Prequel Trilogy,  The Phantom Menace

Ahmed Best has good memories of shooting The Phantom Menace: “We laughed all day long”



“By the spring of 1996, Best had earned a lead role in [Stomp]’s San Francisco company. One night, Lucasfilm casting director Robin Gurland wound up in the audience, trying to find someone who could play a new kind of film character—one that would be rendered digitally on-screen, but drawn from an actor’s performance. The search was taking forever. “Jar Jar was one of the last roles we cast,” Gurland says. “I was looking for someone who could really sell the physical aspect of the character, but who also had the acting chops to give it a literal voice—and it’s very difficult to find that in one performer.”

Best didn’t know Gurland was watching the performance, which was probably a good thing. That night, an out-of-town Stomper was visiting the city, so Best was relegated to a supporting role, leaving him fuming. “I turned into an asshole that night,” Best says. “I thought, ‘If you think you can out-anything on me onstage, you got another fucking thing coming, and I’m going to prove it.’ And I did. Had I been a little bit older, I would’ve handled that a little bit more gracefully.”

But Best’s show-offy turn wound up winning over Gurland. “I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” she says. “There’s an unknown quality that true performers have—the ability to relate to an audience and to come across as if they’re directing their performance to you specifically.” She eventually invited him to Skywalker Ranch, where Best was squeezed into a tight-fitting motion-capture suit and asked to move about. (When Lucas himself eventually showed up, Best broke into what was once described as a “break-dance glide.”) Not long afterward, he was summoned overseas to begin his work as Jar Jar. His Star Wars saga had begun.

ON AN EARLY morning in 1997, Best stood in a hut in the middle of a wide stretch of desert in Tunisia, getting tucked into part of his Jar Jar outfit. Crew members were hovering about, and the heat was promising to once again break the three-digit barrier, but Best was calmly, quietly nuh-nuh-nuh-ing a familiar tune: The Star Wars theme. Like millions of other Star Wars devotees in the mid- to late-’90s, Best couldn’t suppress his excitement for The Phantom Menace. […]

And Best retains the character’s elastic physicality and jumpy eagerness throughout the movie, despite being yoked with a still-in-the-works technology and disguised under layers of digital makeup. “I did my job,” he says. “I was believable enough for you to believe that this character existed. George said do a thing, I did a thing, you know what I mean? The fact that you hate Jar Jar—I still did the job.”

Best had seen the original movies countless times as a kid, so getting the role of Jar Jar made him the luckiest Star Wars fan in the world—which may be why he approached the role with Sith-like seriousness. In a recent episode of the movie-obsessed podcast I Was There Too, Best outlined some of the obstacles involved in going Gungan: There was that time he quietly endured a costume fitting right after a flight attendant spilled scalding hot tea on his lap, worried he’d lose the role if he spoke up. And there was the strange backstage encounter with Lucas and Michael Jackson, who’d lobbied the director for the part of Jar Jar—only to find out Best had landed it instead.

Mostly, though, Best’s memories of making The Phantom Menace are good ones: “We laughed all day long,” he says. In the behind-the-scenes doc The Beginning: Making ‘Episode 1’, you can see Best strutting playfully around the set, a fake Jar Jar visage on his head, as he prepares to film some early screen tests. (You can also spot Lucas, in a purple dad shirt, awkwardly demonstrating the character’s loping walk.) At the time of Phantom’s release, Jar Jar was promoted as a technological marvel, one that had been brought to life by ILM’s innovative motion-capture techniques and digital advances. But without Best, the character’s loose-limbed, goof-typhoon persona would likely never have translated to screen. “George and I watched Buster Keaton movies together, and talked about him,” Best says. “Some of the Jar Jar scenes are direct Buster Keaton scenes.””

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