In what could have been the only thing more distracting than a heavily accented space lizard doing pratfalls in the background of the most heavily anticipated sequel in science fiction movie history, Michael Jackson apparently lobbied to play the character of Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. That revelation comes courtesy of actor and producer Ahmed Best, the man who beat out the alien-loving megastar for the coveted role. Best actually mentioned his casting triumph in a Reddit AMA last year, but he elaborated on the story in a recent interview with Vice, where he discussed his new project 2 Black Dudes, and the various pressures of having his name attached to a character often seen as emblematic of the failings of the Star Wars prequels.
Responding to a question from interviewer Gavin Godfrey, Best explained that his knowledge of Jackson’s involvement came courtesy of George Lucas himself:
“That’s what George told me. Me, Natalie Portman, and George’s kids—we were at Wembley Arena at Michael Jackson’s concert. We were taken backstage and we met Michael. There was Michael and Lisa Marie [Presley]. George introduced me as ‘Jar Jar’ and I was like, ‘That’s kind of weird. Michael was like, ‘Oh. OK.’ I thought, ‘What is going on?’ After Michael had driven off, we all go back up to a big afterparty. I’m having a drink with George and I said, ‘Why did you introduce me as Jar Jar?’ He said, ‘Well, Michael wanted to do the part but he wanted to do it in prosthetics and makeup like ‘Thriller.’’ George wanted to do it in CGI. My guess is ultimately Michael Jackson would have been bigger than the movie, and I don’t think he wanted that.’
Best and Godfrey then led the conversation into a discussion of the ways Jar Jar was a pioneering character in the history of CGI-generated performances, like those often associated with Andy Serkis, and away from mental images of a prosthetic-covered Jackson stumbling around a desert, asking if yousa people gonna die.
Of course, those kinds of jokes might not be entirely wise to make around Best, who’s since gone on to work as a voice actor and appear on shows like Cougar Town and Law & Order. While he seems fairly amiable and/or resigned in regards to all the scorn that’s been heaped on his character over the years—and went out of his way in the interview to praise Lucas, who helped him to develop Jar Jar’s distinctive physicality—he also noted that there’s a limit to his tolerance. “I think people are smart enough when they meet me to not go too far because I am who I am and I come from where I come from,” Best said, noting that his co-star Jake Lloyd, who was eight at the time of filming, was just as maligned and far less equipped to deal with it. “At the end of the day, acting is fun but I will knock you the fuck out if you step out of line.”
That might also explain his stated disinterest in appearing in J.J. Abrams’ upcoming The Force Awakens. While Best has reprised his role as Jar Jar as recently as last year, on the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars series, the fact that Abrams recently joked about showing the character’s sun-bleached skeleton as a treat for fans doesn’t seem to have the actor raring to throw his hat back into the ring, or try to beat out any platinum-selling pop stars for the part.