Jar Jar Binks: three syllables that send shudders down the spines of ‘Star Wars’ fans. While Episode I, ‘The Phantom Menace’, was a letdown in more ways than one, it was Gungan oaf Jar Jar who became the lightning rod for fan disappointment. With a speech pattern that brought to mind a particularly irritating pre-schooler and a misplaced penchant for pratfalling, Binks came to symbolise everything wrong with the ‘Star Wars’ prequel trilogy. But what of the man behind Binks? Where is he now? And how does he feel about bringing to life the most despised character in cinematic history?
“It’s all good,” says Ahmed Best (pictured above in 1999 at the ‘Phantom Menace’ premiere in 1999 and again in 2008, below). “Kids really relate to Jar Jar because he’s a kids’ character, plain and simple. And that’s who the movie is for. So if kids like it, I did my job.” It’s a typically relaxed response from the guy behind the Gungan, who refuses to rise to the hatred he’s received over the years. A cursory Twitter search shows ‘Star Wars’ fans still haven’t forgiven or forgotten Jar Jar – worse, he’s become shorthand for unfettered awfulness (“I’d rather listen to Jar Jar Binkssing Nickelback than listen to Justin Bieber,” tweets one wag).
Lifelong ‘Star Wars’ fan Best was hired to play Jar Jar when he was spotted in a stage performance of Stomp. George Lucas knew he wanted a completely CGI character in ‘The Phantom Menace’ but he also knew he’d need an actor to provide visual reference for the rest of the cast, and that person needed to be theatrical and funny – the 6’, Bronx-born Stomper was the perfect fit. “Jar Jar’s the key to all this, if we get Jar Jar working,” Lucas would later say while watching back the dailies. That eventually turned out to be more prophetic than George Lucas could have ever imagined, but during production, there wasn’t the slightest inkling that Jar Jar would become problematic.
Castmate Liam Neeson called Best “a very gifted actor”; Natalie Portman raved about the scenes they shared; George Lucas was forever inviting him round for dinner. “There was never a question or comment about my performance or the character that arose while we were working,” says Best. “So when the movie came out and there was such a reaction, it was a little bit jarring.” Weesa’d say that was the understatement of the year.
After a brief period of shellshock, Best picked himself up and got back out there only to find that the stigma of Jar Jar still haunted him. “I thought [‘The Phantom Menace’] was going to be the beginning of a blossoming career, and it never really turned out that way,” says Best. “The doors I wanted it to open didn’t really open.” The next few years saw him reprise the role of Jar Jar in a vastly reduced capacity for Episodes II and III (he only had a single line in ‘Revenge Of The Sith’), also returning for voiceovers for official ‘Star Wars’ videogames. Would he ever be able to truly escape Jar Jar’s shadow?
Instead of deflecting criticism and evading the fan hate, Best decided to embrace the character more than ever. “I’m proud of it, I’m glad I did it, and I’d do it again,” reflects Best. “Because it’s a part of history. Not a lot of people can say that.” Ahmed made himself available to voice Jar Jar in a series of tongue-in-cheek ‘Star Wars’ projects, including ‘Star Wars: Robot Chicken’, the ‘LEGO Star Wars’ series and the perennially delayed parody series, ‘Star Wars: Detours’, which has been frozen in carbonite ever since the announcement of Episode VII.
Ahmed Best does have one bugbear, however: the fact he never got the credit as one of the pioneers of motion-capture, long before Andy Serkis ever donned a ping pong ball. “I didn’t get the credit as an actor [that] you do now, like when Andy Serkis did his thing for Gollum,” says Best. “It’s almost as if what I did didn’t exist. When Zoë Saldana and Sam Worthington do ‘Avatar’, they get above the title and they’re pretty much doing what I did, what I originated.” He has a point: your average man on the street might not have even known there was a physical presence behind Jar Jar, while Andy Serkis has since become a household name for pulling the same trick.
Still, it’s not like Best doesn’t have enough to keep him busy. For starters, he’s married and has a three-year-old son, Marley. He is learning Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, becoming more of a badass warrior in real life than Jar Jar ever was on screen. He’s been studying producing and directing at the American Film Institute and has appeared in a number of short films since ‘The Phantom Menace’, not to mention his new comedy series, ‘2 Black Dudes’, from executive producer Seth MacFarlane. And then there’s his music: Jar Jar loves to jam on guitar, bass, piano and drums, and plays every day. Best is also an avid tweeter at @ahmedbest and in 2014 weighed in on ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ teaser (“The trailer for #TheForceAwakens lasts about as long as my Force awakening”).
Although Jar Jar didn’t appear in Episode VII, Ahmed Best harbours no ill will towards ‘Star Wars’, George Lucas or that blasted Binks. “I’m proud George had enough faith in me to say, ‘You, kid! You do it’ and put me on a stage that’s the biggest you’ll ever get. I appreciate every minute of it. I appreciate everything.”
Image Credits: Lucasfilm/Rex Features