Ahmed Best talks his often-hated role in "The Phantom Menace," Jar Jar Binks backlash, and how the child actor who played Anakin Skywalker had it way worse than he did.
Plucked from obscurity and thrown into a prominent role in arguably the most anticipated film of the 20th century, Ahmed Best was supposed to be Hollywood's next breakout star. If Best's name doesn't ring a bell, try the name of his character: Jar Jar Binks.
After the 1999 release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, critics and fans alike had strong reactions to the Jar Jar Binks character, to say the least. The lanky, seven-foot-tall orange Gungan spoke in what could only be described as some sort of Jamaican-esque patois. He was goofy. He was annoying. He was endearing—for children, some of them at least. He was also completely digitized, with Lucas and his team ditching makeup and prosthetics for All CGI Everything™. Best would be one of the first actors to really test the motion capture technology that actors such as Andy Serkis (a.k.a. Gollum) are making a career out of today. Jar Jar Binks was supposed to be the light-hearted source of comic relief for the audience, especially kids, just as like C-3PO and the Ewoks had done in previous films.
To put it mildly, this did not work.
Best's character would later go on to be described as "Rastafarian Stepin Fetchit" by the Wall Street Journal, become the inspiration for film critic Daniel Kimmel's book Jar Jar Binks Must Die, and inspire fans to create The Phantom Edit, in which the character's garbled dialect (allegedly modeled after the babytalk of one of Lucas's sons) was replaced with a subtitled alien language. To say the character flopped would be an understatement. To this day, Best still can't fathom that his work would lead him to be dubbed one of the most annoying movie characters of all time.
"To be 100 percent honest, none us, as we were shooting this, had any idea that anything like this was going to happen," Best tells me on the phone from LA. "At the end of the day, it is the movie business, and if the character doesn't work for the people who watch the movie then the character doesn't work. I can't take that personally."
In his mind, Best was taking on the role of a lifetime. A kid from the South Bronx obsessed with jazz and visual performance, he grew up a Star Wars fan. He calls Empire Strikes Back one of his favorite films, and is a disciple of the physical comedy of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. (He and Lucas would use the two silent film stars for the inspiration behind Jar Jar Binks's movements.)
The trailer for 2 Black Dudes, starring Best and J. Lee.
Best hasn't let that one role define him. An avid learner, he went back to school at the American Film Institute producer's program and found himself a new lane. From his outer space spoof The Nebula (in which he also stars) to his productions Bandwagon and This Can't Be My Life, Best's work on short film and TV is fucking hilarious. He and his comedic partner J. Lee have received network interest for their Seth MacFarlane executive-produced series 2 Black Dudes, due out this fall. Though he's not completely sure if the general public still sees the names "Ahmed Best" and "Jar Jar Binks" as interchangeable, the actor is more than ready to move on from the character. I talked to him about that process of moving on, as well as beating out Michael Jackson for the role and why the backlash against Jake Lloyd's take on Anakin Skywalker was far worse than anything he ever experienced.
VICE: Can you just walk me through that initial casting process for Jar Jar? Was it George Lucas who first approached you about the role?
Ahmed Best: Robin Gurland, who cast Star Wars, pulled me from [the Broadway play] Stomp because they were originally looking for movement for the character. I just embraced it so strongly and I embodied that show so much that when Robin saw me she immediately wanted an audition. I didn't meet George until my final callback, and it was like a motion-capture callback. This was before motion capture was a thing. They were still writing the software, and they didn't really know how it was going to work or if it was going to work. I was kind of the guinea pig for all of that. I met George at my motion-capture audition and he put me through a whole bunch of movements and paces, and then he just walked out the room [laughs]. I actually thought I fucked it up.
Why did you think you fucked up the audition?
Well, George is a very quiet person; he doesn't say much. I was doing all of these moves and George had a very specific idea in mind of how the character was supposed to go. He very much wanted him to be more of a Buster Keaton than anything else. I gave him a lot of stuff. I was really—still am—into martial arts and acrobatics, so in my mocap audition, I was doing backflips and high kicks. It was more like athletics and he kept trying to pull me back from being so athletic and being a lot more lanky and long and silly. I eventually picked it up at the end of the mocap audition and he was like, "OK," and walked out of the room [laughs]. It was my first motion picture audition, first motion picture test. I thought if I was going to get it I would have got it on that day. He didn't say anything, I went back on the road and then I got the call.
In a Reddit interview, you mentioned that Michael Jackson originally wanted to play the role of Jar Jar Binks. Was that a joke?
That's what George told me. Me, Natalie Portman, and George's kids—we were at Wembley arena at Michael Jackson's concert. We were taken backstage and we met Michael. There was Michael and Lisa Marie [Presley]. George introduced me as "Jar Jar" and I was like, That's kind of weird. Michael was like, "Oh. OK." I thought, What is going on? After Michael had driven off, we all go back up to a big afterparty. I'm having a drink with George and I said, "Why did you introduce me as Jar Jar?" He said, "Well, Michael wanted to do the part but he wanted to do it in prosthetics and makeup like 'Thriller.'" George wanted to do it in CGI. My guess is ultimately Michael Jackson would have been bigger than the movie, and I don't think he wanted that.
What was the experience of researching and watching films with George Lucas like? What did you pick up on in those meetings?
At that time, I was so young, but I knew a lot about film because my father was a photographer and cameraman, so I grew up around a lot of movies and film. Both of my parents are cinephiles and audiophiles. I had seen a lot of Buster Keaton movies growing up and was a huge fan. I was also a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin. Anybody who can communicate a message without speaking is incredible to me. And that influenced me; Stomp as well. When I was sitting down with George watching movies and coming up with moves and motivation for the scenes it felt like something I had been doing my whole life. [George] is such an astute film historian that there were so many times where I just sat and listened. I like to say George was my undergrad degree. Some days I would ride to work with him and it would be the same thing, and he was very comfortable with me to where he'd give me a bunch of information and be very open with me. On my days off I would go on set and sit behind him and watch him do what he does just to watch somebody manage that many people with so much to do that day. It's incredible to see.
When was the first time you can remember being genuinely hurt by the negative reactions to Jar Jar Binks?
It didn't happen until the New York press junkets. The first person who kind of gave me an idea of where it was going was a writer from The New York Post. I didn't really think much about it because I always felt like the The New York Post was a paper that fed off of that type of energy, that type of negativity. Growing up in New York you know which papers give you the news and which papers give you the gossip and the Post was definitely heavier on the gossip side than anything else. But I was really surprised that everyone picked up on that afterwards. It's a very American thing to take somebody down when they're at the top and a lot if it had to with that; people really wanted to see George crash and burn. Unfortunately, this character was so new, so experimental; he became a lightning rod for all that. It was me, and it was [original Anakin Skywalker] Jake Lloyd who took a lot of the heat for the movie. Fortunately, I was in my 20s. I wasn't eight years-old like Jake, who I think took it worse. Jake had it far worse than me. I'm a 20-year-old from from the Bronx; I've seen and I've done things that were a lot harder than criticism in that newspaper. Although it hurt me emotionally and it was hard to take at the time, it wasn't debilitating for me. I just put my shoes on and went back to work. But Jake had a difficult time.
Did you find yourself ever having to jump in and defend him like a big brother?
I did. Earlier I did. Say what you want to say, but leave the kid alone, let him grow up. The amount of vitriol he took as an eight-year-old was just wrong, and it affected him.
Did you or do you still feel like that partially comes with the added pressure of being part of a major film franchise? To play devil's advocate, isn't that just par for the course, living or not living up to fan and media hype?
There's always going to be somebody who tries to poke holes in what this thing is because everybody has their own, personal, individual idea of what this should be, and rightfully so. That's the testament and mark of a great story, where everybody can take on the stories personally. So, because it's so large it's going to get that type of criticism—there's no way around it. That's just the nature of the beast. What hurts is when people try to attack the actors personally. At the end of the day we have very little to do with what the movie looks like, feels like, sounds like. All we're trying to do is our best work and more of it. We're trying to get the director's vision on the screen so that the director is happy, and we can move on and do another project. So, when folks were holding Jake accountable for final decisions that George made it was just completely unfair. No one really understands—outside of the movie industry—how these things are made, and it's a miracle that any of them get made. When criticism like that affects the future of an actor when has a very little control over what's going on on the screen, that's when it gets tough.
When did it get especially nasty for you? When did someone take it too far?
I think people are smart enough when they meet me to not go too far because I am who I am and I come from where I come from. At the end of the day, acting is fun but I will knock you the fuck out if you step out of line. That's just where I come from. Respect is a big deal. I wasn't always a happy-go-lucky filmmaker; I was the kid on the streets for a minute [laughs]. My folks were smart enough to pull me out, so I know what the streets look like and that's still in there a little bit. I think people are smart enough to know not to go there with me.
Recently, you put up an instagram post that suggested Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones was going to be called Jar's Jar's Big Adventure. Can you elaborate, please?
[Laughs] That was the first script that we all got when we go to Sydney. It was [George's] joke because he knew it going to leak to the press. That was George's kind of middle finger to the whole, "everybody hates Jar Jar" thing.
The character did seem to fade out of the picture as the series carried on. You've said before there was a scene cut from Revenge of the Sith, but that ultimately Jar Jar's narrative didn't fit into the larger fabric of the entire story. Did you really believe that or did you feel like the negative response to the character might've had more do with his role shrinking?
I think it's a little bit of both. At the end of the day it is the movie business, and if the character doesn't work for the people who watch the movie then the character doesn't work. I can't take that personally. It's up to the filmmaker to make sure that not only does the film work for the filmmaker but it also works for the audience. So, because he wasn't fan favorite, I can understand why he was scaled back. And, narratively, they moved on to something else. There's really no room in Revenge of the Sith for him; that was a very dark story. There was nothing about it that needed to be comedic, which was Jar Jar's whole purpose. Jar Jar's whole purpose was to bring light and levity. By that time, there was none.
Joe Morganstern of the Wall Street Journal referred to your character as a "Rastafarian Stepen Fetchit." He wasn't alone in calling foul over the potential racial implications of Jar Jar. As someone who is very much conscious of being black in mass media, how did you take that?
It just further underscores the ignorance and the blind unrealness of dealing with racism in this country. The lack of education and the lack of exposure to what actually is racist to non-black folks is abysmal. For anyone to say that is offensive because it shows the ignorance of not knowing what a Rastafarian is and not having proper education and knowledge of what minstrelsy was in the time of vaudeville, Butterfly McQueen, and Stepen Fetchit. They really don't know what those roles were and why those roles were.
I think that ignorance and that lack of education that's pervasive in this country not only allows criticism like that to be actually voiced without any type of proof. It also allows what goes on in modern filmmaking as far as [limited] roles for black people—black people have experiences other than the jail- and gang-related [stories] being shown in movies today. They don't believe that black actors, specifically black American actors, have enough depth to try these other roles and it has turned into the outsourcing of an incredible amount of American talent. The top black actors in the world right now are both British. And they're the only ones being allowed to play these roles that have a lot more depth and gravitas. There's nothing wrong with playing a brother in jail as long as there's a lot more to the character than, "I kill people and I'm black." So, [Morganstern's] criticism underscores that lack of intelligence and original ideas in folks who try to understand the black experience in entertainment.
Switching gears a bit here, do you agree with the argument that mocap actors like Andy Serkis should be up for the top acting awards at the Oscars?
It's very difficult to say that a motion capture performance is purely an individual acting performance. It's a symbiotic relationship between the animators, the software designers, and the actor. I think each one informs the other, and I think to have one without the other does a disservice to all of the software developers and all of the animators who actually bring that thing to life. In terms of Gollum from Lord of the Rings, that character already existed in books and Andy really brought a performance to it that only he could, but Andy was not three-foot-two, Andy does not have huge, gawking eyes, so it was a symbiotic relationship. If you're going put a category in the Academy Awards I don't think you can have it just as just an actor award or just a technology award. It has to be some sort of amalgamation of the two.
Do you feel like maybe the timing of the technology was to blame for some of Jar Jar's backlash? You guys were literally experimenting with this new software on the spot. Do you think if a character like Jar Jar, with today's technology, was introduced he'd be met with a warmer reception?
Well, the first one out of the gate is always the bloodiest. That's a very difficult question to answer. I know I'd probably have more of a career if Jar Jar came out now. It was very difficult, at the beginning, for me to explain exactly what I do. No one really believed that I as an actor could bring this thing to life; they thought it was more the power of Industrial Light and Magic animators. So, I was on the other side of the Andy argument. Everybody thinks Andy brings the character to life and then the animators just come along. When I was in it, everybody thought the animators brought the character to life and I was just a model. Now, you can be a motion capture actor and have a career. Peter Jackson and Andy Serkis together really pioneered that thing. Peter Jackson made sure that everyone knew there was an actor behind Gollum. I don't think that Lucasfilm understood that at the time because everything was just so new.
Speaking of new, you said haven't spoken to J.J. Abrams about the Star Wars: The Force Awakens, correct?
Nope. Nor would I, really.
Abrams recently joked that he wanted to include you in the film, possibly a shot of your bones lying in the sand. If he did reach out what you be at all interested?
No, I'm good. I had my experience, I did my thing. Now, it's for a brand new generation. It's for John Boyega [one of the stars of The Force Awakens]. I'm done with it. I've really resolved myself to being done. I'm OK with that.
Do you feel like you've reached a point to where people no longer associate the name Ahmed Best with Jar Jar Binks? Career-wise, have you been able to move on?
I don't know. I don't know. That's a good question. We'll see.
Gavin Godfrey is a writer living in Atlanta. He's on Twitter.