What it's like to be axed from a Star Wars film

Bai Ling was set to appear in both Star Wars and Playboy -- until George Lucas cut her out of "Revenge of the Sith". Does she have any regrets? We talk to the actor as Star Wars turns 40.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
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Appearing in a Star Wars movie sounds like a dream come true for any actor. But nothing would crush that dream faster than discovering your journey to a galaxy far, far away ended on the cutting-room floor.

That's what happened to Bai Ling, who was left out of the third prequel, 2005's "Revenge of the Sith". As we wind down our special report marking Star Wars' 40th anniversary, we asked her how that felt -- and whether she still thinks director George Lucas cut her because of a sexy Star Wars-themed Playboy photo shoot, a theory widely covered by the media at the time but denied by Lucas. 

Growing up in communist China, Bai hadn't seen Lucas' legendary sci-fi series before coming to the US in the 1990s. She first realised the scale of the Star Wars phenomenon when she saw a huge line of fans waiting to see one of the newly released prequels, which just happened to be at LA's famous Chinese Theatre.

Attending the MTV Music Awards in 2003, Bai spotted Lucas backstage. "I was debating for five minutes," she told me with infectious energy over the phone from LA. "Should I say hello or not? I was nervous people ask him for a job all the time, so I didn't say hello."

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Retiring to a sofa to slip out of her towering heels, the belated Star Wars fan was joined by another partygoer with the same idea. It turned out this new friend had seen the 2000 episode of TV show "Angel" in which Bai played pyrokinetic demon princess Jhiera.

As they chatted, Bai noticed Lucas walking directly toward the sofa.

"Let me introduce you to somebody", her new friend said. Then, as Lucas arrived, "This is my dad". Bai had unknowingly befriended the Star Wars director's daughter, Katie Lucas.

Katie's legendary father also recognised Bai from the movie "Red Corner". Now that he was standing right in front of her, the actor couldn't pass up the opportunity -- nervously, she told him appearing in a Star Wars movie would be a dream come true.  

Two weeks later Bai received frenzied calls from her agent and manager asking how she'd gotten the Star Wars people chasing her.

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'Children playing with toys'

"Revenge of the Sith" was filmed in Australia in the summer of 2003. Bai, cast as Galactic Senator Bana Breemu, describes filming as "like an amusement park, like children playing with toys." Arriving on set, she asked Lucas what he wanted her to do. "Whatever you want", he told her. 

Actors including Terence Stamp have criticised Lucas' hands-off style of directing actors, but Bai welcomed the freedom. "He was almost not visible," she remembers. But she adds, "He was totally there to support the artists. Great artists are laid-back, and they give you all the freedom because they trust you."

Bai's character was one of a group of politicians discussing opposition to the soon-to-be-Emperor Palpatine. In one scene she appeared alongside Natalie Portman with Genevieve O'Reilly as Mon Mothma, a character from the original trilogy, and Bai's old friend Katie Lucas under blue makeup as Chi Eekway Papanoida.

With filming over, Playboy magazine courted Bai for a naked photo shoot. She initially resisted, she says, but began to appreciate the magazine's cultural importance. "It's the Western guy's bible," she says. "That's how a guy learns about a woman when they're 15 or 16 and hiding in the toilet." 

The photo shoot had a Star Wars theme. The pictures, in which Bai posed with a lightsaber and not much else, hit newsstands at the same time "Revenge of the Sith" played in theaters. 

But while Bai promoted her Playboy appearance, journalists began asking why she wasn't in the movie.

Playboy Magazine Introduces 2005 Playmate of the Year Tiffany Fallon
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Playboy Magazine Introduces 2005 Playmate of the Year Tiffany Fallon

Actor Bai Ling with her 2005 Playboy cover.

Laurence Cottrell/Getty

None of Bai's scenes had made it in. Lucas eliminated many of the political discussions among senators, which meant Bai was completely left out.

Lucas denied the photo shoot prompted the edits, and Lucasfilm didn't immediately respond to a request for comment this week. It's not uncommon, of course, for scenes to be cut from films, and Lucas said he had made the changes a year before, pointing out he had also cut his daughter, who appeared in the same scenes.

Bai acknowledges the Playboy appearance may have clashed with Star Wars' family image. But she stops short of blaming the deletion of her scenes on the sexy photo shoot. "That might be a little bit the reason. I don't know. It's not my concern", she says. "I just have to have graciously appreciative feelings and accept the past." 

Was she disappointed to be cut from Star Wars? "Actually, not really," she insists. "Whatever happens, it's controlled by the universe. The outcome is not really something I think about -- I enjoy the process." 

Bai can be seen in the deleted scenes on the film's DVD release. And this being Star Wars, even the most barely seen character lives a life beyond the screen, as Senator Bana Breemu appeared in expanded universe novels. Although she'd been left on the cutting-room floor, on the floor of convention halls Bai was still considered a Star Wars star.

"Oh my god, the fans," Bai gushes. "They come up to me with pictures they've made -- my character became part of Star Wars ... I feel like I'm truly a part of the family of Star Wars forever." 

Bai hasn't spoken to George Lucas since working on "Sith", but "I would still like to work with him", she says. And she'd love to appear in another Star Wars movie. 

Today, Bai Ling is philosophical about her scenes being expunged. "I just feel like I was blessed to be working that closely with George Lucas, because he's a genius", she says. "It was a beautiful gift. I have no complaints."

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