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The Force Is Strong With This One

By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on Nov 29, 2004 2:55PM

Chicagoist finally caught the teaser trailer of the final Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith, at the theater this weekend. Damn, it was cool. When Darth Vader showed up, we almost peed ourselves. And that hasn’t happened since…well, last week. But it wasn’t because of Darth Vader.

Anyway, we’ve totally got a Star Wars jones now but the movie doesn’t come out until May. Luckily, Charlie Ross has breezed Mark Hamill?  Ewan McGregor?  Nope.  Charlie Ross.  Image: tjdawe.cominto town this week to give us our fix. Ross is the writer and performer of The One Man Star Wars Trilogy, a one-hour stage version of the three original Star Wars films. Without any sets or costumes (which means you won’t be seeing him in Princess Leia’s metal bikini) and using only his body and his voice, Ross re-creates all three movies right down to the music and the sound effects (which is much more impressive than just being able to do the light saber noise).

Having played to sold-out shows here last year at the Noble Fool, Ross will be appearing at the Apollo Theater starting tonight through February 14th (so that takes care of your Valentine’s Day plans, Melvin). No one-trick pony, Ross has also been touring with a One Man Lord of the Rings show in his native Canada and will be appearing with the blessing of George Lucas at Celebration III in April, a fan gathering sponsored by Lucasfilm to kick off the May release of Revenge of the Sith.

Chicagoist caught up with Ross as he was touring his native Canada and we chatted about trilogies, geekboy fandom, and the importance of elbow pads.

Chicagoist: You performed the show here last here around the same time. Was that the first time you’d performed in Chicago?
Charlie Ross: First time I’d been to Chicago.

C: Have you been doing the show continuously since then?
CR: Oh yeah. That and Lord of the Rings. But even before I came to Chicago I’d been making my living doing it for almost two years at that time which was great.

C: You’ve seen the movie [Star Wars: A New Hope] about 474 times, is that correct?
CR: Yeah, I mean that’s when I stopped counting it as a child. That’s actually a true number but then again I have seen it more since because…I’m no longer a child. A child on the inside, maybe.

The other films [The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi] I didn’t see as many times. I never watched them when I was writing it. I tried to write it from memory because I figured that would be the easiest way to try to remember any sort of repeatable form.

C: I think that’s the experience that the audience is going to have too. They’re going to be kind of remembering it in their own mind.
CR: Absolutely. That’s an interesting thing though. The more they know it, the more they’re going to “get it” but the more they might mourn the fact that there’s things they’re going to be missing. Whereas a person who’s only maybe seen it a couple times or hasn’t seen it for a long time…they remember things that they didn’t know that they remembered. That says something about the films themselves. They just have, by hook or by crook, entered into our general psyche I guess you could say.

C: The stories are based in myth by Lucas’s own admission so I think a lot of what is going on is universal.
CR: Well, it’s that Joseph Campbell thing, right? That whole hero’s journey. You’re going to find it in Lord of the Rings. If it’s a good idea, if it’s a good form then why bother changing it? In a sense, it’s the perfect follow up doing Lord of the Rings after doing Star Wars not just because it’s as popular but because the form is so very similar in a lot of ways.

C: Was that what drew you to doing Lord of the Rings? You liked the form that you were working in but wanted to do something different?
CR: To me, there were two things. I wanted to know if I was able to repeat that process again. Would people actually be able to accept a different show? And I guess I was trying to think of something that might be as popular but also something that I loved as much as Star Wars. It’s funny because I’m actually having a problem [following up Lord of the Rings] if I want to make it a “trilogy of trilogies.” I’m having a bit of a hard time thinking of something else to follow it up with.

C: You do have a poll up on your website. Is there anything that’s currently in the lead right now?
CR: Indiana Jones is pretty much in the lead right now. It’s not quite the same thing. I guess you have the Everyman in a sense [but] you just don’t get the same tale. With Star Wars or with Lord of the Rings, you have a continuous tale from the beginning to the end. Something’s been achieved and something’s been destroyed. You don’t even get the same thing with The Matrix, which I kind of thought was something similar but because The Matrix got a little bit convoluted…

C: (sarcastically) Yeah, a little bit.
CR: I’m trying to be kind in saying that. But it just doesn’t work the same way. That’s an amazing thing about these films is that they have done so much work that for me to come along and do what I do it’s not that difficult to find a large amount of people who have, at least, seen the movies or read the books and can get into it.

C: What do you think makes a good trilogy? Do you think you have to have an ongoing storyline throughout the three films? Something like The Godfather series has a thread running through the three films but it but also tells separate stories.
CR: I think a good trilogy is something that has a mixture of seriousness and comedy that takes itself seriously but somehow doesn’t take itself so seriously. It has good and bad characters but has all the in-betweens. You have a real diversity of characters that carry on from the beginning to the end and get to see multiple stories worked out. It’s important to have a good, strong, central character but lots of other integral characters too.

C: You’ve performed at a couple interesting places. You’ve performed at a youth hostel in Turkey and a set party for The Chronicles of Riddick. Does the show change based on the venue you’re working in?
CR: Always, always. It’s always been adjustable to any space I’m going to be presented with. It changes some things but not everything. If I’m doing the ships flying after each other, if I have more room I’m gonna use all that space whereas like last year when I was doing the show up there in Chicago at the Noble Fool, the amount of space I had was smaller than most changing rooms I’ve worked in. So it was an extremely small space. But you work with whatever you have. When I’ve done the show for Lucasfilms down at ComiCon in San Diego that was completely different on the opposite scale. You have 3000 people, you have a humongous stage along with movie screens on either side of the set and two out over the audience and people get to see you on a much bigger scale.

C: Was it intimidating to have to do the show for a group of people who were more familiar with it than any other you’d performed for?
CR: Well I guess I could feel the pressure to make it as true as I could. To tell you the truth, I had done it enough by that point that I felt pretty confident that people would like it. And I knew that Lucasfilms themselves liked it. As far as I’ve ever been able to see, the people who knew Star Wars the best obviously get the most out of it and that’s a great thing. So I knew that this was sort of the ideal audience.

C: You definitely are somebody who’s coming from a place of love for these films.

CR: I’d never do something I didn’t love, to tell you the truth, when it comes to making a movie into a one-person play. It would be something I loved otherwise what’s the point? You’d have to be a fool to ask me to do something that was outrightly mocking it. I don’t think you’d find that many people that would actually enjoy it.

C: It’s such a personal thing with people that you could get to the point where they’d think you’re making fun of them.
CR: There’s no way that anybody could be making fun of anybody but me. When you’re watching my show, the only person that’s acting like a complete super-loser is myself. I’m sweating like a freak, throwing myself around. You’ve seen the Star Wars Kid? That kid’s got nothing on me, really.

C: You had said that you hadn’t looked at the film in a while. Have you gone back and looked at the Special Editions out on DVD?
CR: It guess it was kind of inevitable, but somebody bought me a copy of the DVDs and actually I think the changes are all totally fine. There are certain things that you don’t necessarily want to change but I think they only person that I believe could change them and make those kind of decisions is the person that made them in the first place, right? And that’s him. We may not enjoy it but it’s not really up to us. We’re just observers, we’re fans of it.

C: You bring up an interesting point. The large part of the success of these films and the way they’ve been ingrained in the culture is due to the fan experience—what people bring to the films. That’s got to be a big concern for your show: balancing out your own expression but also giving people what you think they came to see.
CR: That’s been sort of a trial and error type thing. I wrote what I thought would work best, tried what I thought would work best. I’ve found that the audience always dictates not only just the way something’s performed but sometimes the way things will develop over time and what stays and what won’t stay. Then the same thing comes with the fanatic and the relative novice insofar as their knowledge of the films. You don’t want to make it so far-reaching that people aren’t gonna get it but at the same time you still want to have those little tiny tidbits that the fanatics will know about and that they will really get something out of. And that’s the amazing thing about doing this type of show is that because you have so many people with such a personal experience of all these different films…I don’t know I guess you’re sometimes dealing with some “basement-dwelling” people’s passions in life and something that can be very personally meaningful and you don’t really want to screw with it and be as delicate as you can.

C: As far as some of the fanboy stuff that people expect, I’m curious about one particular aspect of the Special Edition and how that plays into your show. Does Greedo shoot first?
CR: A lot of people have asked me about that. You know, [the scene with] Greedo and Han doesn’t make it into [the show]. To tell you the truth, I don’t really care who shoots first. I know in the Special Edition on DVD they both shoot at the same time. I don’t see how it really makes a difference except that the special effect looks a bit screwy when he moves his head. Suddenly he can dodge a laser blast? I mean, that’s pretty interesting. To me, it’s not such a huge deal. I think that’s more something [to be discussed] on an online forum. And really, I don’t think George is gonna change it. But in a sense he did since he made them both fire at the same time so obviously it was such an issue that he had to listen to the fans. And that’s quite something.

C: With Lucas, it does sound like there’s a lot of listening to fans and with your show it’s a lot of the same thing: taking what works with an audience but remaining true to your own vision.
CR: I think their opinion is that if you’re not taking away from it, you are, in fact, adding to it. In a sense, it’s like free publicity—not that they need any. But if you’re willing to give them free publicity, why wouldn’t they take it. I think it’s in his best interest, in the whole company’s best interests to keep the fans feeling like they’re involved so it feels like it’s a vital thing and that they’re somehow vital to the experience. It’s good PR, man. I think they’re an extremely mature company for being able to do that. And it’s really fans that make any piece of art vital. That’s what makes it stay on the wall or stay on the bookshelf or keep going into your VCR.

C: You’re going to be in Chicago a couple of weeks. Is there anything you’re looking forward to doing that you didn’t get to do a year ago when you were here?
CR: It’s really funny. I was going to go see a Blackhawks game. And now the whole bloody NHL’s on strike. I’d like to go see some spoken word/open mic nights and I didn’t get to see as much of the blues scene. I’m going to go see some more comedy this year too. I was able to see some last year. I’m going to try and hit the museums as much as I can. The art gallery’s just amazing, the museums are just fantastic. I guess I’ll just try and do more of what I did last year.

C: It’s a really physical show. How do you keep that energy up?
CR: You watch what you eat, you make sure you’re hydrated properly. It’s sort of like the Super Nerd Marathon, really. It’s a good exercise program as well as a good dietary program. And you still get to experience the love of Star Wars and the love of Lord of the Rings. But I don’t think I’ll ever be able to sell it as an honest-to-goodness workout or diet regime. That would be something: The One Man Star Wars Diet or the One Man Lord of the Rings Diet.

C: It doesn’t exactly have the ring of “The Atkins Diet.”
CR: No, not exactly. It would be good for some people, I’m sure. They’d be able to get into it a lot easier.

C: It’s something they know.
CR: And it’s guaranteed results too! (laughs) I guess you could say if I don’t keep looking after myself…injury does happen in this kind of thing. It can happen all the time and I’ve really tried to be careful of it. Sometimes you end up hurting yourself, it just happens. Do you know if the piece has come out in the Tribune yet?

C: I haven’t seen it.
CR: They’re doing some kind of “expose” on props that people use in their shows and apparently that’s what mine was about: having to do with my elbow pads and knee pads.

C: They were focusing on your protective gear?
CR: Pretty much.

C: What was it about the knee pads and the elbow pads that they were interested in?
CR: I think they were just trying to find out how physical the show really was. When I did the show down in Orlando a couple years ago I was in the first thirty seconds of the show and I almost broke my friggin’ arm. It swelled right up. I was able to do the whole show but it was unbelievable.

C: What part of the show were you doing at that point?
CR: When Darth Vader is lifting the Commander of the blockade-runner and chokes him and then throws him. When I landed on the ground, I landed right on my elbow and WHAM! That would have been a really terrible beginning to a really long tour but it worked out all right. I bruised the crap out of it though.

C: The stereotype is that this show is only for “basement dwellers” but you’re putting your life on the line here.
CR: Absolutely. You know, if you think about what a “basement dweller” is, that’s what Gollum has been. Maybe something people don’t really quite realize is that the person that destroys the ring is actually Gollum. It’s nobody else. Nobody actually has the power to do it. And it’s only through a mistake that he’s able to do it. So with any of these people, like myself, that spend a lot of time watching these films the point is: don’t let it remain a negative, make it into something positive. Which you can do. If you do that, you’ll be better for it in the end.

C: That’s almost philosophy right there.
CR: Well, almost. But not quite.