Dear readers, you are back! A surprise to be sure, but a welcome one…
We’ve had a good run of Star Wars heavy stories thus far but on occasion the discussion can veer off into more of the theory behind the big hit of 1977. That’s what we have here today with our guest, Jack Klaff.
Jack is a stage and screen actor with performances ranging from bad guy Apostis in James Bond to starring opposite Richard Gere in King David to Rawdon Crawley in a TV adaptation of Vanity Fair but today we talk his role as X-Wing pilot Red Four…or do we?
The explosive (pun intended) part was short but Jack’s got a lot to say about the success of the film and we ponder some of the burning questions related to Star Wars. For example, what is the correct amount of times to have watched Star Wars? Or is it Stan Wars? How do we describe the films best? What’s a Space Opera? All this and more lies ahead of you and we hope you enjoy the read…
Thanks for joining us Jack, how have you been keeping busy through lockdown?
I have been keeping busy in a variety of ways. I have a new agent who is very proactive, two films are coming up one of which is dealing with politics in the 1970’s and another I can’t say too much about but still to be getting offers is great. I’ve also been writing; I’ve done an online Samuel Beckett play with a great South African actor called John Kani (most recently King T’Chaka in Marvel’s Black Panther) and on balance I really can’t complain. My wife and daughter are here, my son isn’t far away and I have a granddaughter so we are all busy and happy.
Great to hear! From an acting point of view, the arts have been in the news a lot recently due to the pandemic. What has this period put into the spotlight from your perspective?
It’s put in the spotlight the fact that writers, actors, dancers, performers and musicians really do depend on live performances. We have a neighbour who is a cellist and she’s been working consistently all of her life. I went around to drop off a loaf of bread the other day and she wasn’t there, she popped round to apologize because she had been working in a restaurant. I have another friend, I have done three productions at least with this guy, he’s done theatre at every level and he last designed something for the London Palladium which is a jewel in the crown of British theatre. He’s now moving up the hierarchy of Asda Park Royal.
That is where we are now, freelancers doing those kinds of jobs and don’t forget there are people who work at the box office, critics and others who depend on the live experience who are not earning…
It’s great that people have adapted and things are beginning to return to normal, for now at least. Your screen acting experience happened quite early, were you drawn into performing at a younger age?
I grew up in South Africa and I did a tiny bit of screen work there. I have always flirted a bit with movies, I was often told I was ugly actually…
I did a Law and Economics degree but went to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre school and I was taken into the Bristol Old Vic Company there but after a year I had no prospects. One day in June 1976 I was told to go Elstree Studios and be in this film. There was no audition and my agent thought it was called ‘Stan Wars’ due to a misprint.
I hung around for two days, the actual filming was me being blown up, shaken about and George Lucas saying good job and that was it. I had no idea until 1977 that this was going to be one of the biggest movies of all time and that people were repeatedly seeing it. People were telling me they had seen it eighty times and I thought that was a lot until an interview I did two weeks ago where they said, “Eighty are you kidding me, I saw it eighty times just in July 77”.
I went to the Royal Shakespeare company after that and while I was there it was the release of Star Wars and everyone made a fuss of it. People would come up to me after a show and say, “Oh Mr Klaff we really loved that Shakespeare…were you in Star Wars?!” and slowly but surely, I saw what the fuss was about. I took myself to see it around that time. Please don’t tell anyone except for your readers, I have never seen it since.
I’ll tell you one other thing just so you understand, I’m a professional writer and I got involved in storytelling in the 1990’s. I got some gigs teaching in very posh American Universities teaching storytelling and it’s wonderful whenever the students know that I was in Star Wars because they really pay attention!
I can tell them that the background of it comes from a book called ‘Hero of a Thousand Faces’ by Joseph Campbell and how influenced George Lucas was by the notion of a mythology, comparative myths and which myths go deep into our culture and psyche. That is one of the reasons why Star Wars has such a hold on people, it goes deep into the basic needs that people have for great stories.
In the context of the rest of your career, the Star Wars gig sounds pretty straight forward, just going in and sitting down, getting blown up…
It was simple yes. You alluded to the balance of work while we have been talking; I’ve earned well through film, television and writing and that pays for the next project that you get on with.
One of the things that fascinates me so much is what do professional actors such as yourself think about it now. You do all these other roles, acclaimed theatre performances and then five or ten seconds in Star Wars is what people want to discuss, including myself! Does that bother you?
Well no, the point is that it’s not all people want to talk to me about, but a substantial number of calls do come in. I’ll be honest, every now again I have exploited it…
A guy got in touch with me in the early noughties and asked if I had ever done any conventions and I rather arrogantly said I hadn’t and he said well there’s one in Coventry if you want to come along. They mentioned some nice people would be there, they didn’t push the boat out they just treated us really nicely. I met a friend of mine there called Angus MacInnes (Jon Vander/Gold Leader, Episode IV), Angus is an ex-restauranteur actually and we talked about restaurants and life. Anyway, when I was in Coventry, there was a queue! I spoke to my wife and kids and said I might do them from time to time. I don’t earn a fortune from it, but I sign and I have a good time. I earned really well in Dallas and New York in the past and that keeps things ticking over while I’m doing other things.
I don’t think that’s exploiting it though, there is a market for it. I do it myself, I have several autographs behind where I’m sitting right now. Star Wars capitalized on an audience that wanted or needed something like that at the time. It wasn’t that different it was just an opera set in space with the romance and the larger than life characters…
I’ve never heard that before, an opera set in space…well done you it’s the first time I’ve heard that! Sorry go on…
Do you think the original film was just something George Lucas got right at the time or do you think it could be replicated with another film?
There’s many prongs to this but one I already mentioned was that he really studied myths, he went straight for the traditional mythical structure. He followed Joseph Campbell and the comparative notion of it. When you go deep into an understanding of how myths operate it’s not just the Greek myths but the myths that are part of the culture of peoples around the world.
Each myth has the notion that someone’s in an ordinary world, a call comes, there is a resistance to the call, there is a mentor, a persuasion to get the person to come over the threshold. Once you have that then you are grabbing people, it’s something that goes deep inside us. It just so happens that George Lucas really followed the instructions. I’m not saying he did it by numbers, but he almost did and when you do that you are able to go deep inside people.
Harrison Ford is a marvellous actor, he has a lot of things that go with what makes a good screen actor, he is very contained and so on and most importantly in his case he has tremendous wit. Carrie Fisher was a wonderful person, very witty, I thought her hair was a bit ridiculous at the time, but it’s grown on people. Mark Hamill is a very good protagonist in mythical terms because off screen he was energetic, a very nice person but when he’s in the film you project onto him a lot of wishes desires and so on. So, you’ve got your protagonist, you’ve got your friend, you’ve got your mentor, your really serious villain and that’s a major thing. It’s religious and it has something of the western and opera in it. At the time it had state of the art technology, there was an excitement to it. The combination of the narrative and the depth of what people go for, what they want to hear in music, around the campfire, in movies, that’s very deep and a very solid narrative structure.
George Lucas was young and hungry and understood how he could catch the zeitgeist, in addition to that Alec Guinness always had the magic touch, he was in the news as the most popular actor at the time which I find fascinating. We are talking about an actor in the same era as James Dean and Marlon Brando. There was something about him as an actor, he was always involved in a great number of big hits. He was one of the most famous actors in the world in the 1950’s and then you have this incredible figure of Darth Vader voiced by James Earl Jones plus, puppets! You had this kind of opera meets western meets The Muppets.
That’s a good way of putting it! Finally, back to yourself, I guess your theatre work outweighs your work on screen, how do you reflect on that now?
Yes that’s right. I have done some arty movies and some not, I had a wonderful role with Richard Gere in King David. I can’t tell you how many TV jobs I’ve had…some have been virtually leading roles like Vanity Fair for example. I don’t want to sound defensive; I know I’m not a household name but I’ve done a fair amount of good television work.
People like me go from job to job, I have a literary agent, a script agent, an acting agent, I kind of have a booking agent for my solo work and I’m a self-starter so in any given week I don’t think you’d believe what I go through. There’s not a single role where I asked for it!
When you get to my age, I do a lot of solo work, I’m a storyteller but if you were to ask me to look back on my life’s achievements Star Wars would be part of it as it hit the zeitgeist. I’ve written quite a number of things that I am proud of too, but it isn’t over until it’s over and I hope that my future projects are what I’m proud of.
With that, we end a very interesting call as Jack heads to birthday celebrations. In the absence of conventions, you can contact Jack for autographs via Facebook here.
Did you enjoy reading this interview? Why not check out the Star Wars story of creature creator Nick Maley by clicking here. Nick was responsible for many of the Mos Eisley Cantina characters, The Wampa and Tauntauns as well as Chewbacca, Snaggletooth, Dr Evazan, Mynocks, Ugnaughts and a a character you may have heard of named Yoda.
Keep checking back for more Star Wars Stories and until the next time, I’ll be there for you…Cassian said I had to.