May the 4th Be with You

—Liam Neeson, 45, will play a Jedi master. Speculative website sources say he'll hang out with a young Yoda, as well as mentoring a disciplelike group of 12 Jedi knights.

—As the younger Ben Kenobi, a.k.a. Obi-Wan, Scotland's Ewan McGregor, 26, best known as the heroin-addicted toilet diver in Trainspotting, will inhabit the monkish robes made famous by Sir Alec Guinness.

—The coveted role of young Anakin Skywalker, the kid who grows up to become Darth Vader after betraying Ben, has gone to 8-year-old Jake Lloyd (Unhook the Stars, Jingle All the Way).

—In the female royalty department, Natalie Portman, who played a hitman's little-girl best friend in The Professional for director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), turned 16 on June 9, just in time to start work as what the casting notices describe as the "sensuous...Young Queen." She falls in love with little Lord Darth-to-be but doesn't marry him until part 2, which jumps 10 to 12 years ahead and will show the wedding as well as the birth of twins Luke and Leia.

—Though he's juggling other movies right now for Quentin Tarantino (Jackie Brown) and Barry Levinson (Sphere), Samuel L. Jackson will climb aboard in a brief role yet to be determined.

So much for the long-standing rumor that Obi-Wan would be played by Kenneth Branagh, or the latest gossip that Charlton Heston would sign on as another Jedi or perhaps even — good Lord — the young Yoda. "That one slayed me," says McCallum. "I can categorically tell you, Charlton Heston was never under consideration....Where do people get this stuff? It used to really bug me. But after a while I realized what we're seeing is just the intensity of people's interest."

When it comes to sussing out the plot of the new trilogy, not even the most rabid fans have breached the Lucas wall of silence. Clearly, the arc of the movies will follow the rise of Emperor Palpatine (you remember, the nasty guy from Return of the Jedi who sounds like The Simpsons' Mr. Burns) in the Imperial city of Coruscant, and the fall of Anakin, along with the old, Jedi-guarded Republic. But in Hollywood, the most intense speculation focuses on who will and who won't be making a buck on the most successful movie franchise in history, and on who might step in to direct parts 2 and 3, since Lucas has said he won't. "George told me that he believes Spielberg is going to do [part 2]," says Empire Strikes Back director Irvin Kershner, 74. "He might do it for the money, because it'll be a sure thing."

Sure thing or not, the films represent a considerable financial investment for Lucas, who will sink $150 million to $180 million of his own money into them and will fight to keep costs for each well below the $100 million mark that's become the industry standard for event films. "It's one of George's most obsessive goals," admits McCallum. "How can we drive costs down? We don't want to go through the sort of risk everybody's taking this summer, which is going to be a bloodbath. Right now, many films are completely out of control. People are actually proud of it. There's a hundred-day club now that a lot of filmmakers brag about, seeing who can shoot longer." A prime example of bloat, in McCallum's opinion: James Cameron's Titanic.


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