Andy Markham investigates the curse of Star Wars.
There's probably no greater success for an actor than landing a role in Star Wars. Once you've appeared in the galaxy far, far away, you're guaranteed an audience of billions, legions of fans for the rest of your life, and most importantly, enormous exposure. You'd think that Star Wars would be the industry's number one golden ticket to success. However, in most cases you'd be wrong.
Yes, this is a phenomenon that has become known in fan circles as the "curse of Star Wars" - for some reason, the wildly successful franchise has quite the reputation for killing actors' careers. So why is this? And is this a rule, or just a few unfortunate cases of high-profile failures? And who, or what, is to blame for this problem? Let's try and dig a little deeper, by looking at some of the most obvious victims of the curse of Star Wars, as well as some notable success stories - and those whose fate is still unclear...
Where better to start than with Star Wars' greatest hero of all? Mark Hamill was still a fresh-faced youth before Star Wars, and whilst he was doing pretty okay for himself, he couldn't yet be described as a household name. Then Star Wars came along and... well, not much happened beyond that. Other than being known as one of the very best actors ever to play The Joker (in voice only), providing a fantastic guest appearance in The Simpsons, and experiencing a very late career revival in the last year or so, triggered once again by Star Wars, Mark Hamill has never really had any kind of success from Star Wars - especially considering he plays Luke Skywalker himself. Hamill is clearly a very capable actor, with a large cult following. In this case, it seems likely that Hamill was simply so famous as Luke that he became hopelessly typecast and therefore unemployable.
However, on the other end of the spectrum is Hamill's co-star Harrison Ford, who of course played none other than the legendary Han Solo, and who is quite possibly the world's most successful living actor as of his triumphant return in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Ford's career was almost dead before Star Wars, but afterwards... well, the list is endless. Ford has Indiana Jones, Blade Runner, and Apocalypse Now as highlights on his CV, and is by a very, very long way the most successful actor to have come out of Star Wars. It does of course help that Ford does "wisecracking action hero" better than anyone else, and given that he had not one but two huge franchises in which to show this off, it's no surprise that he has done so well.
But what of the original trilogy's leading lady? Mainly known as a celebrity child before Star Wars (she's the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher), she was catapulted to incredible fame by Star Wars. Apart from giving by far the most... ahem... memorable performance in the Star Wars Holiday Special, a recurring role in Family Guy, and a bizarre cameo in the Blues Brothers, virtually nothing awaited Fisher after Star Wars. Theories abound about this - some believe Fisher just wasn't that great an actress; some believe it's another case of typecasting; some believe that there's a certain degree of sexism at play and that actresses are at an inherent disadvantage in Hollywood. This is one of the more tricky cases, and it's rather an interesting one.
Billy Dee Williams
Who doesn't love Lando Calrissian? What with Lando being the second coolest dude in the galaxy - and notably the only black character of any significance in the original trilogy - you would have expected Billy Dee Williams to be extremely in demand in the 80s and 90s. Well, he didn't drop off the radar quite as much as his co-stars, securing roles in Dynasty and other popular TV shows of the time, as well as starring as none other than Harvey Dent (although not Two-Face) in Batman Returns in 1989. He also had a recent stint on Dancing With the Stars and a memorable cameo as himself in Lost back in 2007. It's something, but not quite what you would expect for Williams following Star Wars. Again, as far as I can see, typecasting is clearly to blame here.
Onto the prequel trilogy now, and the arguable main star of the ill-fated trilogy was unknown young actor Hayden Christensen. His performances in Star Wars got a mixed reception at best, and unfortunately he became the actor most commonly associated with the notorious failings of the prequel trilogy, and ended up shouldering a lot of the backlash. It seems clear that it's for that reason that other than a few attempts at breaking out of Star Wars, such as Jumper (2008) and Shattered Glass (2004), it just wasn't to be for poor Hayden. One of the only cases here where we can definitively state that Star Wars was responsible for killing a career.
There's also another actor who played Anakin - 9-year-old Jake Lloyd who portrayed the pint-sized future Sith Lord in The Phantom Menace. Lloyd got a very similar reaction to Christensen, and being a child at the time, understandably didn't handle it very well and ended up quitting acting altogether during his teenage years. These days, he has largely distanced himself from the franchise and it's hard not to feel pretty bad for him, in all honestly.
However, it's not all bad news for the prequel trilogy - Natalie Portman, who played Padme in all three films, was arguably the biggest success story of the prequels, and is one of only a handful of Star Wars actors to have received an Oscar. Portman has hits such as Black Swan, V for Vendetta, Thor and The Other Boleyn Girl under her belt and is still a very in-demand actress 11 years after Star Wars. Interestingly, Portman has actually spoken about the curse of Star Wars recently, noting that she did indeed struggle for work at first. She puts her eventual success down to a mixture of very hard work, an already burgeoning career before Star Wars, and some good old fashioned luck.
Pretty much as successful as Portman is the young Obi-Wan Kenobi, grizzled Scot and overall good egg Ewan McGregor. Already widely known for his performance in Trainspotting, McGregor went on to some considerable success after Star Wars - in this case, probably because he was generally considered the best of the bunch in the prequels. His character's emotional climax ("you were the chosen one!") is one of the best bits of acting in the prequels and it seems only fair and just that major roles in Jack the Giant Slayer, Moulin Rouge, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen and The Men Who Stare at Goats followed.
James Earl Jones
A particularly difficult one is the case of James Earl Jones, who was the voice of Darth Vader in four of the Star Wars films, including all of the original trilogy. Without doubt, it is the single most famous voice performance in movie history. Jones actually deliberately shunned the limelight as Vader, however, believing at first that he had not contributed enough to the character to deserve a credit in A New Hope. He eventually brushed aside his modesty and had a pretty successful career in the 80s and 90s. A massive revival came in 1994 when he voiced Mufasa in The Lion King, a voice performance almost as memorable as Vader. There's little doubt that Jones did very well for himself out of Star Wars, but shouldn't the guy behind Darth Vader deserve more than that? It seems likely that a combination of his initial coyness surrounding the role, the fact that he is not visibly recognisable as Vader, and the fact that his voice is pretty different in real life, stacked the odds against Jones.
So what does the future hold for the next generation of Star Wars actors? Daisy Ridley is one to watch, for sure - given that she is by far the most out-of-nowhere actress ever to have such a major role in the saga. After just two cameo appearances on Mr Selfridge and Casualty, Ridley appeared in the lead role of Rey in The Force Awakens last year, now the biggest film of all time at the US box office. Given the blank slate nature of Ridley's CV, this is perhaps the ultimate test of the curse of Star Wars. So far, the signs are good - Ridley's active engagement with the fans, friendly nature and commitment to providing a role model for young girls has made her a cult icon almost overnight, and recent news has arrived revealing that she is in talks to play Lara Croft in a new series of Tomb Raider movies. The future looks bright for Daisy.
So... what are the results? Why do some Star Wars succeed while others fail dramatically? As far as I can see, the curse of Star Wars is not so much one thing as a combination of factors that are somewhat unique to Star Wars. Given its enormous fame as a film franchise, the actors who are lucky enough to appear in Star Wars simply face higher stakes in their careers than those who don't. To appear in Star Wars is such a monumental achievement that for most actors, the obvious question is "where can I possibly go from there?".
Whilst a few supremely talented actors like Harrison Ford find that the stars align (no pun intended) after Star Wars and are able to use it as the ultimate career boost, others aren't so lucky and the likes of Hayden Christensen show that Star Wars can have just as strong a negative effect as a positive one. And as for Hamill, Fisher, and Williams - they've had perfectly solid careers in major films and TV shows. It's only because they were in Star Wars that their careers could ever be considered disappointments.
In short, it seems to me that there is no curse of Star Wars - there's simply a curse of fame.
Andy is a writer, musician, graduate, and super-geek. Ginger
glasses-wearer. Star Wars obsessive and Doctor Who enthusiast.
Specialises in film music and currently writing his first book on the
subject. Follow Andy on Twitter.