Sam Witwer is a good-looking guy and an actor so it's easy to assume he's more than happy to let his face and easy charm be what sells him.
But when you ask a guy who he'd be interested in playing given the chance to play anyone in Star Wars and he chooses Zuckuss or 4-LOM, you get the idea that he's much more interested in what a character's about than being another pretty face.
Sam and I had a chance to talk recently and now that Maul is truly, as Andi Gutierrez of The Star Wars Show emphasized, DEAD, I thought I'd see if I could get Sam to tell me a bit about the Maul we didn't get to see or where he was between the events of The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels.
His reply was similar to things I've heard from a lot of the people who work with Dave Filoni. "It's really foolish for me to extrapolate or theorize what he may have been because then Dave will just go, 'Ah, that's cute, you're wrong, that's not where he was. He was over here.' You know? Dave will just shoot me down no matter what I come up with."
In other words, when you make plans, Dave Filoni laughs. However, after I suggested maybe some wild speculation might be a way to get Dave to confirm or deny a theory, Witwer did spin a tale for me, which I now hope becomes official Star Wars canon.
"Maul was actually in an off-and-on relationship with Mon Mothma, of all people, and people were not aware of that, but that was happening. Mon Mothma and Darth Maul had a kind of turbulent but also mutually respectful relationship. She doesn’t like to talk about him, he doesn’t talk about her, they just leave it that way. The thing is, they had a dog together. That just makes it hard when you break up, who gets the dog or do you switch off the dog every few months? That’s the truth. You can tell Dave and he can come and find me."
If you haven't guessed by now, Sam Witwer's a lot of fun to talk to. Funny, smart and quick. But he's also more than willing to get thoughtful and serious if the question warrants. When I asked him what Maul meant when he was seeking "hope" in the joining of holocrons, he offered some keen insights.
"He's broken. He's hoping he can mend whatever is wrong with himself and finally fulfill some sort of potential. This is a guy whose life did not work out the way he expected or hoped. He knows at one point his life made sense and he knows that stopped making sense when he met Obi-Wan Kenobi. So he knows the answer lies back there. He's gotta go back and find that guy and the unfortunate part, through his Sith training and the way that he is, his selfishness, he just keeps going in circles. He's thinking maybe I need to ... It doesn't occur to him I can just go and talk to him. It's like, no, I'd fight him. Maybe the problem was I had all these opportunities to kill him. Maybe that's the thing. I never actually killed him. Maybe if I go murder this guy, the hole in my heart will be filled and solve the problem. He has major problems with Obi-Wan that starts with Palpatine. He's just too messed up and he's on this merry-go-round of awfulness. The thing is he actually is right, he needs Obi-Wan to help him, it's just not exactly what he expects."
Of course, he's not about to let you hold onto that more serious note for long. When I asked him what Maul likes best about himself or sees as his best quality, this is what I got.
"Oh, best quality would be tattoos. He loves his tattoos. He thinks they make him super manly. He also keeps shaving his head because women like men with bald heads. Some women really like that. The horns he likes to keep nice and spiky. I've been known to spike up my hair as well, so I get it. Me and Maul have a lot in common being that guy."
When he continued, however, he went into why he likes Maul and you start to see why the role is so interesting to him.
"The thing with Maul is just I loved all of the places we could take that character. I loved the fact that when he finally died so many fans were sad. I just loved that. I kind of thought that was a possibility but when it happened I was so happy. It means we've let people in on this guy's world a little bit. They can see some of what he goes through from his perspective. I think that was always our intention. Going all the way back to when he was eating garbage in that cave with the spider legs. It was always our intention to show a really bad life this guy was living, really unfortunate circumstances. I am glad fans have found it in their heart to have some sympathy for this guy. As villainous as he is, and he does very very bad things through The Clone Wars and very bad things through Rebels and yet people still feel bad for this guy. That’s the biggest accomplishment with Maul."
I also asked him what terrifies Maul in that hidden place none of us get to see. I could tell it caught him a bit off-guard but once he got going, it was fascinating.
"Wow. I think he's living in the worst case scenario. The worst case scenario is never being able to achieve his potential in any way. The problem is he's thinking about it in all the wrong ways. One can achieve one's potential simply by helping other people, by being selfless, by looking after others before you think to look after yourself in some cases. That's not how he was trained to think by Palpatine. So his potential just requires the accumulation of things, wealth, control over people, control of large amounts of people. For him that he's not conquering star systems and bringing entire governments to their knees and all kinds of stuff he feels like my life is a failure. No one is acknowledging my greatness and boy I have that potential, I'm smarter than everyone, I'm faster, I can fight better, I can do all these things.
"He completely missed the point of life. If he could have just hit the brakes and gone in the opposite direction, taken a 180, served someone else, then that probably would have filled the hole in his heart. The problem with the Sith and the Sith philosophy, it's about that hole becomes a black hole, something that can never be filled. So you keep trying to jam as much into it as you possibly can and it's usually horrible things that don't really give you any lasting joy. It's all very temporary.
"That's the whole thing. He's an Olympic athlete who trained his entire life and never got to go to the Olympics. What he's missing is [that] your life can be so much fuller than that. It's not about that. You could actually be your own person and make better choices. But he's incapable of seeing beyond himself ... It's that person who never made it to the NFL because he blew out his knee in his final college game. It's that. That guy can go around being obsessed with the fact that he blew out his knee and he should have had a big NFL contract and all these things that never happened for him and he missed out on all that. You can obsess over that. Or you can reach out to people who could use help, who could use a friend, you can make your life more about the people around you and suddenly your life has extraordinary meaning. You start living a life that's worth remembering and one that in so many ways is more important than just being an NFL player and getting money and all this great stuff.
"In Hollywood, we run into all this stuff. People chasing after accolades and wanting attention, wanting Twitter followers, wanting fame, all that stuff. It's not, none of it's actually gonna make you feel good about yourself. It will temporarily, it will give you the illusion ... It doesn't last. It's very temporary. That's the whole thing with Maul and how I see his failing. That's how I look at it."
If you're wondering whether Witwer believes his talk about accolades, fame and the idea that those things don't really make you feel better, he certainly seems to. From what I could tell, Sam's not interested in being in the spotlight or really talking about himself all that much. When I asked him if he had anything he wished people asked him about I thought he'd hung up on me from the silence I got in return and when he started talking, there was definitely a shift. For the first time in the conversation, Sam was uncomfortable with me and it was because I'd asked him to talk about himself.
Luckily, he didn't hang up on me and I was able to get him talking again. I just had to ask him about Star Wars. Specifically, which already-created character he'd most like to play. You may sense a theme here. I sure did.
"You know, Dr. Evazan is popping in my head. You could create a really twisted characterization off of what little we know about that guy. Who else? Ummm ...
"Wedge. I'd love to play a little older Wedge who went through some stuff and play who that character became after Return of the Jedi. That would be really fun. Wedge, Dr. Evazan, let's throw in for good measure Zuckuss. Because you know, those bounty hunters, my God, you have to imagine there's some really interesting story there. How the hell did those guys come together and become these people? And certainly with characters like Aurra Sing and Bossk got some development, Boba Fett, the bounty hunters, Cad Bane for God's sake, the bounty hunters were never dull characters. They've all been played really interestingly. They've been given characterizations. When I was listening to Jaime King's Aurra Sing, I remember thinking 'What happened to this lady? What happened to this person to make her like this?'
"I'm gonna say Zuckuss. Let me play Zuckuss."
Ask a guy with movie-star good looks who he wants to play and it's a character in a helmet, a mask or both. Once again, I'm intrigued. I'm also kind of exhausted just listening to all of the things Sam Witwer is up to these days. Maul's death hasn't slowed his voice actor down one bit.
"There are a couple of Star Wars projects I'm helping out on. Ones I can't talk about. There's a video game I've been working on for two and a half years, it's got some more work to be done but that's gonna be the next big release that frankly has been one of the more challenging acting jobs I've had in a long time. There's an album I am finishing up, a new release under The Crashtones label. My musical group is The Crashtones. I'm writing a book with Kyle Newman and my brother, and a guy named John Peterson. That's coming along. And then working on trying to get an animated series off the ground with some very well established friends in the comedy field. I'm a little busy right now."
If you want to know what I enjoyed most about my talk with Sam Witwer, it was the passion and nuance he expanded on with his work as Maul. I circled back because that "hope" thing kept swirling around in my head. What is "hope" to Maul? What is he hoping for? Is it redemption? Is he hoping The Chosen One will be able to strike the blow to Palpatine that he never could? Is that what let him let go of some of that anger there at the last minute?
Sam's answer, once again, made someone like Maul accessible even in his utter darkness.
"Let me blow some minds. The Sith have a version of the prophecy as well. They believe in the chosen one that will bring balance to the force. But to the Sith balance means that things will be the way I want them to be. So to him, balance means all accounts will be settled and he will be avenged, everyone will be avenged for things that have gone out of balance. So in a weird way Maul is being given very good news upon death. Unfortunately, he kind of misses the point because of what's actually happening on Tatooine and what it all means. But, yeah, to Maul that's about as good as it gets, the idea that these accounts will be settled. It's a pretty twisted way of seeking balance to the force. It's not a balance that I agree with but it's probably how Maul looks at it."
You have to admit, if Maul has anything, it's a strong sense of integrity. His vision of what needed to happen never really wavers according to Witwer.
"The first line he ever had in Star Wars, he talks about Tatooine looking for the missing people. Then he says his last words, the Jedi will, at last, have its revenge. This guy wants revenge for things that happened long before him. He feels like the Jedi and the Sith a thousand years ago is something that really needs to be answered for.
It just got more unbalanced the more he tried. He should have shown up and been like 'At last we'll meet the Jedi and wouldn't that be cool because I've been such a big fan." That would have been way more constructive than running around wanting to get revenge. You weren't even there, man. That was a thousand years ago, you weren't there."
When I suggested that Maul was doomed from the beginning considering his name is Maul and his brother's name is Savage, Sam agreed with a chuckle. "No. Dude. You have to raise your kids better than that. For sure. One of the things I thought was really great though, we had a chance to touch upon, his mother Talzin has been revealed. That's Darth Maul's biological mother, his actual mother, and the score that needs to be settled there - you didn't know that? I'm blowing minds."
He's right. He did blow my mind. I'm sure others out there knew this, but I wasn't aware and now I have to go back and watch the show again because of this little bomb-drop revelation.
"We did not get a chance to put this in the show. We were going to. Some of it was told in the comic books afterward. But Talzin is the biological mother of Darth Maul. He's the son of Mother Talzin, she's also the daughter. Basically, all the strange games she's playing with Palpatine is to right the extraordinary wrongs she made with the kid. Anyway, I’ll leave you with that."
Like I said, whatever you think Sam Witwer's about, there's a lot more going on than you realize. Maybe that's why he was able to bring one of the most interesting and complex characters to life beyond any and all expectations.
Whatever it is, Sam Witwer's not the kind of guy who wants to have anything handed to him. He wants to earn it and you get the sense that he'd see anything that came too easily as suspect –– which makes what's next even more interesting to keep an eye out for.
Top photo via Steve Blum because Maul, Zeb and Governor Pryce in a picture together is too awesome not to show off.