What’s the best advice you’ve received?
One day, I went to my drama teacher in high school and said, “You gotta read this. It’s the funniest play I’ve ever read.” It was The Odd Couple. I was shocked that he responded to it and said, “OK, we’re going to do it.” And then when he put up the cast list, I was playing Felix. I was appalled! I thought I was going to play Oscar. And he took me aside and said, “Mark, you’re a real actor. We need an actor to play Felix. Felix is funny because of his behavior; Oscar is funny because of his lines.” It was about doing what’s right for the greater good. I just felt gratified that someone had finally taken me seriously.
What did your parents think of your career?
They said I was delusional. My father was a captain in the Navy and a very authoritarian figure. My older brother was headed to become a doctor. I lived in fear of falling off the honor roll because my father had high expectations for us. I know he wanted us both to go into the military, but I was all about cartoons and puppets and magic and doing impressions. I was the middle of seven children, so I was always making the kids laugh, and I remember my mom saying, “Yes, dear, that’s a very good Elmer Fudd impression, but doing cartoon voices is not going to help you in life.”
How do you handle criticism?
A show I did for the theater got standing ovations, yet the reviewers panned it. But you have to stay with a patient as it dies, as it’s on life support. You gotta go out every night and put on a brave face even when you know your show is terminally ill.
What drives you now?
Contributing something positive. I’m a joker. I’m a clown. I do cartoon voices, and I’ve written comic books. It’s trivial. But my brother told me, “No, what you do is really therapeutic for a lot of people, because they need escapism.” One thing about the (Star Wars) movies is that I belong to the world now. Wherever I go, people open up to me as if I were a family member. Having the support system of my family also provides a foundation for everything I do.
You’ve been acting since your teens. What advice would you give your younger self?
I have a tendency to overthink things. I would say, “Let it go! Understand what you can’t change, and get over it.” Don’t take things too seriously.
What’s a life lesson you’ve learned from a long, successful career?
The value of tenacity, of never accepting defeat. I got cast in a TV show called The Texas Wheelers. It was one of the most critically acclaimed programs that season. I thought it was going to be a landmark television show, and then it got canceled. I was crushed. I said, “I’m never going to get a part this good again.” I learned that you need to turn it around and make yourself stronger from the experience.
You have over 4 million followers on Instagram and Twitter, and you post nearly every day. Why are you so active on social media?
It’s a sickness. My daughter says, “Dad, you gotta get off Twitter!” I got into a competition with Carrie Fisher. She was 65,000 followers ahead of me, and I started pulling all these shameless stunts to get ahead. Promising a Star Wars trailer, promoting it days ahead, and then of course the punch line is it’s me peeking my head out of a trailer.
You and Fisher were close. How hard has it been to move on since her death?
The only way I’ve been able to cope is to think of her in the present tense. She’s so vital in my mind even today. We had our ups and downs. She was almost like a real sibling because I loved her deeply, but she could be so exasperating. When she went into cardiac arrest, it never occurred to me that she wouldn’t bounce back. I just thought, “Well, she’s got her next book written.” She’ll call it A Piece of My Heart or something acerbic and witty.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi opens in theaters Dec. 15. How do you handle the pressure of resuming a role in films with such a large fan base?
It’s hugely intimidating because I thought, “Why mess with success?” We’re not going to catch lightning in a bottle as we did before. But I love challenges, and you don’t often get a second, third, or fourth bite of the apple.
How deep is your Star Wars knowledge?
People have studied these things, read the novels and comic books, played the games. They ask me questions like, “What’s the Wookiee home planet?” In many ways, devotees understand what a Jedi is more than I do. When I play the Star Wars video games, my sons laugh because I crash the vehicle just taking it out of the hangar. My son says, “If you keep your mouth shut, people might believe you actually know what a Jedi is, rather than opening your mouth and destroying anyone’s hopes.” I’m such a fraud.