The voice of Maul reflects on playing the fan-favorite villain, and their journey together, from Star Wars: The Clone Wars to Star Wars Rebels.
Spoiler warning: This article contains detailed discussion of the Star Wars Rebels episode, "Twin Suns."
Sam Witwer is in a conference room at Lucasfilm in San Francisco, signing Star Wars Rebels posters. He wonders aloud if he should leave space for others to add a signature. Then he has an idea.
"Maybe I should sign 'Dave Filoni,'" he says jokingly, referencing his friend and the executive producer of the show.
"Draw him," StarWars.com says. "With no cowboy hat." Witwer laughs.
"He'd kill me. I'd never be hired again."
Even if that were true, Witwer's Star Wars legacy is secure. But it's also a somewhat ironic statement. He came to Lucasfilm for a special screening of "Twin Suns" the day before it airs. "Twin Suns" is an emotionally heavy, instant-classic Star Wars Rebels episode in which Maul (formerly Darth), the massively popular villain Witwer has voiced since Star Wars: The Clone Wars, dies in a final confrontation with Obi-Wan Kenobi.
"Or... Wait a second, that guy did kill me!" Witwer realizes. "Not cool."
It's the end of a long road for the devil-faced villain and for Witwer, one which began when George Lucas and Filoni decided to bring Maul -- who had been sliced in half by Obi-Wan in The Phantom Menace -- back in The Clone Wars. Not in a resurrection, but rather, a revelation that he actually didn't die from his injuries.
"I don't know that I'd ever attempted [Maul's voice] before I was hired to do him, and I think that proved to make me feel a little bit insecure," Witwer says. "When I did the Son of Mortis for the Mortis trilogy [in The Clone Wars], Dave asked me when we were finishing up those three episodes, 'What do you think about this whole idea that Maul might have survived?' Because the rumblings were that this Savage Opress thing was going to develop into that. And I'm like, 'Yeah, I don't know about that. That's a little bit weird.' And he says, 'I might have something down the road for you.' I said, 'Like a bounty hunter?' He's like, '...Yeah...' So I didn't get it at all."
While Witwer might have missed the hint, Filoni would soon make it clear.
"So finally he calls me up, and he says, 'Listen, I need Darth Maul. Can you do it?'" Witwer says. "He wasn't asking 'are you available, are you this, are you that.' He was asking me, very point blank, are you the right guy for this or should I go elsewhere? 'Can you do it' meant this is too important to mess up. If this is not something you think you'd be good at it, don't do this. But he seemed to think I would be good at it. Without even thinking, I just lied to him. I said, 'Yeah, I could do it. No problem.' Just tried to put on this air of confidence. 'No problem. I got you, man.' And then as soon as I got off the phone, I think that's when I started attempting to do the Maul voice."
Now, there's not actually much Maul voice to go on from The Phantom Menace. He speaks only three lines in the film, but the voice -- featuring an airy, almost frighteningly calm intonation with a cultured British accent -- is distinctive. And as Witwer is a true-blue Star Wars fan, he knew of the Darth Maul "Fear" tone poem featured in a TV spot for The Phantom Menace, offering him a bit more to study. He recites it word-for-word for StarWars.com, having memorized it long ago. It's chilling to hear in person.
Behind the scenes, the creators of The Clone Wars were handling the return of Maul with special care. Filoni and Witwer had many discussions about it, from the believability of his survival to what he would be like all this time later.
"We were very, very cognizant about when we would add a personality quirk or show the intellect of the man," Witwer says. "But we had those discussions because we were worried. [Laughs] We were like, this is already a little difficult for the fans to accept because he was cut in half." Yet there was precedent for this -- in the form of a character named Darth Vader. Anakin Skywalker suffered terrible injuries in Revenge of the Sith, also at the hands of Kenobi, but lived on through his hate. "We knew that there was mythological basis for this guy having survived," Witwer says.
Maul's journey in The Clone Wars would be somewhat unexpected. In the 2012 episode "Brothers," Maul is found by his brother, Savage Opress, living on a junk planet. He is far gone -- insane with rage and mumbling (what seem like) nothings, deep underground. "George went a few steps further," Witwer explains, "and said, 'Not only is the dark side keeping him from dying and holding onto what he has, but he is so greedily protective of himself that pieces of garbage have begun to stick to him, and over the years the garbage has accumulated and grown out into these monstrous spider-legs that he gets around on." Spider-Maul, one of Star Wars' most haunting images, was born. But it also meant that Maul would have to go on a journey, literally and figuratively, from a very low point to someplace higher. (Higher for a Sith, at least.)
Indeed, Maul's mind and body would be restored, and he became a much more complex and tragic figure than audiences anticipated. He proved a brilliant tactician and manipulator; when gifted mechanical legs, he was still a great warrior; and his quest for vengeance against Obi-Wan was disturbing on a level entirely different than his killing of Qui-Gon Jinn in The Phantom Menace. There, he just seemed like he was on a mission. Here, he wanted to hurt Kenobi body and soul. But no revenge was satisfying enough, and seeing his brother die in his arms -- combined with the look on his face and Witwer's disarming delivery of "Brother..." as Savage passed -- made him surprisingly and heartbreakingly sympathetic. Last we saw him in The Clone Wars, Maul was being shocked with Force lightning from his former master and mentor, Darth Sidious, begging for mercy and paying the price for becoming a rival. Ultimately, Maul had come a long way from the silent assassin of The Phantom Menace.
"It was our responsibility to make a character with intellect and a heart and a soul and dreams of his own," Witwer says.
And here's the important thing when it comes to Witwer and his role in all this, no hyperbole: his performance as Maul is excellent. While he's perfectly capable of delivering an uncanny reproduction of Peter Serafinowicz's original Phantom Menace voice, he took Maul much, much further. Into the paranoid fever-madness of "Brothers," the rage of "Revenge," and the evil and sadness of "The Lawless." Even though Maul's a Zabrak, Witwer made him much more human, yet still a captivating, threatening villain.
A comic book series, Son of Dathomir, told a bit more of what happened to Maul following The Clone Wars, but his story was not over. Star Wars Rebels was the chance for Filoni and Witwer to finish what they started.
"I'm thrilled, because we didn't get to finish The Clone Wars in the way that we had planned," Witwer says. "We had a lot more Maul to go. So being able to conclude that arc with this character that I've been playing now for a few years, it's tremendously meaningful for me, and I feel very lucky to be here."
Maul made his Star Wars Rebels debut in the landmark Season Two finale in 2016. He was discovered by Padawan Ezra Bridger on the Sith world, Malachor, seemingly old and frail and stranded there for years, welcoming the boy with playful banter. It seemed almost a dark mirror of Yoda's first encounter with Luke in The Empire Strikes Back.
"We had this whole discussion," Witwer says of the first recording session. "We got there like an hour early and we talked for like an hour. It was my instinct, and it was Dave's as well, but I'm like, 'I think his voice should be very weak when he starts. I will actually grab my throat, and as the episode goes on, I'll release and have his lower register slowly come back in.' We were like, yeah, do that, cool. So then months later, you show up at Lucasfilm and you see that animators have made him, when the voice performance is at his weakest, completely stooped over. And as the episode goes on, he's straightening himself out as the voice is getting stronger." For Witwer, that's part of what makes playing Maul special: the collaboration. "You go, 'Wow, they took this idea that I had, and they made it even better by giving it physicality." But was Maul pretending the entire time? Or was there some part of him that was being genuinely kind to Ezra?
"There's a few things I can say about this," Witwer says. "One, I think that if Maul is going emulate sincerity and emulate altruism, he has to, on some level, understand it. And maybe he understands it now in a way better than he did when he was younger. Just a suggestion." Witwer is open to interpretations of Maul in this episode and by extension, all his appearances in Rebels. He says it makes perfect sense to think that Maul was just faking and manipulating Ezra, or even that Ezra awakened Maul, as it were. Maul does later betray an inner wound, however, one built on the groundwork laid in The Clone Wars.
"When Ezra turns him down on Dathomir, [Maul] goes, 'We could be friends. We could be brothers.' I was like, 'We have to put that in there. He has to say that so we know he's still hurting about this.'"
While Ezra never became Maul's apprentice, he did set the former Sith on a path toward his final revenge with Kenobi in "Twin Suns." By unlocking Jedi and Sith holocrons together, Maul learned that Kenobi was alive and on Tatooine. In "Twin Suns," the two finally meet on the desert planet's sands in the dead of night, and Maul deduces that Obi-Wan must be on this backwater planet only for a good reason. He must be protecting someone. Kenobi, voiced brilliantly by Stephen Stanton in the model of Alec Guinness, ends things quickly; Maul charges, delivering two attacks that Kenobi blocks, then goes to stun his opponent with a blow from his hilt. It's the same move he used on Qui-Gon in The Phantom Menace, but it doesn't work here. Whether it's because he's seen it before, or he's a better sword fighter now, or both, Kenobi slices through the hilt -- and Maul's chest. In the former Sith's face, there's a look of disbelief, but surprisingly, not a trace of anger. He collapses and Obi-Wan cradles him, offering comfort in his last moments. Maul actually seems at peace, asking if Kenobi is protecting the Chosen One. The Jedi confirms it, and Maul speaks his last words. "He will avenge us." It's a beautiful moment for both characters. It illustrates Star Wars' great theme of compassion through Kenobi, and shows Maul has always understood that they're all victims of the Emperor. The scene also conveys the tragedy of Maul, however: vengeance is a dead end, and that's not what Kenobi is seeking.
"I love the idea," Witwer says. "I love the fact that he's that close to redemption and he maybe doesn't get there. He misses the point. But at the same time, through the cinematography, there's a clarity that he has been, if not redeemed, forgiven."
So ends the journey of Maul, and Witwer as Maul. "Tremendous honor to play this guy," Witwer says. "I'm grateful for having been able to contribute. Darth Maul, he was never really mine. He's Ray Park, he's Peter Serafinowicz, and now I got to make my contribution. And then whatever's next is next."
Dan Brooks is Lucasfilm’s senior content writer and editor of the StarWars.com blog. He loves Star Wars, ELO, and the New York Rangers, Jets, and Yankees. Follow him on Twitter @dan_brooks where he rants about all these things.