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Star Wars prequels in 1990s: Challenge of casting villains

Though The Phantom Menace was released in mid-1999, the prequels are themselves often considered emblematic of the best and the worst of the relics. Trying to tell the story of Anakin’s journey to the Dark Side, Star Wars fans just weren’t prepared for everything that was going to entail.

The Star Wars prequels are not always viewed favourably, but there were a lot of hopes and dreams riding on these movies. If fans had not just come off a 16-year dry spell with no major cinematic launches for their most beloved franchise, maybe there would have been a little less riding on them. If the series had started just a few years before, things could have been different.

Anakin: Keanu Reeves

Keanu Reeves is generally regarded as being a genuinely pleasant human being, but the movies have shown us that he has perfected a steely gaze and contemptuous sneer like nobody’s business. With the conflicted Anakin, playing a straightforward villain just won’t do. It’s the heartache and complexity behind the anger that takes a talented actor to pull off.

Keanu became a bonified action star in the late 1990s with the Matrix films, but, in truth, it’s his role as the uncaring Scott Favor in My Own Private Idaho along with his heel turn as Don John in Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing that makes him an ideal Anakin.

Padme: Kate Winslet

Star Wars prequels in 1990s: Casting challenge

The actor that takes on the role of Padme has a number of challenges, including spending a great deal of time onscreen worrying about things she can’t control while making courageous, selfless choices at every turn. On top of that, believably selling a story that doesn’t always work is going to take some skill to pull off.

Kate Winslet’s acting chops were formed in roles like that of a teen murderer in Heavenly Creatures, but she was launched into international stardom with Titanic in 1997. With an innate ability to portray well-intentioned heroes but the range to show that there’s always something more complex going on underneath, she would bring the many layers of Padme’s conflict to life.

Qui-Gon: Michelle Yeoh

Star Wars prequels in 1990s: Casting challenge 2

Michelle Yeoh had been acting for years when she made her Hollywood debut in the James Bond extravaganza Tomorrow Never Dies. Wowing audiences and co-stars alike with her incredible skills as a martial artist, it was only a matter of time before she became the internationally famous name we know her as today.

Qui-Gon is a roguish Jedi who chose to decline a role on the council in favour of going his own way and tuning into the force on his own terms. Rakish but with a heart of gold, Qui-Gon doesn’t hesitate to die in defence of others. Yeoh could have added a lot to that final fight scene against Darth Maul, but the real reason to choose her for Qui-Gon is her ability to charm while playing it close to the vest, much like her role in the Bond franchise. Though many consider The Phantom Menace among the worst Star Wars movies, maybe Yeoh could have turned things around.

Obi-Wan: Michael Jai

Obi-Wan begins the prequels as a fresh-faced young man, but by the end of Revenge of the Sith, he has lost just about everything that meant anything to him in life. With the Jedi dead or in hiding and his former Padawan Anakin turned into one of the greatest threats the universe has ever known, it’s not an easy time for Obi-Wan.

With Obi-Wan, the emphasis is on finding an actor who can play a troubled man wise well beyond his years, but who also has the ability to impart his wisdom on others with kindness. The charisma that an actor like Ewan McGregor brings to the character could only be equalled by someone as dynamic as Michael Jai White. After playing Spawn, White’s chops are undeniable, but it’s his more personable cameos in shows like NYPD Blue and Boston Public that cements him as our Obi-Wan.

Mace Windu: Wesley Snipes

Mace Windu in the ’90s could have still been played by Samuel L Jackson and that would have been just fine. However, in the spirit of the re-cast, there was another action hero with a great sense of humour and an innate ability to switch from wise council member to lightsaber-wielding Jedi in the blink of an eye, and that’s Wesley Snipes.

The first Blade film premiered in 1998, but Snipes was a great action star well before that. Appearing in Demolition Man in 1993 as the villainous Simon Phoenix, he showed off his excellent line-delivery right alongside his inclination toward epic fight scenes. Mace doesn’t get the spotlight he deserves in the film, but with Snipes in the role, he would be a heck of a scene-stealer.

Darth Maul: John Leguizamo

Before the prequels were released, Darth Maul was teased as being the most dangerous villain since Vader. After dying in a fairly anticlimactic fight scene with Qui-Gon, he didn’t exactly live up to the hype. Still, you can’t beat the cool factor that a double-sided lightsaber brings.

Appearing as the Prince of Cats in Romeo and Juliet, John Leguizamo added pathos to a villain generally dismissed as fairly one-dimensional. Later, in Spawn, he proved that donning makeup and getting into character as a full-out bad guy was something he embraced wholeheartedly. For a moody, scary big bad like Darth Maul, there is no better choice circa 1995 than Leguizamo.

Bail Organa: Ernie Hudson

By the end of the prequels, we see Bail Organa stepping up to adopt the infant Princess Leia, hoping to protect her from the trauma that her father is bringing to the galaxy. Taking on heavy responsibility with bravery and dignity, Bail is one of the underrated greats of the Star Wars Universe.

In The Crow, Ernie Hudson played a police officer that befriended a young kid who was often left to her own resources on the streets. Able to convey compassion and understanding with ease while navigating difficult scenarios, Ernie Hudson’s everyman charm would make for a great Bail Organa.

Sabe: Rachael Leigh Cook

The prequels are jam-packed full of characters and events that you need to pay attention to or you’ll miss major plot points. Some of those characters get fleshed out, and some just don’t. One of the characters we plain don’t see enough of is Sabe, the stand-in for Padme who puts her life in danger to protect her queen as casually as some people make a cup of coffee in the morning.

Much like Sabe, Rachael Leigh Cook always had more range than she’s been given credit for. Her career-defining role remains She’s All That, but she was active well before that. Popping up in The Babysitter’s Club as the equally supportive Mary Anne, she would have made for a great Sabe.

Palpatine: Ian McKellen

Palpatine starts the prequels as just another political figure before he is revealed to be the lord of the Sith, which gives us a little bit of time to get to know him outside of his context as the evilest person ever. It turns out that watching him exploit Anakin’s insecurities over years doesn’t make us like him any better, but at least now we know.

Modern-day movie fans might know McKellen best in his roles as Gandolf or Magneto, but even in the 1990s, he was living it up in the realm of fantasy and sci-fi. Appearing as an absent-minded professor in The Shadow and a hooded villain in Last Action Hero, there is no doubt that he had both the range and the sense of camp to bring a classic baddie like Palpatine to life.

Jango: Benjamin Bratt

Fans are beyond excited to see Temuera Morrison return to Star Wars in The Book of Boba Fett, and his turn as Jango Fett was easily one of the best things about The Clone Wars. However, if the film came out in the mid-1990s, Benjamin Bratt would have been a great choice for the role.

Jango is put in the position of having to make complicated moral decisions in order to keep his “son” Boba safe. An accomplished actor, by the mid-1990s Bratt had played a series of disparate roles, from his relatively humorous turn in Demolition Man to some much more serious parts in films like Follow Me, Home and Clear and Present Danger. Communicating a lot with just a little dialogue, Jango is a challenge to pull off convincingly, but an actor like Bratt would no doubt be up to the challenge.

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