Mark Hamill: The Biggest Nerd?A tv interview article by: Comics Bulletin Staff
This is the fourth and final iterview in our series of panel discussions for Stan Lee's World of Heroes. Don't forget to check out Adrianne Curry, Bonnie Burton and America Young, and Peter David and Jace Hall.
Mark Hamill is a man who really shouldn't need an introduction. His most famous roles are likely as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars and the voice of the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series. Today, he discusses his involvement with the up-and-coming YouTube channel geared at nerd culture.
This and the other interviews on our World of Heroes series involved a panel of journalists in addition to our own Jason Sacks.
Mark Hamill: All this morning I spoke with exactly two print reporters, it seems newspapers are really dying off, all you guys are online now
Interviewer: I had an interview earlier where we were talking about that exact issue; he worked at the Boston Globe for like 25 years and now he’s off writing books and promoting at Comic-Con because there’s just no more work.
Hamill: I had this romantic notion of journalism, thanks to movies like The Front Page and characters like Jimmy Olsen. I was a copy boy at Associated Press for about 6 weeks, when I was in college. And like I said, I had visions of a newsroom: “Stop the presses, chief!” And of course when I actually did the job it was getting peoples lunch orders, sweeping the floor, literally cutting copy.
There’s something about journalism that intrigues me but it’s easy to see how it’s changed now. In many ways it’s much more democratic, because you can break in as a blogger and prove your writing ability and use that as a calling card to go up the chain and go wherever you want.
I: What are you doing with Stan Lee's World of Heroes?
Hamill: Well that’s an interesting question, because I don’t know really what I’m doing with it yet. (laughter)
What was interesting to me was, I heard actual people talking about what they’re going to do, and they didn’t realise that this guy, me, if I'm on the radio, there’s never going to be any dead air. I'm like the Energizer bunny; I’ll just keep talking. So I’m not worried about that at all.
If we had call-ins, I would be much more happy than just interviewing people, because I would love to be an enabler to what people want to see or hear; I’m interested in what they’re interested in.
One aspect of this that appealed to me is that I really am a fan. I did Comic Book: The Movie and used it as an opportunity to interview Ray Harryhausen, Stan Lee, and Hugh Hefner. I mean that’s a stretch, to get Hugh Hefner into the movie, but you know, I wanted to go up to the mansion and hang out with Playboy bunnies. And we hit it off, because I did my research.
I: You did your research on the Playboy bunnies?
Hamill: No, I researched Hugh Hefner. The very first thing I said was “most people don’t realise that you actually wanted to be a cartoonist.” And he was shocked, because it was true. This was before, well, it wasn't before the Internet, but it was before I used the Internet; I just went to the library. But this wasn't something that was very well known, and it impressed him.
It impressed him because he said that 90% of the people that interview him, their first question is “did you really sleep with Marilyn Monroe?” and then the second question is “do the stars on the logo correlate with how many times you’ve slept with whatever centerfold is in the magazine?” And in character, as this high school teacher from Wisconsin the whole interview, I never asked him one question about sex or women. It’s all about nerd stuff, because I am one, and I’m unapologetically nerdy. I was more comfortable in the skin of that character, Don Swan, than I was in Mark Hamill.
If you play a character, it makes some things easier. I'm in this movie called Sushi Girl, which is part of why I'm at Comic-con, and it's this vile Tarantino-esque gangster picture where I played this just horrible psychopath, a sadomasochistic creep. They put 25 extensions on my hair, I had horn-rimmed glasses, and what was great about it was when I looked in the mirror, I disappeared. I was no longer responsible for my behavior. I could be that character, which was a great feeling for me, and it pushed me out of my comfort zone too. It was like, “Jesus, can I do this, this is awfully violent” and my kids would read it and go, “please, it’s not that violent.”
I guess movies have progressed so far beyond what they used to be. I saw just the trailer of Saw, and it ruined my life. It got images into my head that I’ll never get out, so I’m kind of a wimp that way. I love implied violence; I think Psycho is one of the best movies Hitchcock ever made, but you never really see anything really.
I: Did you find it easier playing the Joker, even as psychopathic as he is, because you don’t have to physically do it?
Hamill: Well, one of the things you hit on is that you’re liberated because you don’t have any sense of anxiety in terms of how you look; you can completely mindmeld with the character. One thing I love about animation is they cast some characters you’d never be considered for in live action. Ironically enough when I asked the Sushi Girl people “How did you think of me to play this guy?” and they said “Well we figured you could do psycho in animation, why couldn’t you do it on camera?”
So that was the connection there, and when I really admit to people how much satisfaction I’ve gotten over the years being the Joker, that really reveals that colossal geek I am, because I can’t tell you how thrilled I was to be able to take on the legacy of a character that. Let’s face it besides Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes, there’s probably no villain that has a larger profile. Lex Luther, maybe. What was so funny was that I was so sure that I wouldn’t get cast because of my past as such a goody-two-shoes in Star Wars. All that nervousness about an audition went away because I was like, “Well I’m not going to get in anyway, so I want to make them sorry that they can’t hire me.”
Because I knew as soon as I left the room they were going to say, “Well he was good but too bad we can’t hire him.” Because, God knows that when casting Michael Keaton as Batman creates a furor in the fan world, Mark Hamill as the Joker is going to make them just have a heart attack.
And so I just let it rip and I really had a good time and left, and then 2-3 weeks later my agent called and said, “They want you.” And I said “For what?” and he says, “The Joker.” “Oh, no! I can’t do this! I mean the fan world is going to flay me alive.” There’s no way you can live up to how they hear it in their head. And then my friend said “I wouldn’t want to follow Jack Nicholson in anything.” I didn’t even think of that! God this was worse than I thought!
I thought “Oh! I really got to get out of here.” So I told them, “How about if I play Clayface or some character that’s never been done before? Ra's al Ghul or Dr. Hugo Strange or Two-Face, I’d like to do that.” The Joker’s a little too high profile. I was especially looking at characters that were in the comic books that had never been done in the Adam West or Tim Burton or Joel Schumacher versions, but what are you going to do? I mean, I painted myself into a corner.
I remember driving, the first time I was going to record, I can’t even remember what I had done. How did I laugh? Because I had just come off the road. I had done Amadeus for 6-8 month on the road and then 6 months of Broadway. Once you do a run that long, you'd change things up just to keep yourself from being ultra bored. One of the things that you had to do as Mozart was startle Salieri with a horrible laugh that didn’t fit with someone that would write such heavenly music.
Peter Shaffer described it as a sort of donkey bray. I played around; I did snorts, anything to not get bored. Sometimes I’d get notes from the stage management, “getting a little out there with the laugh, reel it back in.” I'd do Jerry Lewis, anything to keep myself from going cuckoo, cause you’re doing 8 shows a week. You turn into a machine if you don’t watch yourself carefully. And so that was like the first thing I really auditioned for after Amadeus and I had a whole arsenal of laughs. I told them that they really should use the laugh for the Joker as almost a weapon or like music; I don’t want to hear the same laugh every time. It’s got to really be colourful and reflect his moves.
I always remember Frank Gorshin, he’s my all time favourite villain with that energy and that maniacal giggle, Frank Gorshin as the Riddler, he said, “It’s not that the Riddler laughed; it’s what he laughed at, which is not what you and I would laugh at.” And I thought that’s really neat because I used to go through my script and mark where the Joker would laugh. Sometime’s I’d try to go for a real long time and not laugh at all, but he’s been just a joy. I mean it’s because I loved it so much as a kid;
I loved the Batman comics so much and the TV show. Like I say, once I got over my fear, I was on a highway driving to the studio giggling. It’s not a big deal in Los Angeles, but I'm sure I looked ridiculous with how gleeful I was. But to go back, I didn’t realise they had reference tapes they call back from, so when I went in I was terrified that I had bitten off more than I could chew, that there was no way I could satisfy the fans and that I couldn’t even do what I did in the audition.
So they played the tapes, and it all came back. They changed actors and another actor played the Joker for the first 6 episodes, and when they changed their minds I had to go dub those shows. The first time I actually met up with the cast was in episode 7. I’m still friend with them today. I love them, Kevin Conroy is one of the nicest people in show business; he’s my Batman.
I’ve never done Joker without Kevin except one time, an animation student forum for a graduating class was going to do a Lego Batman as their final class project and my agent said, “You get paid, but you'll turn the money back to the school, like a charity, and you have to get a waiver from SAG, cause it’s non-union.” And I said, “Well I always feel like we should try and help the academic world, they need all the help they can get.”
They said, “Yeah, it’s a good cast, Commissioner Gordon is Dick Van Dyke”. “Really?” Cause Bob Hastings was our Commissioner Gordon and he did a tremendous job, so I said “Well that’s interesting.” I wish I could tell you all the cast members but when I walked in, and they hadn't told me, I just assumed it was Kevin. I walk in and sitting in a chair, in a Hawaiian shirt, is Adam West.
And I just went, “Oh, my God.”
I was 12 or 13 when the TV series was on. It’s like when I met one of the Beatles; I thought if I tried to talk when I met George, I'd just cry like a little girl. When I walked in and it was Adam West, I said, “Oh, no! I don’t know that I can do it in front of him.” And I was told that I had my hand up, to block him off. He is just wonderful. And I’ve been watching him again cause the old show is back on the hub; they brought back the animated series as well. You know, the Adam West Batman gets a lot of bad lip service from fans that say, “Oh, it’s not tough like Dark Knight, and it’s silly.”
It’s a lot more accurate of the comic books at that time than they would like to remember. In fact if you pick up a comic book from 1966 you’ll see, “Meanwhile in an abandoned factory” and “At stately Wayne manor” and those kind of things all over the place. It was too close for comfort really, because Batman had drifted away from being a dark knight and he really was saying “nice work, old chum” to Robin. And I think Adam doesn’t get the credit he deserves for the subtlety of his straightforward yet highly comedic portrayal, in his underpaying the role.
Even when he’s climbing the wall, he’ll turn and lecture Robin about his duty as a civil servant. It’s your duty to vote. I mean nobody could have pulled it off; have you ever seen the screen test with the other guys that were up for it? There’s no question it’s Adam. And like I said, I just think he’s one of my favorite childhood performers, and he meant a lot to me. Just telling you how much this means to me immediately outs me as a huge, whatever you want to call it, geek, dork, I’m just a comic book fan.
I: So the obvious question is when you found out you were going to be cast in this big science fiction movie, was that like geek heaven to you?
Hamill: Well what was interesting was I got the part before I read the whole script, I only read 7 pages, so when I started reading this thing with floating cars and bright light swords and robots and Dr. Doom, I could not believe my eyes.
Yeah, that combined with the fact that I was going to meet and work with Sir Alec Guinness, I mean, get out of town! I thought I’d died and gone to heaven, because I loved all those old Harryhausen things. When I saw that there was a giant hand for the rancor, that I’d go down a pit and there was this big monster in the basement, I was beyond excited. My son, I have a picture of him sitting there and he’s like a year and a half, you know with his little action figures, sitting in a rancor hand, and I though this is the closest either of us will get to being Fay Wray, to be in that giant hand.
But yeah, obviously it was like being paid to go play in your back yard when you were 9 years old. “You’ll be the sheriff and I’m going to be Robin Hood.” And that’s how you spent your day, playing in a fantasy world, and that’s what it was to do those movies, no question about it. I realise as we went on Sir Alec had real misgivings about the merchandising, because he never dealt with that before, none of us had.
I: You were the first ones.
Hamill: I know, with the electric toothbrushes and sleeping bags and underoos.
I: He had misgivings before or after the movie blew up?
Hamill: After, when it became what it became. He just thought it was way too much, and who’s to say he was wrong? At first I said, “Well it's supply and demand,” so I didn’t mind the toys being at Toys R Us. When we got our own section at Toys R Us I said, “hey, maybe you ought to reel it back.” I had irate parents coming up to me saying, “my kid spends all his money on those toys” like I’m the one in charge, like I had anything to do with it.
I: What is it like for you seeing your face on books that have been written 20-30 years after, where the character’s still living on but you’re not really part of it anymore.
Hamill: I mean, why not? It’s not really fair because we made that agreement before they knew what it was going to grow into. And I think as it grew, possibly our participation or non-participation could have grown. You know those were non-union deals. We get nothing from home video or DVD or VHS; I’m talking about tens of millions of dollars.
So you go, “Wow, if I’d been one of the Harry Potter people…” We were pioneers, so we got bupkis basically. We got a little piece of the movies when they were in the theaters. And I don’t want to really complain because I didn’t get in this business for the money anyway.
And we made millions; we just could have made tens of millions. So you don’t want to sound like, “Oh, poor you!” The reason I say any of this is because people have a really bad notion of what we are worth. We got audited be the IRS because they wouldn’t believe when I told them that People magazine way overestimated our income. They went “he’s worth a clear ten million,” which is so far from the truth. What we pay the IRS didn’t match up with ten million dollars, so they came and saw the facts and realized that you shouldn't expect actual facts from People magazine. Like FOX news; it’s not actual news it’s just a reasonable facsimile thereof.