Star Wars: JJ Abrams on linking trilogies and familiar faces

We chat to director JJ Abrams and star Billy Dee Williams about the importance of bringing back the old guard in The Rise Of Skywalker

This article contains mild spoilers for Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker.

The Rise Of Skywalker, the ninth episodic Star Wars movie, had the unenviable task of wrapping up not only the sequel trilogy, but the entire Skywalker saga.

It was a challenge not lost on JJ Abrams, the returning helmer of The Force Awakens… “I don’t know if we had a mission statement as such,” he tells Den Of Geek when we catch up with the tired but chatty director, who’s in London as part of a whistle-stop pre-Christmas global press tour. “But our aim was to try and tell this conclusion of a story that meant so much to us and means so much to us in a way that felt inevitable and satisfying, and that connected the prior eight films in a way that would make sense to someone years from now watching all nine together.”

One of the ways Abrams has strengthened the links between trilogies is to bring back even more familiar faces. So, just as The Force Awakens brought Han (Harrison Ford), Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and Luke (Mark Hamill) back to the big screen, The Rise Of Skywalker reintroduces us to two key OT characters: the roguish Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) and franchise big bad Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid).

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“It’s not like there’s a checklist,” Abrams says about the process of choosing who returned. “You have to decide which characters you want to bring back, and which characters you don’t think need to come back or should come back. And I was just thrilled to get to work with Billy Dee. I wanted to bring Lando back for The Force Awakens, but there just wasn’t room to do all the things that we wanted to do. So, selfishly, one of the great things about coming back to do The Rise Of Skywalker was I finally got to work with Billy Dee.”

The loveable rogue

The feeling is mutual, says Williams, chatting to Den Of Geek in an adjacent suite of the same swanky London hotel. “I didn’t expect to come back, so I was very pleased,” the actor says of playing Lando again for the first time since 1983’s Return Of The Jedi. “Being back on board the Millennium Falcon was fun, but my mind was more on what I needed to do as far as JJ was concerned. He’s so imaginative, and it was fun for me to execute his vision.”

A bona fide fan-favourite, Lando started off as a bit of a wrong ’un, selling our heroes out to Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back, but he quickly redeemed himself in the follow-up. “He’s charming,” Williams says of the character’s enduring appeal. “He’s a rogue, but he’s a charming rogue. I tried to make him bigger than life.” Not only that, but Lando marked a huge step forward for the franchise in terms of representation. “It’s certainly a legacy I’m very happy about,” Williams explains. “It was an opportunity to take the character into a place that’s devoid of the usual stereotypes and cliches. I wanted to use him to introduce a somewhat different point of view.”

It wasn’t just Abrams who was happy to have Williams back in the galaxy far, far away, but the newer cast members, too, who’d all grown up on a steady diet of Star Wars. “It’s incredibly sweet,” Abrams laughs. “The dynamic between Billy Dee and the younger actors behind the scenes was weirdly just like what it is in the movie, where they have this reaction to him and they get to sort of admire his accomplishments and his reputation, which precedes him. That slight sort of awestruck quality is what not just the cast, but the crew felt, having Billy Dee around. And you know, it was not dissimilar to The Force Awakens, with Harrison and Mark and Carrie.”

Black and gold

The other returnee, of course, is Darth Sidious himself, Emperor Palpatine, who’s back from the dead to terrorise the galaxy once again. Back under the hood is Ian McDiarmid, who first played the Emperor in Return Of The Jedi, before turning back time to portray Palpatine’s sinister rise to power in George Lucas’ prequel trilogy. The character is not only arguably the franchise’s biggest and most fearsome villain, but also one of cinema’s most iconic baddies, mostly thanks to McDiarmid’s deliciously evil portrayal.

So, what was it like welcoming him back? “I had no idea what we were getting into,” Abrams chuckles. “But in real life, Ian could not be a lovelier guy. He is so brilliantly aware of his instrument and how he does what he does. He’s so in control of that thing. It’s not like he automatically just goes to 11 – he’s someone who will turn it up to 11 if you need him to, but he can also be wonderfully subtle. As an actor, he can kind of run the gamut. I would love to work with him again on anything. He’s just incredible.”

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Balancing out all the darkness and joining Williams and McDiarmid in The Rise Of Skywalker is another Star Wars legend… Anthony Daniels – aka loveable protocol droid C-3PO – did feature in The Force Awakens and its sequel, The Last Jedi, but it’s fair to say that his role in the threequel has been greatly expanded, even providing a few emotional moments among the laughs.

“I adore the guy,” says Abrams, who’s also written the foreword to Daniels’ recently released book I Am C-3PO, which focuses on the actor’s Star Wars experience. “Threepio is the first character that we ever met in Star Wars; he spoke first. And the idea that he would play an out-in-the-field part of the adventure in The Rise Of Skywalker as opposed to being back in the base felt like the right thing to do. It felt like it’d been a long time since he had a proper active role in the films, so we wanted to do a story that made him an important narrative piece, not just the comic relief. He’s a character that I felt perhaps we were taking for granted a bit. I wanted to make him more central – and Anthony rose to the occasion, as one would hope.”

For Abrams, working with this cast of Star Wars characters, both old and new, was a “bittersweet” experience, knowing that it was to be the saga’s last chapter. “Look, especially because of the fact that I wasn’t supposed to come back at all [Abrams replaced Colin Trevorrow in the director’s chair before production], every day felt like a gift to get to work with these people again,” he reflects. “It’s been really unforgettable. I’m so grateful that we’ve all gotten to work on this together.”

Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker is out in cinemas now.