Knightfall, the History Channel’s vivid, visceral dramatised account of the Knights Templar’s fight for survival in fourteenth-century France, will return to UK screens in summer 2019. Its first run introduced us to the legendary order of warrior monks, led by the fictional Landry du Lauzon (Tom Cullen), as they grapple with the scheming French king, Philip IV (Tom Stoppard), whose beady eye is trained on the vast wealth and estates they’ve amassed.
Season two promises even more intrigue, political wrangling, and clandestine passions. It also introduces us to a new character: Templar master, Talus. This grizzled warrior will be brought to life by a star you just might recognise, who’s joining the show straight from a certain galaxy far, far away. Mark Hamill, an actor with an impressive array of film, TV and stage credits, remains best known for embodying the legendary Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy and its sequels. He took a break from filming Knightfall in the beautiful city of Prague last autumn to explain why he’s traded in his lightsaber for the sword of a medieval knight.
Hamill describes his introduction to the series with the endearing candour that’s made him such a popular presence on Twitter. ‘They sent over a couple of screeners. I’d never heard of this show, but don’t go by me. My kids always say, “You’ve never heard of that?!”. For me, at my age, a day spent in your pyjamas is a win, puttering around the garden with your dogs and telling kids to get off your lawn. I started watching this thing, and I was riveted. It just transports you into another time and another place. I’d seen Camelot and the sort of movies you see on Turner Classic Movies. This was just so gritty and harrowing, really, to think of a time when the mortality rate was so high. Old age was considered 40. After about 20 minutes, I thought, “Oh no – I have to do this.” I don’t get offered things like this, historical dramas with a British cast!’
A change, as so often, has proved every bit as good as a rest. ‘The only thing I’ve done that’s comparable to that would be Amadeus on Broadway. A lot of times, you do things just because you’ve never done them before. You look for things that challenge you, that push you out of your comfort zone, and this one certainly does that, because he’s not really a likeable character. He’s abrasive and hard-edged and gritty, and I was flattered that they would think of me for that. So like I say, you try not to repeat yourself, you try to find things that challenge you and engage you. It’s not for everyone. You can only go by your own instincts, and I love the show. It’s been really hard work, but the crew is superb, the cast is great, and I’m having a really good time.’
The superficial similarities between Talus and Luke Skywalker drew some comment online. ‘That didn’t even occur to me until I said yes! Then everyone on the internet was saying, oh, he’s doing a knight again. Obviously, George Lucas had so many influences, and certainly knights were something he modelled his characters after. When I first read the script for Star Wars, I thought, oh my gosh, this is like a Western, a WWII movie, it’s swashbuckling, it’s like pirate movies. It’s all these genres mixed up so that everything old is new again. He was definitely influenced by that sense of purpose and valour and doing the right thing for a great cause, there’s no question about it. Other than that, I don’t see a lot of similarities between Luke and Talus.’
Talus is an intriguing character with a mysterious past. ‘He’s training all these initiates to become Templar knights. He’s brutal. He’s a true believer. I say at one point, “You are being trained to become executioners for Christ”, which is an oxymoron. There’s all that sort of conflict in trying to figure out who that person is. There’s a point in the storyline where you hear a little bit of his backstory, which makes him a little bit more understandable, and makes you understand why he is the way he is. You try to find a diversity so you’re not all one note, so you’re not always so caustic and so mean-spirited. Landry and Talus have a very interesting dynamic between their characters, which doesn’t stay the same. It changes and it evolves in subtle ways.’
As the promotional images have shown, Hamill’s undergone quite the physical transformation in the role. ‘I do so much animation, where you can show up in Bermuda shorts and a T-shirt, and no-one cares. The first time it really hit me how involved this would be was at the first wardrobe fitting, where it just kept coming and coming and coming, layers and shoulder pads and a belt and a sword and an axe and those boots…The dresser, poor woman, gets winded! Every time she puts them on, she has to take a little break. So yeah, there’s more than an hour in make-up every day. There’s three scars, a beard and a wig.’
All the actors in Knightfall have been put through their paces in training, and Hamill’s no exception. ‘I took horseback riding lessons. I once played an equestrian expert, but it was in a Linda Blair movie in 1974, and I hadn’t been on a horse since. They don’t make Westerns anymore! If they made Westerns, I’d probably be better at riding horses. It all came back to me.’
In terms of research, other cast members were on hand to help. ‘Both Tom Cullen and Simon Merrells, who play Landry and Tancried, have done research. They gave me titles that they thought were the best to read. I did sort of a cursory thing – you know, you go on Wikipedia,’ he says, laughing. ‘It’s a fascinating time period. I’ll be questioning this or that, and both of those guys are really well read on the subject.’
He speaks warmly of Knightfall’s cast, especially Cullen. ‘I was a little worried. You know, he’s so talented and so handsome. I was thinking, what if he turns out to be a really unlikeable person? He just couldn’t be nicer. We get along so great. I met him and it was like we’d known each other for years.’
The medieval era in western Europe is well-trodden ground as a basis for fantasy (‘I like to think of this as Game Of Thrones without the dragons’, Hamill remarks, tongue firmly in cheek). The reality of the period, in all its muddy, bloody detail, can come as a shock.
‘One of the things that struck me is how alien this is to my life experience, in terms of the physical conditions they lived under and what they believed. They were so primitive in so many ways, in medicine and in science. Their superstitions were huge. There are stories about the Luciferians, who worshipped the Devil, the absolute antithesis of what the Templar knights believed. It seemed to deglamorise the notion I had of the knights in shining armour.’
Sometimes, things get a little too real. ‘I was sitting watching this with my wife, and there was a scene last season, where they’re about to perform a Caesarean section on the queen, and she goes, “Oh, please don’t show it on camera’, and I go, “Honey, it’s television, they’re not going to…”’ – his voice rises to a mock scream – ‘“oh my God, they showed it on camera!” It’s really graphic in its violence. I’m not squeamish, I know all the tricks. There’s a horrible wound, and I think, oh, good make-up job. So it’s hard for me to get shocked the way my wife does. But Tom and Simon and the directors are telling me that this season is more violent and darker. I think what happens is that, when you’re on cable, you’re competing with the networks, so you have to go where the networks can’t go.’
Working in TV presents different challenges from making movies, but little seems to faze him. ‘The material you do in one day is much greater than what you do in film, and occasionally, I’ll say, “We’re doing both those scenes on Wednesday?”, because just that scene in the morning would take a day, two days, in a feature film. I do love how fast it is, not only in terms of how fast you do it, but in terms of how soon it appears on the screen, rather than doing it and waiting two years to see it. I started in television, and I don’t really discriminate. I think a good part is a good part, wherever it is. My agent would say, “Well, you’re doing this play off Broadway, it’s what, 300 seats?” and I never really thought of it that way. I mean, George Lucas would say, “The top-rated show on television will be seen by ten times more people than will see this movie”, because a lot of times we’d have these big fights and arguments. I’d say, “Look, Harrison, I don’t think you should be hitting on the princess when we’re on the Death Star!”’ At this point, Hamill breaks off to do a hilarious impression of his co-star and friend Harrison Ford’s trademark gravelly tones, the response an unintelligible mumble. ‘George would say, come on, let’s just shoot it, it’s only a movie. I later said that, but timing and place is everything. I said it in front of, like, 5,000 Star Wars fans, and I thought they were going to rush the stage and strangle me with their bare hands. They were aghast!’
Hamill’s complicated feelings regarding the fate of the character with which he’s most associated have hit the headlines since the release of The Last Jedi in December 2017. ‘The thing is, Luke changed so much between the first trilogy and the last trilogy. I got myself into trouble. I made a vow – I said that I’m not going to talk about the movies anymore, because I think it’s important for the audience to see them. My problem was, I wasn’t dealing with social media back then, where you say something and it goes around the world in 24 hours! If I were to answer your questions on paper, I’d think: oh, that sounds a little strong, or, I shouldn’t say this. But I have a tendency just to talk and talk and talk, and you can cherrypick. You know, I’ll be reading something, and say, “What moron said this?”, and then realise, “Oh, it’s me.” They can take selective comments you’ve made out of context and use it to support their argument: “See, Mark hated Star Wars!” “Did I?”
He’s reasonable and even-handed on the subject, emphasising that any differences of opinion are down to the profound commitment he feels to the saga and its many devotees. As a fan himself, he gets it. ‘I was once describing Star Wars fans, and I said, they’re passionate, they’re opinionated, and they feel a sense of ownership, because they’ve invested so much time in these characters and these stories, and I realised I was describing myself. It can get you into trouble, because I don’t control the storylines. I’m sort of like a musician. I read the music, and I try to play it to the best of my ability. That doesn’t necessarily mean I like the tune, but that’s not my job.’
Disney CEO Bob Iger told The Hollywood Reporter last year that the schedule for Star Wars releases had been too densely packed, a view Hamill shares. ‘In our day, it was three years apart. Now they’re two years apart, with an independent movie (Rogue One, Solo) in between. I say to the executives at Disney, “Really? Han Solo five months after our movie? Give it a rest!” They say, well, we have to keep the schedule clear for Mary Poppins.’ He feigns outrage. ‘But I can be mouthy, because you know, what are they gonna do, fire me?’
Some decisions still rankle, though. He remains shocked by Han Solo’s fate: slain by his own son and Luke’s nephew, the powerful Dark Side warrior Kylo Ren (formerly known as Ben Solo) in the sequel trilogy’s opening instalment, The Force Awakens. ‘I just thought, Luke’s never going to see his best friend again. You look at it in a self-centred way. I said that it was a big mistake that those three people would never reunite in any way. I guess I was wrong, because nobody seems to care! I have to stipulate that I care, but it didn’t really seem to affect the larger audience. Luke, Han and Leia will never be together again, and I’ll probably never get to work with Harrison again. Then the second thing was that they killed me off. I thought: oh, okay, you should push my death off to the last one. That’s what I was hoping when I came back: no cameos and a run-of-the-trilogy contract. Did I get any of those things? Because as far as I’m concerned, the end of VII is really the beginning of VIII. I got one movie! They totally hornswoggled (tricked) me.’
He’s made his peace with any unfulfilled expectations. ‘Listen, I never expected to come back. We had a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s what I said: why mess with it? It’s not something that worries me, because it’s all about the new generation, as it should be.’
Some changes had to be made, however. ‘They had me walking by 3PO, not even acknowledging him. I said: “I can’t do that! He (The Last Jedi’s director, Rian Johnson) said, “Okay, go over and do whatever.” So I went over, and I did whatever. They say it in the script: “Forget the past, kill it if you have to”, and they’re doing a pretty good job!’
This December, the as yet untitled Star Wars: Episode IX will bring the stories of new trio Rey, Finn, and Poe to an end. It’s been confirmed that Carrie Fisher – whose sudden passing in 2016 was a devastating blow to all involved in the films and to fans worldwide – will be appearing in the film, thanks to footage left over from the two previous movies and repurposed by director, J. J. Abrams, with her family’s blessing. ‘Harrison was more prominent in the first of the sequels, then I was more prominent, and Carrie was meant to be more prominent in the third. I’m glad they found a way to do that, and something tells me that she’d get a real kick out of the fact that she had a hit movie years after she left us, because that was just her. I like to think that would please her, but nothing would be better than having her here.’
He talks about Fisher, his friend of so many years, with immense fondness. She was irrepressible and unforgettable, the one who banged the table and yelled “I’m in!” as soon as George Lucas raised the subject of a new trilogy over lunch, while Hamill counselled her to work on her poker face. Her response, astute as ever, was to ask him just how many good roles come to women in their fifties in Hollywood. (Hamill jokes that he’d initially thought of Ford as his get-out clause because he considered him ‘too rich and too cranky’ to return to the franchise, but knew as soon as his old pal signed up that ‘I’d been drafted’.) ‘She was just always fun. When I’d go into work and she was in that day, I’d go straight to her trailer, because over the years, we’d developed a comfort level. She wasn’t suspicious that I was trying to get something from her or play her for any other reason than that she was just fun to hang out with.’
His career’s been a full and varied one, distinguished in recent years by lauded voiceover work in animation and video games. In roles as diverse as the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series and Detective Mosley in Sierra Online’s classic Gabriel Knight point-and-click adventure games, his range is impressive. ‘I’d never get cast as the Joker in live action. I’m not tall enough! I should be the size of Jeff Goldblum, at least. With voiceovers, they cast with their ears not their eyes. I finally got to do accents. I thought there was some unwritten rule that only Meryl Streep could do accents!’ In terms of notoriety, however, none of these characters will surpass his live-action appearance as a supervillain with a very… specific skill in Kevin Smith’s 2001 comedy, Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back. ‘I tell young people that I misread that script, and I thought I was playing ClockKnocker.’
Through it all, he’s retained his infectious enthusiasm for the pop culture that’s been a part of his life since childhood. ‘I’m so grateful to have been able to do as an adult what I loved as a kid. My mom would say, “Yes, darling, that’s a very good Daffy Duck impression, but imitating cartoons isn’t going to help you in life.” So I got revenge on her!’
He describes his brother, a doctor, as the ‘success’ of the family in the eyes of his strict father. Yet, when he talks with emotion of the many sick kids whose lives he’s brightened over the years with hospital visits, it’s easy to see that this funny, generous man is exactly where he ought to be in life. Luke Skywalker’s journey might be just about over, but Mark Hamill’s diverse career will continue to impress.
Knightfall season two will be coming to the UK on HISTORY this summer.