IN THE 2016 Coen Brothers comedy “Hail, Caesar!,” Alden Ehrenreich portrays Hobie Doyle, a singing cowboy performer in the loose midcentury mold of a Gene Autry or Tex Ritter — a role that presaged some real-life rumors around the new “Solo: A Star Wars Story.”
In one winning scene, Ehrenreich’s one-note actor Doyle, having been woefully miscast in a proper comedy of manners called “Merrily We Dance,” stumbles and twangs his way through a line reading, to the increasing exasperation of a British director played by Ralph Fiennes. As you watch the scene, you’re reminded of a truth: It takes an awfully good actor to convincingly play a really bad actor.
So it was a surprise last year, as fan worries swirled around the troubled production of “Solo,” when word spread that the film had hired an “emergency” acting coach for Ehrenreich. Concern was stoked: What was the issue? Was the young actor too limited in his skills to create a credible turn as Han Solo?
It was widely reported that the original directors, Chris Miller and Phil Lord, were encouraging an improvisational tone on set — something that might work for a Judd Apatow comedy starring A-list improv pros, but hardly the house style at Lucasfilm. Speaking to Esquire last month, Ehrenreich would only say: “From the first screen test on, we played around with [the approach] a lot. We tried a lot of different things, rethinking behind the scenes,” he says. “That was yielding a different movie than the other factions wanted.” (He also told the magazine that the acting-coach rumors were a massive overstating of the case; Miller and Lord said they brought in writer-director Maggie Kiley as a resource for the whole cast and themselves.)
After Lucasfilm fired Miller and Lord over “creative differences” and Ron Howard climbed into the director’s chair, the shoot took a more methodical approach. But the fretting lingered: Could Ehrenreich possibly fill Harrison Ford’s boots?
Well, it turns out, all that Han-wringing was for naught. Ehrenreich acquits himself more than credibly. One key element of his success: He doesn’t appear to be trying to mimic the iconic tics and idiosyncrasies of Ford. (“An impression of Harrison Ford would have felt like an extended ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch,” Miller told Esquire via email.)
Instead, the young actor looks focused on carving his own take on the character — he nods to the Han we know but then builds a performance rather than an impersonation.
Not that Ehrenreich’s approach isn’t challenging to the viewer. For much of the first half of “Solo,” you’re still adjusting to the fit — as if someone had altered the ergonomics of the Millennium Falcon’s cockpit seats. The actor doesn’t look or sound terribly much like Ford or his wry Solo.
Yet this deeper technique ultimately pays off, as you accept the rhythms of this young Han. He has his own brand of understated charisma.
The Los Angeles Times critic Justin Chang picks up on Ehrenreich’s gifts, lauding him as both better than Ford and better than the film itself.
“This Han Solo may not scan as an exact younger replica of the character who has taken root in collective pop-cultural imagination, but there’s more to good acting than fitting a physical type,” Chang writes. “If I may risk sacrilege for the sake of accuracy . . . Ehrenreich isn’t given much to work with here, but his sly comic reserve and devil-may-care attitude give you reasons to keep watching, well after the story has stopped doing anything of the sort.
“His performance sharply rebukes the rumors that swarmed the Internet a few months earlier, suggesting the actor himself was chiefly responsible for the production’s many woes,” the film critic continues. “Ehrenreich hasn’t failed ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story.’ The truth, I daresay, is exactly the opposite.”
In other words, it’s a textured performance that should hold up over time, even helping to give “Solo” an ample platform for sequels. Ehrenreich — who has said he’s contractually signed for three Star Wars films — could likely have a good long ride as the new Han.
Would most Star Wars fans have felt confident about that long-term casting just months ago?