Film sets are weird places, and the industry gossip surrounding them is its own bizarre ecosystem of truths, lies, agendas and power plays. Once upon a time, if you heard news of scandal or drama happening during the production of a movie, it had to be a major deal. Stuff like that only made the nightly news when it got too big to contain. Before everyone on the internet had ready access to trade publications and fan forums, such problems were specific only to the industry. What audiences really cared about the mess unfolding during the making of Titanic? Nowadays, it’s everyone’s business, and that can make for bad headlines for the major studios.
The new era of Star Wars, as owned by The Walt Disney Company, has proven to be a financial boon, a surprising critical gem, and the stuff that gossip dreams are made of. J.J. Abrams and Rian Johnson have fared well as new members of Lucasfilm’s team, but then there’s the sacking of Colin Trevorrow before he could even start filming the 9th movie. There are the drastic reshoots for Rogue One that allegedly involved a whole new director. And then there’s Solo. The removal of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller would have been big news regardless of how early or late in the process it happened, but doing so with only a few weeks of shooting left on schedule was something few of us could predict.
Lord and Miller were replaced by Ron Howard, filming continued, and the release date for Solo: A Star Wars Story remained the same. Clearly, the pressure was on, not just to deliver a satisfying product on time but to maintain control of an unruly public narrative. Who would fans side with? How would this effect Lucasfilm and Kennedy in the future? Where do those loyalties lie? You see a lot of this being teased out in the press, with ‘exclusive sources’ and the like sharing their stories. So far, we’ve heard a lot about how supposedly controlling Kennedy and legendary screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan are. We’ve been privy to the supposed chaos of Lord and Miller’s filming style, and how it didn’t gel with the studio’s vision. So far, Ron Howard’s come out of it looking pretty good, but it depends on the source and publication. One thing that has remained consistent throughout this gossip is the talk of its leading man: According to all who have gone on the record, Alden Ehrenreich is a problem.
Sources claim he couldn’t perform as required, and that an acting coach had to be brought on set to ensure he had enough of Harrison Ford’s style and mannerisms in his work. Early fan reactions to the trailers have been more positive than many had anticipated, but Ehrenreich is still getting the short end of the stick. It doesn’t mean that he won’t make an excellent Han Solo. For all we know, he could pull this out of the bag and surprise us all. Yet it’s that expected surprise that fascinates me. It’s hard to ignore how, out of all the conflicting narratives and sides to this story, the lion’s share of the blame is still being put on the head of a 28-year-old actor who’s best known for a small part in Hail, Caesar! The hesitation around him is so overwhelming, apparently, that it’s even made its way to his Wikipedia page.
Alden Ehrenreich is being set up to fail, not only as Han Solo but as the lynchpin for Solo: A Star Wars Story, and I question that decision.
The ‘sources’ and gossip around Ehrenreich have established two key narratives: One, that he’s not right for the role, and two, that he’s utterly out of his depth. Neither of these are shocks in Hollywood - worse actors have had more pressure on them to perform in bigger roles - but Star Wars has seldom been just a series of movies. It commands far greater loyalty than that, and its fanbase are not afraid to get angry or violent in their rhetoric when their desires aren’t met. It’s March and we’re still dealing with the people who won’t get over disliking The Last Jedi (just check out Rian Johnson’s Twitter replies for evidence of that). Han Solo may be the most iconic character in the series, or at the very least the coolest. Few can replicate the oft-imitated swagger of Harrison Ford in his prime. Even Harrison Ford couldn’t always manage it. He’s never going to be ‘our Han Solo’ in the way Ford is because that’s just not how this works, so save your hashtags for another day. He can only be the Han he creates, and pressure to make him exactly like Ford, as seems to be the story coming from ‘sources’, may trouble the waters further. Asking any actor to even attempt it is a feat unto itself. Ehrenreich bearing that burden deserves some kudos.
Of course, good intentions and earnestness don’t automatically add up to a good thing. Still, it bears repeating that Ehrenreich himself is a genuine talent who’s put in some astounding performances over the course of a few short years. This is the dude who was in two Francis Ford Coppola movies before he was 25. His work in Beautiful Creatures, a middling adaptation of a Southern gothic inspired YA novel, is truly brilliant. Male leads in YA adaptations tend to be given the motivation of ‘smoulder and look agonizingly in love’ and little else. With Beautiful Creatures, rare for a YA story whose target audience is female, Ehrenreich’s character is the driving emotional force of the piece. Here, the romance actually works, and the male lead is a layered individual whose plight you truly care for. Ehrenreich makes the protagonist so warm and way more interesting than what many expect from the genre. He’s the kind of leading man I would have adored as a teenager. Hell, I love it now.
Yet his true shining moment came in the Coen Brothers’ ode to classic Hollywood, Hail, Caesar! Playing the dolt is a tougher task than it’s given credit for. You need to be believably stupid yet earnest enough to not be labelled totally incompetent. As Hobie Doyle, the singing cowboy who the studio wants to mould into their new leading man, Ehrenreich is both hilarious and adorable. It’s not easy to steal the show when your co-stars are Ralph Fiennes, George Clooney, Scarlett Johansson and Channing freaking Tatum, yet he makes it look as simple as spinning a lasso. In one scene, Hobie is ordered to take another studio star, Carlotta Valdez, out on a fake date for publicity. He doesn’t seem to understand the set-up, but is immediately enamoured with her and works so darn hard to be the best date he can be for her. ‘Likeable’ is an oft-dismissed trait in the act of cinema, but with Ehrenreich as Hobie Doyle, you understand its potency.
That’s why I’m unwilling to write him off as Han Solo, and why I take such umbrage to him being the major target of the behind the scenes narrative of chaos. He’s a mostly unknown to the world guy, under 30 and with no real clout of his own beyond his sheer talent, and he’s got the role of several lifetimes. He’s not just playing an icon, he’s showing what made that icon so beloved. If the movie fails, it would be because of him, even if he isn’t the best Han. No one guy can or should be the fall guy for an industry-wide issue. There’s way more baggage here beyond whatever his acting is like (side note but the positioning of him having an on-set acting coach as a failing is simply bad business. Go through the history of film and see which of the biggest talents liked to work with a coach during shooting).
We’ve got less than two months before Solo premieres and we can all make up our minds about how Ehrenreich fares as the sexiest rebel scum this side of Tatooine. For now, let’s just appreciate him for what he’s done and what he can do. If every side of the Solo fight wants to find a problem to pin their troubles on, they should look elsewhere.
Would that it were so simple.
(Header photograph from Getty Images)