A week after Election Day, on the first Tuesday in America’s new, uncertain reality, the man who once symbolized a rebellion’s hope against a white supremacist empire is aghast.
“I’m in total denial,” says Mark Hamill, Star Wars’ iconic Luke Skywalker, in a phone interview promoting his new hosting gig on Pop Culture Quest, a geekery-fueled Comic Con HQ showcase for fans, famous figures, and their massive memorabilia collections. “I’m glad I have [the show] to take my mind off what’s going on. Because if you look at what’s being assembled for our government it’s like, yikes. It’s a who’s-who of really despicable people.”
That “who’s who” is President-elect Trump’s list of preferred White House staff and cabinet appointments, a list that has dredged up names associated with extreme anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia. In the wake of the election, some fans have turned to Star Wars to grasp for comparisons, settling on figures like Emperor Palpatine and Darth Vader as analogues for the new regime.
The comparison may seem childish, but at least one newly anointed White House strategist, ex-Breitbart editor Steve Bannon, relishes it: “Dick Cheney. Darth Vader. Satan. That’s power,” Bannon told The Hollywood Reporter earlier this month.
In the face of Sith Lord wannabes rising to power, Hamill says he understands the urge to despair. “It’s tempting to say, ‘Well, I’m moving to Canada, I can’t stand it,’” he says. “But in other ways, it’s a challenge to stay and defend your country and do what you think is right and not retreat and hide under the covers. It’s not gonna be easy, that’s for sure.”
The son of a U.S. naval officer whom he describes as a “big Nixon guy,” Hamill, a card-carrying Democrat, sympathizes with those whose Thanksgiving gatherings turned into political dogfights this year—inevitable when “half the people in the country are thrilled and delighted and half the people are disgusted, repulsed, and embarrassed.” (His three now-grown kids, he notes, “turned out alright.” As for himself, “like Stephanie Miller and Ronald Reagan Jr., I fell far from the tree.”)
Still, in times of darkness and frightening uncertainty, there’s momentary refuge in pop culture. Post-election, Hamill’s TV is as occupied these days by the slapstick of Laurel and Hardy as it is by MSNBC. Others, meanwhile, may be basking in the hopefulness of a story set in a galaxy far, far away.
“It sounds corny, but the Star Wars films were incredibly optimistic films,” Hamill says, earnestness seeping through the gravelly tone of his voice. “They talked about doing good just because it helps others and being selfless and understanding your place in the universe. Beyond being entertaining, I hope that’s a message that kids still respond to. Because I still believe that. I still believe all those tenets of ‘treat others the way you want to be treated’ and so forth.”
Besides his role as Skywalker, Hamill is renowned for his animated performances as Batman’s archnemesis the Joker, a role he’s reprised in countless DC animated films, TV series, and video games beginning with Batman: The Animated Series in 1992. Being the talent behind two of geekdom’s most ardently beloved characters has afforded Hamill a unique position for observing the evolution of fandom—though his own nerd credentials predate his break into stardom.
He remembers genre fan conventions in the early ‘70s at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel, when a 16mm showing of Metropolis and “like, ten” comic book dealers in the basement were the event’s main draws. He remembers marveling at word that there’d be “a thousand” people there one year. And, chuckling, he remembers when “you were thrilled to see any woman show up whatsoever.”
Pop Culture Quest is both an expression of Hamill’s deep, abiding love for genre fare and a guilt-free way for him to vicariously continue his favorite hobby: collecting. His California home is cluttered “wall-to-wall” with everything from comic books to model kits to Beatles memorabilia—the latter was his first collectors’ passion—eventually forcing him to kick the habit. (“I’m not gonna drive 90 minutes to visit some storage unit garage,” he grumbles.)
Howard Kazanjian, a family friend and producer on Return of the Jedi and Raiders of the Lost Ark, was the first to suggest that Hamill turn his former hobby into a hosting gig. He delightedly accepted, eager to peek inside the collections of figures including legendary DC Comics artist Jim Lee. (Hamill ascends to peak nerd in the premiere episode when he agrees to record Lee’s voicemail as the Joker in exchange for an original piece of artwork.)
His infectious enthusiasm for every artifact he lays eyes on is palpable throughout the show—more than once, he buries his face in his hands and emerges wide-eyed in wonder at it all. “I was one of seven kids in a middle-class family,” he explains. “We just didn’t have the money to get all the things I wanted.”
“I remember my father throwing his shoe at the television when he heard that Action [Comics] No. 1 [in which Superman is introduced] had sold for $250. It just couldn’t compute,” he laughs, before roaring an imitation of his family’s military patriarch. “What kind of moron would buy a comic book for $250?! Of course, now it’s worth over a million if it’s in good condition.”
Unprompted, Hamill dives into the origins of his life as a genre fan, pinpointing the moment he saw an airing of the 1933 version of King Kong on television as a kid. That, along with the “lightbulb” moment that came while watching Clarence Nash voice Donald Duck in a Disney documentary, convinced him he wanted to be in the business of bringing monsters and cartoons to life.
“I had to keep it kind of a secret because my family would have thought I was insane,” he says, laughing again. “And look at where I am today! Awash in video games, cartoons, and space movies. And loving every minute of it.”
Hamill will reprise his role as Luke Skywalker in next year’s fervently anticipated Star Wars: Episode VIII, following his wordless cameo as the self-exiled Jedi Master in Episode VII. While the newest installments have largely embraced diversity, with female leads and multicultural supporting players in both Episode VII and Rogue One, not every corner of fandom has embraced change.
It’s a point Hamill considers while discussing how, earlier this year, he made headlines for insisting to an anguished fan over Twitter that Skywalker could be gay. He still stands by that position—“his sexuality isn’t directly addressed in the film,” he points out—but cites the incident while ruminating on the nature of intolerance.
“These kids would write me and say, ‘I’m so scared because my father’s a preacher. If he finds out, I’m going to hell,’” Hamill says, his voice darkening. “Or: ‘The kids down at school are treating me horribly.’ You just have to pinch yourself. You go, ‘Aren’t we in 2016? I mean, gosh, I thought this was settled ages ago.’”
“It is frightening,” he adds. “As the recent election showed us, you realize that you’re probably in a minority when you thought you were in the majority in terms of what you consider normal and okay…But it’s like a drop in the ocean. You do what you can and keep your fingers crossed. I always say [to those kids], hang in there, it gets much better. You won’t believe the difference when you move out of Oklahoma and to New York.”
It’s for reasons like these that Pop Culture Quest has become such a welcome distraction for Hamill—and his fans—since the election. “Suddenly you realize that being the court jester is an important job,” he says, “especially when there are such dire things going on in the world.”