Interview: Charles Ross, One-Man Star Wars Trilogy

Bostonians! Power up your light sabers, because this Monday, actor Charles Ross is bringing his One-Man Star Wars Trilogy to the Coolidge Corner Theater for one night only. The show is a one-of-a-kind theatrical piece of intergalactic proportions, managing to distill all three films into a 75-minute extravaganza in which Ross plays all the characters, recreates the special effects, mans the ships, fights both sides of the battles, and even sings from John Williams's score. Costumes, sets, props -- who needs ‘em? Not Ross. With the Force coursing through his veins, such tired dramaturgical conventions go out the Millennium Falcon's window.

We recently caught up with Ross to get the scoop on his life before acting, the triumph of receiving a license from George Lucas's Lucasfilms, and what the future beholds for the One-Man Star Wars Trilogy.

So, we read that you were born and raised in Canada? Not exactly a galaxy far, far away...
Yea. I grew up North for a bit and then moved down South right next to the American border. You know, most of the big cities tend to be clustered toward the border, just trying to get as much sun as we possibly can.

When did you really start getting into acting and performance?
When I was a kid -- like, a really young kid. I think I was about eight years old when I took an acting workshop, and it really busted my head open. I realized that when you watched TV or movies these were just actors, and it was a strange thing to get your head around. If anything, it kinda enriched the story though, because if you were able to watch a show or film and buy into what the actors are doing, it's suddenly like you're all playing a game where you learn the rules and at the same time sort of allow yourself to suspend your disbelief and get into it, which kinda enriches the whole thing.

Wow, that's some heavy stuff to be realizing at eight years old.
Yeah, like I said, it busted my head open. So, with Star Wars, it was weird because even though I knew these guys were actors, I just loved the story so much that it didn't matter that they were actors.

So, as a kid, it seems you were quite a fan of the Trilogy. Is that where you'd say the whole basis for the show originated?
I guess so. Yeah, well, actually it's not like I acted it out or anything as a kid. At least no more than the other kids were. We'd play anything from superheroes to Star Wars to, whatever -- the Smurfs, I'm sure, at some point -- on the school grounds. But I lived on a farm for about three or four years, and it was kind of weird because you'd go to school so your around everybody all the time, like your friends and everything, and then you'd go back to the farm where you're isolated for miles between you and your nearest neighbor. So even though you had friends they were off living their peculiar lives from their friends as well. In that sense, you kind of felt like Luke Skywalker, because you have to go this huge distance just to sort of hook up with your friends. But if you had work to do or whatever, you're not allowed to leave, and -- being eight years old -- you never thought of riding your bike miles and miles and miles, and considering we'd get some really shitty winters up there, it wasn't exactly ideal for walking around, either.

So at what age did you leave the farm, and where did you go afterwards?
Well, I lived there until I was about11, and then we moved to a place called Nelson. And I'm not sure if you ever saw the movie Roxanne with Daryl Hannah and Steve Martin, where he has this extremely big nose. Anyway, that was all filmed in our little town called Nelson, like 10,000 people, but totally gorgeous, has a bizarre history. My family is all from there, and my parents got split up, so we moved down south and my dad stayed up north. It was the best thing that could have possibly happened, because I think if I had stayed on the farm ... well, I'm not sure what would have happened, actually.

It's a weird thing, sometimes people get so used to having that farm, even if it feels like you don't like it in the beginning, sometimes it's hard to break out of that pattern of being on a farm. But this little town, even though it was just a town of 10,000 people, we lived right in the middle of it, so it was suddenly busy and things were going on and you could see your friends all the time. Plus, it was kind of an artsy community. There was always arts stuff going on, so I was able to not only pursue acting in an extracurricular fashion but study it. I was in a high school were I could tailor my curriculum so that it was basically just theater and acting-based, so it was perfect.

So by high school, you knew theater was your thing?
Oh yeah, I basically put all my eggs in one basket. Just before my senior year, I had tailored my curriculum so that I only had a couple prerequisites to graduate, and just focused in on acting.

When did the Star Wars idea come about?
It came about around 1994, when I was still in university, but in the summer time I was trying to get an acting job that would pay, so I could keep the acting thing going instead of working at a bakery or whatever. So, I was actually doing a fringe tour in 1994 and it was a big eye opener, because it was the first tour I'd ever done, and I got to see a lot of companies in the midst of this tour which took us from Minneapolis and across the top of Canada. There, I noticed that the people who were doing the best, financially at least, were the people doing solo shows, because they only had to make money for themselves. Also, the shows that seemed to be most popular usually seemed to have a hook, a popular tie-in that drew people out because it had that hook, and, actually, I remember thinking at the time that it'd be great to do a show that was little bits of films all smacked into an hour or something. And I remember talking to my friend and director of my Star Wars show. He was also on a tour at the time, and we were talking about doing Star Wars, like a five minute Star Wars or something. That was sort of the original idea, like doing an original sketch of Star Wars in five minutes. Then, flash-forward to 2000: I tried writing a couple versions of it, and in the end it was a 25 minutes sketch, which was the first Star Wars film, and I tried to do it in front of people, and they really understood it, like generally understood where I was coming from, which was kinda weird, and it ended up being about one hour. And that's what this is. It really hasn't changed much over the years, you know, jokes will come up, new things will come up, but it's really just the re-telling of a story that we already know.

Was there a point where you thought it might be better to apply a more comedic take on the Trilogy?
Well, this is the thing. You have to do it justice by taking it seriously, as in like, pretending it's serious, because the audience, they're all taking it seriously for the most part. That, I think, is what makes it funny. When you pretend to be earnest like everyone, that's what hilarious about it, because everyone is committing to this absurd material, and I think that if you think you're funny and try to do it, that actually takes away from it, because its sort of laughing at a dork, at a geek, someone that's taking something extremely seriously. I think that's what it is, like when you're an eight year-old kid, you don't care if someone's laughing at you because you're acting like a Star Wars kid and re-enacting Star Wars and making an ass of yourself. It's kind of inviting people in to watch a guy make an ass of himself, and I think it's actually kinda cool. I can do it and people, (laughs), come and watch it. It's really weird.

Yeah, I think you nailed it. It really is that embrace of the earnest performance that is the most hilarious part.
Yea. It's the weird thing, man. Whenever I try to think or make a new show, because I do the Lord or the Rings as well. It has to be something that you kind of have a genuine love for, because if you go up there and try to bullshit your way through it, people can see it, I think.

So, on stage, you're not using any props or theater design, right? In that sense, the whole thing's got to be sort of exhausting.
Yeah, it is. Actually, it's kept me in pretty good shape over the years, which is kind nice because I remember people saying, "You know, you're going to get that 30 year-old physique," and that'd just be crappy if that was the case. Instead, it's been pretty easy to keep in shape by doing the show. It's weird to think that all that time as a kid sitting on my ass and watching television would eventually result in me keeping in shape as an adult. I guess it's all about taking a negative and turning it into a positive.

From show to show does your performance vary much? How does the audience interact with you?
There's always a certain element of interaction. Like, if the audience really knows their Star Wars well, for me, it really improves the show. If they're just sitting there breathing out of their mouths, it's a lot more work for me. Sometimes people's phones go off or they get up to go to the bathroom at a really strange time. You never know. If it happens at a perfect time, I'll integrate it in, and I've done this show, man, so many times--well over 1,200 times over the years and, you know, anything new that happens is like a gift. The fact that there's something natural happening, you can't really bottle it up or order it. It just has to happen. That's the best part.

How long to you think you'll be performing the Trilogy?
The weird thing is that, for me, it's sort of an open-ended run. I'll do Star Wars for as long as people want to see it. It is my only job that I've had over the past decade, which is totally bizarre. I guess about seven years into it, I might've gone, "you know, I think I want to end this pretty soon. I'm not totally crazy about it." But now that it's gone on to this weird rounded number, like a decade, you start going "Wow, what does this mean,? Do I have to wait until the 20th anniversary of the Star Wars one-man trilogy?" Like, I don't know if I really wanna be 65 years old and wheeled on to the stage doing this. But, you know, it's awesome to go to, like, Australia, or back to Boston. There's not many shows you do where you can go where I've gone with the little show I've written and keep going back, whether its with Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. You know, I get to go back down to Australian and perform the Lord of the Rings show at the State Opera house for a week. That to me just seems completely inconceivable. And I think back to when I was kid understanding what acting was and who actors were and what they had to do and, you know, I wouldn't trade the worst day--the worst performance I've ever had--for the best day I could possibly have in some cubicle in some goddamn office in the sky. I think I can say that, but if that's what you want to do, you do it and it doesn't really feel like a burden. It kind of feels like a privilege.

I read that you needed to get licensed from Lucasfilm. What's the story behind that?
Well, I'll tell ya. It was after about a year and a half of performing Star Wars and touring it. I was in Chicago and wasn't really making money. I was just down there trying to drum up publicity for it, but doing the show for like a month at a theater, and I started getting some really really good media. I ended up getting this really high-profile review from a tech-y site, and all of the sudden, these techies from Lucasfilm started to send the word up the channels and eventually somebody in licensing noticed what was going on, and they wrote me an e-mail but the e-mail was very vague. Sort of like, "We know about you. Please contact us." And I was like, "Shit, this is it." I figured it was over, because I hadn't asked for licensing and I knew that Lucasfilm didn't really look kindly upon people who were trying to do something with their brand without paying for it. But, when I sent them scripts and video, they pretty quickly realized that I wasn't using anything really copyrighted except for the text and the name, so they actually found it quite easy to handle my model, my size. We started working out things like what kind of artwork I can use that they've approved.

It's great having the licensing, even the wording on all my artwork and posters, it gives it the real seal of approval from Lucasfilm, and it's invaluable, man. Like you go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival where you have 3000 shows competing against each other for a month and you're one of those shows. Well, Star Wars sticks through everything. It's one of the most recognizable films you could ever find, and amongst all those other shows, like a one-man Star Wars Trilogy. It has nothing to do with me, but everything to do with the fact that it's a Star Wars Trilogy. So, that's extremely fortunate for me.

How did you end up paring down any superfluous text and integrating the score?
You know what it was? It was really simple. When I wrote it, it took about three hours, because all I did was try to decant all the line I could think of out of my head and onto the page. I tried to imagine telling the story to someone that had never seen Star Wars using only what I could remember. The idea being that I know people who are coming to see the show have seen Star Wars, so they're going to fill in the blanks, they're going to know what's missed, but the little details that I do put into it are hopefully going to tickle the funny bones of people who've also seen them, so sometimes it can just be the cadence of Luke Skywalker's whiny voice, you know when I say it exactly as he says it, not having to push it too much, just saying it the way he said it. That's what people find funny.

And you know, integrating the music into it, when I was writing it, I was at my friend's place and he had all the Star Wars music, so he'd just put the CDs on shuffle, and I realized that the score is so tied into the text, the action, that I could literally listen to the music and recall exactly what was going on at that time. So, that spurred on a whole bunch of recall and, in a sense, almost created little sequences in my show.

Wow, I was expecting it to be a lot more painstaking than that, but it seems like the years of watching it over and over made it a lot easier.
Haha, yea the brain damage. It did, yea. I mean, when the damage is done, it's much easier to recall all the stuff. Not that its damage, but, you know, once it's in there, it needs a way to get out and I guess this is a sort of long term therapy--a way to get all that Star Wars out of my system.

So after all these years, who's your favorite character to play?
It's a cross between two. One would be Admiral Akbar, just because I never realized that I could actually do a decent Admiral Akbar, so it was as much of a surprise to me that I could do it as it was for the audience when he suddenly shows up. I mean he doesn't have tons to say, but he's really fun to do. The other would be the Emperor, mainly because he's a Shakespearean actor, so he was able to take the simplicity of the script and heighten it. So, he gives me, as an actor, a lot of meat to work with. You know, Harrison Ford is a very distinct actor, but he doesn't have a lot of range in what he does, while the Emperor does, so it's really fun. When you're a kid you want to be Luke but then you realize, from an acting standpoint, the more badass, dark-side is really where your heart belongs.


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