Charles Ross knows that Emperor Palpatine, the cackling Sith Lord who tormented the heroes of three Star Wars trilogies, is evil. Yet he can’t help admiring the commitment behind the character’s cruelty.
“It’s beautiful when you see him completely fail, because right up to the point where Darth Vader picks him up and chucks him down the chute, he still believes he’s going to win,” explains the Canadian actor. “I mean, why would he doubt it? That’s wonderful, that you can be that committed until it’s absolutely over.”
Ross knows all about commitment. Since 2001, he has been reenacting the original three Star Wars films in One Man Star Wars Trilogy, in which he plays everyone from Obi-Wan Kenobi to Jabba the Hutt. In the 60-minute show, which Ross will perform at the Newmark Theatre on November 14, there are no costumes and no props—just him recreating the dialogue, music and sound effects of George Lucas’s galaxy far, far away.
Growing up, Ross taped a VHS of the first Star Wars film off of television and watched it so incessantly that it became filled with what he describes as “gnarly glitches.” He grew so enthralled that he even taught a cockatiel to imitate R2-D2’s beeping, which got so irritating that the bird had to be given away to his hearing-impaired grandmother.
The longevity of One Man Star Wars Trilogy, which was directed by TJ Dawe, makes Ross a holdover from a less jaded age of Star Wars fandom. Yet he’s defined not only by his staying power, but also by a beautifully fanatical attention to detail evident in the way he captures the stiff movements of C-3P0’s arms and the stentorian echo of James Earl Jones’ Darth Vader voice.
“It’s been nothing short of the best thing that I didn’t realize was going to work out that worked out,” says Ross. “Other than having children, this has been the most surprising experience of my life.”
During a recent phone interview, I talked with Ross about crafting impersonations, the origin of One Man Star Wars Trilogy, negotiations with Lucasfilm and whether or not he would do a show based on another Star Wars trilogy. For me, a fan who has loved Star Wars as long as Ross has been performing his show, it was a conversation that will be long remembered.
ARTS WATCH: As a fan of your work, one of the things I’ve admired is how fantastically spot-on your Jabba the Hutt voice is. You get that gravelly, musical laugh so perfect. How do you prepare your voice to do something like that?
If you ever hear the great, masterful actors, someone like Ian McKellen’s voice always seems perfectly trained and like it’s always warmed up and ready. I mean, I’ve met him several times. He’s not doing any vocal warm ups—he’s just on demand. While I’m doing my shows, my voice just gets naturally warmed up. And so it’s just a matter of relaxing into what your voice can do.
I think the way I first figured it out was trying to play a character modeled after Tim Curry’s [character] in the movie Legend, because I remember thinking, “Tim Curry doesn’t have a voice particularly like this, but if he relaxes, if he has a microphone very close to his face, he can just sort of purr out the sound.”
There’s something about Jabba that is not feline, but is oddly relaxing, not in any hurry. You just relax right into it and let all the bad stuff going on in your throat just resonate in your chest and at the back of your throat. And that’s what you get with Jabba—great, big, wormy bellows full of pus and awful. He’s just squeezing out some horrible, rumbly dreck.
You’ve seen the first Star Wars over 400 times. What was the first time like?
The first time I saw it in a theater was in Waikiki, and I saw it as a double feature with The Empire Strikes Back. And I was living on a farm. I kind of felt a little bit like Luke Skywalker because it was this shitty little farm that I did not want to live on. And luckily, I had videotaped the original Star Wars movie, A New Hope, off of television, and I was able to watch it—and I did, like every damn day.
But when I finally went to see Return of the Jedi in the theater, it was kind of mind-blowing, because I knew the story so well and I kind of felt like the story couldn’t be any more perfect than it was. To me, I was just young enough that it hit me in the right place, and I was really into the story of Luke. It was such a cool way to see him win, because he didn’t kill his dad, he didn’t kill the Emperor. He was defended and he was not going to turn to the bad side, and even as a kid, I thought it was an interesting way for the story to end.
Luke’s journey in that film is my favorite aspect of the whole saga. For my senior yearbook quote, I had, “No. I’ll never turn to the dark side. You’ve failed, your highness. I am a Jedi, like my father before me.” So all the stuff you just said is really close to my heart.
You get it, then. Not everybody’s really thought about it all that much, because why would they?
Before you developed One Man Star Wars Trilogy, did you sit down and say, “I want to do a show”? Or were you already reenacting parts of the trilogy and it was like, “Hmm, this could be something”?
When I tried doing the Star Wars thing, it had originated around some conversations between my friend TJ, who is also my director, and myself about making a show that was about the whole history of film or was just specifically one thing, like Star Wars.
Myself and TJ and my buddy Mike, who’s a TV writer, we all ended up in the same city working on some radio plays that TJ and Mike had written. And we were going to present these radio plays publicly, just for a small audience, but we didn’t have enough material to make much of an evening out of it. And I used it as an opportunity to try a smaller version of what eventually became One Man Star Wars.
It was just the first movie. I just didn’t know if people could keep up with it, but when I tried it, man, they really kept up with it—and that was the basis of what became expanded to be the whole show.
Over the years, what are some of the things that TJ has suggested to you for One Man Star Wars?
Well, I remember when I was first rehearsing [the Battle of Hoth from The Empire Strikes Back], and there was a huge editorial jump in the script. [TJ] just goes, “Oh, do you remember the AT-ATs? Do you remember there’s that one that falls?” So I just improvised it and that’s what’s always remained. At the time, it was like an eight-year-old kid: “How would you try to be an AT-AT walker?” It just worked perfectly the first time I tried it.
I’m not standing on the outside seeing myself when I rehearse, when I’m making the show. To me, it just feels ridiculous. That’s the weird thing about making people laugh. The stuff that you think is going to totally kill dies, and the stuff you think just won’t work flies.
It does seem like when people recognize certain details, it brings this communal joy. In that scene in The Empire Strikes Back before Luke meets Yoda, for instance, Luke wipes off R2-D2’s sensor with his finger—and you do that so perfectly.
It’s all the details that you remember. There was mud and muck in R2-D2’s little eyeball thing, and [Luke] got in there with two fingers and scooped it out. It’s almost a tactile memory, even though it was just a film.
You got in contact with Lucasfilm. You got the exclusive rights to do the show. What was that process like? And before that, were you ever worried that they were going to try and shut you down?
I wasn’t harming the brand. I wasn’t selling shirts. I wasn’t making ice cream bars. I didn’t have an army of people who were doing the show in 17 different languages. It was one person dealing with a big, big company, but it narrowed down to talking with some very reasonable individuals and making sure I paid my royalties on time.
Do you ever have the itch to do a show based on one of the other Star Wars trilogies? Do you ever think, “Gosh, I wonder what my General Grievous or Kylo Ren would be like?”
I’ve certainly thought about it, but it’s kind of a strange thing. In some ways, the soul of [One Man Star Wars], pretty much like the soul of my One Man Lord of the Rings, is the kid who was all in. If I did the new films, it would probably be more to focus on the things that don’t work than the things that do work.
Luke is an unabashed whiner, [but] I don’t actually make fun of him for whining—I actually do my best verbatim impression of Mark Hamill and let the whining speak for itself. The new films, they’re all cast wonderfully. I don’t really have any particular problems with them. I just don’t, because I was never all in like I was as a kid. My trilogy was the one that I grew up with, and I didn’t think I had any input in it. I just loved it for everything it was.
- This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
- Charles Ross performs his “One Man Star Wars Trilogy” at 7 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 14, in Portland’s Newmark Theatre. Ticket and scheduling information here.