Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy, which culminates in this week’s The Rise of Skywalker, has doubled as a kind of nostalgia trip for longtime fans, with beloved characters like Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Han Solo popping into the galaxy for one last adventure. But one pivotal character has been left out of the fun: Lando Calrissian, the charismatic, lovable scoundrel played by Billy Dee Williams in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi.
Until now. Lando makes his belated return to the franchise in Rise of Skywalker, and at 82, Williams couldn’t be more pleased to be strutting around through the Star Wars universe again. "This character has been part of my life for 40 years, and I don’t think it’s an accident," Williams says in early December with a grin.
Weeks before the movie’s premiere, Billy Dee Williams reflects on the long history of Lando Calrissian—and getting into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon for one last ride.
GQ: I’m so happy that Lando is finally back. In some ways, I wish he’d come in earlier—but it does feel kind of appropriate that he’s fashionably late.
Billy Dee Williams: Yeah! I guess it seems to be an appropriate moment. I mean, this is the last of the whole situation. And certainly I was an integral part of the beginning.
When did you find out they wanted Lando to come back for Episode IX?
It’s been a couple of years. Almost two years ago.
With a production this secretive, what are they even telling you at this point? Did you get a script?
J.J. called me and I went down to his office. We were going to meet at my house, but I decided that I wanted to go and meet him at his office. And so we just sat and talked, and he told me that he wanted me to participate in this third trilogy. And I just chuckled and said, “Sure. Of course.”
Certainly [I wanted] an opportunity to work with J.J., because he is a sensational human being. He’s great to work with when he’s out there. His brain just continues. Never stops. And so you never have an opportunity to really slow down. You just keep building the momentum.
You’ve played Lando in a bunch of Star Wars side projects since Return of the Jedi, but this is the first time he’s been on the big screen since 1983. What was it like to step back into his shoes after so many years?
In the beginning, I had a two-picture deal. That’s all I knew. And then I moved on to something else. But there are things about the character [in Rise of Skywalker] I think that you probably didn’t see in the earlier stuff. I think you’ll see a little bit more depth.
We can’t really talk about Lando’s arc in Rise of Skywalker, because I haven’t seen it yet.
I haven’t seen it either. I’m like everybody else.
But before you read the Rise of Skywalker script—did you have your own ideas about what happened to Lando after the original trilogy?
You know, I thought about it. I was curious. Before I started working [on Rise of Skywalker], I sort of imagined him being Steve What’s-His-Name, who runs Las Vegas. [ed: Steve Wynn] Going back to Cloud City, doing that whole trip. Or smuggling. I don’t know. I waited with anticipation [to find out]. And it turned out pretty interesting.
Lando wasn’t in the original Star Wars, but he became so central to the franchise’s universe in just two movies. How would you describe what made him so appealing to fans?
I think he’s an interesting, fun, swashbuckling individual with a lot of charm. He’s like the old-fashioned swashbuckling characters in the old movies. Errol Flynn. And he’s my personality. Every character I’ve done, there’s always something interesting and special about it—if I have to say so myself.
Playing such an iconic Star Wars character means spending your life interacting with Star Wars fans. Have you found that those conversations have changed at all between 1980 and 2019?
They don’t cuss me out anymore for betraying Han Solo. But it’s over now. I don’t have little 10-year-old boys threatening my life. And when I do these conventions, I run into people who were little kids when they first saw it—and they’re bringing their kids.
I know you met with Donald Glover before he played the younger Lando in Solo. Did you ever talk after the movie came out?
Did you see it?
For me… I only think of me when I think of Lando.
Rise of Skywalker is the end of a third trilogy, but it’s clearly not the end of Star Wars. Do you have your own ideas for what the future of Star Wars might be after this?
Not really. I mean, I think it’s going to go on forever.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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Originally Appeared on GQ