The podcast: I Was There Too.
The host: actor/comedian/podcaster extraordinaire Matt Gourley.
The concept: to interview the co-stars, bit players, and extras who happened to be present for some of the great moments in cinema history.
The latest guest: Ahmed Best.
If you’ve ever listened to I Was There Too, you know what I just did – the whole “the podcast, the host, the concept” thing – is an homage to the way Gourley opens every episode, teeing up the name of the pertinent film and actor/actress. However, I Was There Too’s true innovation is that Gourley isn’t interested in talking to Keanu Reeves about Speed. He’d rather talk to the actors who played the frightened passengers on the bus. How were the non-Keanus and non-Sandra Bullocks treated on set? How often do they get recognized? How’d they even get the job in the first place?
Because, really, in life, none of us ever get to be the Keanu Reeves or Sandra Bullock. Most of us are just the background players looking nervous while the muscled man and cute girl save the day. That’s not just a hypothetical, btw. Gourley really did interview 5 of the background players occupying the seats of Bus 2525.
Think of I Was There Too, then, as a tribute to character actors, a podcast version of The AV Club’s ongoing Random Roles print interview series. Want to know what it was like being crushed by King Kong in Skull Island. Check out the episode with Marc Evan Jackson. Was making The Revenant really as impossible as the trades would lead you to believe? Joshua Barge sure didn’t mind the cold. Curious to know if it’s true that Tom Wilson hands out FAQ cards to passersby who might want to ask him about playing Biff in Back to the Future is true? It totally is.
There are 59 total episodes now, and to give you a sense of some of the stories which end up being discussed in an average episode here are four things I just learned from Ahmed “Jar Jar Binks” Best’s new I Was There Too interview:
1. Ahmed Best owes all of this to a co-star in Stomp who invited a LucasFilms casting director to a performance
Phantom Menace was Ahmed Best’s first movie, and he only ever came to LucasFilm’s attention because he had scored a role in Broadway’s Stomp A friend of his invited a LucasFilm casting director to a performance, presumably not to say “you have to see my buddy Ahmed in action” but instead “you have to see me in action and cast me in something.” It obviously didn’t work out that way. They liked Ahmed, not the friend, but according to the once and future Jar Jar his friend has always been a good sport about it. After all, perhaps not being cast as Jar Jar was more like dodging a bullet.
Incidentally, Best wasn’t even his normal role in the show the particular night the LucasFilms woman took in Stomp. Somebody in the cast had fallen ill, and the replacement they brought in from San Francisco somehow had enough clout to take the lead role for himself and force Best into playing the vacated supporting role. The young twentysomething Best was so angry he delivered the loudest and most animated performance of his career to that point. That’s what got him in the door for Jar Jar, and, yeah, that makes total sense in retrospect:
They initially cast him to be Jar Jar’s body, and only later learned he’d also done various voice-over work for radio. Thus, it was only natural to let him also do Jar Jar’s voice.
2. Ahmed Best was suffering from severe burns when he was being fitted for his bodysuit, but he didn’t tell anyone for fear of being fired
The IMDB trivia section for Phantom Menace contains this little unsourced nugget: “On his way to England to be fitted for the suit of Jar Jar Binks, Ahmed Best suffered severe burns when hot tea was spilled into his lap. Best endured great pain while a cast of his body was made, but told no one about his injury, unwilling to take any chance that might jeopardize his role. ”
Gourley thought it would be fun to ask Best if that was true, and, as it turns out, he really was suffering from severe burns due to a clumsy flight attendant. Then once he landed he was delayed for hours by customs, who suspected him of being some kind of drug mule. LucasFilms had told him to claim he was in the country to visit some friends. They never said exactly why he couldn’t just say, “I’m here for a fitting for a movie,” though Best now recalls it might have had something to do with not having the proper permits or official offices set up yet. Either way, he did as they asked, but customs made him sweat it out, unaware that every second he went without some access to an ointment to apply to his scarred skin was like torture. Once he was released he managed to get to a drug store to find some medicine, but it provided little relief and reacted badly to the material being applied to his body during the bodysuit fitting at LucasFilms.
The pain was immense, but, like the IMDB trivia says, he stayed silent and powered through, fearful that his delay at the airport had already put him on thin ice. If they had to cancel the fitting because he was burned he was sure that would have been it for him. So, whenever the body cast people noticed him grimacing and asked if he was okay he merely shook his head yes. It was only at the end of the process that he finally came clean, and they predictably felt horrible.
3. Ahmed Best coordinated the epic Yoda-Dooku Attack of the Clones fight scene.
Landing a role in a Star Wars movie was a dream come true for Best, who only ever wanted to become an actor because of seeing the original Star Wars. Of course, the dream turned into a nightmare after the Jar Jar backlash and ensuing decades of struggling to ever live down the performance. However, he remains a Star Wars fan, and it was through those eyes that he read the Attack of the Clones script and was disheartened to see George Lucas had more or less left the section describing Yoda and Count Dooku’s fight mostly blank in classic “we’ll figure it out later” fashion. The head of the animation department confirmed to Best that they had no idea what the fight was going to look like.
Oh, no, no, no. This shit had to be fixed. As a fan, Best needed Yoda’s first lightsaber fight to be the most epic, insane lightsaber fight in Star Wars history, and as a practitioner of the martial arts as well as a kung fu movie junkie, Best had some ideas for how to choreograph such a fight. Thus, he watched some Jet Li movies with the animator and sat down to lay it all out, emphasizing how important it was that the fight scene first needed to start in such a way that the audience knew something amazing was about to happen. Like a good samurai movie (or video game), Yoda needed to hit an iconic stance while holding his lightsaber, as if you expected Mortal Kombat’s Shang Tsung to shout “Fight!” from somewhere off-screen.
From there, it was go big or go home, and Best threw out his craziest ideas, most of which made it into the movie. The one thing Lucas vetoed was Best’s suggestion that Yoda is so powerful and strong with the Force that he wouldn’t actually even need to personally wield his lightsaber. Instead, he’d be controlling it with his mind and using it to attack Dooku from one side while performing those flips and deflecting Dooku’s attack on the other end. A floating lightsaber was probably doable, visual effects wise, but Lucas insisted that Yoda actually needed to be holding the lightsaber. Such imagery was too iconic to mess with.
4. Michael Jackson wanted to be Jar Jar
During the production of The Phantom Menace, George Lucas took his kids, Natalie Portman, and Best to a Michael Jackson concert, escorting them backstage both before and after the show to meet the King of Pop. This, too, was a dream come true for Best, who adored Jackson. What Best didn’t know, though, is that he took the role Jackson wanted to play.
Yes, before Best ever came around Jackson lobbied Lucas to let him play Jar Jar. However, Lucas objected on two fronts: 1. Jackson’s presence would overshadow the rest of the movie; 2. Jackson wanted to play the part with a practical suit and prosthetics, not mo-cap CGI. They agreed to disagree, and Jackson let it go.
But it still stung because as Lucas was re-introducing Portman and Best to Jackson after the show he amended Best’s name to include “also known as Jar Jar Binks.” What had been a friendly encounter instantly soured. According to Best, it was as if all the oxygen had left the room, and he didn’t know why. Jackson maintained the pleasantries and quickly went on his way, but there was an iciness there that hadn’t been there before. When Best asked Lucas what that was all about he learned landing his dream role had meant beating out someone he idolized.
And everyone loved Jar Jar and it all worked out in the end.
I’m noting my own sarcasm here.
So, that’s it. This is my #TryPod suggestion/trivial article. What are some of your favorite podcasts? Or do you not listen to any? Want to know where to go to actually hear these fancy radio shows? I listen to I Was There Too on Stitcher. You can also find it in iTunes and wherever else you get your podcasts. And I’ll see you in the comments.