A Live Theater Series in L.A. Is Hollywood's Hottest Ticket

From left: Jason Reitman, Stephen Merchant, Dennis Haysbert, Ellen Page, Jessica Alba, Aaron Paul, J.K. Simmons, Kevin Pollack, Rainn Wilson and Mark Hamill perform a scene from "Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back" during a Film Independent Live Read at the Ace Hotel in Los Angeles, December 18, 2014. Wireimage/Film Independent

A short time ago, in a galaxy not so far, far away, J.K. Simmons played Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. Before The Interview caused an international incident, Seth Rogen starred as The Dude in The Big Lebowski. And before she had her own TV show, Mindy Kaling played Buttercup in The Princess Bride.

This is all true. And none of it happened in an alternate universe. It all went down at Film Independent at LACMA Live Read, a series at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art that runs (roughly) from September through March every year. On the third Thursday of each of those months, director Jason Reitman and Film Independent curator Elvis Mitchell assemble Hollywood actors to read scripts from classic films live onstage for a small audience of supporters.

There is no rehearsal, the actors are unpaid, and sometimes they haven't even seen the films they're re-creating. Some have never even been in front of a live audience. Reitman reads the stage directions. The performances are not recorded. These are one-night-only events and frequently sell out in minutes. The casting is inspired. Picture an all-black Reservoir Dogs, or an all-female Glengarry Glen Ross or American Pie with all the gender roles reversed. "It's like seeing a really great supergroup do covers of your favorite songs," says Mitchell. "Jason is an old friend, and when I told him I was taking the job as film curator at LACMA, he said, 'I have the perfect idea for you, something I've always wanted to do.'"

The initial idea was to use scripts for films that either didn't get the kind of critical love they deserved or failed to become popular successes. Mitchell says he and Reitman selected around 800 contenders and soon narrowed those down to the first season's offerings. For the maiden offering, "I wanted to pick something that would be an odd thing to see in a museum, and that was The Breakfast Club," says Mitchell. "And it took off from there."

Now, midway through its fourth season, Live Read has had a few milestone moments. Perhaps its biggest came last month, when the event, usually held at LACMA's 600-seat Bing Theater, moved to the 1,600-seat theater at downtown Los Angeles's Ace Hotel for a reading of The Empire Strikes Back, starring Breaking Bad's Aaron Paul as Luke Skywalker, Jessica Alba as Princess Leia, and Ellen Page as a gender-swapped Han Solo.

The more expansive venue gave a bit more grandiosity to Live Read's typically minimal staging, and also allowed the evening's Vader, J.K. Simmons, to walk down an aisle to the booming "Imperial March" theme while surrounded by a phalanx of costumed Stormtroopers, like a prizefighter entering the ring.

Simmons's entrance wasn't the only surprise. While the main cast is usually announced by Reitman via Twitter a day or two before the performance, certain roles were still secret for this show. Playing Chewbacca—"and only Chewbacca," as Reitman clarified (sometimes actors perform more than one role)—was surprise guest Rainn Wilson, who punctuated the proceedings with the Wookiee's trademark howls.

Finally, in the kind of role reversal that Live Read does so well, Reitman introduced Mark Hamill, Luke Skywalker himself, in the roles of the Emperor, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Boba Fett. The crowd went nuts. Vader may be Luke's father, but in this moment, it was Hamill who seemed to be saying to the standing crowd, "Who's your daddy?"

Star Wars fans mainly focus on the heroism and tragedy in The Empire Strikes Back, but it has a lot more going on than that. Mainly, the romance element, and C-3PO's comedic interruptions of that element (probably written to keep children interested during all the gross kissing). So while Page and Alba gave the Han and Leia relationship a new dynamic, an even more interesting thing happened with C-3PO, who was imbued with a more modern, neurotic quality by British comedian Stephen Merchant.

"I think everyone would take away [from the movie] that C-3PO was charming and funny and annoying, but not necessarily a comedian," says Kevin Pollak, a Live Read regular who portrayed Yoda for the Empire reading. "When you put him in the hands of a comedian, you suddenly are enhancing all of the comedic rhythms."

Despite Pollak's facility with voices—in his stand-up he's known for doing everyone from William Shatner to perhaps the world's first (and best) Christopher Walken—his Yoda wasn't just an impression. "He was doing Frank Oz's voice," says Mitchell, "but there was a pathos in that performance that I don't think you'll find in the original Yoda."

"It was more fun for me to play it straight," Pollak explains. "I knew that just doing the voice would get laughs because it's silly, but I thought if I could actually pull off the drama of the scenes while within the impersonation, then that would be the greatest achievement, and I think I got pretty close."

Not that Pollak always plays it straight. "Skewing any material is always fun.... I love any opportunity to make fun of everything I've done, even [roles] that are part of so-called cinematic history," he says, referring to his role in The Usual Suspects. A few seasons ago, Pollak took on Gabriel Byrne's role in the Live Read version of that script, while Mark Duplass (Togetherness) played the role originated by Pollak. "It was so beautifully surreal," says Pollak.

"I don't want to say that it's the best live theater in Los Angeles," says Mitchell, a former New York Times movie critic, "but I do think that it works in the same way as theater does. So many people here see movies and they don't really get a sense of how an actor can shape a performance from beginning, middle, to end. And so this is a chance to see that."

People who initially doubted the viability of the concept are calling Mitchell for tickets, and the idea is being imitated. After Sony pulled The Interview from theaters in December, a troupe in New York put on a reading of the script. And the tropes of Live Read have already been parodied a few miles away from LACMA at Los Angeles's Upright Citizens Brigade theater, which did a Live Read of the admittedly terrible script for the Michael Jordan-meets-Looney Tunes movie Space Jam.

"The more iconic the film, the more iconic the memory of the scenes and specific quotes," says Pollak. "Backstage, before we did Empire, I found out about Goodfellas being the next one, and I asked Jason, 'What's the date, because if I do [Joe] Pesci, you're gonna pass out.'"

Pollak, unfortunately, was out of town for the Goodfellas read. "There are very few films that have been quoted as often as Goodfellas," he laments. "So that's one of the greatest things that these live reads can do, is allow people to hear their own favorite lines sort of reinvented and fucked with a bit."

Pollak then launches into a profanity-laden Pesci impersonation that I am keeping on my iPhone voice recorder for posterity.

Good luck to the clown who had to fill his shoes for that Live Read.