Writer, actress and cinema icon Carrie Fisher passed away today. In tribute, Empire's Chris Hewitt and Helen O'Hara share their thoughts and recollections of both the woman and her work.
Helen: I know everyone is sick of us cursing 2016 for all its political disasters and the legends it has taken from us, and I know that a year is an arbitrary measure of time that cannot actually be malicious (…right?). But to snatch Carrie Fisher from us? To take one of the most outspoken, most insightful, least restrained voices in film – and the world – just when we need her most? It’s a disaster for people who aren’t even aware how much she means. She wasn’t just Princess Leia: she was a great comedian, a talented writer, a script-doctor who improved films with her name nowhere near them. She was a character actress who could steal films in which she had about two lines, and a character so big that only Meryl Streep could play her. As herself, on chatshows and in her books, she had a way with words that was unparalleled, and she took zero bullshit while also not taking life too seriously. Princess Leia was my childhood hero, but Carrie Fisher was a hero for adults, someone who’d taken everything the world had to throw at her and emerged stronger.
Chris: I don’t think years can be malicious, but 2016 certainly is doing its best to prove us wrong on that. The absolute bastard. Did you ever interview Carrie? I never had the pleasure (I came within about an hour of doing so last year for The Force Awakens, only for a last-minute postponement that eventually became a cancellation), but one of the great joys of her decision to embrace her Star Wars legacy was watching her run rings around countless interviewers with her wit, glorious idiosyncracies (I’m struggling to think of any other actor who could get away with having their dog sit in on TV interviews), and full-blown commitment to giving zero fucks. You know what it can be like interviewing anyone involved with a huge blockbuster — it’s a blood-from-a-stone process that very often winds up with them hiding behind that old staple, “I can’t tell you that”. Carrie Fisher was different. Sure, she wasn’t dropping plot spoilers like confetti, but you could tell from the twinkle in her eyes and the smile on her lips that she knew the whole thing was a big old game, not to be taken seriously. She would have fun with talking about Star Wars, about Leia, about her character’s weird relationship with Luke, about losing weight for The Force Awakens, about George Lucas, about any bloody thing that came into her head. It’s an entirely selfish declaration, of course, but I wish I’d been one of those interviewers. It would have been an honour to have had her run rings around me.
Helen: Never interviewed her, no, and really I was happier just listening to her talk without needing to get coherent answers to specific questions from her — although at the same time I'd love to have met her on a human, non-journalist level. At least I was in her presence: I saw her give a brilliant talk on screenwriting once at the British Library, during which I learned that she used to punch up the jokes at the Oscars quite frequently, and watched her charm the crowd just a few months ago at Star Wars Celebration Europe. But I loved her in basically everything. Her role in When Harry Met Sally is one of my all-time favourites; I've used the line "You're right, you're right, I know you're right" so often in conversation (in as close to her tones as I can manage) that I can't even think of it as a quote anymore. And The Blues Brothers! I even loved her in Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back.
Chris: We have to talk about Star Wars. Of course we do. But as you’ve pointed out, there was so much more to her (gah, past tense feels so weird) than Leia. She was a brilliant writer — her screenplay adaptation of Postcards From The Edge is so damn good it’s a serious surprise that a) it didn’t get nominated for an Oscar and b) it’s her only official credit as a movie writer. And as an actor, though there was never a role that matched a certain princess from Alderaan, I loved watching her in the movies you just mentioned, or The ‘Burbs, or Austin Powers, where she cameos as the leader of the therapy group Dr Evil and Scotty attend. She had superb comic timing, and displayed that constantly in her later life — nowhere more effectively than in her brief appearance on 30 Rock, where her character inspires one of the greatest lines in comedy history: ‘never go with a hippie to a second location’.
Right, shall we talk Star Wars? You say Leia was your childhood hero. Why?
Helen: Well, first of all because Leia was the only one of the lot of them that looked like me at all. I mean, that series, the defining films of our youth, were not exactly swimming in female role models. But on her own merits she was fierce: exasperated with her rescuers rather than swooningly grateful, irritated that their half-baked plan was keeping her from her work. She's the most driven, the most committed and the most effective of the lot of them, as capable of organising mercy missions as she is of devastating attacks. It was SO good to see her return in The Force Awakens, as a General at that. She is the Rebellion personified: implacable, incorruptible, irresistible. God I love Leia.
Chris: I know.
Helen: But I've been so quiet about it all these years!
Chris: But seriously folks, so did I. Leia was so far removed from the female leads in the films I was watching as a kid. She wasn’t just there to snog Luke (well, she was a bit, which in hindsight was a dodgy move), or to be imperilled. She was there to give as good as she got, and to lead from the front. Leia, particularly in the first two Star Wars movies, is an insult machine. She doesn’t care who she meets — she’ll throw shade, as the kids say. Grand Moff Tarkin has a ‘foul stench’. Luke is ‘a little short for a stormtrooper’. Chewbacca is a ‘walking carpet’. And she has Han Solo sussed out from the off.
But the thing I love most about Leia in A New Hope is that she has two accents. One, her own American for giggles with the good guys, and an inexplicable British one when she’s bantering with the baddies. And it’s never explained. I don’t know if that’s a George Lucas note, or if Carrie Fisher just went rogue, but it’s magnificent.
Helen: Well we all have multiple accents depending on who we're talking to. Maybe English is Senate Standard and American is Galactic Casual or something. Or maybe Carrie Fisher did her own thing even that early in her career. After all, she was not a woman to follow the rules unthinkingly. She was born to Hollywood royalty (Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, for anyone not already aware) and grew up amid Hollywood scandal (Fisher left Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor, and was left in turn). Then Fisher herself struggled with drug addiction and mental health issues, soon speaking frankly and courageously about both. Those experiences, though often awful, gave her writing, and her performances, something else, a better understanding of human foibles maybe.
Chris: Exactly. It’s very easy to overlook how good Fisher in the original trilogy. She not only sells Leia’s sass, but also her inner turmoil and the soft centre underneath the hard exterior. Star Wars movies are notorious for chewing actors up and spitting them out with that patented ‘you can type this shit but you sure can’t say it’ dialogue. Fisher handled it all with aplomb. The scene in Jedi where Luke tells her that not only is she his sister, but Darth Vader is her dad should be an impossible scene for any actor to sell, but she nails it. And she nails it about 30 minutes after strangling a giant muppet to death while wearing nothing but a gold bikini. How’s that for range?
Helen: Oh she's flawless, and sells so many of the weird and impossible scenes. In The Force Awakens, the tragedy of young Ben is how his actions impact on old Leia. And yet she endures, and yet she fights. In Rogue One, the mere sight of her face (or near it) lifts maybe the darkest moment in the saga. And who knows what she will do in Episode VIII, and how we will do without her in Episode IX? It will be the first Star Wars film without Leia; Fisher even script-doctored the prequel trilogy (though I guess there's only so much even Carrie Fisher can do) and Leia appeared in Rebels. Now what do we do?
Chris: We do what we always do in times like this. We take a leaf out of Leia’s own book. We hope. We revisit the great films she starred in, and the books she wrote. We rewatch those amazing personal appearances (her roast of George Lucas at an AFI dinner is the stuff of genius). And when she appears on screen in Episode VIII, we shouldn’t feel sad. Instead, we should feel glad that our lives were touched and, in many cases transformed, by a woman this brilliant. But enough of the mawkish stuff. Fisher herself once wrote that, no matter how she died, she wanted her obit to say that she drowned in moonlight, strangled by her own bra. Well, this isn’t an obit, per se, but I feel we owe her that much at least. So farewell, Carrie Fisher, drowned in moonlight…
Helen: Strangled by her own bra. She will be sorely missed.