Oh, Star Wars. How you delight… and sometimes, disappoint.
The original Star Wars trilogy gave us some of the most iconic performances of all time, from actors who were largely unknown to audiences. But George Lucas’ prequels were a study in wasted potential. So many good ideas went into building those movies, but they were dreadfully executed, dramatically and narratively. It’s still maddening to think back on those three movies that were so preoccupied with technology that they never bothered to care about creating living, breathing characters that audiences would care about. Or stories that were told organically and realistically, instead of paint-by-numbers plotting.
Speaking of wasted potential, there are quite a lot of actors who were cast in Star Wars films who have (or had) far more talent than they were allowed to show. And that’s not exclusive to the prequels; Episodes I-III have more than their fair share of wasted talents to be certain, and other Star Wars productions aren’t immune to this phenomenon either.
Presented here are fifteen cases of talented, celebrated Hollywood actors who were cast in Star Wars films for those very talents, but then were barely (or never) allowed to show audiences what they could really do.
15. Max von Sydow
Lor San Tekka was one of the few experts on the Jedi remaining after the Empire worked hard to erase all records of their Order and how they operated from the entire galaxy. Devoting his life to recovering that lost information, San Tekka helped Luke Skywalker create the curriculum for his new Jedi academy, based on the lost records he’d discovered. He’s also the one person in the galaxy who was capable of helping the Resistance find Luke Skywalker, thanks to his knowledge of the first Jedi Temple’s location.
It’s a shame that audiences only saw this fascinating new character in the very last moments of his life. The Force Awakens scored a strong “get” in landing veteran actor Max von Sydow to portray this old explorer and fervent follower of the Church of the Force. That didn’t stop the filmmakers from killing him off less than two minutes into his time on the screen.
14. Rose Byrne
After a number of parts in her native Australia, actress Rose Byrne made the move to Hollywood in 2002. Her first part in an American production was that of Dormé, one of a handful of handmaidens from Naboo for Natalie Portman’s Senator Amidala in Attack of the Clones.
Nothing is known about Dormé, as it was admittedly a bit part with the sole purpose of appearing in the background close to Padmé Amidala. She was visible in several scenes, but Dormé was only in Episode II and had no lines. The character has never been seen since.
Years later, Byrne would co-star in X-Men: First Class and X-Men: Apocalypse as Moira MacTaggert, a love interest of James McAvoy’s Charles Xavier and a vital audience surrogate to the mutant action unfolding onscreen. She’s since built up a strong credits list by appearing in the likes of The Place Beyond the Pines, Sunshine, Bridesmaids, Insidious, 28 Weeks Later, and more.
13. Keisha Castle-Hughes
Don’t feel bad if you didn’t know that Academy Award-nominated actress Keisha Castle-Hughes was in Revenge of the Sith. Her part barely even qualifies as a cameo. She appears (fleetingly) as Queen Apailana, the reigning monarch of Naboo and a successor to Padmé Amidala. She’s only seen at the funeral for Anakin’s former lady love at the end of the film.
Castle-Hughes has the distinction of being the youngest female ever to be nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars — for her cinematic debut in Whale Rider. (Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith was her very next film role.) She’s also known for The Nativity Story, HBO’s Roadies, and most recently, as Obara Sand on Game of Thrones.
Very little is known about Queen Apailana, aside from the fact that she was ruler of Naboo at the dawn of the Empire, and she attended Padme’s funeral in typically ornamental attire, showing respect and reverence for her fallen comrade.
12. Gwendoline Christie
Prior to the release of The Force Awakens, the chrome-plated First Order officer Captain Phasma quickly became a standout in trailers and images. J.J. Abrams casting Game of Thrones‘ Gwendoline Christie in the role was inspired, giving audiences a visually striking and potentially scene-chewing character — believed by fans as the most likely candidate to become the new trilogy’s Boba Fett — to a female actress.
Then the movie arrived, and she was on the screen for a whopping total of one minute and forty-five seconds. Fans were disappointed, to say the least. It didn’t help that we never saw Phasma without her helmet on, and that she may have been dumped into a garbage chute off screen in the film’s final act.
Thrones viewers know that Christie’s got real acting chops; she displays them regularly as Brienne of Tarth on the HBO series. So Phasma’s one appearance so far represents a seriously wasted opportunity. To be fair, Christie is returning for The Last Jedi and presumably Episode IX as well, so there’s still time to remedy this. And she’s likely to be pretty darn pissed at Finn for that garbage thing.
11. Joel Edgerton
In the last ten years or so, Joel Edgerton has carved out a career as one of Hollywood’s most eclectic, committed, and chameleon-like modern actors. Appearing in movies like Warrior, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, The Gift, and more, he’s shown off an impressive range and a penchant for picking parts that challenge him in all the right ways. He’s expanded into writing and directing as well, and excelled at both.
But before any of that, many moviegoers were first introduced to him as Owen Lars, a moisture farmer on Tatooine in Attack of the Clones. This young version of the “Uncle Owen” from A New Hope was less jaded and friendlier — not an easy task when one first meets an angry, dangerous Anakin Skywalker.
In all fairness, no one associated with Star Wars probably had any idea what Edgerton was really capable of when Attack of the Clones was filmed. Then again, as can be seen elsewhere on this list, had they known, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference.
10. Terence Stamp
Man, George Lucas really front-loaded the prequels with as many strong actors as he could get, didn’t he? Like others on this list, Terence Stamp is a living legend who was given a teeny part that failed to showcase his talents.
Stamp has almost a hundred credits on his resume, but he will forever be known for his ties to the Superman mythos. He portrayed General Zod, the iconic Kryptonian villain from Superman 2, he’s narrated numerous documentaries on the character, and he provided the voice of Jor-El in more than 20 episodes of Smallville.
Someone with that kind of status among geeks — while also having real cred as a “serious” actor — is somebody you’d want to feature prominently in your movie, right? Wrong. In The Phantom Menace, Mr. Stamp appeared as Chancellor Valorum, the Senate leader who’s deposed thanks to the machinations of Senator Palpatine. He barely appears for a minute and a half, and aside from the blow of receiving a “no confidence” vote from one of his longtime supporters (Padme), he gets nothing to do.
9. Keira Knightley
Three years before her breakout role in Bend it Like Beckham, Keira Knightley made a significant appearance in The Phantom Menace as Sabé, the double, decoy, and bodyguard for Queen Padmé Amidala.
Knightley’s strong resemblance to Natalie Portman was aided further by the over-the-top makeup, hair, and dresses worn by the Queen. Some viewers believed Sabé was Portman in a double role. Her presence in the film was small, but the character’s contribution was important. It was she who directed the Queen’s escape from Naboo at the outset of the film, she who commended R2-D2 for saving the royal starship, and she who presented herself to Gungan ruler Boss Nass.
Today, Knightley is best known for her work in period films and biopics like Pride & Prejudice, Anna Karenina, Atonement, and The Imitation Game. She’s also remembered by viewers as Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise.
8. Jimmy Smits
A mainstay of television drama for more than three decades, Jimmy Smits is known for playing noble, steadfast characters who strive to do the right thing. After making his mark on L.A. Law, he drew acclaim for his work on NYPD Blue. He later went on to extensive stints on The West Wing, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, 24: Legacy, and more.
Smits asked George Lucas personally for a part — any part — in the prequel films. And Lucas delivered with a role in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith that was important, yet tiny. The most frustrating thing is that he played Senator Bail Organa, Princess Leia’s adopted father. Star Wars lore has always referred to him as a pivotal figure in galactic history, a prominent voice among the Senate, and one of the Rebellion’s founding fathers.
Watching the prequels, there was always the sense that his character could have been integrated deeper into the plot. He was always seemingly on the periphery of the action, just outside the frame of everything going on. Smits may not be a huge movie star, but he’s talented, and his important character deserved more. A blink-and-miss-it cameo in Rogue One did little to help.
7. Art Carney
Art Carney will forever be known as Ed Norton, the not-too-bright but jovial sidekick to Jackie Gleason’s Ralph Camden on The Honeymooners. His comedic talents served him well for his early career, but he showed some impressive dramatic range later in life, too. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1974, thanks to his fine work in Harry and Tonto.
So what was he doing slumming on the reviled Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978, four years after his big Oscar win? Obviously, it was widely hoped that the Star Wars Holiday Special would be a huge hit, and it certainly attracted an enormous audience. But George Lucas despised it, and it’s been ejected from official canon in the years since.
Carney’s talents were largely wasted on the Holiday Special, where he portrayed a human trader named Saun Dann living on Kashyyyk, the Wookiee home world. Saun Dann was an early prototype for Lando Calrissian, but you wouldn’t know it; he was a Rebellion sympathizer with no distinguishing qualities. Carney tried to bring some of his humor and humanity to the role, but the material he was given just fell flat.
6. Liam Neeson
There are two things we know for certain about Liam Neeson from looking at his list of credits. First, he’s a brilliant actor. He’s given the world many unforgettable performances, whether you’re watching Schindler’s List, Les Miserables, Batman Begins, The Grey, and yes even Taken. The magnitude of his work is astounding, with well over 100 credits to his name.
The second thing we know is that he’s not terribly discriminant in the parts he accepts. For every Schindler’s List, there’s a stinker like Clash of the Titans, The A-Team, Battleship, or A Million Ways to Die In the West.
Whatever else you can say about his work as Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace, no one will argue that it belongs on that first list. Neeson himself has talked about how he and the other actors weren’t allowed to connect on a human or emotional level, that George Lucas’ priority was getting everything and everyone in the proper positions to match up with his planned CGI visuals. The result? A competent but bland Jedi Master that Neeson wasn’t allowed to put his own stamp upon.
5. Christopher Lee
Raise your hand if you always wondered if Hollywood legend Christopher Lee was cast in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith because George Lucas saw The Lord of the Rings trilogy and contracted a case of Copycat Syndrome.
Not that Lee wasn’t worth casting, mind you. His authoritative voice, imposing stature, and profound sense of presence were virtually unmatched in Hollywood. In the handful of scenes he was given, he made an unforgettable impression. Just imagine what he could have added to the series if he’d been given a bigger, juicier part to play.
Some argue that Darth Maul was such a promising character that he should never have been killed off in The Phantom Menace. Had that been the case, he could have developed into a deeper villain across the trilogy — his antagonistic relationship with Obi-Wan Kenobi could have given Ewan McGregor some much-needed shades of gray to play — and there would have been no need for Lee’s Count Dooku. But if you’re going to put Christopher Lee in your movies, have the decency to cast him as more than a cackling, hand-rubbing, cardboard villain/underling.
4. Alec Guinness
It feels almost sacrilegious to name Sir Alec Guinness among those whose talents were wasted by Star Wars. His Obi-Wan Kenobi is the heart and soul of A New Hope, the wise mentor who sets Luke Skywalker on the path to his destiny, and the story’s one and only link to the Republic of the past. But the fact of the matter is that one of the most legendary Shakespearean actors of all time — an Academy Award winner and Knight of the British Empire — was given barely over twenty minutes in the most important film series of all time. That’s just a crime.
Guinness’ relationship with Star Wars was… complicated. While he appreciated what George Lucas accomplished with the films, as well as the financial prosperity they provided him personally, he found the material to be “fairy tale rubbish” and most of his dialogue to be “bloody awful” and “banal.” The man could go from praising the films for their “warm hearted” moral quotient and being known as the consummate, kind professional on set, to years later “shriveling up” inside at the very mention of the franchise.
3. Samuel L. Jackson
It’s a well known story in Star Wars history that Samuel L. Jackson became Mace Windu because he personally asked George Lucas for a role in the prequels. And if Sam Jackson wants to be in your movie, you put Sam Jackson in your movie. He was barely seen in Episode I, he got to use his purple lightsaber (which Jackson himself lobbied for so he’d stand out in a crowded scene) in Episode II, and he had his arm chopped off and Force-lightning’d out a window in Episode III.
All told, he had less than 15 minutes of screen time across all three movies. Purely by virtue of being who he is, he did manage to imbue Mace with a measure of badassity. But like every other character in the prequels, the Jedi Master lacked any true dimensions.
There’s a large contingency of fans who would like to see Jackson somehow return to Star Wars for a meatier take on Mace Windu — including Jackson himself. Sure, he was supposedly killed in Revenge of the Sith, but hey, we never saw a body. And he was a Jedi on par with Yoda, power-wise, so he totally could’ve slowed or stopped his fall and landed safely somewhere in the lower levels of Coruscant.
2. Natalie Portman
She was a rising star before she became known as Padmé Amidala in the Star Wars prequels, with her brief resume already containing acclaimed performances in The Professional, Heat, and Everyone Says I Love You. But according to Portman, many of Hollywood’s power players came to believe that she had no real talent after seeing her in the prequels.
But the fault wasn’t hers. Stilted, clunky scripts and direction more interested in CGI eye candy than living, breathing actors made it impossible for any of those stars to truly shine. Padme’s story arc took her from the young Queen of Naboo to Anakin Skywalker’s secret wife and would-be Rebellion leader. That should’ve provided loads of dramatic opportunities for Portman, a conflicted character forced to make difficult choices that would resonate with audiences. Instead, she was stuck trying to breathe life into ham-fisted lines like “I truly, deeply love you” and “You’re breaking my heart!” that she has to deliver to a guy who seduced her character by talking about sand. Fortunately, her career rebounded, and she was awarded an Oscar for her work in 2010’s Black Swan.
1. Ewan McGregor
Few actors could have satisfactorily taken over for Sir Alec Guinness, but Ewan McGregor really was the perfect choice. As one of the finest actors of the 21st century, he’s a likable chameleon who can do almost anything asked of him. Trainspotting, Moulin Rouge, Angels & Demons, The Impossible, and TV’s Fargo are just a handful of his many memorable roles.
But genre fans will forever know him as the young Obi-Wan Kenobi of the Star Wars prequels. In The Phantom Menace, he was an apprentice Jedi who had a chance meeting with Anakin Skywalker. Attack of the Clones found him mentoring Anakin and trying to head off the start of the Clone Wars. By Revenge of the Sith, Obi-Wan was a Master seated on the Jedi Council, present for the fall of the Republic and the destruction of the Jedi. It was quite a story arc.
What a shame it was that this story was so poorly told. For all the screen time McGregor got in the prequels, the dialogue and direction he was given were so wooden, so lifeless, that even though he gave it his best, he could only elevate the material to a certain point. There was so much wasted potential in the prequels, and nowhere is this more sorely felt than in McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi.
This is why many fans are hoping and praying that Lucasfilm will see fit to produce a solo Obi-Wan movie as one of its anthology flicks. McGregor’s game, he’s the right age for a story set during Obi-Wan’s seclusion on Tatooine, and he deserves the chance to give his own Star Wars legacy a deeper, more satisfying performance.
What talented actors do you think were heavily underused in their Star Wars appearances? Let us know in the comments.
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