In a previous piece, I counted down my favorite incarnations and adaptations of the Sherlock Holmes character, culminating with my top choice, the Star Wars villain Grand Admiral Thrawn. Building on that thread, this time, I want to do the same thing, counting down my top choices for who I’d like to see play Thrawn in a live-action adaptation of the character.
Grand Admiral Thrawn first appeared in book form in Timothy Zahn’s 1991 novel Heir to the Empire, which launched the first Star Wars Expanded Universe. He immediately became a fan (and my) favorite character. Since then, he appeared in some other EU materials, but never on screen, and when Disney bought Star Wars in 2012, the existing EU besides the original films, including Thrawn, was rendered non-canon. Thrawn then reappeared, for the “first time” in the new canon, in the cartoon Rebels.
Despite all that history, and despite his popularity in the fandom, the character has never appeared in any live-action content. Which is why a million voices cried out in nerdy excitement at the end of Episode 13 of The Mandalorian, when Ahsoka Tano uttered the words: “Where is Grand Admiral Thrawn?”
An Ahsoka spinoff show has since been announced, and we can presume that her hunt for the Grand Admiral will continue. Likewise, we can assume that the man himself will make an appearance, eventually. So that begs the question, who should play him? As far as I know, the role is as yet uncast, so it doesn’t hurt to engage in a little rank speculation. Let’s play!
Honorable mention: Lars Mikkelson
The most obvious choice is, of course, Lars Mikkelson, the man who voiced Thrawn in Rebels. From what I caught of this performance, it was not entirely to my taste, but a lot of fans liked it, and it makes him the only actor in the world with “Thrawn experience.” We’ve seen the Star Wars creative team go this route once already, tapping the voice actress for Bo-Katan Kryze, Katee Sackhoff, to play her RL incarnation. (Of course, we’ve seen the opposite choice made, too, when Rosario Dawson was picked to play Ahsoka Tano instead of voice actress Ashley Eckstein.) Long story short, Lars Mikkelson wouldn’t be my personal choice to play the part, but he’s probably on the shortlist. There may, however, be a different Mikkelson worth considering…
9. Benedict Cumberbatch
Another obvious choice. The character of Grand Admiral Thrawn was born from the thought experiment: “What if Sherlock Holmes broke bad?” Who, then, would be more appropriate to bring Thrawn to life than the actor most identified with Sherlock in the 21st Century? Cumberbatch also has the benefit of having a deep, rich voice, which fits with my mental conception of the character. On the negative side, he’s a little too obvious, and with both Khan and Smaug on his resume, might be a tad overexposed for sci-fi/fantasy villains at the moment.
I’ve seen Fassbender’s name tossed out as an option online, and it’s easy to see why. He’s a terrific actor, with a lot of range and loads of charisma. Fassbender also exudes gallons of that intangible “command presence”—it’s not hard to imagine him giving orders to a fleet of warships. And not for nothing, more than anyone else on this list he fits my visual conception of what Thrawn should look like (once you paint him blue, of course). But Fassbender has the same drawback that Cumberbatch does: Overexposure. After playing Magneto in 4 X-Men movies, is he the best choice for another morally gray sci-fi villain?
7. David Tennant
My favorite Doctor, there’s no question David Tennant can perform the part. His resume, including stage work, a haunted detective on Broadchurch, and a villainous turn as Kilgrave on Jessica Jones, inspires confidence that he can handle it. Somehow though, he just doesn’t feel “right” to me. His face doesn’t match my headcanon, nor does his voice, and while others might disagree, I’m in charge here, so despite my fandom, I’m going to look elsewhere.
6. Ciaran Hinds
A friend of mine suggested the Irish actor Ciaran Hinds. You might recognize him as Mance Rayder in Game of Thrones, or Caesar in Rome, or Steppenwolf in the Justice League movie, buried under all that CGI. He’s definitely a great actor, but maybe a touch too old for the part. Still, a viable option.
5. Gillian Anderson
Thrawn’s appearance on Rebels is considered canon, so we’re probably not going to get the gender swap, but if we could, I think this would be fun. Anderson has experience playing a smartypants sci-fi character from her X-Files days. Meanwhile, her recent work on The Fall and The Crown demonstrates she can do haughty, chilly authority just as well. Plus I just think she’d look cool.
4. Denzel Washington
This is the most pie in the sky option because no way do they score Denzel. Then again, I thought there was no way Luke Skywalker would show up in season 2 of The Mandalorian, so why not dream? Arguably the best actor of our time, Denzel can deliver everything the role requires: Gravitas, authority, a subtle hint of menace. Who knows, perhaps a dump truck full of money can tempt the man.
3. Matt Smith
Another Doctor Who alum, Matt Smith at least looks closer to how I imagine the Grand Admiral to look. I’ve enjoyed a great deal of his work, too. My big concern with Smith, though, is this: I’ve seen him play a variety of moods and feelings, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen him play “sinister” or “intimidating.” Can he? I believe he probably can, but I’m not completely sure. Not like I am with, say, Denzel. Ah, Denzel…
2. Mads Mikkelson
The Mikkelson brother I really want to see. Anyone who’s ever seen Hannibal knows that Mads is the shit, and no further argument is necessary.
Also, I know what you’re thinking: He’s already been a Star Wars character! True, he played Galen Erso in Rogue One, but is that really insurmountable? Peter Capaldi played a minor part on Doctor Who before eventually taking on the role of The Doctor. Chris Evans played the Human Torch before earning the distinction of “America’s Ass” for his role as Captain America. (And yes, in different “cinematic universes,” but the point is that no one was confused. Plus, in this case, a coat of blue body paint would be the functional equivalent of that.)
1. Javier Bardem
This is my favorite call. Javier Bardem checks every possible box you want for the role of Thrawn. We know he can do memorable, villainous characters; Skyfall and No Country for Old Men proved that in spades. In the other direction, movies like Eat, Pray, Love and Vicky, Christina, Barcelona display his enormous reservoirs of charm. What’s more, focusing on the performance of Anton Chigurh in particular, Bardem brought a unique, alien quality to that character that speaks to his potential for playing not just a literal alien-like Thrawn, but an intellectual one, as well, given that Thrawn’s genius puts him at a remove from the rest of humanity. He looks right for the part; he has a deep, interesting voice; he’s the right age—everything about him screams “perfect” to me.
But that’s just me. That’s how I feel about the actors who might play Grand Admiral Thrawn. Do you disagree with my takes? Have other options that you think I missed? I don’t care, but throw them in the comments!