On Thursday night at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up In the Air) proved during a live reading of The Empire Strikes Back that he’s one of the few people in L.A. who can keep a secret. And what a doozy it was: A previously unannounced Mark Hamill made a triumphant return onstage to his Star Wars roots—but not in the role that made him famous.
Reitman, the first artist-in-residence of the Bing Theater at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), has worked with the Film Independent organization and curator Elvis Mitchell to present the Live Read series of classic script readings. For four years, Reitman has brought an eclectic mix of scripts and casting choices to LACMA’s 600-seat theater. In November, he matched perfectly Barry Levinson’s 1982 classic Diner—about football, friends and growing up—with the cast of FXX’s The League. For other readings, he chose an all-female cast for Glengarry Glen Ross and switched genders for American Pie roles.
The director is always cagey when revealing the cast. He generally announces the selections through Twitter, piecemeal, in the days leading up to the Live Read. Earlier this week, Reitman announced Aaron Paul as Luke Skywalker, J.K. Simmons as Darth Vader, Stephen Merchant as C-3PO, Dennis Haysbert as Lando Calrissian and Kevin Pollak as Yoda. It wasn’t until the day of The Empire Strikes Back Live Read—which was moved to the much larger, 1,600-seat theater to accommodate demand—that he announced two key roles: Jessica Alba as Princess Leia and his Juno lead Ellen Page as Han Solo.
Reitman was as giddy as the audience when he introduced the cast. “I’m so excited to say these words. In the role of Han Solo … Ellen Motherf*cking Page!” The packed audience was whipped further into a frenzy as J.K. Simmons made his dramatic entrance to the Imperial March, down the theater’s main aisle, flanked by Storm Troopers. But Reitman wasn’t done yet. Playing Chewbacca was Rainn Wilson, a choice fervently approved by the crowd. That surprise, however, was overshadowed only moments later when Hamill was introduced as Obi-Wan Kenobi, The Emperor and Boba Fett. The entire theater—from the fanboys (and girls) to the usually too-cool-for-school Downtown hipsters—erupted with a heartfelt, spontaneous standing ovation.
The Live Reads are “cold readings”—there is no rehearsal process, as the actors sit on stage, scripts before them, and deliver the reading. Some of the cast members never even meet until they get to the theater, so there are plenty of interesting moments, a few mistakes, giggles and nerves, which make the events even more appealing and such a hot ticket in Hollywood. It’s also one of the few events left in which it’s a faux pas to record and/or document on social media or websites, partly for the sake of actors with no rehearsals, as well as clearance and rights issues. “Tonight is for you guys,” Reitman said after laying down the ground rules for the audience, who seemed to comply (at least after the first few minutes or so).
Reitman, who showed he’s a master of robotic whistling by playing the R2-D2 role himself, kicked things off with: “The Empire Strikes Back by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, story by George Lucas.” After another round of applause—just for the title—the cast launched into the script, one that was slightly different from the onscreen version. (The major plot points and scenes are intact.)
The fun in live readings is watching how actors change or enhance iconic characters. For The Empire Strikes Back, Hamill and Pollack were vocal (Jedi) masters, at times channeling Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan or Frank Oz’s Yoda, much to the audience’s delight. J.K. Simmons and Haysbert both put their baritones to good use, with Simmons showcasing the Dark Side as much as James Earl Jones did as the original Vader, and Haysbert’s velvet-talking, flirty Lando Calrissian also rivaling Billy Dee Williams’ version. Merchant, who’s best known from his collaborations with Ricky Gervais on the British version of The Office and Extras, made C-3PO not only funny, but also even likable. Wilson had a smaller and difficult role as Chewbacca, but he was able to masterfully convey feeling by changing up his Wookie grunts and vocalizations.
While Page as Han Solo was a prime example of stunt casting, she did manage to put an entirely different spin on the character. We could swear we could hear Juno MacGuff’s sarcasm in some of Han’s lines. Paul and Alba, each too soft-spoken and a little difficult to hear from the upper balcony, were a little underwhelming in their roles. They seemed more themselves than the embodiment of their characters, but it’s unfair to critique an unrehearsed reading. Instead, we’ll focus one magical night in which Reitman and cast breathed new life into The Empire Strikes Back—even without the help of Lucas’ special effects or a John Williams’ score.
Highlights from Live Read: The Empire Strikes Back
Reitman joked with the audience before the introductions: “Welcome to the first screening of The Interview.”
Yoda is described in the script as a “bluish creature.”
Awkward stage directions described a kiss from Han on Leia’s “slow, hot lips,” which prompted Reitman to exclaim, “Oh, George!” (He only said what the rest of us were thinking.)
During another kissing scene between Han and Leia, someone in the audience yelled, “do it!” to Page and Alba. (They didn’t.)
Han Solo is described as a “dashing pirate.”
Some of the dialogue is as corny as you remember. So “Hang on sweetheart, we’re going to do some flying” sounds just as campy coming from Ellen Page as it does from Harrison Ford.
Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.