Billy Dee Wiliams
Lando Calrissian (The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, Star Wars Rebels)
Interview: September 2005
Mr. Williams, in the first two Batman movies directed by Tim Burton you played the role of Harvey Dent, mayor of Gotham, who in the third movie, directed by Joel Schumacher, becomes ‘Two-Face’; a bad guy.
When they made the third movie, they suddenly got Tommy Lee Jones to play this role. How did you feel about this?
It was OK. Tommy Lee Jones is a great actor, and it was a different regime then. When I took on the role I was looking forward to play Two-Face, but it didn’t work out.
Did they ever tell you that you were going to play Two-Face in a sequel when you signed the contract?
The contract I signed was to play Harvey Dent, it wasn’t a two or three picture situation. With Star Wars, I signed for two pictures. I think that at that stage, after the first Batman, some Japanese, Sony or something like that bought out the contract. I can’t really recall it.
In comparison to the recent Batman (Batman Begins), the one I was in was better than all the others. However, I still have to see Batman Begins. The others got too much involved with technology and special effects.
The first two were directed by Tim Burton, how was it to work with such a visionary?
He really captured the darkness of the Batman saga. He’s very good at that, creating darkness in his movies.
In 1972 you played in Lady Sings the Blues, alongside Diana Ross, a movie about the life of Billie Holiday. Your character, Louis McKay is very similar to your Star Wars character Lando Calrissian. Do you think George Lucas offered you the role of Lando because of this movie?
Before Star Wars I did a whole bunch of movies, I gained the reputation of being a charming, roguish individual. So, I can imagine he took that into consideration. I was pretty popular back then. Nobody had ever seen someone like me before. (grins)
Besides acting you also paint. What would describe you the best: An actor that paints, or a painter that acts?
Have you got a favorite painter?
I’ve had a pretty extensive education on the history of art. I have some periods that I really like. I love the Mexican murals, Diego Rivera, Orozco, Siqueiros. Some American painters…and some Europeans. Some of them from your country; the Netherlands, like Vermeer.
You probably know that there are plans for a Star Wars TV-series. Any possibility you will have a part?
I don’t think so. When you have established a character like Lando Calrissian… If George (Lucas) would contact me I wouldn’t say no, but it seems to me that Lando has become such an icon that it wouldn’t be good to do it. He established himself in such a powerful way. I don’t know, Lando is an old man now. (laughs)
Maybe a role as Lando’s uncle?
(Laughs) No, just Lando!
In 2002, Sidney Poitier, who was your teacher, got an honorary Oscar. This stirred a lot of emotion, since it was seen as recognition for his work as an afro-American actor, and maybe all afro-American actors. How did you feel about this?
I don’t want to think in terms of black actors. I don’t look at myself as a white, black or green actor. I see myself as a full spectrum of colors. Sidney just really deserved it for all his work.
But the recognition took so long.
Yeah, but he did get an Oscar in the 60’s when he did Lilies of the Field. Black actors are getting recognition now.
And Oscars. Denzel Washington and Halle Berry got one. And Sam Jackson is also great.
Staying with the Poitier family; you have a role in the upcoming movie Hood of Horror in which you play alongside Snoop Dogg and Sidney’s daughter.
Can you tell something about this project?
A friend of mine asked me if I wanted to participate and I said “sure!” I did my scenes in one day but I didn’t work with Snoop Dogg. The part is just a cameo.
Any other projects?
I did a movie called Constellation which is doing festivals. I worked with a young filmmaker with whom I also did the movie the Visit. For the rest, I’m busy with my paintings. I just showed some in South Carolina in a gallery. If I find things that really interest me I do them.
In Return of the Jedi, you promised Harrison Ford’s character Han Solo to return the spaceship the Millennium Falcon ‘without a scratch’. However, you damaged the Falcon during the Death Star attack…..
Did I say this to him? I always said that it was my ship!
Well, you did.
You know more about this than I do. (laughs)
I don’t remember that.
So, I guess you haven’t seen the movie that many times then?
I’ve seen it a couple of times. But not in the last couple of years…I saw the last one (editors note: Revenge of the Sith), which I enjoyed, I always look forward to see what he (George Lucas) has been doing.
Of course you like the old trilogy the most.
(Laughs) I think the general consensus is that the first three were the best. With the prequels he was gearing more towards a younger audience, a new generation of people. People of your age.
Well, I’m from the first generation; actually saw Return of the Jedi at the cinema back in 1983.
Ok, good, so you also liked the old ones the best.
I think most people like the first ones the best. I think there was a lot more humanity, more human elements, more character. The new ones are more about technology.
Human elements don’t seem to be important nowadays.
Interview: December 2015
Unfortunately you didn’t return as Lando in Star Wars The Force Awakens. Can you tell what the reason for this is? And will you be back for Episode VIII?
I do not know the reason. I think the character of Lando just didn’t fit into the story line. I saw the movie and loved it and can see why Lando wasn’t in it. If they asked me to come back for Episode VIII I would love to do it but right now I have not been asked and I do not know their plans.
You did return as Lando in Star Wars Rebels, the animated TV series. What was it like to return to the Star Wars franchise after so many years?
I would love to return to Rebels! I had a blast doing it! It was great bringing Lando back to the franchise. Lando is very dear to my heart and I cannot see anyone else playing him or voicing him.
What is the best memory you have regarding working on The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi?
On The Empire Strikes Back it would have to be working with director Irvin Kershner. He was brilliant and I really loved working with him! As for Return of the Jedi it was great being reunited with the cast again and becoming a General!
When you were cast as Lando in the late ‘70’s Star Wars was already extremely popular. Did that put extra pressure on your shoulders; starring in such a big movie?
Not really. I was well aware of what Star Wars was and how much of an impact it had on the film industry but I am a professional actor. I approach every job professionally and with as much dedication and hard work as any other project. Star Wars is a part of our world now and I am happy to have been a part of it!
I know it’s been a long time ago, but what can you remember from filming The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi? Did any weird, strange or funny things happen on the set?
When we shot Return of the Jedi I remember doing the scene where Harrison was saving me from the Sarlacc Pitt. He was so wrapped up in his acting that he didn’t realize right away that I was actually hurt. A squib went off in my foot and we had to cut the scene. Harrison was so into his part. We of course did get the scene done.
Of all the movies you have done in your entire life; what is your personal favorite?
Like being asked “which child is your favorite”. I cannot answer this question.
Who has been your greatest influence in your acting career? And what is the greatest lesson you have learned in your career?
Paul Muni was a great inspiration to me. I think he was an amazing actor and I think I learned a lot by watching him. And I was lucky enough to be in a film with him, The Last Angry Man. I am truly blessed!