Mark Hamill unleashes a fiendish cackle that simultaneously sounds like skin ripped from flesh and fingernails dragged across corrugated iron. If the bowels of hell have a soundtrack, this is it. But the actor’s descent into madness is only momentary and, for anyone who's played the Batman Arkham games, it is all too familiar. In rehearsing his role as the Joker, Hamill would laugh to himself in his car: a practice, he jokes, that wasn’t so unusual in Los Angeles.
“I have this absolute abandon when it came to Joker’s laugh,” he says. “It’s like a musical instrument. He laughs at really inappropriate times and finds things funny that sane people do not. I wanted to make that a large part of my arsenal in terms of approaching the character. There are so many people that I pay homage to: a little Dwight Schultz [the A-Team’s 'Howling Mad' Murdock] here, Dracula’s Renfield there.”
For anyone who thought his career remained exclusively in a galaxy far, far away with stuff like Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Hamill is having the last laugh. After first portraying Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy, the actor seemed to drop out of sight from the movie world for a while. But, outside of film and television, he’s been under our noses all this time, as a voice-over artist for dozens of video games like Arkham Asylum, Darksiders and Star Citizen. Beyond that, he was a mentor in Soldier of Fortune 2: Double Helix, a narrator in Call of Duty 2, and the titular hairy hero himself in X2: Wolverine's Revenge.
While established actors usually dabble in games for contractual movie tie-ins, Hamill has embraced the genre wholeheartedly. Star Wars launched the career of Harrison Ford, but it sent Hamill (and his co-star Carrie Fisher) free-falling toward typecast hell. As his father was a captain in the US Navy, he spent much of his childhood on the move, so after Luke was left with the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, he did what he’d always done: move on.
It was this need to break convention that led him, in 1993, to a new medium: the video game. In Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers, he was one of the first established actors to voice a game character. Some saw it as a step back, but he could hardly have cared less. “I’m sure there’s a range of opinions, from ‘You’re slumming it’, or ‘Can’t you get more legitimate work?’ But that snobbishness comes with the business.”
By the time of gaming’s full motion video (FMV) craze in the mid-’90s, actors were eating their words. The titles may have been campier than a row of tents, but they were not short on talent, as Hamill discovered when he played Colonel Christopher Blair in three Wing Commander games.
“There were great actors in that: Malcolm McDowell [A Clockwork Orange], John Rhys-Davies [Lord of the Rings], and John Spencer [The West Wing]. Malcolm is one of the most hysterically funny actors I've ever worked with. He’s just brutal in his humor and merciless in terms of torturing you on camera. He would be making smoochy faces and I’d tell him, ‘You know, I never look you in the eyes, I’m looking you in the chin, you S.O.B.’”
As he developed a parallel career in animation voiceover – becoming a cult star by playing the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series – he went on to play characters in games like Starsiege, relishing the challenges of interactive entertainment. In films, actors rarely explore every nuance of a character. In games, characters change depending on the player’s decisions. Some games, such as Full Throttle, even gave him a chance to play numerous roles.
This was the only time Hamill acted on a LucasArts title. Considering the amount of Star Wars games released, has he intentionally resisted portraying Skywalker?
“When I played Luke from 1977 to 1983, games were in their infancy,” he says. “I talked about turning a page and starting a new chapter. Those movies had a beginning, middle and end, and everyone sort of moved on."
“I don’t really know how to answer that, because I’ve never been asked to do it. That’s fine, though. If you’re playing Luke the way he was in the films – from his late teens to mid-’20s – I’ve outgrown the role. In the story, Luke is so boy-next-door farm boy, it’s like Dorothy in Oz. All the other characters that surround him are fantastic.”
After Return of the Jedi, Hamill became known for portraying another icon, albeit one that’d have Skywalker quivering in his toga. Throughout the ’90s, he played the Joker in Batman: The Animated Series, reviving the role in various spin-offs, and for the 2001 game Batman: Vengeance.
“I played Joker from 1992 to 2004 in all the animated versions, including the feature films,” he says. “I stopped in 2004 and didn’t expect to return to him, so when they asked me to come back I was curious.”
With Batman: Arkham Asylum, it was the return of the Animated Series’ Kevin Conroy (Bruce Wayne) and Arleen Sorkin (Harley Quinn), alongside the writing talent of Lost’s Paul Dini, which convinced him to sign up.
“I thought this will be one last chance to play Joker. And it was so much fun to play a character who is clearly insane."
It was a good call, too, Asylum went on to become a huge critical and commercial success, leading to two more sequels culminating with Batman: Arkham Knight in 2015. But what does Hamill think drives Batman's foe?
"I’m an old school comic book fan and I thought Heath Ledger was brilliant in The Dark Knight: a harrowing interpretation with a complete lack of joy. But I think Joker has a huge ego, and he’s almost angry that Batman is obstructing his ascent. He believes he deserves acclaim for his genius.”
In Hollywood, Hamill must meet people like that all the time. “Absolutely, but all these things are exaggerations of real life.”
Having acted in film, TV, theater and animation, Hamill shows no sign of slowing down yet, even once you take Star Wars out of the equation. Currently enjoying his 66th birthday, the actor could have retired to bask in the glory of his cultural cache years ago, but his love of the job keeps him going. He laughs again, only this time not in the manner of a terrifying lunatic.
“The minute I get jaded is the minute I don’t get out of my pyjamas.”
Hamill on his fondest gaming glories
Mark Hamill has appeared in over 30 video games to date, the majority of which include performances as the Joker, on top of a number of surprise cameos that might have slipped you by.
Here, he recounts some of his highlights from a fruitful career in the games industry.
Call of Duty 2 (2005)
“I was mostly in the studio by myself, doing whatever was required. But it's all artifice really – like looping dialogue. A huge percentage of the Star Wars movies are looped, meaning ADR – additional dialogue recording. It’s not the original voice track: it’s us in studios, replacing our voices. If there’s anything that needs a specific noise it’s looped. The sound people will tell you – they won Oscars on all three films.”
X-2: Wolverine’s Revenge (2002)
“The thing about voiceover that is so appealing to me is that it’s liberating not to be seen. The anonymity is part of the magic. I feel like a magician’s assistant in the sense that if you play your part right, it comes out really well. In voiceover you can play a much broader range of characters, because they’re not concerned with how you look, just how you sound.”
Batman: Arkham Asylum (2009)
“Joker is endearing because he’s so committed to what he considers his own genius. There’s a real symbiotic relationship with Batman. I don’t know if there are two fictional characters more perfectly suited to one another. Maybe Sherlock Holmes and Professor Moriarty. He takes such glee in what he does. It’s absurd on its face – you can’t bring too much real-life logic to it, but within the comic book world, he towers above so many other run-of-the mill villains.”
Full Throttle (1995)
“I remember playing a full, three-piece suited character, almost someone out of a Tennessee Williams play. I came at that game with a repertory theater frame of mind, where you play a butler one night, the leading man the next, then a sidekick the third night. Maybe the fourth night, you’re not even on stage: you’re running the booth. A jack of all trades, master of none. I grew up that way.”
Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix (2002)
“I love character parts because they are so far removed from yourself. When I played Amadeus or Joseph Merrick (aka 'The Elephant Man') on Broadway, I look in the mirror and feel Mark has receded and the character is there. I lean on the side of villainy for voiceover because they push the buttons of the audience and illicit emotions that make for a colourful story."
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (1993)
“This is where Mark gets to be Steve Buscemi: a character sidekick to Tim Curry. Curry is a masterful actor. I saw him on stage when he did Rocky Horror at the Roxy Theatre on Sunset Boulevard. When I was listening to Tim's tracks, in my imagination I had a perfectly lit set, even though I was in a recording studio. To me that's what is so thrilling about voice-acting for games."
Wing Commander (1994-1997)
“We had cheat sheets of every kind. If you look at the game, when we’re looking down at the game's interface with light on our faces, that's from a teleprompter because of the massive amount of dialogue. One of the greatest things about doing animation or videogames is you don’t have to memorize your lines. You get as old as I am, it’s hard.”