THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK at Jason Reitman's Live Read
This is one of the many things that makes The Empire Strikes Back such a perfect fit for Jason Reitman's Live Read series in Los Angeles, where, every month, a beloved script is recast by modern actors and read cold before a live audience. The events are a fascinating window into the skeletons of favored films, baring them down to what usually matters most - the story.
Reitman likes to further shake things up with re-interpretative casting. For example, when Live Read threw Reservoir Dogs under the microscope, Reitman thought it would be interesting to see how the material would feel with an all black cast, including Terrence Howard, Laurence Fishburne, and Cuba Gooding Jr. as the original gangsters. When Glengarry Glen Ross was the selection of the month, Reitman cast an entirely female firm.
Then, just last Thursday, Reitman exercised a bit of genius recasting with The Empire Strikes Back. First there was 21st century boy, Aaron Paul, as Luke, the young would-be Jedi knight. Playing Luke's father (spoiler alert) Papa Darth, was 2014's most intimidating villain, JK Simmons. Jessica Alba, a modern princess in her own right, was fittingly cast as Leia.
Reitman was at his most deconstructive in modernizing the Princess Leia and Han Solo sexual tension by giving the role of Han to, Juno alumni and LGBT activist, Ellen Page. The cast was rounded out by Dennis Haysbert as Lando Calrissian, Stephen Merchant as C-3PO, the brilliant Kevin Pollak as Yoda, and a hysterical portrayal of Chewbacca by Rainn Wilson.
Perhaps the most inspired casting choice of all was Star Wars godfather, Mark Hamill, taking the helm as the distinguished old-school Jedi, Obi Wan Kenobi. Though Obi Wan's lines were few, Hamill's presence offered the event a sort of official blessing, as well as a sense of generational lineage; enough to make imaginative fans wonder what a bona fide Star Wars VII might look like. Hopefully it wouldn't be to the tune of, "may the force be with you, bitch!!".
Highlights of the night included Merchant's organically British interpretation of C-3PO, which saw some mild dialogue revisions, offering a brilliant fusion of Merchant and the android's personalities, Pollak's expert approach to every minor character, Page's machismo, Simmons' terrifyingly baritone Vader, and perhaps most crowd-pleasing of all, every time Rainn Wilson opened his mouth to deliver Chewbacca's 'lines'. Also, let's not forget the live audience's grossed-out response to the moment when Leia gives her brother, Luke, a wet smackeroo. Lastly, to further spice up the extremely well known film, the audience was treated to a not quite final draft of the Empire script.
But more than any one highlight, the charm of the night was driven by the interplay of the ensemble and the general collective basking in Star Wars fandom. Reitman's live read may thrive on dialogue heavy films like Boogie Nights or Diner, but as Thursday night demonstrated, there's plenty of room for beloved blockbusters as well. For, as Reitman knows all too well, these films are cherished just as much for their bare imagination as their actualization. If only Lucas was able to keep that in mind.