The Inverse Interview

Ahmed Best Gets the Last Laugh

Once the most hated man in Star Wars, the actor behind Jar Jar Binks reflects on his reputation in that galaxy far, far away.

Lais Borges/Inverse; Star Wars; Getty
Celebrating the Prequels

Jar Jar Binks might have been an intergalactic pariah in 1999, but it seems like George Lucas — and Ahmed Best, who brought the clumsy Gungan to life — got the last laugh.

For the record, Lucas knew all along that the world would eventually warm up to Jar Jar. As the shepherd of the Star Wars saga, he’s seen countless characters face backlash, only to be embraced by the fandom years later. When the hate against Jar Jar was at its zenith, Lucas assured Best that it would all blow over eventually.

“Thirty years from now, nobody’s going to be talking about this,” Best recalls Lucas saying at the time. “It was tough to realize that in the moment, but now here we are, 25 years later, and he was right.”

Best was just 25 years old when he was tapped to play Jar Jar, then the first character constructed entirely through computer-generated, motion capture performance, in Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace. Jar Jar has since become an unlikely fan favorite, just as Lucas predicted. At the time, though, his very existence sent a nascent internet up in flames. His CGI face launched hundreds of hate sites, and dozens of critiques on his role as a racial caricature. It was the lowest point of Best’s life; a black mark on a career that was just getting started.

“You don’t get the Na’vi, or Thanos, or Gollum without Jar Jar first,” says Best.


Best found himself in the eye of a viral storm. It’s a plight he shares with a handful of Star Wars alums, from John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran of the sequel trilogy, to Obi-Wan Kenobi’s Moses Ingram. Their experience within the franchise speaks to a stubborn trend of intolerance, especially within science fiction and fantasy. When it comes to motion capture characters in substantial roles, Best was “the first Black man to do it… and the last Black man.” He still doesn’t get much recognition for that milestone, despite the effects it had on the industry.

“You don’t get the Na’vi, or Thanos, or Gollum without Jar Jar first,” Best tells Inverse. “Everyone learned from our successes, and even more so everyone learned from our mistakes. When it comes to these characters working in movies, it goes back to George Lucas and ILM. I don’t think we get enough credit for that, to be honest.”

That disparity is just one of the things that inspires the actor, martial artist, and Afrofuturist in his recent endeavors. In a conversation with Inverse, Best looks back on his contributions to the Star Wars saga, and how they’ve resonated (for better or worse) throughout the industry.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Jar Jar Binks has become an unlikely fan favorite, but it took 30 years for fans to come around to the character.

Barry Brecheisen/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Let’s start from the beginning. Were you a big Star Wars fan before you were cast in the prequels?

I was a huge, huge, huge Star Wars fan. The first movie I ever saw in theaters was Episode IV — A New Hope, and ever since then I was hooked. I was talking about this with Rick Famuyiwa, who was one of the executive producers of The Mandalorian, how growing up Black and being a Star Wars fan was very different than it was for a lot of other Star Wars fans. Access to all of the stuff wasn’t really what made us fall in love with the stories; it was this idea that you can imagine these worlds and imagine this universe. What struck me really heavily, even back then as a young person, was that Star Wars was a historical story. It took place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. So we were watching the past, we weren’t watching the future. We were watching what happened in another galaxy back in history — maybe even before our galaxy was formed. I thought that was just so brilliant, even as a kid because it gave you historical license to do things.

A long time ago, there might have been this Force that did exist in people. We don’t know, right? In our galaxy, we have these strong forces: We have gravity, we have electromagnetism, and there are two forces that we don’t name, and we call them the strong force and the weak force. There could have been an unknown force that we have not yet discovered, but they discovered a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. That possibility was what I hung onto as a young person. And coming up as an artist, it really opened up this idea that you can create these worlds, and you can create these universes that have these rules that help you thrive and survive. A lot of times, growing up in the neighborhoods that we grow up in, that’s all we have to cling onto.

I think the love of Star Wars comes from that place, that place of the ability to create, because I couldn’t afford all the toys and the Millennium Falcons. I’d see it on TV, but other people had that stuff. I tell this story often: My mother used to make my and my siblings’ clothes, and she knew how much of a Star Wars fan we were, me, my twin brother, and my sister. So my mother got this Star Wars fabric and made us pajamas, pillowcases, and curtains. That’s what we had, and that was even more of a reason why I was a fan.

Best was the first actor to create a CGI character through motion capture.


I love that story. How were you first approached for the role of Jar Jar?

I was doing a show called Stomp in New York City, and then I went on tour, and I was in San Francisco. Robin Gurland, who did the casting for The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, was an invited guest of one of my castmates. I didn’t know she was in the audience, and I had a particularly — let’s just say — out-of-character, boisterous show that evening. And for some reason she liked it and asked me to audition.

I didn’t know what I was auditioning for. I knew she worked at Lucasfilm, but it was one of those ignorance-is-bliss moments. I just auditioned like everybody else. It didn’t get real until my screen test-slash-callback when I actually auditioned for George in the room, and that was the first motion capture test as well. There was a lot going on that day.

The Phantom Menace was undergrad when it comes to my film education, especially as a director.”

Were they putting dots on your face and everything?

Yeah. [Laughs] Motion capture had never been done in movies before. This was the first time. Software was being written. They were trying to figure out whether or not the physics actually works within the software. This was kind of one of the first iterations of what performance capture would end up being.

It shot on infrared film because you can see the light reflecting off the targets, or the dots. The infrared just captures the target, and you as a human being kind of disappear: All you see are the dots on camera. I put on a very revealing motion capture suit and started doing the things that George Lucas asked me to do. And George is not a very emotional person. He’s kind of stoic. So he was like, “OK, cool, thanks.” And then left. And I was just like, “Did I do this well?” I guess he liked it because I got the gig.

Best workshopped his performance-capture method on the set of The Phantom Menace: “I was using everything and everybody around me to kind of craft this art form.”


You’ve described your time with George as your “undergrad degree.” Did you get the directing bug just watching him work on the prequels?

Oh, yeah. I mean, I always knew that I would end up directing. I had directed a lot in the early theatre days in New York, and my father is trained as a cinematographer, and he was a cameraman for ABC for decades. I always joked that I was the only kid in the South Bronx who had American Cinematographer and Fellini on Fellini on the coffee table. And that’s because of my father.

Being on film sets and being on TV sets, I grew up around it. And hanging out on [the Star Wars set], I really wanted to see how that worked. I was like, “Well, if I’m going to be in this movie, I’m going to take every opportunity that I can to learn as much as I can.”

Even on days where I wasn’t working, I was at the studio on the set, sitting behind George and watching. I didn’t really ask too many questions. And it got to the point where George kind of knew I was there. So I would be sitting behind him, watching him do things, and he would turn around and be like, “OK, so the reason I did this was...” Eventually I would end up driving to the studio with him, and he would just share all of these bits of wisdom with me. He would just give me all of these gems, and I would go to my dressing room and write it down. I just learned and learned and learned. I was just quiet and really opened my eyes and my ears.

It was like that with the acting, too. I learned so much from all the actors. Everybody had more experience than me in movies — even Jake Lloyd had done Jingle All the Way with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Star Wars was my first movie… and what I was doing was so unique. I was creating a method. I was creating a way of performance, so I was using everything and everybody around me to kind of craft this art form, which was really, really exciting. The Phantom Menace was undergrad when it comes to my film education, especially as a director.

Best took a lot of inspiration from his co-stars, particularly Liam Neeson, during The Phantom Menace.


In Attack of the Clones, it is a little-known fact that you helped choreograph Yoda’s battle with Dooku. How did that come to fruition?

So I read the script, and there wasn’t a lot of description of how Yoda was going to fight. As a fan, I was like, “This is the first time we’re ever going to see Yoda get down, that we’re ever going to see him move.” I was thinking this fight could go either way. It could be spectacular, or it could be really silly … [and] it can’t be silly. He has to be probably the baddest cat. We have to know why Yoda is Yoda.”

I grew up a martial artist. I’ve been doing martial arts since I was 4 or 5 years old, and I studied many different styles, from Okinawan Goju-ryu to Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do to all the Filipino styles. So I was like, “I think this fight needs to be kind of spectacular because that’s what I want to see. I want to see Yoda really kill.”

“This is the first time we’re ever going to see Yoda get down ... We have to know why Yoda is Yoda.”

So I pulled Rob Coleman aside, who was the head of animation. He runs Industrial Light & Magic now, and he’s the most wonderful human being on the planet. I was like, “Hey, Rob, what’s up with this Yoda fight?” And he was like, “I don’t know what to do. Do you have any ideas?”

I was like, “Rob, come to the crib. We’re going to watch some stuff, and then let’s write this fight.” So he came to the crib and we watched. Ninja Scroll was out at that time. That was the hot anime. Jet Li was kind of on the scene as the hottest martial arts star, right? But then we went back to Jackie Chan, and we started watching all of these movies back to back. Akira, we watched. And I was like, “We gotta take all of these influences and put it into this fight.”

My big thing was, “If you don’t put anything else in this that we talked about, Yoda has to hit that classical, ‘Let’s go’ kung fu pose. That was my biggest pitch. My whole goal [was to make] this fight the “stand up and cheer” moment of Clones.

Yoda’s showdown with Count Dooku was a long time coming for fans like Best: “I was thinking this fight could go either way. It could be spectacular, or it could be really silly.”


I remember my first time seeing that scene so vividly. That might have been my dad’s favorite part of the film.

I didn’t see the animation before Clones came out, so I was like “I wonder how much of what we wrote came out in the movie.” So I’m watching Clones… I’m waiting for the scene. I know it’s coming. As soon as I see the shadow of Yoda walk in, I hear the crowd going, “Oh, it’s about to go down.” He hits the stance. And then the whole crowd is like, “We’re about to see Yoda get down!” I was like, “We did it.”

I do have to say that Rob Coleman and John Knoll, and everybody who worked on the VFX, they were always open and generous with ideas. There was no logical reason why they should have listened to me, and there was really no reason for me to have any hand in it… [but] they never had any kind of ego. It was this really wonderful start-up mentality.

Best with Rob Coleman on the set of The Phantom Menace.


Jar Jar wasn’t received well at the time, to put it mildly — but how do you feel about the character’s legacy now?

I think it’s wonderful the younger generations are embracing not only the prequels, but Jar Jar specifically. This is something that George kind of predicted when all the backlash happened. He was like, “Thirty years from now, nobody’s going to be talking about this.” And it was tough to realize that in the moment, but now here we are, 25 years later, and he was right.

As hard as it was on me, there’s definitely a gap in the industry because of it, too. I was the first person to do motion capture in movie history, yet I’ll probably get all that credit when I’m no longer here, because you have to admit that it was a Black man who did that. And you gotta pay me. Those are two things that Hollywood has a challenging time doing.

I was the first Black man to do it… and the last Black man. There has not been any other Black man to be a main character in a major motion picture as a performance capture, CGI character. Twenty-five years, and that’s an entire group of people completely X-ed out of an art form. Zoe Saldaña is probably the only other person who’s done this. But in 25 years, the industry has decided to not deal with Black people, specifically Black men. We are still talking about a large demographic of artists who are being denied opportunities. And that’s frustrating to me.

“I was the first Black man to do [motion capture]… and the last Black man.”

You could even argue for Black men in sci-fi in general. I’m thinking about John Boyega and his experience in the sequels specifically.

Totally. One of the things that I teach in my class at Stanford [] is this idea of Black people in the future. When we talk about science fiction, we are either underrepresented or not represented at all. Demographically, that’s not the case. Brown and Black are the global majority, and I think that’s the fear.

“Are there Black people in the future?” is the question that my business partner and co-professor, Dr. Lonnie Brooks, always talks about. We exist in the future, and our science fiction has to reflect that. Also, a lot of those negative voices, they’re very loud, but demographically, they’re very small. There are more people who enjoy those performances. There are more who love John Boyega. I told him this after [The Rise of Skywalker]. I was like, “Look, I know what this Star Wars thing is all about, and I know all the voices, but every choice that you have made as an artist has been a wonderful one.”

You cannot have a hit sci-fi movie without Black people. You can’t have a hit movie at all without Black people. And Black folks are an incredibly loyal audience: We come out and we support. So it’s a huge missed opportunity to not put any more Black actors, not only in sci-fi.

After 25 years, there’s still a dearth of Black representation in science fiction. “That’s frustrating to me,” Best says.

Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Pivoting from that to a slightly sillier question: What do you say to the theories that Jar Jar is secretly a member of the Sith?

[Laughs] Here’s what I will say. There were some things in that Reddit post that that cat saw and that I’m actually surprised he picked up on. I was doing a lot of mirroring of the Jedi. And so this cat sees me doing that and is like, “Oh, Force stuff.”

I also talk about this often, but Jar Jar is a combination of Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan, specifically [in] Drunken Master. When he gets drunker, he becomes a better fighter. I completely ripped that off for Jar Jar, because it’s something that I always loved as a kid coming up, and it’s something that I did just playing around as a martial artist. And this cat saw that too. But whether or not Jar Jar is a Sith Lord, we’ll find out. I don’t know.

This February, you posted a selfie in a mo-cap suit, with #activision, #jarjarbinks, #sithlord. Is there anything that you can reveal about that post?

All the things about that post will be revealed very, very soon, but it’s very, very exciting. And I hope to talk to you about it.

What I can talk about is working with the Getty Museum: I’m working with a bunch of scientists and artists in 65 museums all over Southern California to talk about art and science colliding. This is how we make science fiction, science fact. We put art and science together. We come up with new things, and we get that awe, that wonder, that shock, that makes everybody want to do something out there in the world. And the more we can do that, the better.

This article is part of the “Celebrating the Prequels” series, a two-weeklong series of articles about the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy leading up to the 25th anniversary of The Phantom Menace.

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