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Mark Hamill Goes to the Dark Side at Jason Reitman’s Live Reading of ‘The Empire Strikes Back’

“Welcome to the first live screening of ‘The Interview!’”

So teased Jason Reitman at the start of Thursday’s live reading of “The Empire Strikes Back” held in downtown Los Angeles. The event, part of Film Independent’s Live Read series, was moved from its previous home at LACMA to the larger Ace Hotel Theatre due to audience demand.

“We needed a few more seats for this one,” quipped Reitman, who directs the events.

Costumed characters dressed as Stormtroopers and X-Wing Pilots entertained fans outside the historic theater, while a fully-motorized R2-D2 posed for photos inside the lobby as John Williams’ classic theme music played in the background.

But it was the surprise appearance of beloved Star Wars icon Mark Hamill, reading the roles of Obi-Wan Kenobi and The Emperor, that brought the audience to its feet for a spontaneous standing ovation.

“I hope I pass the audition,” Hamill joked as the applause continued.

Another surprise cast member was Rainn Wilson, reading, or more accurately growling, the role of Chewbacca. Given his talent for improvisation, “The Office” star managed to give each separate roar and snarl its own distinct meaning.

Aaron Paul took on Hamill’s signature role of Luke Skywalker, with Jessica Alba playing the heroic Princess Leia. Dennis Haysbert read the part of smooth-talking scoundrel Lando Calrissian, while J.K. Simmons’ deep baritone voice breathed life into Darth Vader. (Simmons has co-starred in every film Reitman has directed.)

Rounding out the cast were Stephen Merchant as C-3PO and Kevin Pollak as Yoda.

“These aren’t the Jews you’re looking for,” Pollak cracked as he sat down next to Hamill.

Reitman took particular pleasure in introducing the most unusual casting of the night. “I’m so excited to say these words. In the role of Han Solo… Ellen Motherf—–g Page!” The “Juno” star seemed like a gimmicky choice to play the space smuggler when her name was announced earlier that day. But Page gave the character a cocky, flirtatious confidence that put all fears to rest. Her interpretation of Han Solo was every bit the archetypal antihero.

The screenplay for “The Empire Strikes Back” was written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, but the version performed was slightly different than the one that audiences are familiar with. “This is a transliteration of several drafts,” Reitman explained before the show. “There’s material in here that was not used in the final script.” The changes were extremely subtle, however, with no drastic alterations to the plot or characters.

As the night began, Hamill, an accomplished voice actor for animated movies and TV series, did an amazing impression of Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan. His first words drew a thundering round of applause from the audience.

Paul and Alba struggled at times to find their characters, with Paul underplaying Luke and Alba having difficulty with the sci-fi technical jargon. Haysbert and Simmons, meanwhile, provided expert vocal support.

Merchant’s dithering C-3PO and Pollak’s uncanny Yoda were the highlights of the night. Combining the delivery of Woody Allen with the timing of John Cleese, Merchant gave the chatty droid an unexpectedly human quality that worked brilliantly. Pollak, a master impressionist, captured every vocal nuance of Frank Oz’s original character. The result was eerily like watching the two-foot tall Jedi come to life on stage. Both actors also voiced multiple secondary roles, often to hilarious effect.

Reading the script’s descriptive passages, Reitman at times rushed through the material, occasionally stumbling over the wordier sections in an effort to keep the pace moving. But the creative whistles and beeps that he provided as the “voice” of R2-D2 more than made up for the minor slip-ups.

(Pictured: Aaron Paul, Jessica Alba, Stephen Merchant, Dennis Haysbert, Kevin Pollak, Rainn Wilson, Mark Hamill, J.K. Simmons, Ellen Page and Jason Reitman perform a live reading at the Film Independent Live Read of “The Empire Strikes Back”)

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