Ahmed Best is positively beaming as he stands before six eager young Padawans. The actor best known among Star Wars fans as Jar Jar Binks has traded a duckbilled Gungan mo-cap suit for simple and sleek Jedi robes to transform into Jedi Master Kelleran Beq, the host of Star Wars: Jedi Temple Challenge. The new Star Wars Kids game show dares competitors to take on the core Jedi principles of strength, knowledge, and bravery through physical and mental challenges on an exotic forest planet, inside a starship, and deep in the bowels of an ancient Jedi Temple.
For Best, the opportunity was a surprise to be sure, but a welcome one. “I never thought that I would be asked back, to be honest,” Best says of the casting call inviting him to help create the new role. “I was very pleasantly surprised. What really made me say yes was the fact that this was breaking new ground in the Star Wars universe.”
And he’s thrilled for what it means for young fans watching at home. “I think what’s the most important about the representation of someone like Kelleran Beq as far as being a person of color and the leader of this Temple — kind of like the Dean of Jedi — is it breaks down what’s possible,” Best says. “It breaks down what you can do, and creates just a brand new world of possibilities out there.”
As the first Star Wars-themed game show, Star Wars: Jedi Temple Challenge invites real kids to immerse themselves in the galaxy far, far away. The premise is a unique construct that challenges players and fans watching at home with mind-bending memory games, but gently reinforces one of the most important Jedi lessons: Winning is nice, sure, but failure can be the greatest teacher. Still, cast and crew are exuberant on those occasions when challengers succeed, journeying to the Jedi Temple, conquering their fears, and avoiding the pitfalls of the dark side to ignite their lightsabers and emerge victorious. “It’s always been kids who have been my favorite Star Wars fans,” Best adds, “and to be able to give back to kids is something special.”
In reality, the sprawling obstacle course is laid out inside a Los Angeles, California, soundstage. An homage to the kids’ cable game shows that dominated the air waves in the 1990s, right around the time Jar Jar Binks made his debut in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, the show is the brainchild of Lucasfilm’s Scott Bromley, Steve Blank, and Mickey Capoferri. To celebrate the premiere of Star Wars: Jedi Temple Challenge, which debuted today with the first and second episodes on Star Wars Kids, StarWars.com went behind the scenes, spending a day on set and chatting with Best and his co-star Mary Holland about their experience stepping into these new roles.
Master Beq and AD-3
On set, the shooting days began at 9 a.m., with Best in the make-up chair chatting happily. In under an hour, he had cast off his leather motorcycle jacket and jocular swagger to stand centerstage before the obstacle course in the first round, the strength trials.
As Master Kelleran Beq — a distant relation to cantina patron Achk Med-Beq in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, at least in Best’s own head canon — his posture straightens. He looks striking and serious in his Jedi Robes, his feet planted on a massive Jedi medallion with a faux forest fading into the background. But as the children gather around him, amped up for their first challenge, he can’t help but crack a smile and share in some laughs before the cameras start rolling. From day one, Best says the game show stage felt authentically like Star Wars. “Star Wars sets are very specific places unlike any other set you ever step onto,” Best says. The rich design and textures had the cast and crew guessing about possible connections to existing lore. “Immediately we all tried to figure out where we were,” Best says. “This could be a moon like Endor! And then the second round is a ship…we immediately try to start piecing the stories together of where in the timeline you are, where in the universe you are, and it’s one of those things where it just creates its own story as you’re standing there.”
At his elbow are two droids: the humanoid protocol droid called AD-3 and a squat astromech named LX-R5. While R5 is operated off camera by Michael McMaster, behind her glowing blue photoreceptors, AD-3 is brought to life by Gordon Tarpley, an artist and droid builder with Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre alum Holland providing live vocals and commentary from the control room on the other end of the soundstage. During a break in filming, Holland emerges to check on her other half. “How are you doing, Gordon?” she asks before posing for a photo, her head resting on his shoulder for a moment before they move back-to-back.
The first time Holland saw the costume pieces that would become her character, she was overjoyed, she says. “She hadn’t been assembled yet, but he showed me bits of what she would look like,” she says. “AD-3 looks so different than any other droid I’ve seen. She is just truly her own droid.” In creating the droid’s bubbly personality, Holland became better versed in the Star Wars-specific lexicon to ensure her asides were still in-universe. “Toilets don’t exist. Refreshers exist!” she notes. “I would say, ‘I can’t believe my eyes!’ and they would be like, ‘Actually, those are photoreceptors.’” But the character revealed herself to Holland just as much as Holland tried to shape the new droid. “She was much goofier than I thought she would be initially. I was maybe trying to go for more of a snarky or brash sort of droid, but she’s quite innocent and bubbly and enthusiastic and just excited by everything around her. That doesn’t mean that she can’t toss in a good jab here and there, but she’s so good natured and eager to please and eager to be a part of everything, and that was so fun to discover. She’s so excited for these young Padawans!”
Holland was a fan long before she landed the role. “I was obsessed with The Empire Strikes Back, totally invested in that world,” she says. “And when this opportunity came up, I almost couldn’t believe it. It was such a dream job.” As a big fan of R2-D2, Holland knows how important droid characters are to the galaxy and to viewers. “They are so beloved to the fans and the characters. I feel like we all have such a special place in our hearts for R2-D2 and C-3PO,” Holland says. “They represent a certain innocence and a kind of untainted experience of the galaxy. They are so good at heart, in their little droid hearts. And so, to get to be a droid feels so special. It feels like getting to be one of those beloved, innocent friends that people relate to across generations and across the years.”
Left to his own devices, Best uses the break as an opportunity to mug for a photo with his lightsaber. Although it doesn’t have a blade, Best’s his character would carry a purple lightsaber to pay his respects to Jedi Master Mace Windu, he says later, although other aspects of the character were inspired by Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and the Shaolin monks from Best’s childhood favorite Kung Fu movies. “This is the first Jedi that we’ve seen that is dedicated to just teaching,” Best says. “And I wanted to pay homage to some Jedi of the past. There’s a mentorship that Obi-Wan Kenobi has and that Yoda has that are very much a nurturing kind of mentorship and I wanted to see if I could capture that nurturing sense.”
At first, it was a challenge to improvise with Best while being physically removed from the scene, Holland says. But within days, Holland and Tarpley find a comfortable balance between the physical performance and the dialogue, Tarpley’s arms gesturing to match Holland’s emotive voice. “She is the heart of the show,” Bromley says. “I knew it when she was doing the read through.”
“The first table read we just clicked,” Best adds. “She’s just fantastic. Every once in awhile you get to play with somebody that when you do it feels like you’ve been together for years and Mary was one of those people for me.” Showrunners and the cast ensured that AD-3 wasn’t a humble servant but rather an equal partner to Beq. “There really isn’t a Jedi-droid relationship in Star Wars like the one between AD-3 and Kelleran Beq,” Best says. And she’s not afraid to poke a little fun at the teacher, either. “AD-3 is as much of a teacher at the Jedi Temple as Kelleran Beq is. She’s not enamored by the fact that he’s this powerful Jedi,” Best says. “It’s really cool to have a partner that’s a droid. And Mary is such a wonderful human being. She makes me laugh! She is so incredibly funny.”
For her part, Holland gives much of the credit to Best. “Ahmed is an incredibly generous person and performer,” she says. “I was able to lock in with Ahmed and riff together and improvise. It felt like I was standing right next to him and we had been performing together for years.”
“Place all of your feets on the Jedi platform,” Holland jokes from the control room, eliciting a laugh from Best as the first half dozen Padawans prepare to begin round one, a trial that calls for teamwork, patience, and perseverance as they aim to collect pieces of their lightsaber hilts from four different courses.
Round One – A Test of Strength
The competition is fierce as soon as Best gives the signal to begin, shouting one last instruction: “Trust in the Force.” But it’s immediately apparent that there’s also compassion in the way the teams approach this first challenge. A pair of twins tackle a meiloorun-themed obstacle course — the game that ranks as Best’s favorite among the strength exercises — that involves leaping on a trampoline one at a time. While one catapults toward the lightsaber part they need to win this round, the other stands back yelling encouragement. To win, they’ll have to grab the remaining pieces from a rope swing, a balance training exercise complete with Force-floating balls, and a challenge that involves carrying weighted backpacks.
In the control room, someone quips that there could be an entire episode devoted to twins. “We could call it ‘Attack of the Clones.’”
But inevitably only two teams can emerge victorious, lightsaber hilts constructed and ready for the next task. For Best, it was hard to watch, but gave him the opportunity to impart a powerful lesson. “The thing I think that makes Jedi Temple Challenge kind of special is the fact that there really are no losers,” Best says. “This whole idea of being in the temple is this idea of work and continuing to work to improve and get better. So when a team didn’t finish a challenge, it wasn’t because they weren’t good enough. They just needed to go back and train and get better and work harder…. When it came to the kids who couldn’t solve a puzzle or were the last to put their lightsaber together, I loved the moment of being able to tell them, ‘Look, this is just the beginning of your journey.’”
Round Two – A Trick of the Mind
For the second challenge, a knowledge quest, the two remaining teams climb aboard the starship Athylia for mental calisthenics. As AD-3 reads them a fantastical story penned by Cavan Scott, their faces crinkle in deep concentration, trying their best to remember every detail for the puzzle ahead. Best takes the moment to relax, his hand resting on R5’s flat head.
The set is so finely detailed it’s almost distracting, perhaps another layer to the challenge that includes the same winking buttons and switches that we’ve come to expect from every gleaming ship and hunk of junk that can traverse the galaxy. In fact, set designer Ryan Puckett notes that the hyperspace levers were borrowed from the set of the Millennium Falcon cockpit that was used for Solo: A Star Wars Story. Just before the shooting begins in this new corner, Puckett employs a screwdriver to make a last-minute fix to a light-up component on the fritz.
In the control room, Holland performs the story into a large microphone. As the game progresses, Bromley and the game masters get involved on a hidden system, whispering helpful hints into Best’s ear to help him as Padawan’s answer several questions about the story they’ve just heard.
Back inside the cockpit, the players must also work together, the player seated at the controls whispering answers through their own headsets. Often, a correct answer elicits a cheer and encouragement, with one Padawan whispering “Good job! Good job!” to the other. As one young girl correctly chooses a wrecked sandcrawler, a silent “Yes!” escapes from her lips. But her adorable enthusiasm is as big as her outward disappointment when she misses another.
When Best himself flubs a question, he makes light of the brief misstep. “You don’t remember the question,” he jokes, waving his hand in front of the competitors. The Jedi mind trick may not make it into the final episode, but for the time being it helps Best stay in character and keeps the kids in the moment. On set, even the show’s director addresses Best as “Master Beq.”
When it’s time to reward the winning duo, Beq uses the Force with a flourish to raise a platform holding a pair of holocrons, a Jedi’s tool for storing knowledge. “This is the hardest part of the challenge,” he quips as the winners try to cram the oversized holocrons into their pouches.
Then it’s time to make the jump to hyperspace and the final round. “Whooaaaa!,” AD-3 yelps, teetering on the verge of falling over. “I’m going to barf up bolts!”
Round Three – Courage in the Jedi Temple
But the Padawans are not yet Jedi Knights. The third and final challenge is a test of bravery, where the last team standing is sent into the depths of the Jedi Temple as part of a ritual to collect the needed kyber crystals to power their elegant lightsabers. The temple is a combination of physical strength and mental skill, with new obstacles and memory challenges that require cooperation and ingenuity. And with just a few minutes to complete several new puzzles, the Padawan pair must avoid the temptations of a dark side voice, provided by Sam Witwer who perfected the anguished snarl of Maul in Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels. Giving in to the dark side sets them on a path to literal darkness, making one step on the course infinitely easier while ensuring that another puzzle will have to be completed without the light to see what they’re doing.
When a team makes it this far only to fall short, there is a collective gasp from the control room and Best’s face falls. But the path of a Jedi doesn’t end because of this failure, he reminds them. “One of the biggest challenges was when the contestants didn’t win. They made it all the way to the end and then they didn’t capture the kyber crystal and they couldn’t get their lightsabers,” Best says later. On screen, he provides words of encouragement, but even when the cameras stopped rolling he tried to find some words to console the crestfallen players. “You really want everybody to succeed and you really want everyone to be able to hold their lightsaber up at the end of the game, but not everyone’s going to do that,” he says. Each time, he tried to find the right words “so it wouldn’t feel like a disappointing moment. You could feel the start of something great, the beginning of a new way to look at training. And I hope that’s what kids take away from this game. I hope they look at this game and say, ‘Finally, we get to see what it takes to become a Jedi and if you don’t make it that’s OK, too. You just have to keep working at it.’”
Whether intoning the wisdom of the Jedi Order with the full gravitas required in character, or consoling players off-camera as his jovial self, it’s clear that this is the role Best was born to play. Fan art began to surface soon after the show’s official trailer debuted last month. “I have my ideas and my backstory, but to me what’s more interesting is what the fandom universe does when they see Kelleran Beq,” Best says. “This is the first leading African American character in Star Wars, right? And for me that is a very important thing and it’s a very powerful thing…and I really am excited to see what that sparks in the rest of the fandom, in the rest of the universe for everybody.”
Watch Star Wars: Jedi Temple Challenge now on Star Wars Kids! Check out the first two episodes from the series below!
Associate Editor Kristin Baver is a writer, host of This Week! In Star Wars, and all-around sci-fi nerd who always has just one more question in an inexhaustible list of curiosities. Sometimes she blurts out “It’s a trap!” even when it’s not. Do you know a fan who’s most impressive? Hop on Twitter and tell @KristinBaver all about them.
Site tags: #StarWarsBlog