year-old is your new biggest fan.
Now see, six years old, that’s my sweet spot. That’s my crowd, baby. And is it a boy?
A boy. And the funny thing is, I overheard him having exactly the same conversation about the Star Wars trailer with one of his friends that my husband and I had when we watched it.
What was the conversation?
The new droid from the Force Awakens trailer
Something to the effect of, “Omigod have you seen the Star Wars trailer? With the crazy lightsaber and the droid that looks like a ball?”
[Laughs] I’m sure he loved the new little droid that’s a rolling ball. I’m sure he wants it under the tree this Christmas. They never cease to amaze me with what they’re able to come up with, you know? I said, “How are you ever gonna top R2-D2, the most adorable droid in movie history?” And then they have this new one. I can’t even tell you his name, but you saw it in the trailer. [Editor’s note: the name of the droid has been revealed as BB-8.] And when they were demonstrating how they did this thing, live on set — because it’s not CGI, that’s a live prop — I was just amazed. They let me play around with it. [Laughs] I was running it all around at the creature shop up in Pinewood. I’m telling you, it’s an absolute delight. And not having thought that I’d ever go back there, to go back into that world, is just – I get the chills. It’s just so much fun.
Watch a preview of Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas.
Photo credit: Photo by Karwai Tang/WireImage, Warner Bros. Entertainment