Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for The Book of Boba Fett. Minor spoilers are also present for Solo: A Star Wars Story and Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
President of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy recently made a statement that has drawn a lot of attention. In an interview with magazine Vanity Fair, Kennedy stated that one of the lessons that the Disney-owned studio learned from the lukewarm response to Solo: A Star Wars Story in 2018 was that recasting classic characters isn’t possible. In her words, “it does seem so abundantly clear that we can’t do that.”
This has kicked off a discussion online, not least among fans of the Star Wars franchise and Solo in particular. Today I want to add my two cents to the conversation and use the debate around Kennedy and Solo to talk about recasting characters in a general sense, as well as touch on some alternatives that studios have turned to in recent years.
First of all, I encourage you to read the full piece in Vanity Fair so you’re aware of what was said and its context. Online debate often centres around a single phrase, soundbite, or fragment of a sentence, and it isn’t always clear how someone’s words were intended. In this case, for example, Kennedy seems to have been talking about the need for Star Wars to move on – something I’ve talked about at length here on the website – and expand beyond the confines of the “Skywalker Saga” and the handful of familiar characters who made up those stories.
I absolutely agree with that sentiment! The Star Wars galaxy is such a vast and exciting setting, one with thousands of years of history, an uncertain future, thousands of planets, trillions of inhabitants, and so much potential! So far, the Star Wars franchise has doubled-down on showing us the same handful of characters and the same tiny sliver of that setting over and over again, and I for one am starting to get sick of it! Star Wars can be more than Luke Skywalker – if it’s willing to put in the effort.
So in that sense, I agree with Kathleen Kennedy! But taken as a starting point for a discussion about recasting characters, I couldn’t disagree more.
It’s profoundly ironic that Kennedy made this statement during the build-up to the broadcast of Obi-Wan Kenobi… a series that centres around a character who was recast from the original Star Wars films! The Star Wars prequel trilogy recast a number of characters – and recast characters were even ham-fistedly edited into the so-called “special editions” of the original films, with the original voice of Boba Fett being re-dubbed, the original Emperor Palpatine being overwritten in The Empire Strikes Back, and most notoriously, the Force ghost of Anakin Skywalker being changed in Return of the Jedi.
Disney and Lucasfilm panicked in the late 2010s. The divisive reaction to The Last Jedi and underwhelming numbers for Solo: A Star Wars Story saw the Star Wars franchise refocused to bring back a lot more of what corporate leadership hopes will pass for nostalgia. This accounts for the existence of shows like The Book of Boba Fett and Obi-Wan Kenobi, as well as certain narrative decisions in The Rise of Skywalker. It isn’t the first time that corporate cowardice has got in the way of entertainment, and it likely won’t be the last.
I’d argue that the wrong lesson has been learned from Solo if Disney and Lucasfilm believe that the biggest takeaway is that they should never try to recast characters. Alden Ehrenreich’s performance was far from the worst thing about that film, and if audiences and Star Wars fans felt that he “didn’t feel” like Han Solo, the blame needs to be placed with the way the script was written and the way the story was told. Solo was a fairly clumsy overplaying of the nostalgia card in my view; a film with an interesting premise that was hampered by shoehorning in characters from the original trilogy and that made the same mistake with Han Solo as the prequel trilogy had with Anakin Skywalker: overexplaining his backstory.
But all of that is incidental. Even if we accept the premise that Solo was a failure and that the performance of its lead was a significant factor – neither of which I’m fully on board with, but I’ll grant for the sake of argument – is the right response really to say that no classic characters should ever be recast again? That seems like a horrible overreaction!
The Star Wars franchise has done some very interesting things with digital de-ageing and CGI character creation. The way Luke Skywalker was brought to screen in The Book of Boba Fett as an entirely CGI character was technologically stunning, and at first I thought I was watching a lookalike. The technology needed to create CGI characters and perfectly replicate the face – and even voice – of real actors is already here, and while Disney may be a pioneer of the technology, they’re far from the only ones to be using it. We’ve recently seen digital de-ageing make an appearance over in the Star Trek franchise, for example.
I’ve had an article in the pipeline for well over a year that I really ought to get around to finishing one of these days! It’s all about CGI characters in film and television, because I’m convinced that we’re not far away from a film or TV series bringing back to life a dead actor to play a leading role. I can already picture a snooty director who insists that the lead role in their film could only ever belong to someone like Lawrence Olivier or Orson Welles and decides to digitally recreate them rather than cast someone else!
That’s connected, in a way, to what we’re talking about here. Some actors and performers are so iconic that I can absolutely see a time – perhaps very soon – when a film or TV series will use a CGI lead mingling with real actors. A digital creation with a fake face and fake voice that are indistinguishable from the real thing. And as that technology improves and becomes more accessible, it may even become possible for amateurs to do something similar. Imagine a Star Trek fan-film where a fully-realistic CGI Captain Picard is the lead. We’re edging closer to that kind of reality!
But is Sir Patrick Stewart inseparable from Captain Picard? Is Mark Hamill the only possible Luke Skywalker? Or are these roles – and many others across the realm of entertainment – more than just one actor? Look at Shakespeare as an example: how many actors have taken on the role of Hamlet, Prospero, or Richard III? And even in cinema, how many different performances have there been of characters like Count Dracula or Ebenezer Scrooge?
If the argument is that certain characters can only ever be portrayed by one person, doesn’t that limit them and restrict them to a single possible interpretation? There have been very different takes on iconic characters over the years, and while audiences may have a preference for one or another, that doesn’t mean that only one interpretation is valid. Taking a character and giving them to a new actor expands the potential of that character.
In the Star Trek franchise we’ve seen the main characters from The Original Series recast for the Kelvin films, and while I know of some Trekkies who absolutely hated that idea, as time has passed since the 2009 reboot, more of those folks have come around. 2009’s Star Trek did a lot of things right as a reboot of the franchise, and a big part of its success was down to the way those classic characters were reinterpreted.
Some Star Trek characters have been recast multiple times – by my count, Strange New Worlds features the fourth actor to play Captain Pike and the third to play Spock. Early reactions to Strange New Worlds have been incredibly positive – and the series has even drawn praise from some fans who hadn’t enjoyed anything else that modern Star Trek has had to offer. Recasting Pike, Spock, and other classic characters has clearly not harmed Strange New Worlds.
And the same could be true for Star Wars. Maybe Solo wasn’t the best film the franchise has put out, but that shouldn’t mean that experimenting with different takes on classic characters should be entirely shut down. There’s scope for new actors to take on the roles of Luke, Leia, and others – just as there was for Ewan McGregor to become Obi-Wan Kenobi or Alden Ehrenreich to become Han Solo. Arbitrarily deciding that recasting can never work off the back of a single underwhelming film is an unnecessary overreaction – especially considering that recasting has already worked in Star Wars, with an upcoming series standing as testament to that fact.
At the same time, there’s a place for digital character creation, recreated characters, and CGI characters, and I fully expect to see a lot more of that type of thing in the years ahead. For my two cents, digital de-ageing and CGI characters probably work best as side-characters rather than main protagonists – and I think Star Wars has got away with using them in that context so far. It will be a new challenge to see a film or TV series where the leading role is taken over by a CGI character.
So in conclusion, I’m glad that Kathleen Kennedy is finally willing to consider expanding the Star Wars franchise beyond the tiny fragment of its wonderful and vast setting that we’ve seen so far. That part is the good news! However, I don’t agree that there’s no place for recasting characters in a general sense. New actors have the potential to bring a new interpretation to the role, and if you look across at other films, franchises, and TV shows, it’s abundantly clear that recasting can and does work.
All properties and franchises discussed above are the copyright of their respective studio, distributor, corporation, etc. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.