Q&A: One-Man 'Star Wars' Actor Charles Ross
A comic Canadian carves out his own niche in the nerd universe, by tackling George Lucas's beloved sci-fi trilogy—all by himself.
Getting enough stage time isn't a problem for Canadian actor and comedian Charles Ross, a man who is known far and wide for his ambitious One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, a blazingly abridged version of the first three films in George Lucas's maniacally lionized Star Wars cycle. Now entering the 12th year of his singlehanded epic, Ross, who will perform two shows on Friday at the Aladdin Theater, shows no signs of stopping—and his fan base shows no sign of giving up on him anytime soon, either. Ross will race through highlights from Star Wars to Return of the Jedi, re-creating the trilogy complete with sound effects and everything. Obviously, he's doing something right—his show is fully licensed by Lucas and Saul Zaentz, confirming his status as committed fanboy #1, an enviable and incontestable honor.
In our interview Ross talks about wearing your geek on your sleeve, obsessive storm trooper-clad followers, and his absolute hatred of cell phones.
Culturephile: Hi Charles, how are you?
Charles Ross: Well, thanks. Happy to be talking to you.
So, where did this show come from? How did you develop it?
It came out of just trying to combat being in a continual state of having to look for jobs. Working as an actor, some people are lucky to get their TV show, or something like that, with guaranteed income. For myself, I had a couple gigs I would do all the time. I was looking for something that would allow me to have control over my own show. So, I tried writing a few different things, some solo shows, but they weren’t as popular as the Star Wars things. Star Wars has the built-in fan base; it is easy to sell the idea of one guy on stage, no costume, no set, no props, just him flopping around sort of like an 8-year-old kid. It seemed like a good idea, but also a very familiar idea, everyone can remember doing something similar. The way it developed over the years, in the beginning, it became a bit tedious and then turned this corner where it became fun again and then became super fun again, so it's almost like having a rebirth of not necessarily being a Star Wars fan, but being a nerd all over again. Its allowed me to combine my childhood love … with a desire to have the freedom of working as an actor—if I can call myself an actor—maybe a performer, or something. The freedom that this kind of career has where you aren’t necessarily tied down to the same office everyday or somebody yelling at you on the phone to tell you to shape up or ship out. I have a lot more control over my life, so, weirdly enough, just embracing the inner geek is a thing that set me free. Even though it was kind of painful at times, especially at the beginning.
Why was it so painful at the beginning?
It wasn’t too long after I started doing it that if I did an interview I would be asked, 'Well how much longer do you think you're going do this for?’ It was like people were getting tired of it before I had a chance to get tired of it. So, the novelty of the idea is only going to be a novelty for so long until it becomes something different. I’m not exactly sure what it changes into, but I had to ride that wave of being asked those questions—'How long you gonna do this for, when are you going to get a real job?’ You know what? This is a real job, it's a weird job, but it's still a real one. It kinda brings you to the other side of it and you say, 'God I’ve been doing this for 5 years. Now I’m doing it for 12.' If people are asking me how long I’m going to do it for, I could never have told you it would be going for this long.
You’re first show was in 2001?
Yeah, I tried it at a comedy club.
What did it look like then? It must have gone through some incarnations.
No, it’s very much the same. I have a costume which is a pair of coveralls to give it a neutral look. Previous to that, I was wearing some dark clothes to give it that neutral look. But as far as how it looks or put together, there’s probably a sloppiness there, because it was my first kick at the can. I didn't have it down perfectly. I guess I do now, if you can call it that. The origin of it … it was just the first film I did, the first 20 minutes of the show. it really was almost ready to go after trying it for the first time. I just had to figure out what do I now put into the last two films. Luckily, my limited memory is what constituted a script because I can only remember so much. Trying to make a script of it, I thought, rather than sitting down and watching the films and pressing stop, writing something down, pressing play—whatever, how to sort of go off of what I could remember, off the top of my head. The idea being that whatever I can retain should in theory be what the average nerdy person can also retain. It turns out people have retained way more than I have, but that’s their cross to bear, not mine.
Do you go through all six films?
The first three, the original three. I could do all six, but I'd rather concentrate on the things I like.I’m curious about the experimentation and the rehearsal period while you were developing this. Were you recording yourself, standing in front of the mirror going crazy?
None of that stuff, it’s just my own sense of humor. The rehearsal was so short as to be laughable. Seriously, I think I did it on its feet maybe three or four times and that was it. In terms of working the bugs out of it,the bugs got worked out in performance, the more performed, the more I realized what to cut out, what to keep. The sooner you can get in front of people with a show like this, the quicker it became sort of cleaned up. It became an actual show. Up to that point beforehand it wold just be sitting in front of a mirror making yourself laugh. Eventually, if I did that for too long, I would eventually stop doing it because I would realize all of my limits. This was much more like a mind over matter thing, putting myself in front of people, wearing my geek on my sleeve is what made it work. It’s been the fuel in the engine that’s kept it going.
Do you have any idea why you're doing this? It seems like it’s become much bigger than you. Is analyzing it futile?
It's always been bigger than I am. I feel like I’m being kind of tagged along on the strength of my own idea. Which is kinda cool. It means that there's actually even a chance that one day when this is all over I might be able to salvage a career and not just be the Star Wars guy. My name is in the background of One-Man Star Wars, same with One-Man Lord of the Rings. It’s a comforting place to be-behind the scenes of my own show.
You do a One-Man Lord of the Rings, too?
Oh yeah, that was the second kick at the can. Having something else to follow it up with-a similar type of story. LOTR was the only story I could think of similarly told and similarly executed. They did a really fantastic job of making them. When I was a kid I read the books obsessively so I really knew the source material. The life that went into LOTR and the amount of people that have spent so many hours reading and studying and not just watching the films, I mean that there's almost deeper than Star Wars. It’s the films that started everything and then all the other stuff that came afterward. Whereas the books came first with LOTR and then all the various recordings and terrible movies and the attempt by the guys who made Fritz the Cat to make LOTR into a film. Finally, succeeding and making decent films with Peter Jackson. I base my one man LOTR on Peter Jackson’s films.
When you go onstage are you being yourself and the true geek you are? Are you getting into a character separate from Charlie Ross? Are you method acting?
It’s weird, method acting seems to be some kind of meditative thing that people get into where they want to keep themselves immersed in a character because they’re working on a film and there’s hours between every take, so that has an application. For me, not at all. This is me onstage. I’m flipping into the characters because its easy to do that. thats what acting really is, not for everybody, but its not this transcendental thing. But you pretend, you pretend with some skill, so I’m pretending with these characters and that makes it easy and light to slip into also to slip out of. it makes you much more active as a performer to be yourself, to slip into the character and slip out and maintain your own self and talk to people.
Have you ever had to berate someone with a cellphone in a Star Wars voice?
Oh, absolutely, all the time. It happens every second show. That's the fun thing, allowing yourself to wear that kind of character and try to stay in the moment if you can. Sometimes it completely breaks the moment and if it does, then you make the choice in the moment. If it happens at a point with R2D2 making a noise and a cellphone goes off, you could in theory, make it work. Other times you just can't. Just choose your battles or if you can turn it around a something thats fun, do that. Most people don’t want their damn cellphones to go off, it’s hard to remember that, but you try to keep it light if you can, and if not, you slam them down with a mallet.
Do you have a go-to anti-cellphone character?
No, not necessarily. There’s certain noes that are more exciting to smash people down with. If I’m the Emperor or Darth Vader, because they’re just naturally more aggressive. If the cellphones weren’t going off all the time it maybe wouldn’t feel so offensive, but it happens SO often and cellphones are 40 year goddamn years old, like that’s people’s IQ or something. Just turn it off, silence it, muffle it or something.Do you have any crazed, geeky fans who have crossed the line a little bit?
I wouldn’t say cross the line, but there’s guy, Richard, who toured with me in the UK. He works for the British rail system and he makes really good money, a really normal kinda guy, but he decided he wanted to tour with me in the UK. He did 3 different tours, he’s probably attended 120 or more shows as a storm trooper, he’s got this storm trooper outfit. Richard was like having my own personal storm trooper who was with me all the time. So, I mean you can call that crossing the line, but it was crossing the line in the most positive way. I think he learned a lot. He ended up going into stand up comedy as a bit of a hobby and he’s quite good, but it came out of the fact that he would use this character of a storm trooper, he was wearing a mask all the time, so he was able to talk to people, interact with people and not have to be himself and that kind of opened the door.
Was he on stage with you?
No he'd be there beforehand, in the lobby and sometimes he’d walk around the audience before the show just interacting with people. When I come to Portland, it’s very likely that I’ll have more storm troopers and other costumed characters there, so you get a better sense of what they’re all about. They’re pretty fantastic. They contact the theater and the theater has them come out and we make sure they're fed and watered and looked after and they can change at the theater.