For many casual Star Wars fans, Darth Maul has spent the last decade-plus being the bad guy with the rad double lightsaber in The Phantom Menace. So when he showed up in Solo, it was the first time some had seen him in years. But for Sam Witwer, it was the chance to bring his animated take on Maul to the big screen.
Witwer is now a Star Wars stalwart, thanks to regular appearances across Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels as the returned Darth Maul—covering everything from the character’s shocking resurrection to his second death at the hands of Obi-Wan Kenobi. The actor has provided voices for Star Wars movies before. But the arrival of Solo: A Star Wars story allowed Witwer to team with Maul’s physical actor, Ray Park, and bring the vocal performance he’s honed over the last six years of Star Wars animated series appearances to the movies, for Maul’s surprise appearance as the real leader behind the Crimson Dawn crime syndicate that Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) and Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) were part of.
To celebrate Solo’s home release this month, we had the chance to talk to Witwer about how he came to be part of one of Solo’s most fascinating moments, and how he looks back on joining Park as part of the wild and vast legacy of Darth Maul beyond The Phantom Menace.
io9: What was the moment when you found out Maul was going to be in Solo?
Sam Witwer: Well, it was very casually mentioned to me by Matt Wood, who is the [supervising sound editor] on this whole thing, and also the voice of General Grievous, among other things. He just kind of casually mentioned it to me, and did it in such a way as to provoke an emotional response and then laughed in my face. That was it basically—I mean, and then shortly thereafter my reps were contacted.
io9: Maul plays a very important but small role in the film, which is set between the storylines you went through on Clone Wars and then on Rebels. What was it like getting in that headspace of visiting this particular slot between those times in Maul’s life for you?
Witwer: Well, there was definitely vindication for the things he was up to in Clone Wars that lead directly into this story, in Solo. I surely appreciated the fact that they were using that work we did to inform upon the context of the world of Solo, because it’s is such a darker corner of the Star Wars universe—the color palette is darker, what’s happening with the characters is sometimes dark. Which is really contrasted against all the humor in the film. But I really appreciated that; like with all Star Wars, it really is all about these imaginative radicals you can dive down into, right? And I love it when they use work we’ve done in other places to help shade out something in, say—like this movie for example. That fact that we did the work in Clone Wars means for the fans that really loved that, there’s a whole area of that movie, a whole context of that movie, that’s shadier and completely fertile and creates a wider, broader world for them to dive into. It’s a big sandbox. And we had built some really cool sand on one side of that sandbox, and I love the fact that they let us use that. And I love the fact that Ron Howard and his crew were so interested in that. I love the fact that they really wanted to make sure the Solo Maul, as he would appear, they really wanted it to seem like the Clone Wars. I love that.
io9: This is a slightly different perspective that we got on Maul, because this is the first time that we’ve seen him in live-action since Phantom Menace. When you were reading the lines and performing the voice, did any aspect of your performance change in comparison to voicing him for animation?
Witwer: It’s funny you should ask that, because the way that it worked was interesting. One would think you would just be summoned, and they’d come over with the shot and you’d lipsync the performance and then that would be that. But that wasn’t how it worked. In fact, they recorded me first, and then they shot Ray lipsyncing my voice, and then they brought me back in to do it again with Ray’s performance because Ray also had to have the freedom to do whatever the hell he was going to do, right? And Ray and I also talked on the phone. But there was a lot of coordination between different people. Me talking to [Rebels’ executive producer/supervising director] Dave Filoni, Dave Filoni talking to them, me talking to Ray—Ray and I had been friends for years. But as far as doing it, what I discovered was a funny, little technical thing, which was, when I came out for animated, it’s kind of whatever I want. I found that when I do it [for] Ray’s face and it’s live-action, the deeper register works better. So, there’s a little bit more variation in the animated stuff which sometimes doesn’t have as deep a register. To have a chance to go over and work again and see Ray’s face, saying those words—I discovered the deeper, the better.
io9: What was it like—after having the animated, stylized version of Maul in your head for so long—to see him again in live-action, in the costume and everything?
Witwer: That was part of it, too. People like Dave Filoni making sure the costume was right. And also having discussions with the producers about what weapon Ray would wield. Because you know, it could be the Dark Saber, it could be the Inquistor Lightsaber—there’s very different story ramifications based on what weapon you choose. It paints a completely different picture in the background. But in terms of seeing that character, what I was so delighted with, was that Ray—besides being a great guy and caring about the stuff so deeply—Ray really incorporated the animated work into how he physically portrayed Maul. So when I saw Maul, to me, it was just the same guy. I was so happy with that. Ray’s already seen the animated stuff, and when we talked, he wanted me to remind him what the key moments were in the animated series. And so when I saw his performance, I was...yeah, I can’t tell you how happy that made me. Because the Maul in The Phantom Menace is a very different guy. Maul in Phantom Menace is a student. He is the dark side apprentice, the disciple. He’s almost military, you know? “My master!” He stands there and he’s stoic. And as time goes on, and he’s gone through all the things that he’s gone through from these stories, he became much more his own person. So when I saw Ray just with all that attitude—the dark presence that he brought to Phantom Menace, which was brilliant, but now he’s added attitude and a little bit of humor to it, and all that stuff—I was like, “There’s my guy.” I have to thank Ray for really studying that stuff and incorporating it. I thought he was wonderful.
io9: You’ve become such a big part of Star Wars through Clone Wars and Rebels. What’s it been like getting to make part of this character your own, and becoming part of this grand legacy of Star Wars?
Witwer: Well, you know these characters—it always felt like the characters were always, always bigger than the actors. For example, take Darth Vader, right? How many actors have portrayed Darth Vader? Well you have David Prowse, you have the guy who did his swordplay...I’m forgetting his name, I’m a bad person [Ed’s note—the name neither of us could recall is stunt performer Bob Anderson!]. You have Hayden Christensen, you have Jake Lloyd, you got Sebastian Shaw—in that five or six names I named right there—James Earl Jones! My god, let’s not forget James Earl Jones. So you have six actors who helped create this character? I feel very similarly when it comes to Darth Maul.
And I’ve always felt that way. Like, Ray walked in and he created such an interesting, singular character. And even though he didn’t have a lot of dialogue, those two lines or so that he had were so foundational to what I felt like I had to do with the character. And so Darth Maul became a fast-moving train in popularity with the fan base. It was my job to jump on that train and just maybe make it go a little bit faster. But the hard work—I got to credit Ray with the hard work. And credit George Lucas, and Ian McCaig, who created the artwork for Darth Maul, all these wonderful people who contributed to this character—and again, I put Ray front and center for the presence of that character. I had a leg up. The train was already moving by the time that I got on it. I just shoved a little bit of coal into the engine compartment of the train, made it go a little bit faster. But the fact is, I have nothing but respect, at all, and appreciation for the people that came before me that helped get that train moving. It’s incredible.
Solo: A Star Wars Story is available digitally now, and on Blu-ray and DVD September 25.