Han Solo, "Star Wars" (1977)
Actor Charles Ross identifies with cocksure space captain Han Solo in his One-Man Star Wars Trilogy, which runs Off-Broadway in New York City at the Lamb's Theatre through Dec. 31. He also finds bits of himself in feisty Princess Leia, dark lord Darth Vader, and mischievous Yoda, too.
That's because Ross, 31, plays all those roles, while also creating all the sound effects and music, as he careens through a breathless, often hilarious hour of forceful impressions, fancy footwork, and clever asides that bring the first three Star Wars films to life with dizzying dexterity. By creating his own solo vehicle, which he's performed since January 2001, Ross has propelled his career forward and, like the denizens of galaxies far away, fulfilled his fate: to be a working actor.
"My motivation was to gain some autonomy," he explains. "You can have way more influence over what you're going to do if you seize control of your own destiny." It's a very Luke Skywalker thing to say.
Like that intergalactic farm boy, Ross grew up far from the action—in the city of Victoria, on Canada's Vancouver Island—dreaming of a future filled with adventure. His escape, he says, was watching Star Wars more than 400 times between ages 8 and 11. Although he watched the films again when the trilogy was released on DVD last year, he doesn't watch them much anymore. "I don't have to," he notes wryly.
"It wasn't that long ago when I had a job doing telephone surveys, which I recommend for people who want to toss themselves off a bridge," he says. "And I thought to myself, 'One day I'll be able to not have to do this at all. I don't know how it's going to happen, but I'll be damned if I'm going to be stuck doing this.'"
Surprisingly serious and thoughtful for a man who now spends his nights re-enacting lightsaber duels and howling like a Wookiee, Ross scored his first paid acting job, a season of summer stock plays in Canada, when he was just 17. Later he made his way to Toronto, "just gigging…going where the work was." Sometimes that meant playing a judge in a small, town re-creating pioneer history for tourists. Sometimes that meant being an extra. But mostly, he says, he did theatre.
When he got tired of waiting for "somebody else to hand me the work," Ross took matters into his own hands. "That was a big leap inside my head when I realized you can write your own stuff," he says. "You don't have to depend on other people all the time for the work. I didn't find any guaranteed direction until I started writing, because I was responsible for what was being generated. My work was coming from my own steam."
At first he collaborated with other Toronto actors. "We were all trying to gain control over our careers," he recalls, and when they gathered in 2001 to stage a radio play, they decided at the last minute to throw in some of their own solo material. Unprepared, Ross racked his brain for ideas, then realized that when you've watched the same film 400 times, it has a tendency to bubble right up to the top of your mind.
He didn't even have to pop it into the VCR to brush up on lines. Working entirely from memory, Ross wrote a 20-minute monologue retelling the original three Star Wars movies at light speed (wisely, perhaps, leaving out the newer episodes). He says the unsuspecting audience was "blindsided" by the piece, but "I was equally blindsided by the reaction. It was neat to discover that this might really have a potential."
Still writing from memory, Ross then spent a week expanding the show to an hour and taking it on the road, beginning at the Toronto Fringe Festival. He won a lottery allowing him to use one application for multiple fringe festivals, mostly across Canada—a process costing him more than $5,000 in application fees. "I invested everything I had," he recalls. "I had to beg, borrow, cheat, and steal."
But the investment paid off. Traveling from town to town, Ross set about polishing the piece to a solid, funny 60 minutes, honing its presentation and building awareness. "I ended up touring to anyplace I could go, for any audience I could get to," he says. "I wanted to make sure all the bugs had been worked out, that a broad range of people could come see it and get something from it even if they're not a huge Star Wars fan. I did that for a couple months, just going wherever I could." He was resourceful in finding new venues—even doing a tour of art galleries in British Columbia. "It was pretty small potatoes," he says.
Gradually, though, the cities got bigger, and word spread. When Ross was performing at the Orlando Fringe Festival, an independent producer, Dan Roche, invited him to play Chicago, where the results were encouraging enough to bring the show to the Big Apple. "We were both working on our learning curves," Ross says of Roche. "It seems very organic and also funny to think that a show you can find here Off-Broadway was once in somebody's tiny little town."
At this point some actors would be thinking about making the next stop Hollywood, but Ross—who says he has scored a few auditions since opening at the Lamb's—isn't sure. "If you join into any establishment, you're going to play by the establishment's rules, and I like being able to make my own rules," he says. "I'd much rather be working on something I have more of a say in."
Such as One-Man Lord of the Rings, for example, his next show, which he also wrote from memory? It's his ingrained connection to the material that he believes is his secret weapon: "If it wasn't coming from a place of absolute honest love, it wouldn't work at all."
His approach has made a fan of Rings actor Sir Ian McKellen, who caught the show—now on hold, pending the opening of the musical version of Lord of the Rings in Toronto in March—in Vancouver and later took Ross to lunch, where they "talked about the craft of acting and doing a one-person show," Ross says. "It was neat to talk about his experience touring his own one-man show, Acting Shakespeare, because you want to figure out, 'How the hell do you maintain doing this kind of pace and still stay sane?'"
Nor is Hollywood out of the picture entirely. He says the buzz around One-Man Star Wars Trilogy has reached George Lucas, whose representatives requested that he send a tape of the show. At first he feared receiving a cease-and-desist order. But instead, Lucasfilm invited Ross to perform at its official Star Wars fan convention, which was held in Indianapolis in April to herald the release of the saga's final installment, Revenge of the Sith.
Ross acknowledges that he started doing the show without telling Lucasfilm, betting it would be easier to ask for forgiveness than permission: "I think if I would have come to them right at the beginning and said, 'I want to do this show,' I don't know if they would have been all keen about it." But, says Ross, "I didn't make T-shirts, I didn't sell it on DVD—and that caution has allowed me to survive to where I am now. You can ask for forgiveness if you've been a good boy."
Still, he notes, "I don't necessarily recommend people go the road I did, but if you don't try, you're never going to achieve anything. You can talk yourself out of doing anything. Just bloody well try it. If you know that you're a great actor, write something that showcases how great you are. Only you know what you can really do. Fortune favors the bold."
Spoken like a true Jedi.
"One-Man Star Wars Trilogy" runs at the Lamb's Theatre in New York through Dec. 31. Visit www.onemanstarwars.com for more information.