Solo: A Star Wars Story interview – Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover talk about recreating Han Solo and Lando Calrissian roles
The stars of the latest Star Wars spin-off talk about the pressure of taking on the roles of the space pirate and his smuggler friend, and how director Ron Howard stepped in to finish the film
One of the most famous characters in the Star Wars galaxy, Han Solo is back for his own spin-off adventure. Set in the space pirate’s younger days, Solo: A Star Wars Story sees Alden Ehrenreich occupying the boots famously filled by Harrison Ford. So did he feel the pressure?
“It’s more intense because it’s Star Wars,” he says with a nod. “But the pressure itself is the same … it’s different in degree but not in its nature.”
Two days after the unveiling of Solo at the Cannes Film Festival, the 28 year-old Los Angeles-born actor is in a hotel room on the French Riviera, remarkably laid back about taking on such an iconic character. But then he’s no newbie. Ehrenreich’s 2009 debut Tetro, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, premiered in Cannes too. Since then, he’s worked for Woody Allen (Blue Jasmine), the Coen Brothers ( Hail, Caesar! ) and Park Chan-wook (Stoker).
“It’s nice to be back,” he smiles.
Even so, playing Solo is a different proposition. Ehrenreich was the first person to audition, as he was heading to Morocco to shoot The Yellow Birds. When he returned, he had six months of screen tests – including speaking to his hairy co-pilot Chewbacca in his native Wookie – and even then he took time out to consider why he was pursuing this.
“I made sure that if some voice came up that went ‘Don’t do this’, I would follow that,” says Ehrenreich.
He’s now been living with the role for 2½ years. Before shooting, he had lunch with Ford, but the ageing star didn’t tell him too much for fear of intimidating him. Instead, Ehrenreich went to a different source.
“The main thing very early on was to try to absorb as much as I could from the original films.” But the task at hand is different; now Solo is the main protagonist, rather than a supporting player. He had “to feel like a real person”.
In agreement is Donald Glover, the actor and rapper who was charged with the task of playing the young Lando Calrissian, Solo’s smuggler friend who was originally played by Billy Dee Williams in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back.
“I didn’t want to do an intimation [of him],” Glover says. “I felt that would be really bad. People would be turned off.” Still, there were “little mannerisms” that Glover did employ, including Calrissian’s famous one finger salute.
Star Wars movie timeline explained: from Phantom Menace to Solo: A Star Wars Story and The Last Jedi
Set roughly 10 years before the original Star Wars, Solo introduces the would-be pilot on his home planet Corellia.
“I don’t know if he feels exactly like Han Solo the whole time,” says Ehrenreich. While he has got that same cocksure charm and gambler’s luck (he owes money, just like always), he’s also a more idealistic and optimistic character, less the cynical rogue he will become.
Written by Jonathan Kasdan and his father Lawrence Kasdan, who is Star Wars royalty after co-writing four of the saga’s adventures, the idea of showing a young Solo was mooted even before Disney bought Lucasfilm for US$4 billion in 2012 and relaunched cinema’s most famous space saga.
It means we get to see how Solo first encounters Calrissian, the original owner of Han’s spacecraft, the Millennium Falcon. Then there’s his blossoming relationship with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) – who is a mere 190 years old when the two meet in a dirt-filled prison (an echo of their encounter in Return of the Jedi).
“In this film you really realise, ‘Oh Chewbacca does not need to hang out with Solo!’” laughs Glover. “Every day he chooses: ‘I’m going to outlive this kid. I’m stronger, I’m faster, I’m better. But I love this kid.’ That’s true love. He doesn’t have to. He just wants to.”
New characters include Solo’s young love Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) and Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who leads would-be pilot Solo into a life of banditry, as they aim to steal a shipment of fuel from a train. So what is it? A romance? A heist movie? A western?
“I think it’s really a great rollicking swashbuckling adventure story,” replies Ehrenreich. “One of the great things about it is that there are all these different worlds within the film.”
For all its exuberance, however, Solo has hardly been a smooth ride. During the production, original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street) departed due to creative differences with Lucasfilm’s president, Kathleen Kennedy. Ron Howard (The Da Vinci Code, A Beautiful Mind) was drafted in to finish the job.
“Obviously their styles are different,” notes Glover. “But it was a very amicable divorce. That’s what it felt like to me. There was no drama.”
It’s not the first time there have been such issues. Josh Trank departed a film about Star Wars bounty hunter Boba Fett before it got underway, while Tony Gilroy was ushered in to reshoot scenes for 2016’s Rogue One .
Ron Howard sympathises with Kennedy. “She’s a filmmaker’s producer. These circumstances … I think it’s an absolute fluke that it’s happened close together like this. It pains her.”
When Howard arrived, his work extended to not only reshooting or reconfiguring scenes that weren’t working but also acting as a therapist of sorts for the existing cast and crew.
“They recognised I didn’t need to do this but they could see my enthusiasm for the project and my belief in them,” the director explains. “I also didn’t change anybody. I kept the entire crew. I just tried to present a belief and optimism for what the film could be.”
Whatever the mood was on set when Howard took over, Glover says everybody was stoked to be working on a Star Wars film. “No one is phoning it in,” says the actor.
Howard even contacted Star Wars’ creator George Lucas, who directed him and Ford in 1973’s American Graffiti. Lucas advised his old friend to check in with his inner 12-year-old while directing. “He’s still an inspirational leader,” says Howard.
In the wake of Howard’s rescue mission, Solo has more than satisfied its original players. Glover was contacted by Billy Dee Williams. “He texted me, and he said I did a good job, which felt good.”
The notoriously tricky Ford also saw the film just before Cannes. “He was so positive,” says Howard. “I’ve never heard him so effusive about something. He was also very complimentary about Alden, which was great.”
Naturally, given the thirst for all things Star Wars, there’s talk of a Lando Calrissian spin-off, and further stand-alone outings for Solo that will doubtless feature Crimson Dawn, the criminal organisation that features in Solo.
“There’s nothing as of yet but I’d love to do it,” says Ehrenrich, once again casually. To borrow a quote from his Han Solo, he has a good feeling about this.
Solo: A Star Wars Story opens on May 25
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