Billy Dee Williams on sci-fi, Star Wars, and whether Lando's coming back
Clever, debonair, and not afraid to get his hands dirty, Lando Calrissian was the original smooth criminal in the Star Wars saga. Recently, Blastr was afforded the chance to chat with the man behind the iconic character -- veteran actor, author and artist Billy Dee Williams -- at last week's Wizard World Portland Comic-Con.
Gracious and dignified, Williams is a true gentleman and discussed his breakout role in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, his deep passion for art and music, and whether he thinks his Lando action figure looks like him.
Seeing the urbane New Yorker stroll across the con floor, handsome as ever, dashingly decked out in a long camel coat with a black silk scarf tied around his neck, I was reminded how much blaze and bravado he brought to the Lucas space opera opus.
Listen in ...
There’s a palpable respect and admiration for you observed at this convention. Do you still enjoy the fan interaction? What’s been your experience with Portland’s Wizard World event?
Williams: I always enjoy the interaction with the fans, and I’ve had a very nice time here in Oregon. I haven’t gotten out to see a lot of Portland this weekend, but it’s been a great show and a real pleasure meeting everyone.
Lando was the first person of color in the Star Wars series other than bit players, but he was never seen as a minority. How did you feel about that then, and now after 30 years?
Williams: I tend to approach characters not based on ethnicity, but on some unique individual qualities, and I’ve set my whole life that way. I don’t want any sort of limitations imposed on my work. If you truly want to be a creative person, you can't limit yourself.
At the time that you signed up to appear in The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars was already a phenomenon. How did you feel at the time about becoming part of that rising legacy?
Williams: I looked forward to it, and had seen his first film, THX-1138, and was really impressed with that movie and what George Lucas was doing. So when I was told they wanted me to play Lando I got really excited.
Visual art has been such a nourishing component of your life. What aspects of your painting have you brought into your acting?
Williams: The ethereal is certainly there; it’s sort of always present. I’m always trying to get underneath something, into the subtext of it and the experience of always trying to break the rules. I don’t want to find myself ever locked into what people think I should think or do. In my art, and acting, I have a universal vision of things, an international vision. Bigger and broader and beyond. Bigger than life is always on my mind. I love the Mexican muralists like Rivera, Orozco and the music of Walter Benton. They gave you a sense that reality was much more than life.
You've spoken before of how you'd always wanted to be in science fiction films. What was your gateway into that genre?
Williams: Sci-fi was something I always liked and enjoyed. I can remember when sci-fi writers illustrated and wrote about things like superhighways, way before they came into reality for people. Sci-fi manages to introduce new ideas, and I like that.
You've mentioned before that you have an Ewok head from Return of the Jedi. What other Star Wars collectibles or props did you keep from the films?
Williams: Well, I have a T-shirt that reads Revenge of the Jedi and some of the little original Star Wars action figures.
Do you think your Lando Calrissian looks like you?
Williams: (Flashing a magnetic grin) Sometimes it does.
How about Lando's famous blue cape?
Williams:: It's now part of the permanent exhibit at the traveling Smithsonian exhibit and is officially owned by Lucasfilm.
You seem to keep pretty busy. What else, besides acting, painting and jazz music, interests you?
Williams: I've also co-authored a couple of sci-fi books, PSI/Net and Just/In Time, with Rob MacGregor.
You've defined your life and career by a simple set of principles and stoic professionalism. Growing up, who were some of your role models in cultivating such style and strength?
Williams: I loved Marlon Brando; my favorite actor. Paul Muni, Cagney, of course ... I always liked Edward G. Robinson, Sidney Poitier, Frank Silvera, Bette Davis, Rita Hayworth. Oh, and Welles. Orson Welles.
J.J. Abrams has said the new Star Wars script is done. It's been rumored that Michael Arndt's draft contained the Lando character. Will you return as Lando in Star Wars: Episode VII?
Williams: I haven't heard anything. No midnight calls yet. Sure, I'd be interested in playing Lando again, if it came my way. Sure.
Billy Dee Williams appears next at Wizard World's Sacramento show on March 7-9, 2014.
Dying to see Williams swashbuckle his way back into the next thrilling Star Wars chapter? Join his campaign on Twitter using #BringBackLando and tell the world your wishes. Let the blue cape fly once again!