Star Wars is one of the most popular franchises of all time. It’s known for its fantastical sci-fi worlds, revolutionary special effects, and a killer score by John Williams. What it hasn’t always been known for is the performances from the actors who portray the iconic characters at the heart of these stories. The movies that Star Wars creator George Lucas was most heavily involved with (the original and prequel trilogies) are deeply loved, but also not often lauded for their performances. Lucas seemed to take the approach to let the actors approach the material as they would.
Of course, at the time the original trilogy was being made, the emphasis on naturalistic acting that’s so prevalent today wasn’t yet as popular. Instead, many film actors came from theater backgrounds, which might explain the over-the-top quality of some of the performances from the earlier Star Wars movies. It’s probably fair to say that naturalistic acting may not have been a concern during the making of the first six Star Wars episodes. Not only was what was happening on screen decidedly unnatural, but the prequel trilogy in particular was approached in an almost Shakespearean style that set the era apart from what fans had seen in the first trilogy. These days, acting has become more specialized. There are many different methods, and most movies favor performances that err on the side of naturalistic on a scale of natural to theatrical.
Star Wars is also a huge property with a lot of resources that can be used to search for talent. Though Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, and Mark Hamill are now considered household names and have each given great performances in and outside of Star Wars, they weren’t well-known when they initially signed on. Each Star Wars era has added higher-profile actors, as the resources available grew as well.
So, what makes a great Star Wars performance? Is it a youthful energy that mirrors the intended audience? Or perhaps it’s the gravitas intended for a Jedi Master? Maybe it’s in the genuine pathos that actors bring to their roles or a sort of roguish charm. Of course, there’s also the Dark Side, featuring performances that range from truly menacing to heartbreakingly nuanced. What makes a good Star Wars performance is actually all of these things, as well as how well the actor can make the audience believe in their character amidst all sorts of outlandish scenarios, computer generated imagery, and layers of makeup. The last 45 years have seen the releases of 11 feature Star Wars films that have featured a broad range of acting style and talent. We wanted to shed some light on some of our favorite standout performances in the Star Wars saga: how they’re different, how they’re similar, and what makes them great.
Mark Hamill played Luke Skywalker with the utmost sincerity in the original trilogy. Though he isn’t one of the most talented actors in the series, his performance as Luke showed improvement with each new installment he appeared in. What many didn’t know was that Hamill was capable of the level of performance that he gave in The Last Jedi. The Luke of the original trilogy was an earnest young man with dreams of being a hero and a commitment to doing the right thing.
The Luke of The Last Jedi is what happens when our heroes continue to grow older after the story has ended, and they realize that they are still human and capable of making mistakes. This Luke is burdened by his own legacy, an older man who’s not done learning. He’s still the hero fans remember, proving this in one of his most epic moments when he faces off against (and cleverly out-thinks) Kylo Ren at the end of the movie. His arc in The Last Jedi gave Hamill something more complex to play that allowed the actor to show his talent in a way he never had before.
Lucas went for another fresh face when he cast Anakin Skywalker in the second two films of the prequel trilogy. Audiences have been notoriously hard on this particular era for Star Wars, and criticism of Hayden Christensen’s performance as Anakin unfortunately crossed over into online bullying. However, if you remove the extra scrutiny that came with being the first new Star Wars films since the original trilogy, you can see that Christensen’s less popular acting choices were no different from those Hamill was making 20 years earlier. And like Hamill before him, Christensen grew into the role of the hero-turned-villain. By the time the trilogy ended, he had started to tap into the emotional life of Anakin in a way that helped make Revenge of the Sith arguably the best entry in the prequels.
The sequel trilogy introduced a new hero in the form of Daisy Ridley’s Rey. Ridley’s performance grew alongside the character, appearing more confident in each installment. In The Force Awakens, Ridley played Rey as a young woman with a childlike naivete that made her winsome, while delivering on the emotional arc towards the end of the movie. The Last Jedi saw Ridley give a performance with more subtlety and nuance than we’d seen from her before. The combined efforts of director Rian Johnson and Ridley (as well as spectacular supporting performances from Hamill and Adam Driver) gave audiences a new type of hero: a true “nobody” with no ties to any legacy, but with the power to save the galaxy anyway. Johnson understood that Rey’s power didn’t need to be owed to any man that came before her, and Ridley’s performance shines under that realization.
There are few villains more iconic than Darth Vader. Though there has always been someone underneath the mask adding an imposing physical presence to the man, it’s James Earl Jones’s remarkable voicework that has made the character an unforgettable film presence. Of course, Vader had someone to answer to, and that someone had to be even more menacing than himself. Playing Emperor Palpatine, Ian McDiarmid gives his all in every scene, resulting in a performance that is as campy and fun as it is menacing.
The Force Awakens introduced Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux as a ruthless military leader serving the First Order under Supreme Leader Snoke. A scene where Hux gives a rousing speech to the First Order’s army shows off some of Gleeson’s talent. In The Last Jedi, Johnson kept that energy going while also allowing Gleeson to show off his comedic skills as well.
But of course, the best villain in the sequel trilogy and the entire saga (I said what I said) is Driver’s Kylo Ren. Driver is one of the best actors working today, and he brings every ounce of his remarkable talent to the role of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. In Kylo, Driver gives a performance that is more nuanced than any the franchise has ever seen.
Yoda is a little green puppet who acts as a mentor to just about everyone. Though the character has very little in common with Vader, they do share one important similarity: the voiceover work is outstanding. Frank Oz has played Yoda in six Star Wars movies at this point, and whether he’s puppeteering or just lending his iconic vocal talent, it’s his voice that makes Yoda such a compelling character.
Liam Neeson’s turn as Qui-Gon Jinn is understated but does the work that needs to be done. The actor has the gravitas to sell his status as a Jedi Master, while also coming across as more in touch with his emotions than his Jedi council counterparts, making him the perfect person to want to take a chance on a young Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) in The Phantom Menace
But of course, the greatest addition the prequel trilogy gave us in terms of performance was Ewan McGregor’s take on a young Obi-Wan Kenobi. Alec Guiness’s original portrayal of the character was great and informed McGregor’s work, but ultimately it’s the latter’s Obi-Wan that has become more beloved with many fans. It’s true that the dialogue in the prequels was meant to serve the purpose of showing a different time in the galaxy, a more outwardly civilized time. Unfortunately, this often resulted in line deliveries that audiences complained sounded stiff and unconvincing. Amidst all of this, McGregor figured out a way to make Obi-Wan feel charming and one of the most engaging characters to watch during that era.
Leia Organa (Fisher) has been many things, but her story began as the Princess of Alderaan. Fisher was as new to the acting scene as her co-stars, but she infused Leia with a confidence that raised the standards for female characters in the genre. Leia needed saving, yes, but she was about as far from helpless as one could get. Leia’s journey took her from princess to general (hard to be princess of a planet that no longer exists), and that’s where she spent most of her story. In The Last Jedi, the costume department took inspiration from Leia’s royal beginnings to give the character a more regal look than fans had seen in years. Fisher gave her best performance in the film, showing that Leia was and always will be the heart of Star Wars.
Leia’s mother was royalty as well. Natalie Portman played Padme Amidala, Queen of Naboo in the prequel trilogy. While the role may not have given her the chance to show off the full extent of her talent, one thing is always for sure where Portman is concerned: when she’s crying, you cry too.
If there’s one thing Star Wars loves, it’s a charming rogue. The blueprint is Han Solo, made iconic by Harrison Ford’s smirking grin and comedic timing. Like Hamill, Ford got to showcase more of his dramatic skills in the sequel trilogy, where Han got a tragic but fitting sendoff.
In Solo, Alden Ehrenreich plays a pre-A New Hope Han. Both he and Donald Glover, who plays a younger Lando Calrissian (originated with impeccable charm by Billy Dee Williams) succeed in capturing some of the charm of the original portrayals in the spirit of their performances.
The newest era of Star Wars has managed to get some of the best actors currently working to join the saga. The Force Awakens kicks off with Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron serving as the latest “Charming Man” in the series. Isaac might be incapable of giving a bad performance, and let’s be honest — he’s also just too handsome to fail. Another standout is Kelly Marie Tran, whose sweet-but-tough Rose Tico encapsulates everything Star Wars is about. Unfortunately, J.J. Abrams failed to recognize this when he returned to the franchise and instead pleased the very worst people on the Internet by sidelining the franchise’s first major Asian American female character.
The very first Star Wars movie (now known as A New Hope) introduces audiences to the galaxy far, far away through the point of view of two droids. One of these droids, C-3PO, is played by Anthony Daniels. This gold-plated droid would go on to be the character that appears in the most Star Wars movies, mostly to continue to act as a guide and a touchstone for the fans. Daniels takes the confines of the suit he works within and turns those limits into traits that inform the character. 3PO’s anxious rigidity has become a part of his charm, adding comic relief to high-stakes scenes.
The galaxy has seen a lot of droids since 3PO was first introduced. Another standout is Alan Tudyk’s K2-SO from Rogue One. Tudyk gives a fantastic voiceover performance that sounds droid-like while also managing to be genuinely funny and charming.
The Stacked Spinoff
Rogue One boasts a pretty stacked cast, including Felicity Jones, Riz Ahmed, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Mads Mikkelson, Forest Whittaker, Jiang Wen, and Donnie Yen. The story Rogue One tells is of how the Rebels in A New Hope got their hands on the plans that allowed Luke to destroy the Death Star. Rogue One is a great-looking movie that takes risks and tells an entertaining story, but it’s the on-screen talent – maybe the best full cast in the saga? – that elevates this movie from being just another Disney-era prequel.