Actor Sam Witwer understands the Dark Side of the Force. Check his Star Wars cred: Witwer has voiced Starkiller, Darth Vader’s secret apprentice in the video game Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, the Son who is the incarnation of the Dark Side of the Force, and over the last two seasons of Star Wars: The Clone Wars he also has voiced the return of one of the most bad ass Sith, Darth Maul. How does Witwer give life to these key Dark Side characters? I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with Witwer about his roles in the Star Wars universe after the Sci-Fi Expo, presented by Dallas Comic-Con in Dallas, Texas earlier this month. Check out our conversation below where Sam walked through how Starkiller is “Luke Skywalker from the wrong side of the tracks”, how other Sith fed into the voice of the Son, the philosophy of the Dark Side, and insights into giving Darth Maul the sinister depth we’ve all been waiting for.
SciFiMafia: To say that the Dark Side has been kind to you might be an understatement. You got to play Starkiller in The Force Unleashed game, the Son who is the voice of the Dark Side in Clone Wars and now Darth Maul since season four of Clone Wars. Can you talk about the journey you took in giving Darth Maul that sinister depth that we’ve all been waiting for?
Sam Witwer: Well, those three roles led into each other. I’ll start there. Starkiller, the way we conceived of him, he would be the photo-negative of Luke Skywalker. That this would be a version of Luke Skywalker but one that really fit in with the twenty-first century sensibilities. Luke Skywalker was an optimistic answer to [the cynicism and problems of the 70’s]. It is a character that is so timeless as played by Mark Hamill.
We decided to take a direction with the Starkiller character as Luke Skywalker from a cynical point of view. They didn’t have the media machine [back in the 70’s] that we have [now.] They just fill the airwaves with so much white noise. None of us know who to listen to or what to believe. We’re all distracted and we all have this sort of this slightly sickening sense that we’re all being lied to constantly.
That’s Starkiller. He’s Luke Skywalker coming from that direction. He’s a good kid, raised by an abusive single parent, Darth Vader, and he’s got to fight through all this crap where he’s doing what’s been told but what he’s being told to do is wrong until he starts thinking for himself. So it’s taking a Dark Side slant but still telling that classic Star Wars tale. [Starkiller is] Luke Skywalker from the wrong side of the tracks.
So that led Dave Filoni (Clone Wars Supervising Director) to call me up and say, “Well, ok, this guy seems to have an understanding of some of the thematic issues of the Dark Side and yes, I sorta discussed the thematic political issues of the Dark Side but the other side of that is this mythic greed and self-centeredness that the Dark Side characters seem to have. The Dark Side can in some ways be interpreted as a level of self-absorption that drives people insane and turns them into a twisted shadow of their former selves.
The Dark Side is about “I want things. Get me things, get me things, get me things.” And the more you get things, the more you want things. You keep over-reaching in this endless hole that needs to be filled with stuff. So that was what the Son was all about- absolute self-absorption and some arrogance in there as well.
I think the arrogance that the Son had led Dave Filoni to say, “Hey, listen, there might be something down the road for you.” I’m like “What do you mean, like a bounty hunter?” He’s like, “Well, something like that…” And then a year later he’s like “I need Darth Maul.”
I’m like, O.K.! [laughs] And what Darth Maul shared with the Son was that arrogance. The Son, the ambition with that character was that you’d be able to hear all of the Star Wars villains in his voice at different times. Little pieces of Darth Vader or the Emperor or Darth Maul.
So then with Darth Maul, we get to actually walk through the process of creating this guy and saying, “Ok, if there can only be two Sith lords, a Master and an Apprentice, let’s really examine that and ask ourselves who would Palpatine have chosen to be this Apprentice.” It couldn’t just be a guy that can do flips and swing a sword well. It would have to be a guy who is brilliant. Who is completely savvy and diplomatic at times and also strategic and tactical. And then on top of that, let’s give him a sense of humor.
The fun thing about it is that we meet him and he’s insane. [Darth Maul is] Gollum meets Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now and he’s totally out of his mind. From there we got to rebuild him toward where he was in Phantom Menace and beyond that and add character traits and elements that people wouldn’t expect with every episode. I can certainly say that from a creative standpoint and perhaps from the audience’s standpoint, is that what’s satisfying about this character is that every time you see him, he’s different. Every episode he’s evolved and he’s changing. And getting more powerful and threatening in each episode.
SciFiMafia: And your performance as Darth Maul, I think, even dwarfs Clancy Brown’s Savage Opress in terms of screen presence! I love Clancy, but I think your performance truly shines and makes Darth Maul pop off the screen.
Sam Witwer: Well, in all fairness, I got some wonderful material to work with. I would never for a moment ever think or let alone say that I could measure up against Clancy Brown’s talent. I mean, that guy is incredible!
SciFiMafia: Now you had mentioned that Dave Filoni has you and Clancy record your parts in the same room. That’s kind of unusual for voice acting, isn’t it?
Sam Witwer: I’m new to the voice [acting] thing so I’m not sure how unusual it is but I know it isn’t always done. I’m aware of that. The reason that Dave [Filoni] does it is that he’s smart enough to understand a little bit about the actor’s job. He says that you can hear the difference. We do the same thing in Force Unleashed. The other thing that Dave does is, in terms of my process and what I do, he’s given me all the room to succeed. He’ll give me extra takes if I think I want to try something new but moreover he calls me up and says “I need Darth Maul. Can you do it?” I go, “Yes!” even though I’m thinking “F%#&, I don’t know!
[laughter on both sides]
I hope! But then he continues on and he goes, “OK, so we’re not going to be doing this for a couple of weeks, but here’s where I want you to start thinking. I want him to be like Gollum.” I read the script and was like, “Well, what about Colonel Kurtz from Apocalypse Now and he’s like, “Yes, yes. Let’s take those influences and put them together. And here’s where the story is going to go.”
We really had an understanding of the whole story all the way through Mandalore and Duchess Satine so from a spider-legged Maul all the way to Duchess Satine.
What does that do for an actor like me? You’ve basically given me every piece of information I need to really start wrapping my brain around this and to start planning out character development and what pieces we will get in what episodes, when you’re going to discover this and when we’re going to bring in this side of the character.
And that’s awesome. Hell, I’ve worked on TV shows where they kinda figure, “Yeah, you know, just give the actors the script the week before for the next episode and it’ll be fine” and they intentionally don’t tell you what’s coming down the road. And they don’t really understand that that’s really harmful. They like to think, “Oh, but see, the character doesn’t know, so how would you know?” They really want that surprise. And you’re like, “F-you. We’re actors, dude.” We’re storytellers and what we have control over is ourselves and the way that we tell those stories is through behavior, mannerism, and language use. And if you give us enough material to work with, we can really make that an interesting journey or rollercoaster ride, or whatever you need it to be.
SciFiMafia: Exactly. Well, for those people who haven’t caught up to The Lawless episode of Clone Wars, what is going through Darth Maul’s mind at the end?
Sam Witwer: When Sidious shows up?
SciFiMafia: Ah, yeah.
[Above: Seriously the best lightsaber fight ever done on Clone Wars to date]
Sam Witwer: Fear. Horror. He’s really… wetting his pants. [laughs] It’s really, really bad. And that’s the fun of it, too. Because we knew about that, I talk about actors and preparation, it was great to really play up this cocky guy. People say, “I thought there were only two Sith” and he goes, “Yeah, those guys are pretenders and we’re the real Sith.” Really play that up so that there’s a sharp contrast to when Sidious walks in, he goes, “Uh, hey, how are you doing? How good to see ya! Aw, man, I’m doing all this stuff for you, man! Don’t you get it? It’s still you and me.” There’s a real shift there. I daresay that I think the audience found that satisfying.
SciFiMafia: I think so!
Sam Witwer: Because Darth Sidious is six movies worth of the big villain. Six movies! He’s honestly possibly the greatest villain in cinema history. Darth Vader is up there but he’s not quite a villain. He’s a complicated character who has been victimized. So when you talk about just pure evil, a straight villain with no redeeming qualities, I don’t know that you can get any better than Ian McDiarmid’s performance as Darth Sidious, you know?
So my job is to make sure that the audience feels that. To make sure that that character is given its proper status. This character is part of film history. And now we have for the first time on [Clone Wars] and that has to be a momentous occasion.
SciFiMafia: I think we all felt the weight of Sidious’ appearance.
Sam Witwer: And as a side note, Ian Abercrombie was wonderful in this role. He was so wonderful as Palpatine and Darth Sidious [in Clone Wars.] I mourn the fact that we’ve lost him. That’s sad that he’s died but at the same time, I think it’s wonderful that his last performance on this show, he finally got to be Darth Sidious. Whenever we see him be Darth Sidious, he’s a hologram and otherwise he plays Palpatine and finally he got to walk out and be Darth Sidious and terrify everyone. I think that’s just a really wonderful way for him to leave the show.
A huge thank you goes out to Sam Witwer for taking the time to talk Star Wars with SciFiMafia. As you can tell from this interview, Sam could probably talk Star Wars all day long! His love and understanding of the Star Wars universe truly shines through his work and he’s even been nominated for an Annie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Voice Acting in an Animated Television Series for his portrayal of Darth Maul.
You can follow Sam on Twitter @SamWitwer where he frequently tweets live during the Being Human broadcast on Syfy, Mondays at 9/8C. Did you catch our interview with Witwer on his vampire character on Being Human? Check it out here.
Watch Star Wars: The Clone Wars on Cartoon Network, Saturday morning at 9:30/ 8:30C.