With all his films, Lucas has focused on casting the talent he sees as best embodying the characters. "The most important part of directing is casting," he says. "I've been very fortunate over the years in finding people who seemed born to play their roles. They've been exactly as I had imagined the characters when I was writing them." "I'm interested in the ensemble," Lucas adds, "and how the characters play against one another."
For Episode I, Lucas, McCallum and casting director Robin Gurland assembled an impressive troupe that fulfills Lucas' casting imperatives. But first the trio faced some interesting challenges. Not only were they building an ensemble cast that had to fit together, but several characters also had to link physically to later incarnations of themselves, or in some cases, to their children. "For Anakin and the Queen, we had to extrapolate backwards," explains Gurland. "We knew what their children, Luke and Leia, looked like, so we had to draw on that in casting the parents. And of course, the actor cast as Obi-Wan had to resemble the older version of the character."
Liam Neeson portrays Qui-Gon, a new addition to the Star Wars family of characters. Neeson's Oscar-nominated performance in Schindler's List is perhaps the standout of a distinguished career that also includes roles in the films Michael Collins, Rob Roy and Les Misérables, and an acclaimed performance on the Broadway stage in Anna Christie.
Lucas originally imagined an American in the role, but Neeson, who is Irish, impressed the filmmaker with his skills and presence: "It's great to cast an actor who is considered a master actor, who the other actors will look up to, who has got the qualities of strength that the character demands."
Neeson sees Qui-Gon as a timeless, wise soul with an Eastern-like philosophy. As a Jedi, the character is also skilled in the martial arts. "I think he's as close as you can get to the old time kind of warrior sage who has supreme confidence," Neeson says. "Qui-Gon is like a samurai warrior who has great powers and humility." Neeson also appreciated the saga's larger themes and scope. "These films are tapping into a void," he claims. "We've lost the oral tradition of storytelling, of myths and legends, and Star Wars helps fill that void."
Scottish actor Ewan McGregor takes on the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, played by Alec Guinness in the original trilogy. In Episode I, Obi-Wan is a young Jedi apprentice, who sometimes clashes with his rebellious mentor, Qui-Gon Ginn. Obi-Wan prefers not to buck the Jedi Council and wishes Qui-Gon would play by the rules. One of today's most versatile and critically-hailed young actors, McGregor has made memorable appearances in films such as Trainspotting, Emma and the recent Velvet Goldmine and Little Voice. Lucas, who calls McGregor the "young Turk of the European film community," appreciated the actor's many facets: "Ewan has the energy, grace and enthusiasm to be a young Obi-Wan."
Gurland was impressed by McGregor's similarities to Guinness, which exceeded those of simple physical resemblance. "Alec brought a sense of playfulness to many of his roles," she explains. "Even though Obi-Wan is a serious and strong character, he still has this glint and glimmer in his eyes. And Ewan also has that."
To prepare for Episode I, McGregor studied several of Guinness' performances, from both his early work and the Star Wars movies. "It was important that my acting matched Guinness' in some important areas," McGregor points out. "I worked especially hard on getting the voice right, imagining how Obi-Wan would sound as a young man." The decision to take on the coveted role was an easy one for McGregor. "I obviously couldn't say no when the part was offered," he says. "It's really an honor to be part of this legend and modern myth." McGregor also has familial ties to the Star Wars universe -- his uncle is Denis Lawson, who played Rebel fighter pilot Wedge in the original films. Finally, the chance to wield the Jedi weapon of choice proved irresistible.
"To draw a lightsaber and fire it up ... no one can imagine what that feels like!" Obi-Wan is serving as an apprentice, or Padawan Learner, to venerable Jedi Knight Qui-Gon Jinn. Despite their closeness, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon have different ideas about key matters that will determine their fates. For example, each has a different viewpoint on Anakin. Qui-Gon takes the young slave boy, whom he thinks will bring balance to the Force, under his wing despite the misgivings of Obi-Wan and members of the Jedi Council.
Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon come to the aid of a beautiful young queen whose planet has come under attack by the Trade Federation. The role required a young woman who could be believable as the ruler of that planet, but at the same time be vulnerable and open. Natalie Portman, whose film credits include The Professional and Beautiful Girls, and who appeared on Broadway in The Diary of Anne Frank, takes on the role of the Queen. "I was looking for someone who was young, strong, along the lines of Leia," Lucas explains. "Natalie embodied all those traits and more."
Portman embraced the role, showing a quick appreciation and understanding that the character was a role model. "It was wonderful playing a young queen with so much power," she enthuses. "I think it will be good for young women to see a strong woman of action who is also smart and a leader."
Unlike most of her co-stars, Portman was unfamiliar with the Star Wars phenomenon when she came aboard Episode I. But some relatives quickly clued her in to the excitement. "My cousins had always been obsessed with the films," she remembers, "yet I hadn't even seen them before I got the part. When it all happened for me, my cousins were exclaiming, 'Oh, my God, you're in Star Wars!'"
The search for Anakin, the 9-year-old Tatooine slave, presented the most daunting casting challenge. The boy's special abilities, some of which are demonstrated during an electrifying Podrace, attract the attention of Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, who find themselves stranded on the boy's home planet.
Over a two-year period Gurland looked at hundreds of youngsters to play the resourceful and hopeful boy, who is unaware of the destiny and fearful challenges that await him. Lucas wanted Anakin to be very outgoing, intuitive, inventive and self-reliant. He had to appeal to both young people and their parents.