The lovely actress who portrays Princess Leia in the "Star Wars" saga is "much nicer, much prettier" and not-so-tall in person.
By ROBERT GREENBERCER
Sometimes you just can't escape Star Wars. Just ask Carrie Fisher. In February, she just couldn't get away from the film as it made its long-awaited premiere on cable television while the actress was also highly visible, on Broadway, starring in Agnes of God.
"With Star Wars on HBO about every 20 minutes, I see myself regularly and it's almost like it's not me anymore," she says quietly. "I'm not as recognizable as Mark [Hamill] or Harrison [Ford] so I only get a sense of Star Wears'importance when a child recognizes me and becomes speechless. Kids don't think I'm on this planet. Very little children even believe Princess Leia is a real human being—that I live in outer space."
Fisher is relaxing on the floor of her dressing room after a matinee performance, casually dressed in a loose-fitting sweater and light pants. She is overcoming the effects of a cold and her voice has a deep, raspy resonance.
"It's just so big," she says of the international Star Wars phenomenom. "I feel like if I hauled out my American Express card, it would have to say Princess Leia because this reaction is so universal." For Fisher, though, it all ends this month with the May 25 opening of Return of the Jedi, her last appearance in the Star Wars saga. There are no regrets, she says, as she looks forward to continuing to build her career as an actress.
"I've almost literally grown up around George Lucas, from 19 to 26," she explains. "I was terrified, and petrified the first time I met him." Actually, Fisher had been working before Star Wars. The daughter of actress Debbie Reynolds and singer Eddie Fisher, performing has always been a way of life in her family. She began singing at her friends' Bar Mitzvahs at age 12 and, when her mother heard about it, Renolds managed to drag Fisher on stage a year later. A professional singer by age 15, she performed in the chorus of the Broadway revival of Irene, which starred her mother.
Her film debut came shortly after in Warren Beatty's Shampoo, in which she played a sexually aggressive, sophisticated young girl. A movie career beckoned, but Fisher chose to study her craft and left America to spend two years in England at the Central School of Speech and Drama.
The cattle call
Asked how she was cast for the role of Leia Organa, Fisher indulges in a whimsical flight of fancy. "I always like to think I was sitting in Schwabs, with that particular hairstyle, and George- came in and said, ‘Gee, that's just what I need... Instead, in reality, she was home for vacation, attending a giant "cattle call" for actresses held by directors Brian DePalma and Lucas. DePalma was casting supporting actresses for his thriller Carrie, while Lucas searched for Princess Leia, the only dominant female character in his film.
"The dialogue for our screen test was even more complicated than that in Star Wars," Fisher recalls. "The sentences were soooo long. You didn't know what you were talking about so finally you have to ask, ‘George, in my motivation for this scene, you must tell me, what is a Bantha? What is the species of Bantha? What am I actually saying?' You just have to give it up and trust that you mean what you're saying. So, I went and read after all that English training and was able to get the dialogue out of my mouth.
"Lucas never spoke during the interview. Brian De Palma talked and they would see the people for maybe two minutes. George sort of sat behind his beard and laughed. I, in no way, behaved like a 19-year-old. I was not intimidated by either of them. I was sort of fearless, I didn't feel any desperation about my career, but I did want that job."
Several weeks later, Fisher did get invited back to read again for both directors. She did a videotape test with Harrison Ford, who had already been signed to play Han Solo. In the end, DePalma hired Nancy Allen (now Mrs. DePalma), Amy Irving and P.J. Soles while Lucas settled on Fisher.
"When I saw the script, I never figured they would hire me because I'm this short,
sort of plump little thing. The script said Leia was this beautiful princess—she's just beautiful. I was desperate to do it because it was the best script I had seen, it was a fairy tale," the attractive actress says.
Just thinking about George Lucas brings a warm smile to her famous face.. "I love Lucas. I like to be around him, he's just fun. He's not quiet around me, but it's been eight years now. He keeps very much to himself, but over the years, you start talking." Making Star Wars and its two sequels was hard work for everyone involved, especially the actors who had to pretend that they were firing actual ray guns and watching real planets blow up. "I've done so many scenes to a piece of tape because they add whatever the monster is later. We shoot our guns,
but we never see what falls over. I watched my planet blow up as a blackboard with a circle drawn on it—and a bored Englishman holding it up.
"I'm always slightly surprised about what I was reacting to earlier on. There's nothing like that in real life."
During the first film's production, one thing which continually concerned the cast was the dialogue, much of it written in a Shakespearean manner. "It's what Harrison used to say: ‘You can type it, but you can't say it. ' We used to go up to George and go, ‘Say this.'
"When I first met Governor Tarkin [Peter Cushing], I wanted to say my line glibly, but George gave me my direction. I figured, I came on board and there was this smell and I thought, ‘That can't be Tarkin.' I read the dialogue, my god4|'how would you say, ‘I recognized your foul stench when I came aboard'? Since I had just been to school in England, the first film is funny to me in that I sometimes sound English, but that's the only way you can say the line. You just have to say it with absolute authority. This is real talk. It was the only time he gave me lengthy direction other than ‘Faster, more intense.' "
Fisher leaps to her feet and goes over to her dressing table where the wall is filled with congratulatory telegrams. She stands on her toes to read one aloud. " ‘I have only one suggestion, faster and more intense. Love, George.' "
Princess Leia & Power
Carrie Fisher laughs about Princess Leia, a character who's an aggressive female, almost one of the guys. "I have other generals, I shoot guns and behave like a soldier. It's almost a male sort of thing. Well, I am the only girl in an all-male-made movie. Sometimes I would say to them, ‘How about a big cooking scene, baking some space food, or how about me sewing my costume back together? A shopping scene, maybe on a mall planet? Give me a girl friend and we'll talk about how cute Han is.' There are no moments where Leia is stereotypically female," she observes.
"It is interesting that they give the female so much power," says Fisher, and drops her voice, which takes on an ominous tone as she adds: "And I even get more, now!" There is no further elaboration. Fisher prefers to let the tantalizing statement hang heavily in the momentarily silent room. Then, she continues to analyze the growth of her character... in more general terms.
"I always felt Leia had a strength which was more based on anger than a strength that was power. Her strength came from bitterness about wanting to eliminate evil from the universe. All the characters are more developed in Jedi. It was interesting this time because I wasn't sure how to approach her. Initially, I thought it was unusual because I was much more feminine this time. I've been watching the first film on TV and at times, I feel like I am under orders and I keep saying the lines like, ‘You came in that thing?' And I was insulting people.
" I asked George this time for some sort of a drinking problem ... not really a drinking problem, but I said, ‘Look, Leia lost her parents and planet in the first film and in the second movie, a very close friend lost his hand and Leia's first boy friend becomes frozen. By the third movie, I must be totally exhausted. I've been chased for who-knows-how-many-years.' I figure I'm ready to go, ‘Hey guys, I can't do this any more. I'm going to get my hair done. You handle it."' She smiles and gestures around in her dressing room: "And so I've booked myself into a convent."
Princess Leia does, however, lose some of her regal bearing as a slave girl in Jedi. After a fierce battle on the planet Endor, she and her fellow Rebels are captured; and Leia is taken aboard Jabba the Hutt's sandship. "He forces me to put on new clothes," Fisher explains, "some handy slave girl outfit that he had in all sizes. No actually, we princesses all come in one size. We were shooting the interiors in England in February during the coldest winter they have had. I was walking around in sandals and the fewest clothes I've ever worn in movies. I was shocked when I found out it was all George's idea.
"It was funny at first. When we were in Yuma, my stand-in and I, the only girls on the set, both wore the outfits, and everyone else was dying! We would sunbathe and they would get angry because we weren't supposed to be tan, but we always had fun. We did it sometimes to be horrible to the crew, but you must do something when you're in this outfit, feeling slightly ridiculous."
In thinking about what might occur to Leia after the trilogy, Fisher suggests, without giving away any clues, "I think she would become more of a combination of soldier and a human being. And a woman. I think that she would lessen her involvement, it almost seems like a very young thing to participate in a war. In
my case, I am a little over the draft age; Leia must be a little old for war, too. She would take.more of a ru-ling-space desk job. I would like to see her relax a bit and just take a leisurely space ride where she wasn't being chased by another spaceship."
Over the course of eight years and three films, it has been Fisher who had primarily directed the growth of Princess Leia Organa, although Lucas created the initial background. Fisher says she takes great pains to make her character consistent. She says she is "unfortunately" a perfectionist and is always working toward a better next performance.
She was aided on all three films by strong directors: first George Lucas, then, Irvin Kershner, and now Richard Marquand (see page 38). "Richard is English and actually once was an actor. Out of the three, he is the only one who was an actor, so he would have a different perspective than Kersh. Kersh is also very much an actor's director. It's interesting working with all of them because they've all been so different. This one was a lot like shooting Star Wars because of the speed—we shot it very quickly. We would shoot rehearsals, particularly the action scenes so we could see where the squibs [explosions] are. When they do go off, that's not acting, we really do react because we're stunned. That's why the Endor scene [the forest battle pictured this issue) was so hard, because I was always stunned, grimacing though it looked to them that I was smiling. I swear, I'm not smiling. This is not fun! I had to kick people and hit them. It isn't natural for me to have fistfights with page 38). "Richard is English and actually once was an actor. Out of the three, he is the only one who was an actor, so he would have a different perspective than Kersh. Kersh is also very much an actor's director. It's interesting working with all of them because they've all been so different. This one was a lot like shooting Star Wars because of the speed—we shot it very quickly. We would shoot rehearsals, particularly the action scenes so we could see where the squibs [explosions] are. When they do go off, that's not acting, we really do react because we're stunned. That's why the Endor scene [the forest battle pictured this issue) was so hard, because I was always stunned, grimacing though it looked to them that I was smiling. I swear, I'm not smiling. This is not fun! I had to kick people and hit them. It isn't natural for me to have fistfights with people. I had to do it soooo many times, I know I'm not happy. I'm so sad because I'm not getting it right," she says and then pauses to catch her breath.
Grabbing up her quilt and adjusting her position, Fisher continues, "These movies are shot way out of sequence. Few films are done out-of-continuity to this degree. They have to keep it in their minds and sometimes, they would have to remind us: ‘Remember, this is a scene you shot last month and you're coming in from this point.' We would come to the door in England and step through it in Yuma."
Although the screenplay was under tight security and the actors received revisions under special circumstances, Fisher was afforded one opportunity to improvise in Jedi. "It took a very long time for one of the little -people to cross the set so George told me to just improvise. It was suddenly Altman-like in the middle of this movie. It became very conversational because I was talking with a creature who couldn't speak so I'm the only
one talking and seeming to respond to his reactions."
Secrets on the set
Unlike The Empire Strikes Back, most of the major characters are involved in scenes which answer questions or resolve situations included in the previous two films. Carrie Fisher got into the act and received secret scenes on special color-coded pages in sealed envelopes. She laughs, "The days when we would shoot the secret scenes, they would ask the crew not to listen. It's fun, like the Academy Awards... we have learned to get the secrets and learn them fast. You must. This time, it was harder because some of these secrets were acting secrets, instead of ‘NO, STOP. LOOK AT THAT!!' But you wouldn't get the script pages for those scenes until the last minute, and whereas I might want to work on them, you can't. There's no time.
"Some dialogue would be changed. They would give us a line and we would say, ‘No, we can't say that.' Several times, we asked them to wait because the lines were real tongue twisters. The hologram scene in Star Wars was the hardest because George changed things that A ay. So, I spent 14 hours making mistakes and feeling humiliated. Since then, I never went back. Your concentration must be just so. It's different from the concentration a play like Agnes of God requires, it is concentration like steel." Fisher says she is always looking for a role which provides her with the opportunity to do different things and has sampled
roles on stage, television and movies. In each case, her concentration must be precise; in fact, Fisher claims to have one of the great poker faces in Hollywood. When she guest-starred on Laverne and Shirley earlier this season, she was faced with the madcap antics of David Lander (Squiggy), who kept trying to break her up. He almost cracked the great stone face, but, she states, not quite.
"There have never been any roles that I've seen and said, ‘I must play that role.' Certain things are so difficult to do, this play included. I have proved to myself that I could do it. In new projects, I just look for something that I've never done before. I also look for something that I could learn from the role," she says.
Apart from the Star Wars trilogy, Fisher has turned Up in several comedies—but always playing it straight. First, there was the short-lived stage show Ill-Fated Censored Scenes from King Kong where she danced and sang an Ethel Merman imitation. Later, she made a brief appearance in Mr. Mike's Mondo Video and played John Belushi's jilted hairdresser lover in The Blues Brothers. Laverne, in which she played a Playboy bunny, was done as a favor for good friend Penny Marshall. Fisher finally got the chance at a comedic role when she hosted Saturday Night Live—and spoofed herself. "I would like to try comedy, actually," she says.
Under the Rainbow, a big-budget, less-than-well received comedy with Chevy Chase and a cast of midgets, is barely brought up in conversation. "It was painful to do and I don't like it," she explains. It's perhaps the one blemish on her track record.
For straight dramatic roles, she co-starred with Laurence Lord Olivier in a television production of William Inge's Come Back, Little Sheba. She also enjoys the dramatic demands of Agnes, a hit play in which she plays a nun who gives birth and then kills the infant while at the convent.
"I would like to do something lighter next," she adds. After a moment, she throws in a further desire. "I like musicals and would like to try one, but there are so few of them being made today." Meanwhile, Fisher divides her time between the two coasts, maintaining homes in both regions. When not working, she relaxes and tries to keep in touch with both Hamill and Ford. "It's easier with Harrison," Fisher says, "because we have a lot of the same friends and he lives closer in California. Before we shot Jedi, he, Melissa [Mathison, screenwriter of E.T.] and I vacationed in Hawaii together."
When she has time, she likes to read science fiction, but not Star Wars fiction. Her tastes run more towards the legends of the field, Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury and Robert A. Heinlein: Nor has she kept up with the Star Wars comic books and comic strip although, "Mark reads them. He's a comic book collector and fanatic. Mark used to show them to me, but I haven't seen Mark since we finished Jedi last June." Fisher usually receives copies of the Star Wars merchandise and continues to marvel at the proliferation of posters, books, action figures and play sets. "I don't know what to do with it all," she says with a smile. "What am I supposed to do with 25,000 Boba Fett dolls? I give them away at Halloween."
She rolls across the floor, dragging her quilt behind her and laughs. "It made me laugh so much the way they portrayed me in the foreign movie posters. There's someone with giant hooters and a lot of leg and it doesn't look like me at all. The Italian poster had this blonde, buxon, leggy person. Me, I'm 5'1" and my legs end almost right after they start.
"People think I'm taller. I meet people and they say, ‘You're soooo short' as if I didn't know this fact. They say ‘You look taller in films' or ‘You look so much prettier in person.' Many people say I'm much nicer in person, they expect me to have a gun somewhere. Maybe I should insist in my contracts that I should always wear a gun or an explosive somewhere."
Nevertheless, Fisher feels that there is more to learn and more to show through her acting. Even while on Broadway, she works with a coach. "And I'm still working on myself as a human being, which to me is more important. That's something that I can separate. It's healthier that way."
Her dinner, a cheeseburger and fries, arrives. There's still another performance yet this evening. She stretches out on the floor and begins thinking about her next step when her contract for Agnes ends June 1. Then, it may be time for a vacation, especially with Return of the Jedi in release. Her theater, the Music Box, is just a block away from a New York showcase movie house which will open Jedi on May 25, and she thinks it's going to be a very odd experience.
For now though, Carrie Fisher expects to continue making a career for herself long after moviegoers have seen the last of Princess Leia and her Rebel forties and the Star Wars saga has become an integral part of modern mythology.